I reviewed Abandon Ship recently, and I can’t say it was a hard sell. Swashbuckling action. Lovecraftian dread. Has to be good, I figured. It’s basically taking a really good thing and then dunking it in another really good thing. Ice cream is good. Summer is good. Ice cream in summer is good. But if you try eating ice cream on the sun itself, your ice cream will melt. And you will also melt. This has been a painfully awkward metaphor for over-saturation. And this, I’m starting to realize, is what is happening to Lovecraft.
We’re not quite at zombie levels of tiresome ubiquity yet, but I swear we’re lurching closer. Also, we don’t quite need to get there for it to be a problem. Zombies are carnivorous and brain dead and these things are inherently scary in any setting. Zombies don’t even need to be imposing or believable as a primary antagonist to be effective because they’re basically highly aggressive flora and/or fauna, like sentient Venus Fly Traps on legs. Lovecraft’s Elder are Gods, imposing by themselves too, sure. With Lovecraft though, the actual creatures don’t matter as much as the process by which their terrible, maddening presence effects the humans in the story.
If I can play Abandon Ship and think “Ah, the old unknowable cosmic dread again, poor fellow” then that’s a problem, because it means the incomprehensible is well on its way to taking a definitive shape. The intangible becomes a cheap police sketch, rendered cartoonish and nonthreatening in the process.
We’re at the point where as soon as these tropes start to surface, like tentacles parting the foaming waves, we can already stake a few doubloons on the general direction things are taking. Lovecraft isn’t famous for saying “the oldest and strongest emotion in mankind is a fear of the comfortably predictable”. He said, “the unknown”. And then he probably said a bunch of terribly racist shit, bless his bigoted socks.
So, with the noble, humble, and perfectly achievable aim of saving pop culture from itself, I thought it would make sense to learn a bit about gaming’s love affair with the craft of eldritch horror, and see if we can maybe find the point where we hit peak tentacles along the way.
I’d say that it’s going to be a terrifying journey, but really, you don’t have to do shit, do you? You’re like that guy that sits in the control booth barking orders and looking at radar scanners when it’s me out here with my perfectly formed arse on the line. Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself. You now have blood on your hands, you incompetent fuck. Also, please enjoy this article, friend.
In the interest of science, I’ll also be scoring each of these entries on how well they manage to restrain themselves from going full tentacles. Zero tentacles is the best. Ten is the worst. Because I felt it would be fitting to make things as incomprehensible as possible.
The Hound of Shadow
You know that thing where writers paraphrase Wikipedia pages in order to establish some basic information about the subject to the reader? I hate that. If you’re going to be lazy, fucking own it. I stole the following description directly from The Hound of Shadow‘s Wikipedia page, and I’m not going to do the original author the disservice of trying to improve it in any way. It’s called respect for history, mate.
“The Hound of Shadow is an Interactive Fiction game created by Eldritch Games, and marketed by Electronic Arts, in 1989. This video game was released in versions compatible with the Amiga, Atari ST, and MS-DOS. The game itself is loosely based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and is thus firmly grounded in the genre of horror. The game is set in London during the 1920s, and incorporates a number of historical elements, such as the character of Elizabeth Bathory.”
It’s an old-ass Lovecraft game basically. Possibly the oldest, so it seems like the logical place to start. First off, the character creator is incredible. How incredible? Feast your eyes, my friends.
After tweaking roughly 80,000 different personality traits, you’re ready to star…..nope. Fooled you. More menus. I did notice at this point how nice it was that the game extrapolated some solid narrative characteristics, and even historical facts, from a bunch of stat bars. I’ve noticed a tendency with modern RPG’s to focus on min/maxing at the expense of character, so it’s nice to be reminded of what stats in an RPG are actually supposed to be for – contributing to an interesting, personalized story.
I assume a manual would have helped greatly at this point, but I like to live dangerously. Keep it unknown. Lovecraft, right? If you look closely at the above image, you’ll notice I decided to pour all my points into clues and alcohol, which I figured covers all bases. Mystery? Stand aside. Booze? Allow me. Mysterious Booze? My absolute specialty. Feeling suitably equipped for anything The Hounds of Shadow might throw at me, I was to ready to get into some serious text adventuring.
Ok, so here’s a thing. I generally go by the assumption that, in a first a person narrative, the details are never neutral. If you’re in a kitchen and the text glosses over the entire contents of the kitchen but lovingly describes a dent in a cardboard package of Mac n’ Cheese for three paragraphs, you can generally make the assertion that your character is quite fond of mac and/or cheese, packages, or both. This is the really important, good shit you only learn after spending thousands of pounds on a literature degree, sunshine. The second screen of The Hound of Shadow says:
“You are in your lounge. Decoratively, it isn’t a total success.”
There’s too much brown in the room apparently, and it’s too dark. These are weird details because obviously, I’m expecting horror. I know it’s a horror game. I’m expecting some sort of suspense and it’s basically me, sitting in my lounge, mourning my decorative choice.
Next screen. OK, turns out I rent the place. So I’ve basically been sitting around, criticizing someone else’s decorative work. What sort of pompous shithead would sit around declaring whether or not other people’s artistic creations are successful or not? Shite game. Moving on.
So basically you get in a taxi with your mate John and go to a seance, which looks like this:
This is followed by some actually genuinely affecting prose and then you leave and wander around the city a bit, until this happens:
Kojima, is that you? It was the seance, wasn’t it? I know I said about not using a manual for the sake of mystery, but the idea of this guy missing his train upset me deeply. Thanks to the excellent Games Database, tracking one down is fairly painless. I probably should have used it earlier, to be honest. Still, clues and alcohol though. Here’s what it looks like:
At this point, I’m wondering if this is some cool design trick to make you feel more immersed through the use of tactile paraphernalia, or just ancient copy protection. I guess it works as both. Anyway, this happens next:
So that’s nice. It’s nice that the game has given me permission to carry on. Thank you game.
Carrying On Now
Right, so thanks to some extensive research (this one video by a charming German man), I’ve learnt that all the skills basically make no difference to progress. All they do is occasionally change flavour text. I’m a bit miffed to hear this, but really, is it any different from a Telltale game? Yes it is, because I spent time allocating those stats, and it took bloody ages. My patience was getting pretty low at this point, and then this happened;
What’s wrong with that happening? You may ask. Nothing. Nothing is wrong with that happening. But it didn’t stop happening. And then nothing else happened for a long time. So that’s it for this one, I’m afraid. What have we learned? Nostalgia is fantastic, but new games are actually really good in a lot of ways we don’t always give them credit for, so stop complaining you ungrateful shits.
I’m gonna go 5/10 Tentacles on this one . It’s restrained, but its also not especially interesting. Onward.
Shadow of the Comet
Shadow of the Comet‘s introduction is captivating and terrifying in the way only old adventure games were. At least, I think they were. I mainly just played LucasArts stuff when I was young. Scratch that then. From where I’m sitting, in 2018, Shadow of the Comet‘s introduction is more effective than some recent big budget horrors I’ve played. I don’t mean this in a “It’s genuinely terrifying how pixelated and weird and cheesy everything is” way either. I mean, that too, but this really works as pure, unironic creepiness. Watch it.
Exquisitely unsettling, right? I’m not exactly sure why, but I think the low fidelity plays a huge part. For one, it demands more of you as a viewer. Less details requires more focus. Much like Lovecraftian prose – and good horror in general – the less defined the images are, the more we’re required to use our imagination.
Low fidelity also means that there’s less to work with in conveying human emotions. As such, everything is more intense and heightened for maximum effect, the same way political cartoonists exaggerate the subtle abnormalities in someone’s face. Everything is distilled down to its purest form, resulting in it being spooky. That’s my take anyway, but there’s a comment section below if you feel like chiming in, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Story time, then. You’re a reporter of some kind. You have a name but I can’t remember it and if I stop to look it up now I’m going to lose the lucid flow of this excellent sentence. This guy is your boss. He asks you to get some photographs. Only sensational photographs will do.
Oh, that’s right. It’s probably worth chucking some ancillary information at your dome to help you place Shadow of the Comet in context. Again, this is a direct homage to the exact text from the wikipedia page, because I cherish my sources, like any good journalist should:
“Shadow of the Comet (later repackaged as Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet) is an adventure game developed and released by Infogrames in 1993. The game is based on H. P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos and uses many elements from Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. A follow-up game, Prisoner of Ice, is not a direct sequel.”
Lovely stuff. Thanks Wikipedia. This one is four years older than The Hound of Shadow. The jump ahead reminds me that adventure game interfaces are basically just text commands rearranged for simplicity and aesthetic nice-ness. These are the insights that keep you coming back.
Another thing that really stands out here is the music. It’s constant and tense, but also strangely heartbreaking. I don’t know if it would be right to call it melancholic because it’s not at all subtle. It’s aggressive, if anything, but evokes so much inevitable dread so early on that you feel that you’ve already failed and nothing you do will change that fact. It’s very, very Lovecraftian in that sense. Play all its cards straight away and just hammering you with relentless creepiness when you’re just trying to walk around town is an odd move. But it’s an experience, and it certainly has a very specific, tangible effect on my mood.
The voice acting generally works too, although things occasionally go a bit Vincent Price. Townsfolk are oddly genial when you first meet them, which would work toward a slow build if the music didn’t shoot its load within the first minute of play.This game is pretty tough too. There’s no combat per se but making the wrong decision will kill you instantly in a variety of interesting ways, as illustrated by the half-hour death reel below.
I’m going to give you an obvious spoiler warning and just end it here, because I’m going to massively recommend this one. There’s a few negatives, obviously. The game has a tendency to pick and choose which bits of Lovecraft it likes best and rearrange them, so even this early, these games were starting to slide into tropes rather than inventive re-imaginings. This is frustrating on the one hand, but Shadow of the Comet is so atmospheric its almost forgivable. Almost. 3/10 tentacles.
Prisoner of Ice
Pssst. You. Psssstt. Yes You. Do you like Wikipedia entries? Yes? Good. Here is the Wikipedia entry for Prisoner of Ice.
“Prisoner of Ice (also Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice) is an adventure game developed and released by Infogrames for the PC and Macintosh computers in 1995 in America and Europe. It is based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, particularly At the Mountains of Madness, and is a follow-up to Infogrames’ earlier Shadow of the Comet. In 1997, the game was ported to the Sega Saturn and PlayStation exclusively in Japan.”
Can’t argue with those solid gold internet facts now, can you? Now watch as I argue with these solid gold internet facts.
At the Mountains of Madness is my favourite Lovecraft story. It follows a small group of geologists on an Antarctic expedition, and ends in an ancient alien city, the description of which is some of the most vividly unsettling writing ever committed to print. It’s difficult to describe the emotional space Lovecraft’s work transports the reader to. It’s somewhere between terror and awe. An awareness of infinite possibilities, and a greater awareness that each one of those possibilities is just as soul crushingly awful as the last.
There’s a part of me that enjoys detailed lore on historical civilizations and ancient technologies, and a part of me that just digs raw, visceral terror, and At the Mountains of Madness has both in spades. Incidentally, Prisoner of Ice has neither.
At the Mountains of Madness is a slow burner filled with danger, mystery, and eventual discovery. Prisoner of Ice hits you with Nazi submarines, rockets, and a very visible, very murderous bipedal monstrosity within the first ten minutes of the game. It’s a strange effect. Somewhere between the more ambient sounds, painted background and uncanny claymation figures, it should come across more subtly than it does. But it’s just flat melodrama really, which is a real shame, because I’m a big fan of how this game looks.
Remember how I said that Shadow of the Comet turns things up way too quickly with the music? While strange, that was forgivable. Prisoner of Ice, however, does something that completely saps any value it has as a Lovecraft game, and that is throw a giant monster at you within the first ten minutes.
It’s freaky the first couple of time you go into a room, but after chasing you around for a bit it loses any sense of menace. Also, it chases you around for about 75% percent of the game. Also also, the game is only about 90 minutes long. So yeah, sorry, you fucked it buddy. You fucked it before it even had a chance to get good. In purely technical terms, Prisoner of Ice is an improvement over the last, but as a Lovecraft game, it’s a mess. 8/10 tentacles.
So, what have we learned? Basically, what we already knew. That Lovecraft is fiendishly difficult to do correctly, and throwing a few tentacles and vaguely related elements into a game isn’t really sufficient. However, we’re not done yet! Come back soon and join me as I slap my unwanted tentacles all over some more vintage Lovecraft games. I honestly can’t think of anything more appealing.
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