The Cthulhu challenge: why hasn’t classic literature been a rich seam of game content?


There are a great number of reasons that I should be ashamed, but the one that is uppermost in my mind at the moment is that I first found out about Cthulhu from the Internet. Until very recently, I had never read any HP Lovecraft. This classic invention from a golden age of scariness has rightfully endured and thrived without me ever knowing about it.

Having discovered the betentacled being, I am moved to wonder why there have only ever been a few games about the squishy beast. For example, Headfirst Productions’ Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth was released in all good ruined undersea kingdoms in 2005. It was not deemed a commercial success.

Why hasn’t classic literature been a rich and successful seam of videogame content? Can it be that people don’t read it? I have to say it’s something I know about, more than I actually know well, because I am too lazy to read it – and besides, Bargain Hunt is on in a minute. Or is it because such dark, old-fashioned worlds simply don’t translate to games? I don’t think it’s the latter, because there is a shuffling undead legion of scary games that immerse you with pinpoint accuracy and scare your knickers off.

Perhaps the problem with Dark Corners Of The Earth was that Headfirst heavily (but not exclusively) used the firstperson style, and that doesn’t sit well with the heavy narrative of the stories. Certainly, the game wasn’t big on free will and lateral thinking. It stayed pretty true to Lovecraft’s novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which meant that it played out rather like a script. Perhaps that was too big a problem.

Oh, I know what is: tonnes of stuff happens in, near or under the sea, and watery games tend not to do well. There. Mystery solved. That is why my idea for Bloop! The Game failed to sell. Well, that and the fact that after the ‘bloop’ noise is heard from the inky depths, nothing else happens. I think it might need a love interest.

Back to the classics, though. Games like Resident Evil and BioShock and many others show that you can successfully conjure terrifying atmospheres – and Lovecraft, Poe and their chums are all about that, their plots to be read by guttering. Sorry, by guttering candlelight. But really even the scariest games simply throw more, ever-faster zombies and monsters at you as the action ramps up towards the end, and this is the opposite of what a lot of the old horror men wrote – theirs was the power of the slow unshackling of sanity and the creeping banality of a world being taken over gently, bit by creeping bit. There doesn’t have to be the vast pyrotechnical showdown you see in games.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

Mainly, though, we want our games to be set now, or in the future. When you’re talking about interactive experiences, science fiction and action are far better bedfellows than psychologically debilitating fear and people who exclaim “hoi!” when things go wrong. Plus if you’re going to hide Cthulhu, for example, you’re cheating.

You’re selling the game to people who want to see him, and shove an RPG up his bum. But the Cthulhu that you’d see will never be anything less that a disappointment. Lovecraft himself drew a picture of Cthulhu in the 1930s. OK, he never claimed to be an artist, but if you see the image it will inevitably put you in mind of a glum bloke with hives being sick on a toilet.

The truly great games of the future will, I hope, nod in deference to the classics (by which I mean they’ll steal the best bits, as long as they actually work in a gameworld) and they’ll do something utterly new. I am so sick of zombies I can barely keep my brains down. Will the great games of the future be firstperson shooters? Well, it’s likely; people have shown no signs of falling out of love with them, after all. But the trouble is you can only do three things in firstperson: hide, explore, or shoot things. If you’re in the firstperson you’re pretty much a human, so you’re dealing with things on that scale. (For all his toilet-straining antics, Cthulhu did as least have the interesting property of being several hundred metres tall.)

Oh, who am I kidding? At the time of writing everyone seems to be raving about The Last Of Us. Yes, it features a bearded toughie with psychological issues and a determined girl in a post-apocalyptic world through which spore-infested zombies mooch, squealing and biting people. It is, apparently, amazing, because it’s done so well. I wish it the best of luck, and accept that I’m trying to reinvent the wheel. I started this page wondering why, when Poe, Derleth and Lovecraft could chill people so effectively, we can’t make great games in the same vein. Maybe it’s just that it’s fine to do that in books published in the 1920s, but games naturally thrill, scare and entertain most effectively when there’s an army of once-human mutants that you can’t reason with, don’t feel bad about dispatching, and who could be hiding around every corner. All that, plus you’ve got a bloody big gun.

OK, how about this? A Wii game where you straighten and style Cthulhu’s tentacles, treat his hives with a topical cream and administer a giant laxative. No? Then I’ve got nothing.