Moon Chases Sun

Moon Chases Sun
Cthulhu: Why so difficult?

Allen Varney | 19 Jun 2007 12:01
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It shouldn't be so hard - though it seems, by all evidence, terrifyingly hard - to create computer games based on the Cthulhu Mythos horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft.

You'd think publishers would be interested, because Lovecraft's work has serious legs. Nine-tenths of the bestselling novels of the 1930s have quietly drowned; meanwhile, for the last 50 years, this prim, eccentric antiquarian gentleman of Providence, who published in fanzines with two-digit print runs and died in 1937, has unfalteringly sold better every decade. To put that another way, each of the last four decades was, in its turn, the biggest Lovecraft ever had - and this decade is bigger yet. The critics who dismissed HPL as "sub-literary" must now confront three Penguin Classics Lovecraft collections. Today, Lovecraft still profoundly influences each new generation of readers and gamers. People will be reading him long after they've forgotten (look in your heart, you know it's true) Ernest Hemingway. In the literature of cosmic horror, Lovecraft remains the epitome, the writer to beat.

HPL's ideas have also crept into a few films. No, not Hellboy, where the key to defeating the tentacled boss-monster is a few sticks of dynamite, and definitely not Stuart Gordon's gore-fests Re-Animator or From Beyond. But fans may recall the 1991 made-for-cable movie Cast a Deadly Spell, and true aficionados own the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society's ultra-low-budget (and silent!) 2005 adaptation of "The Call of Cthulhu."

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.

Mythos ideas permeate game-geek culture, marked by active fansites like Yog-Sothoth.com and, perhaps more telling, by a crawling horde of parodies. See, for instance, John Kovalic's Pokethulhu and Jon Hansen's slideshow "Tales of the Plush Cthulhu." ("The stars were right again and a band of innocent stuffed animals had released Him into the world by accident. 'Uh, oh,' said Baby Boy Fluffy Bunny.") "Tales" stars one of many Cthuloid dolls, hats and slippers from ToyVault.

So there's interest. Lovecraft's works are in the public domain. What's stopping the game publishers?

***

For Lovecraftian computer games, the stars have never really been right. Of the entries in the skimpy MobyGames Lovecraft games group, the only high-rated game is Michael S. Gentry's 1998 Anchorhead - a text adventure. Wikipedia's Lovecraftian videogames list is littered with trivial cases, passing mentions and feeble pretenders. The high points are few:

CoC designer Sandy Petersen left Chaosium for id Software, where he worked on the original Quake. The game's final boss is the monstrous Elder God of fertility, Shub-Niggurath.

• The first game in the long-running Alone in the Dark series had a Chaosium CoC license attached early in its development, but the connection was dropped before publication in 1992. Too bad, for this pioneering 3-D adventure was the era's closest approach to Lovecraft. The player's spooky search through a monster-haunted house turned up a back story right out of HPL's novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Later Alone in the Dark installments abandoned the Cthuloid connection for ghost gangsters, zombie cowboys and modern-day private eye action. These later entries inspired, if that's the word, Uwe Boll's staggeringly bad 2005 film adaptation Alone in the Dark. Soon Atari will publish, for some reason, Alone in the Dark 5: Near Death Investigations. (Beware the annoying Alone 5 Flash site.)

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