On the Challenges of Making Cthulhu-esqe Video Games

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land info pageI came across this interesting article in Escapist Magazine on the difficulties of making a game based on Lovecraft’s work.  First off the article talks about the pros of making a Cthulhu-esque games:

From a game design viewpoint, the Cthuloids vibe includes many neat ingredients: cool monsters; vile, degenerate cultists; bizarre texts and magic; vivid alien settings; and deserted cities. For computer games, “deserted” is always good. Chaosium‘s classic 1981 Call of Cthulhu tabletop roleplaying game, still the chief popularizer of Lovecraft’s work today, has spawned dozens of scenario books, each a stupendous source of plots. There was a decent CCG (Mythos) and two dozen Cthuloid boardgames. These games bring with them a ready-made audience. Well, at least the ones still in print.

Then it gets into listing the difficulties -such as maintaining the horror over the whole of game experience:

“The real problem with horror games is much the same as the problem with horror novels,” [longtime Call of Cthulhu designer John Scott] Tynes says. “You can’t maintain an intensity of terror across many hours. At best, you can alternate long stretches of plot with occasional moments of fright. The Silent Hill games have amazing art direction and concepts and feel really menacing – for about 15 minutes. Then it’s just endless bludgeoning of demon dogs and monster nurses, and all the mood drains away. If Silent Hill was 20 minutes long, it’d be the scariest game ever made.”

I’m not sure I agree with the point fully – fear in games is something we’ve talked about on the blog before (part I and II plus how to generate it) however I do see the logic he’s driving at, that fear is a complex construction and keeping it running is hard.  That is a tough challenge for a game.  I think they answer to the problem is in keeping the player on edge.  As a games designer we have a few options for how to do this, such as by making the game get harder and harder with a steady difficulty curve (this is an example of where I feel the original Silent Hill failed, the enemies did not seem to challenge me too much).  Another option is by imposing some limit on one or more key resources (Resident Evil does it with ammo for example, so encountering monsters is becomes stressful).  We can also keep a steady supply of new and horrible monsters coming at the player, so they never feel fully comfortable with what they have to overcome.  Once you are out of your comfort zone, fear can then follow.

Another point the article raises, is…

Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t two-fisted heroes but alienated, antiquarian intellectuals. (Hmm, wonder why?) A Mythos tale is an investigation, a painstaking piecing together of clues. “Throwing tentacles into your game doesn’t make it Lovecraftian,” says Tynes. “His terror is interior. The fear comes from sudden comprehension of a hideous truth, not from a monster at the door.” This makes for, shall we say, rarefied gameplay, not to mention poor re-playability.

There are many such characters in Lovecraft’s works, but overall I’d say the protagonists tend to me normal people who encounter an extraordinary horror. There are a variety of types of people who encounter Mythos activity in Lovecraft’s work; For example Inspector Legrasse from the story ‘Call of Cthulhu’ is no bumbling bookish academic. The narrator of The Temple, is a Lieutenant Commander in the Imperial German Navy.

To me games are about exploring something that is either not possible, or hard to do in reality. I can’t fly, but I can play a Superman game to get a vibe for it.  Becoming a rockstar is tough work, but with Guitar Hero I can be that musician for a few minutes. By the same token, I’m not going to (I hope) meet Cthulhu, but if I did, I’d want a rifle by my side at the very least.  I see games like The Wasted Land as imagining how the power of human ingenuity (in the form of our physical weapons) perform against the beasts of the Mythos (and their horror and magic).

'The Temple' by Flipation

There are other points in the essay worth discussion and I’ll try to return to it in a later post…

About Tomas

Design & Production Director at Auroch Digital. Designer of Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land. Writing and blogging things that surprise, entertain and interest me...
This entry was posted in Call of Cthulhu, game design, H P Lovecraft, horror games and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the Challenges of Making Cthulhu-esqe Video Games

  1. tikiracer says:

    Sometimes having the rifle means the player will just keep shooting, looking for the weak spot… Even if the gun is useless the player just keeps shooting and you loose the narrative. If however you have no gun, then the fear really kicks in and you think “RUN”

  2. Tomas says:

    Or right at the most critical point the gun jams…. Run!!

  3. Jim Barbaro says:

    The last target for a protagonist’s weapon is often not a monster but its wielder. Death is not the worst end in a Lovecraftian landscape.

  4. A great example of a well thought out and maintained element of fear, is the game System Shock 2. Bioshock was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. Throughout the game, you stranded on a derelict space ship – with only a voice over a transmitter telling you how to survive and get the ship back into a working condition. Mutated former crew members roam the dark corridors, talking to themselves – sniffing for you.

    By the same developers, Thief 3: Deadly Shadows is another of my favs. The oft talked about level ‘The Cradle’ is another example of scary atmosphere at its finest. Long before I got to that level in the game, I had read about it – thought it was going to set my expectation to high and then I’d play the level and just think, meh – it’s ok. Not a chance, scared the crap out of me. The first 10 minutes of the level, nothing happens. There’s no one around…yet, it’s terrifying.

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