ret­ro­spec­tive: dark cor­ners of the earth

CALL OF CTHULHU: DARK COR­NERS OF THE EARTH With a new game based on Call Of Cthulhu out next month, OXM fires up the orig­i­nal Xbox and shines a light into the Dark Cor­ners Of The Earth

XBox: The Official Magazine - - START - Pub­lisheR Bethesda / De­vel­oper Head­first Pro­duc­tions / For­mat Xbox Chris Burke

Al­most a cen­tury on, the sto­ries of Amer­i­can pulp fic­tion writer Howard Phillips Love­craft re­main among the most in­flu­en­tial and bril­liant hor­ror fic­tion ever com­mit­ted to pa­per. The mythos he cre­ated, of ter­ri­fy­ing el­der races from the stars, ex­ist­ing mil­len­nia be­fore hu­mans and un­fath­omable to the minds of men, en­joys cult pop­u­lar­ity, and he is an estab­lished mas­ter of hor­ror who has in­flu­enced writ­ers like Stephen King, de­spite his hav­ing died in poverty, un­ap­pre­ci­ated in his time.

Love­craft’s gift was in re­lat­ing his bizarre and imag­i­na­tively ter­ri­fy­ing mon­sters to the more banal fears of men. The mad prophets who had glimpsed too much in the stars and gone in­sane; the sleep-de­prived schmo for whom the scratch­ing in the walls turns out to be some­thing way worse than rats; dis­ap­pear­ances and mur­ders in small com­mu­ni­ties that, for hap­less in­ves­ti­ga­tors, have ex­pla­na­tions so far be­yond rea­son that, as they peel away the lay­ers of these mys­ter­ies, their own san­ity is eroded by their dis­cov­er­ies.

Love­craft’s sto­ries be­came a part of ’60s coun­ter­cul­ture as more fan­tas­ti­cal themes in fic­tion be­came pop­u­lar, along­side the likes of Hux­ley and Tolkien. His cult sta­tus con­tin­ued to grow in the fol­low­ing decades, but few games, and even fewer movies, have even dared at­tempt to tackle the writer’s canon. Per­haps the unimag­in­able hor­rors birthed in Love­craft’s mind proved too unimag­in­able for Hol­ly­wood, or even the videogames in­dus­try. But since the ’80s, Chao­sium’s bril­liant table­top RPG has ut­terly nailed the ex­pe­ri­ence of in­ves­ti­gat­ing mys­ter­ies in the 1920s world of Love­craft’s sto­ries, com­plete with a neat me­chanic whereby char­ac­ters’ san­ity is as much a fac­tor as hit points and other more typ­i­cal RPG stats, and is eroded by hor­ri­fy­ing en­coun­ters and sit­u­a­tions. Cyanide Stu­dios’ new Xbox One Call Of Cthulhu game is based on Chao­sium’s RPG, and we’re hop­ing it can do jus­tice to the pen and pa­per game and Love­craft’s mythos as a whole. But back in 2005, one game that slipped un­der the radar of most gamers when it was re­leased on the orig­i­nal Xbox, de­liv­ered on Cthulhu in spades.

HP source

Hor­ror FPS Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Cor­ners Of The Earth takes its main in­spi­ra­tion from Love­craft’s 1931 work The Shadow Over Inns­mouth, with its suf­fo­cat­ing set­ting of a sin­is­ter fic­tional New Eng­land fish­ing port hid­den by in­hos­pitable salt marshes from the rest of the United States.

The game starts with the pro­tag­o­nist’s at­tempted sui­cide in an in­sane asy­lum, so you know it’s not go­ing to end well. You then play through flash­back, as doomed de­tec­tive Jack Wal­ters, as he tries to ne­go­ti­ate the siege of a house where a cult are trad­ing shots with po­lice. In­side, you dis­cover strange de­vices in the base­ment, and a dis­em­bow­elled man strapped to a ma­chine with all his or­gans still func­tion­ing in sep­a­rate tanks. You flick a switch (of course you do) and his head ex­plodes. Oops. Then you do a bad thing. Again. Putting a strange crys­tal power source into an­other ma­chine (of course you would), all hell lit­er­ally breaks loose. As you slip into blurry un­con­scious­ness, the last thing you see is a gen­uinely ter­ri­fy­ing alien mon­ster, never quite fully in fo­cus, and all the more ef­fec­tive for it.

One of the first things you no­tice, pretty much un­heard of at the time, is the to­tal lack of any HUD. There is noth­ing at all on your screen, not even an aim­ing retic­ule. You have

an in­ven­tory that is ac­ces­si­ble by press­ing the black but­ton on the Xbox con­troller, but oth­er­wise you have to cen­tre your view on an ob­ject be­fore in­ter­act­ing. Your phys­i­cal and men­tal con­di­tion is in­di­cated by your heart­beat and breath­ing. As you dis­cover dis­mem­bered corpses (or worse), your heart­beat – and con­troller vi­bra­tions – get faster and more in­tense; look at some­thing nasty for too long and your vi­sion starts to blur as your san­ity is tested.

The lack of a HUD re­ally helps your im­mer­sion – blood splat­ters onto the screen if you get shot or hit, the colour drains from the screen com­pletely if things get too bad. In­juries are re­al­is­ti­cally rep­re­sented; hurt your leg and you limp; get shot in the arm and you have dif­fi­culty aim­ing. When you fi­nally get hold of a gun, you have to aim down its iron sights. But this is not meant to be a shooter; you spend less time fac­ing down foes than run­ning away from them. That doesn’t make the FPS’ing any less sat­is­fy­ing against gun-tot­ing lo­cals and cultists when it does hap­pen.

A bit fishy

Six years af­ter this first in­ci­dent, it’s now 1922, and Jack’s out of Arkham Asy­lum. No, not that one; Love­craft’s fic­tional Mass­a­chu­setts town of Arkham had its men­tal in­sti­tu­tion 50 years be­fore Gotham did. He is re­turn­ing to a nor­mal-ish ex­is­tence, and takes a job in­ves­ti­gat­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of a young gro­cery store man­ager in Inns­mouth.

As you be­gin to in­ves­ti­gate the at­mo­spher­i­cally gloomy, sea-foggy town, you find hos­til­ity from the bizarre-look­ing lo­cals and fear from the more nor­mal-look­ing in­hab­i­tants. There’s de­tect­ing re­quired here, and the game doesn’t hold your hand. A key on a desk does not glow; you could miss it if you’re not look­ing prop­erly. Through­out your in­ves­ti­ga­tions, mad Jack gets ‘glimpses’ from the per­spec­tive of some­thing watch­ing him, de­ranged sec­ond-sight that adds to the men­ace. As you get deeper into the mys­tery, you meet a young girl called Ra­mona, whose mommy ‘bites’ and is kept in the at­tic. She’s busy draw­ing pic­tures of ‘mommy and daddy’, and even in its prim­i­tive res­o­lu­tion, what she’s draw­ing is a lit­tle un­nerv­ing. Then you let mom out of the at­tic (of course you do). Com­ing-to and head­ing back down­stairs, you find the poor mu­ti­lated Ra­mona in the arms of her dis­traught fa­ther, who is then hauled off for her mur­der. It’s all go­ing a bit tits up. Well done you.

But then comes the game’s piece de re­sis­tance, one of the best ever mo­ments in a sur­vival hor­ror game, as well as be­ing a near-ex­act re­al­i­sa­tion of The Shadow Over Inns­mouth’s most mem­o­rable pas­sage.

Check­ing into the lo­cal run-down ho­tel and hit­ting the hay, you’re awo­ken by a pre­mo­ni­tion of men com­ing to get you. These fugly, hunched, gravel-voiced, in­breds (it’s the ‘Inns­mouth look’) are out­side your room, all shot­guns and mur­der­ous in­tent. With­out any means to fight back – no gun yet – you run for your life through ad­join­ing rooms, bolt­ing doors be­hind you, and mov­ing wardrobes in front of them to slow up your pur­suers. Tim­ing is ab­so­lutely cru­cial, a sec­ond’s slip and they’re on you. Then it’s out the win­dow, across fire-es­capes to the op­po­site build­ing, flee­ing down dingy cor­ri­dors, duck­ing as gun­shots are fired from across the way, glass crash­ing all around you. The vi­su­als can eas­ily wib­ble into a trippy haze if you so much as look back, as Jack’s mind be­gins to slip… in one room, there’s a scaly fish woman

“As the plot deep­ens and the onion lay­ers are stripped away, so too the men­ace be­comes less sub­tle and the mon­sters more fre­quent”

sleep­ing on a bed, who wakes up and starts scream­ing pa­thet­i­cally. You don’t have time to prop­erly ex­am­ine this crea­ture as you stum­ble through the room – you just clock it’s there.

As the plot deep­ens and the onion lay­ers are stripped away, so too the men­ace be­comes less sub­tle and the mon­sters more fre­quent, and there are even some key mythos A-lis­ters to deal with. Jack him­self, it’s fi­nally re­vealed in a proper Love­craftian twist, is con­nected some­how to a race from be­yond the stars, and he gets glimpses of their oth­erdi­men­sional cities. It’s am­bi­tious stuff for a noughties videogame. In fact there is so much ac­cu­rate Love­craft de­tail through­out that it’s a re­ally ac­com­plished fan-work, and it holds up as a great game even now. We’d love to get a 4K re­mas­ter.

The game is fairly scripted and mostly lin­ear; but there wasn’t re­ally the pro­cess­ing power, or even the need, for open-world free­dom. The build­ing hor­ror and in­trigu­ing nar­ra­tive drive are well suited to a lin­ear path. In any case, in the best Love­craftian tra­di­tion, there is a pre-or­dained in­evitabil­ity to the di­rec­tion in which the doomed hero is headed.

’Crafty devs

The team be­hind Dark Cor­ners were Head­first Pro­duc­tions, the fa­ther and son team of Mike and Si­mon Woodroffe. Mike had estab­lished Ad­ven­ture Soft in Sut­ton Cold­field, in the UK’s West Mid­lands, in the 1980s, a soft­ware house that cre­ated the Si­mon The Sorcerer games on the Amiga and DOS for IBM’s PCs. Dark Cor­ners had been in devel­op­ment since 1999, when Head­first made the smart move of seek­ing ideas from an on­line Love­craft fan group, and a ‘First Per­son Hor­ror Ad­ven­ture Shooter’ be­gan to take shape. Sadly over time some of the more am­bi­tious and far-reach­ing ideas were pared back, pre­sum­ably due to the tech­no­log­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of the time. Head­first had en­vis­aged the game as hav­ing a non-lin­ear, RPG feel – more like the game by Chao­sium, with whom they’d se­cured the rights to use the Cthulhu name – with more char­ac­ters, and a co-op el­e­ment for up to four play­ers.

Devel­op­ment limped on and a PS2 ver­sion was aban­doned com­pletely af­ter Head­first even­tu­ally signed a pub­lish­ing deal with Bethesda. But de­spite its devel­op­ment hell, the game that was ul­ti­mately re­leased on Xbox in 2005 was a bench­mark of sur­vival hor­ror whose in­flu­ence can be felt in Bioshock and other non-shooter FPS’s since. Per­haps it was the rather drab box-art, or the fact that you re­ally had to know about Love­craft and Cthulhu to un­der­stand what the game was of­fer­ing, but al­though crit­i­cally well-re­ceived the ti­tle sold dis­ap­point­ingly, and Head­first went bank­rupt be­fore a planned se­quel, Des­tiny’s End, could be com­pleted.

All of which means we’ve waited 13 long years for a new Love­craft game on Xbox, and with the forth­com­ing Call Of Cthulhu and Sink­ing City, it looks like two are com­ing along at once. From what we’ve seen of the most im­mi­nent of these, Call Of Cthulhu (see page 34), it looks like more than just a spir­i­tual suc­ces­sor to Dark Cor­ners, with its first-per­son per­spec­tive, coastal New Eng­land lo­ca­tion, your char­ac­ter’s strug­gle to main­tain his san­ity and deep in­ves­ti­ga­tion el­e­ments. If that game man­ages to cap­ture even a lit­tle of Head­first’s am­bi­tion, at­mos­phere and Love­craft-ness, we can’t wait to go crazy play­ing it.

102

the of­fi­cial xbox mag­a­zine

Above You make a lot of truly grue­some dis­cov­er­ies in the game, that test your char­ac­ter’s san­ity.

above You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps… The game’s main pro­tag­o­nist is not in the best of men­tal health.

Top That would be Dagon, one of the top boys in Love­craft’s mythos.

Above A warm wel­come is as­sured in Inns­mouth, un­less you’re not from Inns­mouth.

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