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?

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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.)

• 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.

• 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.

• One key Lovecraftian theme is corruption of the self. The narrator is shocked and horrified to discover he’s really a Deep One, possessed by the Great Race, etc. How would the gaming audience greet this revelation? “Cool! What powers do I get?”

That last point highlights the deepest, and perhaps fatal, difference between pure Lovecraft and pure gaming. Gameplay is about, not “powers” as such, but agency – the ability to actively influence the environment. Lovecraft’s investigators actively seek answers to mysteries, yet this usually brings them to a terrifying realization of ultimate futility: Humanity’s reign is temporary and must inevitably fail; in the immensity of space and time, we are powerless and trivial. The Mythos entities, the Elder Gods who once ruled and will rule again, are not “evil” (a narrow human concept) but inscrutably alien. Humans can’t comprehend them, and the attempt brings madness and death.

Yet in a computer game, you want to comprehend and gain influence. By some definitions, that’s the entire point of playing a game! Futility may be a fact, but it isn’t fun.

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Game designer Jeff Grubb observes about Cthuloid lore, “Nobody makes any money off this stuff.” He means, not reprints of Lovecraft’s work, which can be lucrative, but new pop-cult Mythos spinoffs. Jeff speculates:

I don’t think we’re ever going to hit that sweet spot, that over-the-top moment where Cthulhu rises over the western ocean like Pokemon and turns into a national craze. Instead, I think it will enter our popular culture of the “things people know without really knowing,” that Sheldrake/Gaia level where everyone knows that Supes is Clark Kent, and D&D uses a Dungeon Master and has levels and hit points. It is mired in its own hobby-dom, the realm of those more interested in it as a subject than as a marketing plan. And, all things considered, I’m OK with that.

Lovecraft’s message will never be popular, either in computer games or society. But like Jeff, we should be OK with that. The insight embodied in the Cthulhu Mythos stories will still keep attracting disciples with its one fundamental, undeniable strength: Like it or not, it’s true. We remember great writers because they convey what we call “timeless truths”; Lovecraft unblinkingly conveys truth, with its awful implications for humanity, on a time scale of thousands, millions of years.

And just as in Lovecraft’s stories, the truth – unlike his doomed protagonists – survives.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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