Mind-Breaking Monsters and Cursed Shadows – How Lovecraft has Defined Gaming
H.P. Lovecraft was a 20th century Horror writer, who wrote primarily cosmic horror, a sub-genre that deals with human existence and our insignificance in the face of something incomprehensible. His writing is nihilistic in the sense that we are nothing and this cold, uncaring universe will just as quickly destroy us as it will inhabit us. But what he is almost universally known for is the Cthulhu Mythos. Whether or not you have read Call of Cthulhu you probably recognize the Elder God the moment you see that squid face of his. Cthulhu has invaded pop culture and it looks like he is here to stay. The Mythos has spawned countless novels, comics, table-top games, movies, short-stories, and video games. But why does Lovecraft and Cthulhu have such a powerful presence in writing, especially considering the person H. P. was. Today let’s examine how Lovecraft and his work has influenced the video game industry in ways we take for granted.
To understand the bulk of Lovecraft’s work one must look to his life and that is where this analysis will start. Howard Philips Lovecraft was born August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His family had a good deal of wealth due to his mother’s family, who had ties to major business ventures. But his life was always tragically odd. His father died when he was young, he had contracted a terrible case of syphilis and unfortunately lost his mental state and health. After this he lived with his mother’s family and his grandfather became a new father figure. His grandfather helped steer his fascination in astronomy, chemistry, and biology. When Lovecraft was a child he suffered intense night terrors with figures he would later detail in his work. Unfortunately, misfortune struck again when the family business ventures collapsed and his grandfather passed. Young Lovecraft lost much of what he loved, his books, telescope, his father figure, but still he persevered. He was an amazing student, well-versed in academia from a young age, but never finished college due to illnesses that are still unknown to this day. Because of this illness his life was marked with bouts of seclusion, hiding himself in the dark with his own thoughts. In 1921 his mother, who had been in a mental institution for the past 4 years, passed from surgery complications. The last thing that Lovecraft loved was finally taken from him. He expressed in letters to those around him that he longer wished to live, but in the following months he found the strength to carry on. He had been writing as an amateur journalist for some time when this occurred, as well as working on his short stories including the basis of the Cthulhu Mythos. He later married and worked primarily by writing, sending his stories into publication outlets for little compensation. Financial troubles were always an issue for Lovecraft and things didn’t get any better when he was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine in 1937. His remaining months were ones of pain and hunger as he wrestled with the illness. His pain finally stopped on March 15, 1937 when he passed. He died in his quiet home in Providence, most likely the one place he wanted to stay forever. This is glossing over years of his life but from these details alone we can gleam a lot from the man Lovecraft was. In the years following his passing medical experts have determined that he may have had a rare neurological disorder called chorea minor along with atypical depression. This is probably why Lovecraft felt so compelled to be alone, he wanted to hide from the world and draw himself into the darkness that brought him warmth and comfort.
Lovecraft’s life is one of tragedy and pain, which he often reflected in his stories. His pain and loss strongly ties to his concept of ‘cosmic indifference’, that being the lack of care the universe shows for humanity and how small we truly are to the cosmic. The Elder Gods stemmed from Lovecraft’s fascination with the Greek pantheon and myths, he believed these were the true representation of deities, beings who have little regard to those beneath them. His Elder Gods have a pantheon that rivals the Greek’s in terms of scale, detail, and symbolism. His biggest inspiration in the aspects of horror though, was none other than Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was a troubled man as well and is highly regarded as the master of Gothic Horror. Lovecraft no doubt felt a strong connection to Poe, both lost their fathers at a young age, loved poetry, and wrote in classical British style. As a Horror novelist myself, I draw heavily from both, even though my contemporaries would draw more from King or Koontz these days. To me, and no doubt many other writers/readers, Lovecraft and Poe’s stories provide this almost romantic dread, something that has become lost with time. These stories also deal with fate, the dangers of discovery, and superstition. Themes like these are ripe to be explored in interactive media, which is why games like to draw from Lovecraft’s works heavily.
When we look at games there are several recurring elements in many genres that take concepts from Lovecraft’s work. Survival and horror games often involve sanity, dangerous secrets, cosmic indifference, and fear of the unknown. Examples of this are Amnesia and Don’t Starve, both use darkness and discovery to set the atmosphere, which makes these games very compelling. RPG’s, both Japanese and Western, often feature battles against cosmic deities along with themes of fate, superstition, and humanity’s future resting in the control of non-human entities. Some puzzle games, like The Room use concepts of Lovecraft’s to great effect. Gaming has many moments where we are scared to look around the corner or in pure awe as we discover something greater than ourselves. This is the influence Lovecraft carries. When looking at games we can classify them in two ways; Lovecraftian or Lovecraft influenced. Lovecraftian games are rare and hard to pull off. This classification may offer combat and the ability to fight against the horrors but the focus is the downward spiral of madness that the character, and by extent the player, faces. Great examples are Amnesia, Bloodborne, Dead Space, Eternal Darkness, and Darkest Dungeon. Bloodborne in particular is an interesting case, which will be discussed later. Lovecraft influenced games take only light themes or visual elements from Lovecraft. One example, which is slightly controversial, is the original Call of Cthulhu on the Xbox and PC. The game does take visual elements and some themes but ultimately it diverges from Lovecraftian by breaking the cardinal rule, you can’t fight the Elder God’s. In CoC you straight up kill Dagon, an Elder God. You kill him with a gun no less. This type of writing and gameplay style is what seperates the two, neither of which is better or worse.
While in other Lovecraftian games the player shouldn’t be allowed to kill the Elder God’s, let alone comprehend them, Bloodborne gets away with this because of how it is written. It blends two of Lovecraft’s universe concepts together to make something interesting. The game is suggested to all take place in a dream over the course of one night, taking cues from Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and blending it with the Cthulhu Mythos. This can mean that the player is not truly killing the Old Ones, rather they are trying to resist the incomprehensible knowledge that these ‘nightmares’ carry. All three of the games endings have ties to a different Lovecraft theme. If you allow Gehrman to kill you you’ll wake up to the sun slowly rising, having forgotten the horrors you’ve endured. This coincides with the theme of knowledge versus sanity. While the ‘secret’ (true) ending has the Old One known as Oedon turning you in an infant Great One, due to the forbidden knowledge you now hold (Oedon being the Old One doing this is purely speculation, nothing is really known about how you transform). This fits the theme of non-human entities controlling humanity. The insight mechanic is also deeply rooted in Lovecraft, where, as you gain eldritch knowledge you slowly begin to hear and see things that weren’t meant to be discovered. If you can get 40 insight before you reach a certain point it almost feels like the curtain has been lifted back and you feel paranoia as you realize that while you’ve fought monsters in a desperate struggle, there has been something watching, something that doesn’t care if you live or die, something that is watching for the sport. That is truly terrifying. So I firmly believe that Bloodborne is falls in the Lovecraftian classification.
The reason games, films, books, and more use Lovecraft is because it touches something primal in us. The fear of the unknown, the dread that comes when we realize how insignificant we truly are. It preys upon our superstitions, our faith, and challenges our notions of fate. These concepts are scary not because they jump out at you and scream, not because they are a psycho with a knife, rather it’s scary because they all too real. Many people don’t really think consciously about the entire universe outside, how we are just a single speck in an infinite black void. But when this presented to them in a way that challenges everything they thought they knew it is mind shattering. That’s why Lovecraft is so effective, because of the way he challenges the reader to look outside themselves to realize how small they are. I’ve hoped to follow his style with my writing, the current novel I’m working on incorporates these themes to try to tell a modern Call of Cthulhu that has as much atmosphere as the original.
Lovecraft and his works will no doubt continue to influence pop culture long after we’re gone and that’s great. The themes will forever be timeless and hopefully in the near future we see more games do more than just take influence from his work. There’s a market for Lovecraftian experiences and it’s only going to grow. Here’s to hoping the new Call of Cthulhu matches the spirit of the original work. For now I’m going to be working on my novel, I hope someday you all get a chance to read it. Thank you.