Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
We have to get our Lovecraft discussion out of the way before we plow through any more horror games. There are interactive experiences that are Lovecraftian and an equal number that are direct adaptations of the works of H.P. Lovecraft. If you haven’t sunk in your time with Lovecraft as an author yet, well Christ, you might be out of luck by now. I’ve spent so much of my life on a super-dead racist’s big ideas that were so big he could never describe them – and with names that were deliberately unpronounceable – and you know what? He’s better defined by what he couldn’t write than by what he could. He’s the jazz music of spooky stuff. And I guess I’ll probably never get him out of my life.
It is nearly impossible to trace any great horror writer’s influences without ending up right back in New England with this tiny, broken man. Yet, adapting his work is notoriously difficult; what with the whole having to show the monsters and architecture instead of just saying, “They were super scary, for realsies.”
In 2005, I didn’t have the highest hopes for Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. The Bethesda published game meant to adapt some of the roleplaying game based on Lovecraft’s work, but really runs with the story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Among Lovecraft adaptations (but not Lovecraftian experiences), this is hands down the best we’ve ever been gifted.
Jack Walters is a private detective who has multiple personalities. Already, you’re sold, right? It’s 1922 and the police call on him to help with a house full of suicide cultists that have started firing guns at anyone who gets close. Jack enters, only to discover that the cult is super goddamned stoked to see him, which is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever experienced in a game. Just a bunch of murder lunatics who know your name and are soooo happy that you came to their party. In a backroom, Jack discovers hundreds of photos of himself, proving that they’d been following him for quite some time. Then he accidentally activates an ancient portal and unspeakable alien creatures pour through.
Waking up months later in an asylum, none other than J. Edgar Hoover signs you out. Sure. Why not? You wind up heading out to track down a missing person in the town of Innsmouth, where everyone is kind of a hulking gross weirdo person except for the town drunk and one super-hot lady. You’re here for the super-hot lady, obviously. You do some detective work around town and it seems like you’re going to have a hard time getting an answer out of anyone. That’s when you accidentally release a giant fish monster that murders a little girl and the entire town starts chasing you with guns.
It’s a helluva time.
There’s so much almost unneeded detail in Dark Corners of the Earth. The health management system for when you’re injured includes a grid of body parts and possible types of treatment that require a decent understanding of 1920s medicine to navigate properly. There’s a mental health system that makes the world pulse and blurry when you’re near anything tense or scary, which actually does a decent job of mimicking Lovecraft’s avoidance of giving a clear picture. There is zero music in the game. The audio is the low hum of whatever terrible new location you’re in, overlaid with your heartbeat and terrified breathing, which creates its own organic soundtrack of fear and good gravy is it effective. If you start doing too many drugs or exposing Jack too much weirdo bullshit, you might hallucinate yourself into a different world or event wind up sticking your gun in your mouth.
Any game where you don’t have control over you killing you is something worth being uneasy around.
The story and gameplay need to balance to keep this thing afloat through hours of mental and para-dimensional anguish. The result of that balancing is that, more than a decade later, this game still has some of the most memorable set pieces I’ve ever encountered. I didn’t retain some lesser set-up missions, but the stuff that was supposed to hit is forever burned into me.
In your first person perspective, you peer around corners and try your best to avoid anything that moves in this world, because your archaic weapons have little to no effect, and again, sometimes just looking too long at a monster ends in your death. But the game mixes up what would otherwise be a sneak-a-thon by throwing linear sequences into every level that leave so little room for error that working your way through them is a genuine achievement that leaves you breathless.
The first major attack Jack experiences in Innsmouth is a memorable moment in gaming because I imagine it is where everyone I know stopped playing out of sheer frustration. You have to run room by room through a hotel, shoving bookcases to black paths, closing doors and locking them with tiny locks, opening other doors, timing movements to not accidentally run face first into one of your pursuers. If you miss any of fifty moves by even a second, you’ll be restarting this entire brutal hunt again.
Sneaking in the game is important, but running away becomes a tactic that requires equal mastery. Merely closing doors behind you is a weapon that give you the slight advantage you need to make it just a little further in this world. And where the world takes you never ceases to amaze.
What begins as a story in a remote fishing village leads to underground laboratories, a Call of Duty style military assault, a long shipping expedition, worlds beyond our own and even Atlantis. These all allow for different monster types to keep the tension tight, even outside of the tight spaces of a sewer or a factory floor, which is an achievement that some modern games still struggle with. Of course, there are misfires too. At one point, a man-sized Cthulhu type squidjerk runs directly into you in a cave. You’ve got a number of weapons, so your first impulse is to empty all of them into his stupid face. Well, he’s immune, but the game won’t tell you that. Not until you figure out there’s a small stationary flamethrower in a room you into which you have to lure the monster. This kind of adventure game logic in the middle of a game that’s also trying to be a shooter is just baffling. Later, one sequence requires you to fire a laser gun into a giant gong in order to possess the very creatures you are trying to kill so they can flip switches you can’t reach. Until you crack it, this puzzle is just the work of an actual lunatic. Although, it did make me feel insane for nearly an hour, so as far as achieving a goal goes . . . Kudos, Cthulhu.
The art design of the world more than makes up for other small disappointments. I’ve rarely seen so many individual paintings in a game, and the narration/dialogue rarely dips into that crap point that period piece games can do so often. The one exception here is when a woman is murdered directly in front of you and your character screams and then says to himself, in total deadpan: “I’d better get into the church or else I’ll wind up like her.” Ooofta.
The game also makes use of hallucinations and bursts of visual flash by showing you the future or the world through the eyes of you antagonists. One scene set on a ship involves Jack trying to save everyone while a monster stalks him and kills everyone else on the ship – which you are forced to see in visions from the monster’s perspective, which is just goddamned terrifying. It’s the kind of high point of gaming fear-mongering I wish more people would have ripped-off in the last decade.
As a replay now, it has plenty of Xbox Original-era frustration, and sometimes save points are so far in-between you’ll curse the many gods who have abandoned you. But for all your work, a story plays out that is both poignant and involves a giant shoggoth that crushes a building while chasing you. There’s fish people and laser guns and mental illness galore and, for an adaptation of a short story property from 1936, I’m not sure what more I could ask for.