Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
Welcome back the Lovecraft well. Today, we’re going all the way to 1995 – a time before history! Weirdly, this is a point and click adventure title that seems like it should’ve been made a decade earlier as part of some Sierra Online attempt to bridge King’s Quest with public domain horror literature. I am genuinely surprised at that 1995 thing, because this is clearly the shadow of a game genre out of time.
This PC title was made by Infogrames, using the very obviously Infogrames engine. For anyone who grew up playing these titles, the framing, interaction and fonts are as recognizable as anything that was definitively LucasArts. The game occasionally carries a Call of Cthulhu in its title, depending on which release you’re looking at and when the marketing company thought it would be better to make it look like a stand-alone product. This comes seven years after the same company made Shadow of the Comet which is a similar Lovecraft adventure game of nearly four times the length that I’m stoked to finally play later in this series. I grew up with access to Prisoner via a friend’s dad’s collection. Even in 1995, the opening sequence was too scary for me, and I wish someone would have told me that everything becomes cute library adventure bullshit after that.
As a hat tip to the level of self-parody involved, the opening to the game features some sort of ice based Nazi battle with a crate full of tentacle demons, then cuts to opening credits where each position is listed as “Prisoner of Script”, “Prisoner of Computers”, and so on. I miss this period in games and hopefully we’ll return to it again one day. In middle of the Antarctic, a British submarine is carrying two frozen boxes of nightmares and a famous scientist on the verge of dying. When they spot a vessel on the surface, they rise within twenty feet of it, as submarines are known to do during wartime when they don’t recognize a foreign object. Them dang ole Nazi boys shoot up the ship, and wouldn’t you know it, those frozen monster boxes start to thaw. You follow the captain into a storage room where one shipmate has already died. The captain says “The flames in here are going to melt the crates!” And half a second later a gigantic tentacle grabs him and he is gone from the screen.
I promise you that as a kid this played out less silly for me and more like That One Part in Deep Blue Sea. He’s just gone.
Now you’ve got to deal with the dying Norwegian scientist you picked up in the Antarctic. Is this where The Thing took its influences or is this one of many nods to Carpenter? Honestly, in Lovecraft World, it’s hard to tell. Your pre-WWII hero Lieutenant Ryan takes charge, and control of the ship, after your captain dies. While this means sending lots of your friends to bizarre deaths, it also means you’re the only one smart enough to record the rantings of the Norwegian when he starts shouting about Cthulhu, and using said recordings to send the underlings of the Old Ones teleporting back to their dimension in a hilarious lack of spectacle.
You’ll notice a few staples of this era in adventure gaming. First, inventory items have hilarious (or at least British) names. For example, I still have no goddamned idea what an Adjustable Spanner is, or why it would fix Mechanical Wheel (Broken). Secondly, and most upsetting, every single line of voice over dialogue is directed so terribly that each character, even those in fear of impending death, sound like they are responding to your every request in the Most Sarcastic Voice. One character is literally being crushed by a giant steel pillar and still comes off sounding like you’re the worst dick ever for trying to save him. Another character changes the depth of the submarine, but reports these nautical adjustments as if he was the entire cast of Daria in one body.
Still, points to the team for changing up the game at every turn. Sure, there are bizarre deaths that you need to use, say, recordings of a dying man’s rantings to avoid, but there are also tremendous changes in perspective, as well as puzzles of – goddammit. This voice acting. You guys, even your best friends just come off as the meanest people ever. I feel like I’m being bullied by these actors who are not reading any of the lines around their lines before shouting them in the booth. If this was a bad movie, this is how the character would talk when they are about to reveal he was a traitor. But in this game, it is every single character. Is every single character about to turn on me? God, I hope so.
You shoot yourself out of the submarine from inside of a torpedo. This is entirely unnecessary as the entire crew gets saved and you wind up in a military base where . . . God I’m sorry . . . everything is not as it seems. This really hits the point of weird pixel searching for exactly the right spot to solve a puzzle or combining seemingly unconnected hints from torn pages of books to stamp official documents to trick men into quitting smoking so you can do something nonsensical while the game keeps cutting away to Ice Prisoner Monsters eating all the men you’ve saved from smoking. Why did they store all of the frozen boxes in direct sunlight? Because everyone in games has a death wish, my friends.
I’ll give the game this: trapping you for the second act in a military base means you have to play by all the stupid demands or else you’ll get shot. There’s just a sliver of reality enough to couch this in and I’ll take it. Also, everyone you encounter in this foreign base who is a real ass-hat has an American Southern accent, just like a first-year stand-up comedian. Meanwhile, the base commander knows that a monster is killing his men and wants to know how you defeated the one on the ship. Turns out “with the recorded incantation of a dying Norwegian I hypnotized” gets the response that the Navy does not believe in “incantations” but also he begs you to return to your docked ship and find this incantation again. On the ship, Giant Crocodile Man Made Of Goo wants to hug you again, but this time you . . . sidestep him to start the ship’s self-destruct via a key entered into a panel and then a flip of a switch. This is all within his reach. Then you use more borrowed time to sidestep him and climb a ladder to exit the ship.
Instead of showing the explosion – and I can’t overstate how epicly shit this is – it cuts back to you inside the military base where a man runs up to you and you say, in the chillest deadpan: “What’s up?” It borders on the “whazzzzup” of Budweiser fame in how out of place this is. He responds by telling you that the ship blew up.
I am on the ground writhing in laughter.
Soon after, you send one of the creatures back to their Dimension, and thank Christ there is no V.O. on this line, but your parting shot is: “I’m sending you back to Hell. Should make for a nice change of climate!” They’re in England. Is Hell that different from England? What are we doing?
You travel to Buenos Aires, because of course you do. There’s ethnic music and street musicians and a girl who suddenly trusts you with her life because you asked her about her actual, specific daddy issues. It’s a good time to point out that when you click on the wrong thing in this game, it mostly just shouts the word “MISTAKE!” at you, and nearly every interaction you have with this young woman should fall under this category.
A local man explains the concept of the Old Ones until a Nazi interrupts the party to start shooting people. Luckily, an old man teleports into the future, when he is younger, and he shoots the Nazi with some gigantic laser weapon that vaporizes him into death before he turns back into an old man. My god, I don’t know how I’m making it this far without a guide, but on the most basic level if you had the choice between being a Future Laser Assassin or a Blind Elderly Person why would you fluctuate?
This is when Nazis trap you and all the other main characters in a jail cell so you can all exchange backstory. My god, one of the other characters here is the main character from Shadow of the Comet. You’re getting backstory and crossover to multiple games here.
I’m stuck imagining the pitch for this. “Hey, remember that thing we made that no one played that depends on the writing of someone who died a hundred years ago? What about, and let me be clear that I am serious about this, an extended universe?” Man, the 90s were a better time.
In true Indiana Jones style, you have to solve a series of library puzzles, only to find a Nazi who thinks that he is going to live forever if he uses some stones… on the Necronomicon. Oh wow, I should probably tell him that this won’t work, right? Adding to the creepiness of the game, the motion of the characters go from stagnant to jerky too-fast and alternates without warning. This is a fitting touchstone for Jacob’s Ladder. But now that Nazis can say the magic incantations to bring monsters out of the ether, and you can say the same words to send them back, what is the point? Well, you say the words to defeat another monster and this time you teleport to 2037 to meet Howard Philips Parker.
If someone did this plot to me in a D&D campaign, I would stab them in the eye and then the kneecap.
In the future . . . look, guys this is still survival horror I promise . . . you build the gigantic laser gun that your time-travel friend used before but still insist on using the incantation to just freeze Alligator Pals in their tracks while your dick friends insist on warning you about time paradoxes. All of this in service of you winding up in an alternate dimension where you in a Nazi duel with swords across boats from each other while he shouts “How ironical!” at you. There’s a bunch of twists here about people who are you grandfather but don’t know and honestly, I can’t care, but my grandfather doesn’t know he’s my grandfather at this point either. You don’t need Cthulhu to make that kind of pain happen, bitch.
You wind up stuck . . . Christ, I’m going to do my best. There’s a bunch of Stonehenges around while a Native American and a Nazi work together to bring forth Cthulhu. The Nazi goes full Doctor Doom for some reason that then maybe explodes OR gets sucked into a tornado. Like, that’s what you get. That’s ethics, my man. The Indian and the Stonehenges disappear into the Earth and you go back in time as if that’s some kind of reward. And we cut to a music video made out of the game’s cut scenes with a song very clearly provided by one of the programmer’s who had a dad band who would let Infogrames have the song royalty free. But also maybe the Nazi dude just winds up conquering some Mayan types in a different dimension and nothing you did helped anyone?
Some of survival horror is just going to be me surviving; Oh the horror.