Dreading the Shadows on the Wall

“[Games] are, in their superior forms, simply by-products of excess intellectuality, which I haven’t the honour to possess. In their inferior forms they are of course simply avenues of escape for persons with too poorly proportioned and correlated a perspective to distinguish betwixt the frivolous and the relevant … “
– H.P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, February 3, 1932

In the 1920s, a young, poor writer would reinvent the horror genre from his home at 10 Barnes Street in Providence, Rhode Island. Misunderstood or ignored in his own time, Howard Philips Lovecraft’s work has nonetheless echoed across the arts. Literature, movies and even music have been shaped and worked by the cyclopean terrors and non-Euclidian geometry spoken of in his works. Stunted and twisted like the “Rats in the Walls,” Lovecraft’s fingerprints join those of Stoker, Howard and Tolkien in shaping the face of modern gaming.

Though we know him today as a master of horror, Lovecraft was almost unknown in his own time and lived a fairly quiet life. He learned everything he knew through self-study, as he was a very sickly child and was very rarely allowed to attend school. His first published work was “Dagon,” which went to print in a 1923 issue of Weird Tales magazine. Soon afterward, Lovecraft married Sonia Greene, whom he’d met at a journalists’ convention. Lovecraft and Greene moved to New York soon after they were wed, but the relationship was not to last. He returned, alone, to Providence and lived with his aunts until they passed away. After the return to Providence, he finally saw some of his more popular stories see publication. Stories such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness” were published in pulp magazines of the day. Just the same, true success eluded him for much of his life. He died, financially ruined and wracked with cancer, in March of 1937.

From these mentally and emotionally bleak surroundings, it is easy to understand where the unnamed terrors of Lovecraft’s writing originated. His fertile mind and an impressive self-taught vocabulary led to a unique writing style, laden with adjectives. Given Lovecraft’s somewhat turgid prose, games based on his work were prolific in the text adventure era. Infocom’s The Lurking Horror translated his style into a virtuality of slimy Norths and tentacle-laden Souths. The game, which played a lot like Zork, put the player into the role of a student at G.U.E. Tech, trapped by a blizzard in the campus’ computer center. While it was one of the first Lovecraft adaptations, it failed to impress the world at large. Thankfully, its shortcomings didn’t stop other developers from trying to get Lovecraft right. Michael S. Gentry’s Anchorhead perfectly blended both modern and ancient metaphysical horrors; it’s still one of my favorite text-based games.

With the rise of graphical gaming, Lovecraft’s writing lent itself to some still-great modern classics. Alone in the Dark, from I-Motion, is the single most influential horror game of its era. Ed Carnby and Emily Hartwood traverse Hartwood Manor, encountering the horrors that old man Hartwood has unleashed. Even in a graphical format, Lovecraft’s ability to terrify with a line of text rises to the fore. The line, “They will find my body but will not have my soul,” from Hartwood’s chilling letter still makes me look over my shoulder.

As in a mythosian sacrifice, the essence of Alone has been adulterated many times. Despite the game’s grandeur and its cultural icon status, Uwe Boll has publicly defiled its corpse on the silver screen, and a new property is in the works for the PS3.

The transition from thoughtful text-based crawls to action/adventure games would be muddied considerably during the ’90s. Though specifically Lovecraftian games were few, the hallmarks of “the dreamer in the deep” were everywhere. Shub- Niggurath required a good telefragging in id’s original Quake, and the entities from Xen in Half-Life smacked of terrors between the stars. Alone in the Dark has often been credited with being the grandfather of the Resident Evil series, and certainly there is a touch of Ithaqua in Nemesis’ transformation.

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Since 2000, two very notable titles have surfaced on mythos-lovers’ radar. Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem filed the serial numbers off of Lovecraft’s work to create a truly disturbing experience. A compelling story of old gods and their avatars woven together with time travel and rune-heavy ancient magics made for one of the most compelling story- driven games in recent memory. The clever use of meta-game trickery added a layer of real confusion to the play experience: As your avatar’s sanity declined, your external perception of the game environment was compromised. Like the protagonist of “The Shadow Out of Time,” prolonged exposure to horror begets new illusory horrors meant just for the player.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is the most modern mythos-themed title on offer, released just this past spring on PC and last October for Xbox. With yet another nod to Alone in the Dark, you take on the role of a private investigator searching for clues in the quiet little town of Innsmouth. Something fishy is going on there, and the protagonist seeks out that which man was not meant to know. Dark Corners, a highly underrated game, gets the feel of the mythos correct by forcing players to run when face to face with otherworldly adversaries; in Lovecraft’s universe, man was far from the dominant race. It’s easily the most “accurate” Lovecraft-inspired game to date.

Beyond the directly mythos-touched games, it’s easy to see Lovecraft’s influence on many popular non-horror titles. As with tabletop gaming, horror literature has shaped many of the minds that make the games we play. Homages to Lovecraft have been littered throughout videogames since people started putting code to compiler. The best-selling Xbox 360 title this year, Oblivion, even contains its own small nod to the master of horror: The quest “Shadow over Hackdirt” has the player rescuing young Dar-Ma from the “Deep One” worshiping cultists south of Chorrol.

Lovecraft has sparked the imaginations of countless horror enthusiasts since his death. The time you spent dreading the shadows on the wall after reading “The Call of Cthulhu” shouldn’t embarrass you. You were affected, changed, by the words of a writer who knew that the shadows were more than they seemed. That night, touched by his words, you saw that there were things you didn’t know and were shaken. In a way, your love of gaming today may be because of a writer from Providence. After all, the fun part of gaming is the mastery of the unknown, the conquering of the darkness; the stock and trade of Howard Philips Lovecraft.

“Cthulhu still lives, too, I suppose, again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more … He must have been trapped by the sinking whilst within his black abyss, or else the world would by now be screaming with fright and frenzy. Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise.”

– The Call of Cthulhu

Michael “Zonk” Zenke is Editor of Slashdot Games, a subsite of the technology community Slashdot.org. He comments regularly on massive games at the site MMOG Nation. He lives in Madison, WI (the best city in the world) with his wife Katharine.

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