Call of Cthulhu
Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn
may have done most of his writing almost 100 years ago, but he casts a long shadow over contemporary arts. While cosmic dread, non-Euclidean geometry, and sudden bouts of insanity don’t always translate well to movies, they’re perfect for games.
This particular stab at unknowable horror is based on the 1981 paper RPG of the same name, and sees grizzled private investigator Edward, suffering from PTSD following wartime experiences, look into a strange fire and disappearances on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. The era sees prohibition and the end of the whaling industry, so an isolated town full of men with too much time on their hands has found a new outlet for its baser urges. As a study in foreboding atmosphere,
Callof Cthulhu hits all the right unsettling notes. Faces are craggy, all deep-set eyes and filthy scars, and a strong maritime theme gives an excuse for the beams of a lighthouse to rhythmically pierce the misty gloom.
While exploring, a tale of a botched police investigation into the death of a family unravels, with Edward’s private investigator skills digging up clues, and his medical knowledge used to interpret them. As you gain experience, points are added to your skills, but some can only be increased by reading books or finding artifacts. Most objects have a glowing white dot to guide you to them, but some are hidden, and if your “find hidden” skill isn’t high enough, the game won’t even tell you they’re there.
Edward can also reconstruct past scenes, figures manifesting as ghostly recreations of often violent events that help his investigation and give him insight into the motives of the present. It’s not the kind of horror game that tries to make you jump in the dark, more the sort that leaves you with a sense of unease, and a feeling that you’re not in control.
Unfortunately, once the opening is over, it lets itself down. A wonderful scene in a mental hospital, which follows a tense close encounter of the tentacled kind, is followed by a mix of simplistic puzzles and enforced stealth as you escape. It even reuses puzzle mechanics, having you following cables or pipes to their destinations, while avoiding the kind of goons who could surely be punched out of the way. Get caught and you’re dead. It recycles enemies, too, and there’s only one section in which you engage in combat.
The feeling of helplessness in the face of unstoppable onslaught by creatures whose motives you can’t understand might be Lovecraftian, but it’s not great for videogames, where player agency is all. The paper RPG often left players dead or trapped in mental institutions, but here all you need to see the end credits is perseverance. Restarts are fast, and checkpoints sensibly placed, but sequences such as finding the right object in a room full of wrong ones before a monster gets you feel like trial and error, rather than tests of skill.
There have been several attempts to bring Lovecraft to the world of games, and this is one of the more successful. Leaving H.P.’s overwrought writing style behind in favor of damaged working class men and their struggle for significance, it’s a horror game without the jump scares, and it brings a touch of the cosmic to smalltown New England.
The town of Darkwater is singularly unwelcoming, the still- open bar your only retreat.
Those masks restrict the murderous cultists’ peripheral vision nicely.
Signs of madness are all around, such as this guy’s eldritch tattoos.