Given the success of Chaosiums’s Call of Cthulhu role playing game in the 1980s and 1990s you would think it would be an easy transition from Eldritch paper-based role playing games to computers, especially as we now enjoy an immense range of brilliant fantasy titles forged in the crucible of Dungeons and Dragons. Yet apart from countless zombie shooters (most of which seem to me to be nothing more than gory variants on Space Invaders), successful horror games that capture the flavour of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith are few and far between, and the quality is decidedly patchy.
I think the main problem is that the typical Lovecraftian tale follows a pattern unsuited to the PC game experience. The stories are all pretty linear, based around the slow accretion of disturbing details leading up to one or more horrific revelations of the Awful Truth, at which point the main character goes barmy and/or dies. Games, on the other hand, have to avoid linearity and give the player choice and control over how they meet each challenge, and the possibility of winning. Horrors turn into obstacles to be overcome by ingenuity, rather than sanity-blasting glimpses of utter evil, and thus a lot less scary. A good Call of Cthulhu Keeper (Dungeon Master) could avoid this by being a consummate storyteller and relying on the player’s co-operative imagination. If the final Unspeakable Horror turned out to be a lump of green PlayDoh in a set made of Lego you didn’t mind because your imagination did the rest. Horror computer games have to tread a very fine line between allowing the player enough elbow room to actually play – solve puzzles, explore etc. and fostering the sense of helpless dread that is the core of most Weird Horror.
A handful of recent Indie games stand out among the rest for getting very close (I think) to a real Lovecraftian experience, while avoiding the feeling of being forced down a narrow pipe towards an inevitable conclusion. Anna , Outlast , Amnesia: the Dark Descent and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs are the four I’ve encountered. I’m going to focus on the last two, because I think they are closer to Weird Horror than the others. Exploring what does and doesn’t work in the Amnesia series might go some way to explain why Eldritch Horror games are so hard to get right.
1) They are first person. For some reason a lot of Horror games go for third person so you’re staring at the back of your character’s head for most of the time. For me this doesn’t work because you are immediately one step removed from immersion. I can understand why, for example, Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land for iPad does this (see the image above). It’s trying to look like the role playing game, but without the co-operative storytelling of dungeon master and players it loses any sense of dread and just ends up looking like characters from Postman Pat wandering around fighting little cartoon monsters. Third person games are also a bugger to control, frustration trumping terror when your character is the wrong way round so all the movement keys are suddenly inverted and you’ve no idea what they’re looking at. In order for a game to be really creepy you have to be inside the main person’s head.
2) They are stealth/survival based. Eidos’s classic Thief was the first stealth game, where you had to slowly creep through shadows and use your environment for concealment because your character was too weak to survive direct encounters. Every tiny detail became a danger or a weapon – your footsteps echoed on tile as opposed to carpet or grass and gave you away to the enemy. Knowing where the shadows fell could mean the difference between success and failure and you had to proceed extremely slowly, racking up the tension to the point where it could take a good ten minutes planning and waiting to safely cross a corridor. The Amnesia games tap into this – the few creatures lurking in the darkness will spot you if you can’t hide effectively or creep silently.
3) Amnesia: The Dark Descent models insanity and fear. The Lovecraftian character is on a slow train to madness but how to achieve this in a computer game? Admittedly graphics are so good these days that unnerving scares can be created with the right anti-aliasing and a bit of ambient occlusion, but that’s not enough. In the first Amnesia game your character succumbs to terror. If you are in the dark your vision starts to wobble and you eventually lose control and lie on the floor. Of course going near the light makes you visible to That Which Should Not Be Named, so it’s a delicate trade off – do I keep in the light and remain sane, or stay safe in the darkness? Sound is used to good effect, your heart thumps and your breathing is panicky. Your movements are also modelled accurately so you don’t feel like a disembodied head on rails. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs also throws in ghosts and visions. The problem here is that when your persona starts to go mad and hallucinate it gets in the way of the game experience. In the last scenes of A Machine for Pigs you become more or less a passive witness to incomprehensibly deranged hallucinations and no longer a character on an adventure.
4) Pace and atmosphere are built up slowly through sound, landscape and cleverly scattered clues. You have to be a certain type of gamer to enjoy this – it’s not going to appeal to people who prefer machine gunning screaming hordes of infected undead. In game terms not a lot happens for much of the time in the two Amnesia games. You wander around abandoned houses and subterranean lairs while things go bump, voices mutter in your ear or down the telephone and doors bang and rattle. The first time it’s great, and really creepy. The second time round you start to understand how the triggers work (i.e. events happen when you move to a certain place or do a specific action) so some of the spontaneity is lost. Again, this is a problem with horror games in general. If you play a lot of computer titles you quickly learn how to game the systems and you end up facing the dilemma – do I ‘win’ the adventure by scampering through the levels and concocting smart tactics to outwit the pretty stupid AI, or do I remain a victim and role play creeping through an increasingly horrific world?
n the end are the Amnesia games successful? Well yes and no. Load them up, turn the lights off and put headphones on and you are in for a genuinely frightening ride. Yet they still bump up against the problems of successfully turning Lovecraftian horror into a satisfying game experience. Like Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black, you’re on your own in a series of haunted lairs where something has happened, and you have to try and figure out what. There’s no-one else until the very end, apart from half-glimpsed creatures, reasonably scary in the first game (though only as frightening as any semi-cartoon 3d figure can be) and slightly ridiculous in the second (Beatrix Potter meets Dr Moreau). The lack of any meaningful interaction with other characters increases the dread, but reduces the gaming experience. The absence of encounters is compensated by interesting puzzles, some of which significantly advance the plot, others which seem to be purely there for something to do. While in the first one you really don’t know when the creatures will emerge to chase you down the passageway, when you play the second you’re experienced enough to recognise the signs – so it’s easy to breeze through the landscapes that are clearly safe collecting the clues/trigger points to move on to the next level.
The Amnesia games are perhaps as close as anyone will get to simulating Eldritch Horror in a computer game. Personally I feel that all attempts will ultimately fail, simply because the tales of Lovecraft, Ashton Smith, C. L. Moore et. al. are stories that depend on the use of language combined with the reader’s imagination to evoke tension and a growing sense of dread. Visualise the nightmare and most of the horror is lost, as we can see in the innumerable Lovecraft films made over the years. In a game it’s even harder, because they demand interaction, greater control over the protagonists’ movements by the player and an opportunity to ‘win’ in some way. They also need plenty of small rewards and puzzles to keep the interest going. A lot of horror tales base themselves on the premise that the main character is ultimately a helpless victim of inescapable cosmic terror. Unfortunately in game terms gibbering mental wrecks rocking back and forwards in the corner with their thumbs in their mouths don’t make for very interesting avatars.
Nevertheless I would recommend the Amnesia series if you fancy a few vicarious scares and have the patience for slow-burn, atmospheric survival games. If anyone has found a PC game that they think really does achieve Weird, Eldritch Horror then please let me know – I’d love to give it a try.
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This is a blog about my writing, reading and the ideas that inspire me. I’ve had a life-long love affair with Science Fiction and Fantasy and so a lot of these posts will be reviews and thoughts about stories, films and artwork from the genre. My own writing is mainly SF and soon I’ll be indie publishing the first of a series for e-readers.
I used to teach Shakespeare at University. To date my writing has been nonfiction work on literature and cinema, and movie and TV scripts. I co-produced in the Japanese film industry for a while, when I lived in Tokyo. My secret burning passion has always been to write the kind of imaginative and experimental Science fiction and Fantasy I loved as a kid in the 1970s – so that’s the path I’ve set myself on now.
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