Moon Chases Sun

Moon Chases Sun
Cthulhu: Why so difficult?

Allen Varney | 19 Jun 2007 08:01
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• Remember the two licensed Call of Cthulhu computer games from Infogrames? The DOS point-and-click pixel-hunt adventures, 1993's Shadow of the Comet and its 1995 sequel, Prisoner of Ice? Me neither, but both were scripted by Alone in the Dark writer Hubert Chardot. Because all three games share minor characters, some fans consider them a loose trilogy.

• A recent low-budget French game, Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, is a "first-person sleuther" that sends the great detective in search of kidnappers whose trail leads into a mystery with a thin, mock-Lovecraftian flavor. Though the game is tainted by StarForce copy protection, it - hey, wait, where are you going?

• The 2005 Xbox RPG Dark Corners of the Earth, another CoC license, is this list's real tragedy. The game got okay reviews (76% on Game Rankings), despite graphics badly dated by a crippling five-year gestation. "Dark Corners of the Earth is the best Cthulhu game I've played, and it was clearly a labor of love," says longtime CoC designer John Scott Tynes. "Walking the streets of Innsmouth was a blast. Unfortunately, it was ruined by excessive difficulty." The assault on the Marsh Hotel in Innsmouth was thrilling, he says, but "it lost its charm after the 20th time." Developer Headfirst Productions entered bankruptcy in March 2006, the same week the PC port appeared.

As in every game genre, there were other, aborted attempts: Tainted Legacy (cancelled); Headfirst's sequel to Dark Corners, Destiny's End (unpublished); and, most heartbreaking, a planned adaptation of Tynes's tabletop CoC supplement Delta Green. Now their nullity has spread, like a "Colour Out of Space," to the entire field. Fan site Calling Cthulhu, "Your Lovecraftian Gaming Source," shut down in April 2007. Wrote the admin, Nyarlathotep: "With Dark Corners of the Earth being released and no other real Lovecraftian games on the horizon, there is no point in keeping this site alive."

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The fate of specifically Cthuloid games mirrors the larger field of horror games. Aside from zombie shooters, they're dwindling like teens in a slasher flick. What do horror fans have nowadays, non-zombiewise? The Silent Hill and Resident Evil franchises, F.E.A.R., BioShock, Clive Barker licenses ...

"The real problem with horror games is much the same as the problem with horror novels," 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."

Though it enjoys fads, horror may be fated to remain a niche market. But it's interesting that the Lovecraftian games have succeeded almost inversely to their fidelity to the Mythos. The less Cthuloid they are, the more the market likes them. Why?

• You'd think a computer game has at least one leg up right away, given that - hurrah! - it can bypass the cliched HPL vocabulary (squamous rugose gibbous nefandous eldritch bloop bleep blup!). But a game nonetheless must depict monsters the author routinely calls "indescribable," not to mention weird other-worldly colors and "angles neither acute nor obtuse." So, text adventures aside, graphics are a challenge - at least until Microsoft releases its sanity-blasting trans-dimensional DirectX APIs.

• Speaking of sanity-shattering, exactly how does that work? Dark Corners took a shot: "A loss of sanity can be represented in many ways, such as hearing mysterious voices, hallucinating or suffering visual impairments (double vision and inability to focus)." It was probably worth a try. But a convincing simulation of insanity, even if possible, may not be desirable. Insanity implies a failure of perception, a distorted sense of available options. A player who acts based on false information, then suffers a horrible fate, won't feel insane - unless you consider him insane when he throws his controller at his television.

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