Update from 08/20/2021: on the birthday of the cult American science fiction writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft, recalls a past text dedicated to how his work is reflected in modern games. Why getting to know the horror master’s universe through numerous virtual “Calls of Cthulhu” may not be the best idea – in the material below.



Original material: August 20, 2023 marks the 130th anniversary of the birth of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the favorite writer of the entire gaming industry. His work did not receive recognition from the audience during the author’s lifetime, but after years it mysteriously turned into a real cultural phenomenon. Now references to fish-men, Cthulhu or other motives from Lovecraft’s books are made not only by pretentious indie studios, but also by giants like BioWare, Bungie or FromSoftware, and the author’s name is mentioned in any conversation about horror or fantasy. What is the evil irony here, we will tell in the material.

Belated recognition

Let’s start with a historical background: Lovecraft is an American writer who, at the beginning of the 20th century, worked very fruitfully in the niche and – let’s be frank – “low” genre of horror literature. When we say that this or that author “did not receive recognition,” we most often mean that he published a couple of books, but failed to become the star of a generation. Lovecraft is not the case: the American was indeed expected to fail and be completely rejected by society.

Lovecraft’s stories were published only in cheap magazines and newspapers, not bringing him any profit – except, of course, emotional. The only book he managed to publish was published in 1936 – a few months before the writer’s death. It came out in paperback and with a lot of errors in the text, sales amounted to about 200 copies. The rest of the circulation was destroyed by a ruined publisher.

Now on to the positive: during his lifetime, Lovecraft acquired an endlessly devoted fan, August Derleth, who would devote himself to the struggle for the legacy of his idol – in particular, he would open a publishing house and start publishing his books. And then – 20 years after the death of Lovecraft – American counterculturers will see the author’s genius for the first time and begin to slowly honor him.

Cthulhu is not Lovecraft’s main creation

G.F. Lovecraft (left) sometimes even smiled.

Lovecraft really was to some extent ahead of his time (though not in the manner of his writing – she, on the contrary, with the author, went back to the 19th century) and created something fundamentally new in the literature of horror. Writers invented vampires and ghosts long before him, but at least in “War of the Worlds”, at least in “Dracula”, at least “Beowulf” all terrible monsters could be understood – they always had obvious motivation, or at least revolved around a person (for example, they came kill him or drag him to the underworld). But in the works of Lovecraft, everything changed – the monsters turned out to be independent and infinitely powerful, and the person himself turned into a grain of sand, the disappearance of which from the face of the Universe, in essence, will not change anything.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft:

“All my stories are based on a single fundamental premise: human laws, interests and emotions have no value in the cosmic continuum. In a situation of infinite space and time, it is necessary to forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love, hatred and various such local attributes of the miserable formation called humanity do exist at all. “

Nihilistic motives did not find a response from the author’s contemporaries, but they turned out to be very appropriate in the post-war realities of the United States. And a little later, the space race happened, which taught Americans to sometimes peer into the starry sky and be interested in thematic literature, even if it did not expose this abyss in the most friendly way. And if Google had already existed, the 1960s would have been the point after which the popularity of queries about Lovecraft would have skyrocketed.

The call of the gaming industry

Art for Call of Cthulhu (2018)

The author’s ideas inspired many novice writers, and through them the cult of Cthulhu spread to other media – cinema, television and video games. But here’s the catch: Lovecraft is perhaps the least suitable writer for screen adaptations from the entire pantheon of science fiction writers, and it’s impossible to transfer his work to the virtual world. But why, then, is the entire Steam crammed with crafts from the Lovecraft universe?

It’s simple – at a certain point in the development of the Cthulchian epic, a kind of substitution of concepts took place in popular culture, and now the developers are inspired not by Lovecraft’s work, but by fan content based on his motives. On the one hand, this is not a bad thing – at least, the author’s name continues to live on. But on the other hand, this process terribly distorts the image of Lovecraft in the eyes of modern audiences.

Dagon and Cthulhu, slime and tentacles, fish-men cultists and port towns, known to everyone from Call of Cthulhu (2018), The Sinking City or Dark Corners of the Earth – these are important elements in Lovecraft’s books, but they do not at all define him as a writer. And therein lies an evil irony: decades later, the works of the American gained the status of cult, but many people know them today thanks to game retellings, which in most cases directly contradict the essence of the original.

Books are not about people

Call of Cthulhu (2018)

Above, I said that Lovecraft’s man is a grain of sand on the body of the cosmos, which cannot affect anything. This is the basis for most of the writer’s plots: his characters are faced with something that is beyond their understanding, and – at best! – retreat back into their comfort zone, from which they never stick their nose out again.

At the same time, Lovecraft is not a misanthrope, he does not revel in the suffering of people. He simply does not believe that we have any weight on the scale of the universe. Here is a typical quote from The Call of Cthulhu, in which the author describes the future of our kind:

Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft:

“One fine day, collecting scattered pieces of knowledge into a single whole will open to us such terrible prospects for the reality of our position in it, that we will either have to go crazy with this revelation, or save ourselves from the light of knowledge in the world and security of the new Middle Ages.”

Of course, this goes against the very concept of video games, since in them the center of the universe is always the protagonist, who turns the gears of history with his own hands. This concept of Lovecraft, in essence, is not realizable in games – and this is already enough to reject 90% of the attempts of game designers to transfer the stories or motives of the writer into the virtual world.

One of the most successful Lovecraft games is 2005 Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. Its developers really read and sometimes literally quoted the original, but the gaming conventions forced them to make a deal with their conscience.

In Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, fishmen sometimes appear in unexpected forms – with rifles

In pursuit of drama, game designers have added several boss battles to Dark Corners of the Earth, in which representatives of the Lovecraft pantheon acted as opponents. Cthulhu, fortunately, remained unharmed, but his “bosses” in the person of Dagon and the mother of Hydra died at the hands of the protagonist – albeit not the most ordinary person, but still a much less powerful creature.

Similar problems can be found in dozens of games borrowing from Lovecraft, no matter how carefully they try to deal with his work. The Dead Space trilogies with Blood Moons and Mass Effect with the Reapers actually copy the Old Gods of the American. But all of them eventually turn into bosses, whom the main character somehow wins in a pretentious battle and gets a happy ending – a completely unthinkable result for a Lovecraftian epic.

Interestingly, this concerns horror to a lesser extent – Amnesia: The Dark Descent, for example, made the hero helpless: he had to hide from monsters and even avoid looking at them in order not to go crazy. This creates a much more authentic Lovecraft experience, although in the end the player still gets the opportunity to make a key plot decision, which usually does not happen in the Lovecraft books – there the heroes tend to lose their minds, realizing how small a place they really occupy in the world. …

In my opinion, such “unlucky endings” are the most accessible of Lovecraft’s characteristic tricks for implementation in video games. But for some reason, it is also used extremely rarely – perhaps, fearing that the players will be unhappy if they are left without pompous final scenes.

The Doll from Bloodborne holds the Ancient One

In this regard, the epilogue of the indie quest Return of the Obra Dinn, in which absolutely all the characters die, and the ending cutscenes in Bloodborne, which, in fact, negate the significance of all the actions of the protagonist, can be considered good examples of truly Lovecraft endings. From them it becomes clear: no matter what feats the player performs, he will not change the picture of the world – well, unless he can become one of the gods himself.

Get away from Cthulhu

Separately, it is worth mentioning the final reason why Lovecraft’s works do not lend themselves very well to transferring to other formats – his literary talents had a very narrow profile. He did not know how to talk about emotions, so all of his characters experienced only “indescribable horror” or lost their speech, seized by panic, but broke away with might and main during landscape sketches. For example, here is a description of the city from The Ridges of Madness:

Howard Phillips Lovecraft
Howard Phillips Lovecraft:

“Truncated cones with jagged edges were crowned with cylindrical columns, in some places swollen and covered with the finest toothed discs; they were adjoined by strange flat figures, as if composed of many rectangular plates, or of round plates, or five-pointed stars overlapping each other. There were also compound cones and pyramids, some of which turned into cylinders, cubes or truncated cones and pyramids, and sometimes even into pointed spiers, knocked down into separate groups – five in each. All these individual compositions, as if generated by delirium, were connected together at a dizzying height by tubular bridges. The spectacle was overwhelming and terrifying in its gigantic size. “

Do you feel the problem? That’s right, it’s impossible to imagine. Lovecraft took full advantage of text, forcing the reader to wade through descriptions of the indescribable on every page – and this is one of the main expressive devices of the American. Ancient cities, monsters and inhuman rituals of cultists in his works make such a colossal impression, because they simply cannot be visualized – Lovecraft draws them too grandly, in some cases also resorting to his “ulta”, that is, “non-Euclidean geometry”, which completely deprives us of any chance of imagining what is described.

Hunter’s Nightmare in Bloodborne is a humble attempt at creating impossible geometry in the game

When transferred to the screen, when a director or game designer tries to figure out these monstrous descriptions and create a kind of visual model from them, all these pictures lose their power and become – what is already there – rather pitiful.

It is all the more surprising that gamedev still seeks to openly refer to Lovecraft and sometimes even release games directly from his works. The last on this list at the moment was The Call of Cthulhu (2018), which, despite the name, turned out to be rather a loose interpretation of “Moroka over Innsmouth” – and, of course, it also violates all the basic principles of Lovecraft’s works.

At the same time, the motives from his books can still be successfully adapted to games, which was proved by the already mentioned FromSoftware with Bloodborne or Frictional Games with Amnesia. It turns out that it is enough to abandon ambitious attempts to make a “playable Cthulhu” and carefully, without stating this in a marketing campaign, adapt to existing mechanics – and critics will be fed, and the hearts of Lovecraft fans are whole.

So why, mister indie developer, why? In the name of what? What are you doing? Why, why do you continue to make games based on “Call of Cthulhu”? Do you really believe in some kind of mission? Or are you just scared to enter the market with an original idea?