For those invested in the horror genre, the name Howard Phillips Lovecraft brings with it a great amount of admiration for the craft of Lovecraftian horror. Some dedicate their lives to the study or imitation, in some way or other, of his contributions to the genre as a whole. Without his tireless efforts during his years on this planet, we would never have received authors such as Stephen King (he lists HPL as one of his many inspirations, and pays homage to him during the final act of his novel, Revival), movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing (a very close adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness), and never would we have gotten arguably one of the best horror games, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, as all take inspiration from Lovecraft’s works.
However, the issue comes from truly capturing the essence of his works. Thousands of games carry the influence of Lovecraft’s works, but none feel as faithful an adaptation as they could. It is easy to be Lovecraftian in tone and imagery, but so few games continue that tone into the most important part of the game: gameplay mechanics. This article will delve into different game mechanics that fail to truly capture the Lovecraftian horror, and how best to replace those mechanics for a better result.
Firstly let’s examine a style of game which is popularized in the Telltale games. The “interactive movie” style of gameplay is one in which players are presented with numerous branching storylines that can change with every choice players make throughout the game.
Until Dawn takes this even further, as characters may die due to a failed quick-time event. This gets interesting with Lovecraft, though, because of a lack of control and a sense of vulnerability linger throughout his works. By reducing the gameplay to this format, you take a certain amount of gameplay control away from the players. They are reduced to making an emergency decision and watching that situation play out.
Next, we’ll examine weapons and their place in a Lovecraftian horror game. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a prime example, as it is a first-person shooter directly based on Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. The beginning works well, as stealth mechanics are prioritized, but the whole game quickly falls apart in terms of terror once guns enter the fray. Horrifying beasts are easily mowed down by a few bullets. Threats are taken down with little difficulty, becoming the opposite of the hopeless works they are based on.
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Another amazing example of this is Bloodborne. It’s an amazing game, and a wonderful take on Lovecraft, but players at the worst of times feel frustrated (that being the signature feeling for a Soulsborne game), and feel at the best of times like a badass. The game excels concerning the imagery that Lovecraft deserves, but gives players a chance to overcome the odds and look good doing it, rather than surviving by the skin of their teeth, bloodied and scarred by their ordeal.
Let’s discuss next Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but, most importantly, the sanity meter present throughout this harrowing experience of a game. A sanity meter is perhaps the most necessary part of any Lovecraftian experience, as most of his stories end with the main character’s body largely intact, but his mind terribly disturbed, most often beyond repair. While the audience should be given a glimpse of monsters, characters should be forced to hide and to look away to prevent emotional trauma that would affect the rest of the story.
Depending on the outcome of these quick-time events, in which players must both hold the controller perfectly still (similar to Until Dawn) while holding down a button or two to ensure a character does not get too good a look at whatever cosmic monstrosity is stalking them. If both actions are neglected, the character dies instantly and the story continues on. If the controller is held still, but the eyes are neglected, the character may survive, but will likely suffer a mental breakdown at another crucial moment that could result in the loss of their lives and others.
The mechanics to create a perfect and true Lovecraft game have already been introduced and nearly perfected throughout the years, especially during the last decade. All that is needed now is for someone to come along and put the pieces together. This compilation of mechanics is not the only way Lovecraftian horror works translate to the story-telling medium of video games. However, it is one of many and may be a step toward creating a horror game that Lovecraft fans may truly be proud of.