is perhaps most famous not for ghoulish visuals or amazing scenes of horrific depravity, but for creating an unparalleled atmosphere from words
So it’s odd and quite fascinating that the primarily visual discipline of the videogame has returned over and over to either his work as an adaptation, or as a primary influence. Let’s have a look at a few of these games that are effective in creating either a directly Lovecraftian game, or creating something new from the themes of cosmic horror and grandad getting all romantic up on a fish or monkey.
"Curiously, the developers claimed never to have read Lovecraft and I believe them -- it shows just how far Lovecrafian tropes have entered mainstream storytelling...”
I don’t play a lot of survival horror games as I am an enormous big girl’s blouse who finds them very scary indeed, but Darkwood
kept me interested in its increasingly Lovecraftian plot. Curiously, the developers claimed never to have read Lovecraft and I believe them -- it shows just how far Lovecrafian tropes have entered mainstream storytelling. Cosmic horror protagonists who leave the city are constantly said to be in a state of vulnerability and this holds true. You’re never safe. The landscape soon becomes littered with the hostile supernatural and below the earth, the true enemy awaits.
I had to have my girlfriend in the room to play this.
2: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
famously patented Eternal Darkness’ ‘Sanity System’ a number of years ago, locking any good, thoughtful developer out of utilising what is perhaps one of the smartest 4th-wall-breaking gameplay systems ever, err… crafted
But in 2021 that patent expired
, which means it is now open to all developers to play with (seemingly -- we’re not patent law experts). And hopefully that begins to happen soon.
No Internet list of Lovecraftian gaming without Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem
in it is serious, and for good reason: 20 years on, little touches it as far as genuine cosmic horror goes.
But aside from that, it really is just a masterpiece of gaming narrative. Clearly this started out as a bit of a Resident Evil
clone but quickly grew into something finer.
You play Alex, a young woman who inherits a house and reads a magic book that makes history… come alive! You play as various historical characters and become aware of ancient entities, bound to this world but locked out of it. The historical figures you play demonstrate an aeonic battle across cultures against these horrors, often ending in failure.
Transmission of knowledge as dangerous, vast cult conspiracy, ancient horror returning, emphasis on history -- those are a whole lot of Lovecraftian tropes. But then the game did it one better with its ‘Sanity System’ (see box out), a recurring theme and perhaps the hallmark of a Lovecraftian game.
Madness is a recurring theme in Lovecraft and games are a spectacular medium to explore that. In Eternal Darkness, the worse your sanity, the creepier the game-world becomes. Then there was the 4th wall-breaking effects buggerising around with saves, threatening faults, weird error messages and stranger.
That this GameCube
title hasn’t been mastered or remade is a crime against humanity.
3. The Sinking City
It would be fair to say The Sinking City
was dramatically overshadowed by the Call of Cthulhu
game, yes. But no one liked CoC and so The Sinking City maybe never got an entirely fair shake.
Now, the game itself is not exactly a masterpiece of complex play. The combat is especially messy and choppy, but it's the storyline that keeps us interested in Lovecraftian games and The Sinking City delivers there.
You play a private investigator, again, working a client who is cursed by bad dreams. You travel to Oakmont, a town in Lovecraft Country
, the typical New England stately, antique burg. A few months ago, this place was hit by a flood and something dark flowed in with the waters.
Pretty soon it becomes apparent that this is a straightforward Lovecraft game and this is playing the genre straight. The King In Yellow
, who True Detective
fans might know, is up to no good. And there’s some deep cuts from the extended Lovecraft Circle
of writers, even the controversially mental Brian Lumley
There’s a strong sanity mechanic that effectively works to deform the game world and genuinely feels handicapping. There’s a lot of the feel of the classic story Shadow Over Innsmouth
, with a grotesque and deformed cast of characters and a campy cultist coven.
If you’ve played developer Frogwares
games, you’ll know what to expect. Clunky and basic gameplay with an exciting and ambitious storyline. Underrated.
I should really admit, I haven’t gotten through very much of Bloodborne
. I am old now and have no time for Soulsborne
But I’m willing to be. I could talk about the lore of this genuinely masterful conflation of the gothic and cosmic schools of horror and as a Lovecraftian obsessive, this lore is absolutely mesmerising.
Bloodborne sees you playing the Hunter. You seek a cure to a plague in an ancient, brooding city, Its sinister blood-themed church can aid you. The only problem is, the city is filled with werewolves, madmen, and worse.
You delve further and further into the story, until you become aware that the church, along with the nearby wizard academy, gained their powers from terrible beings called the Old Ones
. You become aware that these godlike things have given their blood to various factions in the city. More and more Lovecraftian foes appear and the game sheds the Victorian and moves more to the fantastic and cosmic.
Then, in another great take on the sanity mechanic, as the player gains Insight, they see more clearly at what’s just on the other side of reality. Few can forget their appalled thrill at seeing what was clinging to the spires of the great church.
Bloodborne’s story is told in a bricolage patchwork, pieced together from inference, item description, translation of in-game symbols and the like. Very little is certain.
On top of that, dreams and reality is a central motif in the game, a rarely discussed but very real motif of Lovecraft, who often used dream imagery.
Most of the time when fantasy games want to do Lovecraft, they just make Cthulhu instead of a dragon. But Bloodborne takes the big man’s most trusted themes and recreates them in a radical new context. One of the best game narratives of all time.
5: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
This rarely goes down on the list of the all time great games, but in the mid 2000s, this was pretty exciting. Like The Sinking City, this one is firmly in the ‘official mythos.’
You play a private detective (there were other jobs in the past, game devs) drawn to Innsmouth, a town infected with inhuman forces and perhaps the most famous Lovecraftian location.
"The little girl whose mother is locked up in the attic. Deep Ones making love, grotesque sounds down the dock, all that fun stuff...”
The game itself is a bit of a misfire. Despite being an ambitious horror shooter, perhaps an FPS isn’t the best way to experience the mythos. What makes this game worth paying attention to is the town overworld. The little girl whose mother is locked up in the attic. Deep Ones making love, grotesque sounds down the dock, all that fun stuff.
But the plot is kind of cool, a good use of the mind-stealing Great Race mythos. And the sanity mechanics are simple, but take you by surprise and can get you off the census sharpish.
Look, this isn’t a classic for the ages but as an early exercise in ‘canon’ Lovecraft games, and some fun setpieces and ideas, don’t disdain it.
6: Darkest Dungeon
Like Bloodborne, this is a fantasy setting cosmic horror that starts out with the old tropes of ‘you inherit a house from your mad uncle’ and ends with hideous cosmic revelations.
The game’s a punishing roguelike indie and, honestly, sometimes it's a slog. You know if you like roguelike.
"What makes Darkest Dungeon Lovecraftian is the hopelessness of it all...”
But. The game itself is a perfect example of ludonarrative -- the mechanics reinforce the story. Some of your dudes are going to die. They’re going to go insane, need therapy, need healing, need time off. You’re often going to encounter enemies who, at least at first, seem unbeatable in their grotesquerie.
What makes Darkest Dungeon
Lovecraftian is the hopelessness of it all. This house built over something nightmarish and getting closer and closer to it, the goal of the game, is a brutal grind. This is a gloomy, difficult, lightless game There’s also a shoutout to ‘House on the Borderlands’, a novel that Lovecraft himself considered brilliant. The narration rules, audio on.
7: Edge of Nowhere
An Oculus game and another too scary for me to finish it. I’m not… I’m not good with heights and this game is quite keen on them.
While this game has a few problems, they tend to artificially create difficulty and such and VR is perhaps not the best place for tense battles.
"What broke me was the vertiginous drops, the awful climbing. You are so, so vulnerable and so easily broken...”
What Edge of Nowhere does really effectively is a sense of scale. You are a tiny man in a titanic, alien Antarctic hell. And the monstrous city you discover is simply… overwhelming
in scale. What broke me was the vertiginous drops, the awful climbing. You are so, so vulnerable and so easily broken. Dynasty Warriors
And with the now ubiquitous sanity mechanics at play, you sometimes honestly don’t know what you should be running from, what you can ignore, and what gross alien horror is about to eat your entire ass. Perhaps not the most engaging narrative but a very unique way to experience the horror, the horror…
8: Moons of Madness
"It’s a real shame gameplay let this one down because it should have been a classic...”
Another first-person title and perhaps the least actual fun game to play on this list but a unique take on Lovecraftian horror. Moons of Madness
met some fairly dim reviews for gameplay, a constant theme in this list it seems. Nevertheless, the game is an interesting take on cosmic horror. You’re a scientist on Mars. You’re there because the corporation funding the expedition found something. Something that’s sending a signal into deep space.
While the game’s fairly basic, the monsters are a particularly horrific crew and there’s something… something monstrous and colossal beneath you. The alien technology feels dangerous, bizarre and abject. It’s a real shame gameplay let this one down because it should have been a classic, but the atmosphere, the slowly revealed mysteries and the mix of arcane and scientific creates a unique setting. Missed opportunity.
9: Sunless Sea
This is not, strictly speaking, a Lovecraftian game at all. But there’s the feel of the cosmic. Set in the lurid, gothic and ever-so-slightly campy Fallen London universe, the unterzee is a vast ocean at the centre of the world.
In this roguelike, you play a ship’s captain, looking to explore or simply to make yourself wealthy. There’s very little plot to this game, rather you find yourself on hundreds of tiny quests that slowly but surely build up a picture of the unterzee.
What makes this at least Lovecraftian adjacent is that the unterzee is home to ancient occult and scientific artefacts. Monstrous artefacts and prehistoric beasts. And worse. On top of this, many of the locations you visit are lost to madness and corruption. All with the constant horror of dying, failing, even being eaten by your own scumbag crew.
It’s not running into tentacle bastards or being sacrificed to gods who live in the stars. It’s the feeling of being in the grip of forces you cannot truly understand. That if they notice you will annihilate you, and that you cannot possibly meet with violence or outwit.
Like all roguelikes, if you don’t like your progress suddenly and unpredictably halts, you’ll find this frustrating. But the sense of dread; the fragility, it's quite stark and memorable.
OK, showing my age with this one but 98s Anchorhead
, a text-based game, was and is a classic from a game genre that’s vanished like radio plays. Fond memories of playing this on an old 486.
In this age of achingly beautiful games that require hundreds of highly trained developers, there’s something quite relaxing about a low fi text with quirky, simple graphics.
"And this evil bugger worships a sort of gnostic-Lovecraftian horror who’ll come to the world in the form of a monstrous meteorite...”
The game is about a woman whose husband (wait for it) inherits a cursed house. What she discovers is a body jumping spirit who has a habit of possessing his heirs, in shades of Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep
. And this evil bugger worships a sort of gnostic-Lovecraftian horror who’ll come to the world in the form of a monstrous meteorite.
The game lightens up the text with some grim black and white illustration and maps. If you never played the likes of Zork
and other complex text-based puzzle solvers, they take some getting used to, a kind of linguistic ‘pixel bitching’ but Anchorhead is a bit more ambitious than that.
For those of you interested in a retro experience, this is worth it. Affecting and atmospheric story. But also -- you rarely see well-written prose in games. The Torment
series and Dark Souls have some lovely writing, The Last Of Us
, too, but Anchorhead would have made a solid novel.
About the Author
Christian D. Read
is a writer and game developer living in Melbourne, Victoria. His new gamebook "Starcore: Heroic Fantasy and Cosmic Horror
" will be released in April. He last penned a deep-dive on the subgenre of the Weird Western
for us last year. You can read that here