Four (or five) recent Lovecraftians

Friday, January 8, 2021

Comments: 3   (latest 14 hours later)

Tagged: reviews, moons of madness, racism, horror, transient, old gods rising, paradise killer, call of the sea, cosmic wonder, lovecraft

"Lovecraftian game" is an improbable label to begin with. We don't say "Conan-Doylian game" or "Gibsonian" or "George-Lucasian". Games have adapted stories by Poe and Verne and so on, but not enough to talk about them as a category. Tolkien adaptations are an industry in themselves, but you'd say "Middle Earth games" -- maybe -- certainly not "Tolkienian".

Lovecraft, as always, is weirdly liminal: a collection of tropes that can be, and arguably should be, detached from the stories themselves.

So. A game genre (subgenre) is a set of conventions about what you do. Except Lovecraftian-ness isn't defined by what you do; it's defined by what happens to you. You are shaken out of your mundane reality and forced to confront the cosmically terrifying. (Or cosmically astonishing, but we'll get there.) What you do in your mundane reality is an open question. The opening and closing of the story, before and after revelation, can go anywhere! It's not like a "Sherlock Holmes" game where you know exactly what's on the menu.

Of course, a game that leads up to cosmic discoveries may well start out with mundane discoveries. That's an obvious model; it's why the Call of Cthulhu RPG is canonically about investigators. I don't have hard stats, but I'd bet that the most common Lovecraftian crossover is the hard-headed private eye who's seen it all and is about to see a whole lot more.

Now look: I'm going to ignore the kind of game where phallic oozing horrors swarm at you and you mow them down with a shotgun. That's Lovecraftian only in the sense of H. R. Giger and the Aliens franchise -- the influence is unarguable, but anything you can blow up ain't cosmic. (Nor run over with a boat; really, don't get me started.)

(Yes, I'm handwaving a lot of ground here. The FPS Gigeresques led directly to survival horror by simply deleting the shotgun. Many undeniably Lovecraftian titles there. But "shooting" and "dodging" are the easy answers in game design, right? And even with those answers, players demand at least a little plot.)

A lot of Lovecraftian games start out with the general question: what's going on here? As these games indeed do. But that doesn't mean that you do the same stuff in them. Let's compare.

  • Moons of Madness
  • Transient
  • Old Gods Rising
  • Call of the Sea
  • Paradise Killer

Moons of Madness

This is perhaps the most conventional (non-shotgun) approach: you explore and solve adventure-ish puzzles. Goo and tentacles erupt into the real world, and you fall into a hallucinatory dreamworld as well. This is familiar stuff. It goes back to the early point-and-click era (Dark Seed) and the text era before that (Lurking Horror, of course, but a BASIC game called Kadath may have been the very first.)

The twist is that Moons of Madness is science fiction. This isn't new (again, Alien). Really, we're talking about taking the nascent sci-fi tropes which Lovecraft openly indulged in (alien planets, time travel) and updating them to current sci-fi tropes (a near-future base on Mars-as-we-know-it).

But another change sneaks under these updates; let's name it. When you put Lovecraft into skiffy weeds, you can let the racism drip out and scuttle away. It's still xenophobia -- but the encroaching contamination is now literal alien slime. We're still being supplanted, but now by brain-parasites and sterile, smiling androids. (Alien wasn't just about the monster.) No need for the swarthy indigenes.

Science fiction is ultimately about the present. You can't really say that the racism has been scrubbed out of these ideas. It will always be some part of the motivating force. The question facing the Lovecraft adapter is: will we turn around and grapple with that?

Moons of Madness doesn't. Its SF follows the egalatarian Trekkie tradition -- a diverse, gender-balanced team of scientists in a world which is, you know, past all that hard stuff. I think the times call for more digging than that. But, okay, it is a sci-fi tradition and I'm not the writer here. The writer wanted to get straight into the tentacles and nightmares. Fine.

To go back to the original question: what do we do in this game? It's a bit of a knight's tour. On the Mars base, you deal with environmental, mechanical puzzles. Then things go bad and you're crawling around through dripping air ducts and so on. Then a monster chases you -- some fighty action scenes. The dream world has more symbolic environmental puzzles. Oops, now it's killer androids, so stealth time...

The problem with this kind of genre-shifting is that genres are hard! Action games tune their combat mechanics very carefully. Stealth games are even more careful with their sneaking. Moons of Madness tries to dip into all of these wells, but the result feels unpolished. I bombed out in the fighting because I was using a game controller (perfectly functional for the initial puzzle-and-exploration chapters, but clumsy in combat). I switched to mouse, and then bombed out again in a stealth scene; I just couldn't grok the androids' sightlines. After five or six repetitive deaths -- insufficient checkpointing! -- I quit out and left the game unfinished. Sorry, Martians.


Another sci-fi take, but this one is cyberpunky.

Cyberpunk and Lovecraftian horror make a fertile mix. The "punk" of cyberpunk is -- okay, it covers a lot of territory, but it certainly includes the counter-social revelry of grime, drugs, tattooes and piercings. The future shadow of punk thus embraces the body-breach of cyborg parts, the mind-breach of the brainjack, the addictive rush of mainlining the outworld; the eager trading-away of one's humanity in snips and drips.

So when these transgressive tropes crawl out of the Lovecraftian shadows, we find them already snugged into our cyberpunk identity. And the fun can begin. Cyberpunk is about riding the edge of ruin, too.

(And the racism? Well, cyberpunk per se is bounded by the 80s and 90s. Japan loomed large. Thus, zaibatsus consuming corporate America; idorus projected in Times Square. Racist but not Lovecraft's squicks at all. I don't think I've seen a story intersect these two xenophobias... maybe "Adventures in the Ghost Trade", Liz Williams? In a sense. But this is getting tangential.)

Transient is more at home with the cyberpunk side, I'd say. It projects a lockdown world, a nameless threat preventing people from venturing outside... (Don't laugh; the game design must have been written long before COVID showed up.) Anyhow, when everybody communicates through VR and brainlink, then the online is necessarily more real than reality.

Transient renders this premise awfully well. Visiting a new location means projecting yourself there virtually. Simulations inside simulations are par for the course. Locks are cryptography; hacks are holes in reality. (And everyone's hacking, if only to hide some data under the virtual floorboards.) You have your brain-bending neon-Tron architecture, but the mundane environment of your friends' apartments is also virtual -- everything is virtual. I think that's what makes it work.

The Lovecraftian intrusions feel clumsy in comparison. Transient is a followup to Conarium, a more traditional adventure-Lovecraftian from 2017. But the followup elements mostly consists of scattered namedrops -- look! De Vermis Mysteriis! -- and then Nyarlathotep pops up at the end to connect the plots.

So what do we do? Amateur sleuthing, that old reliable. You're part of an occult secret club -- expanding your minds into other realities using VR and nameless fungi, which is a fine entangling of the genres. Except your buddies have just been murdered. Investigate! Using VR and occult drugs! Pretty much the whole game is exploration, clue-gathering, and puzzles. There are some hacking minigames, which are riffs on classic horror videogames like Alone in the Dark. (I found them more tedious than amusing, but the designers made them skippable, so whatever.)

It all works pretty well except when you trip over the Lovecraft references, which, as I said, feel clumsy. And the plot doesn't so much resolve as just bump into Conarium and stop. But it's worth it for the creepy-cyberpunky parts.

Racism check: Again, it's science fiction, so we're talking about androids rather than Lascars or Brooklynites or whatever. (I see that the developers are in Istanbul. This may influence their depiction of the decaying future hive-slum-lockup-city, but I can't really speak to that. They may also have been referencing the The Night Land's Last Redoubt.)

Old Gods Rising

Let's switch from sci-fi to the present day.

You are a notoriously credulous professor of ancient mysteries. A film producer invites you to a college campus -- out of session -- where he's filming his new Lovecraftian blockbuster. Can you help him out with his story? The gimmick, of course, is that the Lovecraftian horrors turn out to be real... or are they? Or aren't they? Maybe both!

This is a sneakily glorious premise. The game flips between comedy, horror, and winking self-acknowledgement with gleeful abandon. Keeping up is entirely your problem.

What you do is almost entirely exploration, which is handled very deftly. Campus is large, twisty, confusing, and extremely packed with environmental story. Do not expect puzzles (I think there's exactly one). Expect, rather, to be steered through a big explorable space full of fun stuff. Don't forget to read the posters and call the random phone numbers.

Also expect the plot to sort of disintegrate at the end, as the "is it or isn't it" dynamic implodes in a puff of "well, I guess." There's a big flashy end scene, rising gods and all, but it's more of a fall-stop than a resolution. Oh well. Heck of a fun ride up until that point. I laughed a lot.

(There's a post-credits scene that tries to turn into a first-person shooter? See comments above: FPS is a hard genre to get right, and adventure designers tend to do it badly. This does it badly. And with insufficient checkpointing. I didn't spend much time on it.)

Racism check: Skips over the idea of degenerate humans and leaps straight into tentacles.

Call of the Sea

We now roll back to 1934, contemporary with Lovecraft's own life and writing.

The gimmick this time is to see Lovecraft's world from the inside. Humans may react to otherworldly irruptions with horror, but what is it like to be otherworldly in the human world? This is a rich vein of modern Lovecraftiana; some of the best work of recent years has explored this idea. I'll point to excellent stories by Kij Johnson, Cassandra Khaw, Ruthanna Emrys, and (on the comedic side) Jonathan L. Howard.

One possibility is to sublime the horror entirely away. Lovecraft himself sometimes ventured from cosmic horror into cosmic wonder -- most notably in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The alien spans of space and time may offer the comforts of home and history to their native inhabitants.

(On the other hand, seeing an alien intrusion from the alien's point of view may make it even creepier. I'm looking at you, John Persons.)

Call of the Sea takes the wonder route, although its protagonist begins with a viewpoint as mundane as the player's. She has come to a remote Polynesian island; she is searching for her husband. What happened to him? As with all of the games in this list, your role is investigation.

The visuals, however, break convention. Most games of this genre revel in gloom and textural muck. Call of the Sea has a bright palette and a lightly abstracted style. This is, after all, a tropical paradise. You will come to storms, shadow, and cyclopean architecture in due course -- some of it even built in incomprehensible angles. But the game always returns to scenes of color and beauty. And, while I won't spoil the story, it resolutely avoids becoming horror. Tragedy, perhaps, but not horror.

The gameplay is exploration and adventure-y puzzle-solving. The puzzles start out lightweight, although there are some fairly solid brainteasers in the final chapters. But exploration and journal-collecting make up the bulk of the thing.

Racism: The game makes a positive effort to push back against its roots here. Your husband's expedition, the story you discover, is a multiracial bunch. One character is a Hawaiian native; he's as active an agent in the plot as the rest.

To be sure, these are journal entries we're talking about -- none of these background characters appear on screen. The real story is about the protagonist, her husband, and their marriage. This too pushes back against Lovecraft's faults (by having the viewpoint be a woman at all!) but I can't say I was convinced by their relationship. Yes, they have a song and letters and pet names, but mostly they seem to fail to communicate.

I don't know. The game tries to depict a loving marriage which is central to the story. That's way past the ambitions of the previous three I've mentioned. So points for the attempt. If the humanity of the characters is not as enticing as Emrys's Litany of Earth, hey, you can still give eternal wonder and glory a shot.

Paradise Killer

I'm going to sneak this one in, although you might wonder why. No tentacles here...

A coterie of anime-styled demigods are trying to create the perfect society out of stolen divine power. Inevitably, demonic corruption creeps in, and they have to tear it all down and start over. They are about to start over for the 25th time -- "Perfect 25" for sure! -- when the entire Ruling Council of Anime Hotties is murdered by demons. (See, this is exactly what we were trying to avoid...)

You avoid this fate by virtue of having been locked up for the past ten thousand years. You were the Council's chief investigator and demon-hunter back before your own little demonic corruption problem (don't ask), so now you're the survivors' last best bet.

The tone is not remotely horrific; it's a sun-drenched fever dream of a beach city -- a wild mix of run-down apartment buildings and glittering opaline idols. Vending machines, shrines to the absent gods, movie posters (idols both ways!), obsidian, kitsch, and untidy rows of recycling bins in back. Overhead, the stars wheel through the aurora as time judders to a halt. With a snazzy pop track.

It's way over the top, is what I'm saying. It's delightful. I'll bet a dollar that designers were hopped up on Max Gladstone's "Craft" series, but that's fine; it's a worthy inspiration.

So, okay, we love "Craft", but where's the Lovecraft? Well, when you start poking into those absent deities, they turn out to be alien Elder Gods in the most classic vein. Multilimbed reptiles sealed in lost pyramids; tentacular goats sowing genocide from planet to planet; sentient asteroids and eternal labyrinths in dead stars. One god is squatting on the dark side of the moon gathering power to destroy the world. There's a lot like that. And the line between "god" and "demon" is explicitly indistinct.

Plus, this whole business of immortal beings trying to create Paradise? Turns out the City is full of "Citizens", which is to say mortals, kidnapped from reality and forced to work and worship as the Council deems fit. Citizens do not emigrate to the next perfect City. They all get sacrificed to juice up the Reality Engine. So, yeah, it's all a monstrous inhuman death cult and you're complicit. Enjoy the pop tunes!

But this isn't revelation in the Lovecraftian sense. The protagonist knows the score from the start. The story is about the murders, which are no more otherworldly than anything else about your immortal life. So maybe the label doesn't apply; but the game certainly orbits through the domains of cosmic horror.

So what do you do? It's a straight-up police procedural; you investigate the scene and question the suspects. However, the game has a really excellent system for tracking and correlating clues. Everything you learn is entered in your notebook. (To wit, "Starlight" the nightmare laptop.) If you pick up a clue that connects to -- or contradicts -- an earlier clue, your character narrates the connection and updates the entries.

This is, to be clear, great for players like me. I am abysmal at detective games! My success is entirely a function of how well the game, or its hint system, can hand-hold me through the plot-thickets. Paradise Killer scored superbly on this scale.

However, this means the gameplay is largely item-hunting. You have to poke through every trash bin and sewer vent, climb every ladder, and nose into every corner of the map. Do this and you're guaranteed to find the clues, along with the coin and relic bonuses you need to fulfil various side quests (which lead to more clues). Think of the package side quests in GTA: Vice City. Which is, by the way, what the City most resembles -- the tackiest side of Miami, sunny-day-flooded with tidal divinity.

When you've found all the clues (or enough to satisfy you), you jump into the endgame. Putting all the stories together isn't completely automated. There are conflicting stories; you must decide who to accuse. But the game lines up all the evidence for and against each choice, which means I was able to bumble through and convince the judge.

(Although, even while laying it out for the judge, I still wasn't sure how many conspiracies I'd uncovered... You'd think I'd be as good at detective games as I am at puzzle games, wouldn't you? But I'm not. Except Obra Dinn, which was fine. Maybe because Obra Dinn was all physical evidence rather than lies. I suck at lies.)

Anyhow, I had a great time. Maybe you have to be in the mood for a mix of fiddly thorough-searching and over-the-top gonzo writing. But I was.

(Racism: Look, I mentioned the human sacrifice. The story characters are drawn with various racial backgrounds, but the slavery isn't a metaphor here.)

And so...

Wait, I'm supposed to write a summary?

I enjoyed all of these games. Some were frustrating in parts; Moons of Mars annoyed me enough to toss me out. I wouldn't say any of them is perfect. But it's lovely to see people taking Lovecraft's century-old portfolio, still gamely lurching through the haunted streets of Arkham, and turning it into something that isn't bland hero-worship.

That goes for the domain of videogame horror, too. I mean, we've had so much bleeding iron gratework. So many twitching mannequins, good grief.

Try something different! It doesn't have to be Giger! It doesn't have to be gloomy and monochrome! It doesn't even have to be scary!

(On that note, let me give a quick shoutout to Draugen, which takes a similar axe to the psychological-horror walking simulator. It's beautiful, haunting, sometimes creepy... but not horror. Psychological, yes. More like this, please.)

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