O R’lyeh? Ya, R’lyeh!
Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Born in 1890, Lovecraft was and still is a controversial writer. Almost aggressively xenophobic, his fear and hatred of immigrants and foreigners permeated his works which went largely unrecognised, published in pulp science fiction periodicals, until his death from bowel cancer in 1937, aged only 46. But Lovecraft is also without a doubt one of the most important horror authors of the early 20th Century, his themes of cosmic, unspeakable horror, old gods, weird and irresponsible science, monolithic creatures and lost civilizations so indescribable they can drive humans insane by simply laying eyes on them have had a huge influence on modern pop culture.
Lovecraftian. That catch all adjective which describes works of fiction that have felt the touch of Lovecraft’s writing. It does seem a little cliche’d and highfalutin to state that your story has a “Lovecraftian” influence, but there’s no denying that there is a wealth of works that both take cues from or directly adapt ideas from his “Mythos”. It’s apparent in the works of such modern horror creators as Stephen King, Brian Lumley, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro to name but a few; his impact can also be found in gaming – if you’ve played the likes of Eternal Darkness or Bloodborne then you’ve certainly been exposed to Lovecraftian works. It’s into this circle that Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu drops.
…an original story, cherry picking elements and concepts from Lovecraft’s work.
Rather than being directly based on Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, Call of Cthulhu in fact takes its basis from Chaosium’s tabletop RPG which saw its first edition published in 1981. Now this isn’t the first time a game has drawn from this particular source, with the 2005 XBox and PC game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, published by Bethesda, also basing itself off the RPG. As with that title, Cyanide’s game features an original story, cherry picking elements and concepts from Lovecraft’s work. Putting players in the shoes of private investigator Edward Pierce, the game plays out in a linear fashion with branching paths depending on player choices. At its heart, Call of Cthulhu is a dialogue driven adventure game. Players will explore environments in first person perspective, finding items and clues, talking to other characters and uncovering the mystery of Darkwater, an island off the coast of Boston. There’s a loose stats mechanic at play that players can upgrade over the course of the game, earning Character Points that they can put into improving their strength, conversation and investigative abilities among others; medical and occult knowledge can also be increased by finding items in the games world. At various points during the adventure, these abilities will be tested with dialogue choices and events that will affect the path through the story. It’s a fairly straightforward mechanic and relies a lot on the player following along with the narrative, reading notes and paying attention to the environment to pick the “best” choices for actions and dialogue. A game like this lives or dies by its story and, thankfully, Call of Cthulhu largely nails this.
There’s been a tragedy – the Hawkins family, Charles, Sarah and their son have died in a fire at their mansion. The case was investigated by the local constabulary and closed – the fire was an accident. But Sarah’s father doesn’t buy the official verdict and hires Pierce to investigate. An alcoholic ex-soldier who fought in the trenches of World War 1, Pierce is already a fragile mind before he enters the world of Darkwater – what he finds there threatens to break him forever as he’s sucked into a world full of aquatic monstrosities, lunatic asylums and cults.
Atmosphere positively oozes out of the design of the world
The first thing that strikes you about Cyanide’s game is the atmosphere. It positively oozes out of the design of the world, with locations often lit by a sickly green light, low key audio cues providing a pervasive sense of doom – it’s this that’s critical to any work based on Lovecraft. His stories rely largely on the unseen, the idea that something is not quite right in the world and that the reader doesn’t entirely have all the facts to be able to make a coherent judgment on exactly what that is. In the game, this is very much the situation that Pierce is placed in and it’s something that’s exacerbated with the sanity system. Certain events or choices that the player will make, be they reading a book or talking to a specific character, will affect Pierce’s sanity. That opens up more possibilities later in the game for things to… happen. This is a story that you largely want to go into knowing very little about as there are twists and turns in the narrative that lead to some genuinely unsettling and startling moments.
The atmosphere is helped a ton by the games use of light in its exploration mechanics. Pierce’s only permanent arsenal is his trusty zippo lighter, a reminder of his service days, and, eventually, an oil lantern. Each of these gives differing levels of illumination to the environment and are required to expose certain clues. The problem is that they both have their faults – the lamp gives the best illumination but will eventually run out of oil, needing to be topped up, while the lighter will last an infinite amount of time but will only light up a small area and can occasionally burn Pierce’s fingers, making him snap it shut – not ideal as it can plunge you immediately into pitch blackness. Without dipping into spoilers, the game manages to find interesting ways to use this light mechanic throughout the course of its story, showing genuine creativity in crafting a gameplay mechanic using a limited system.
…the game isn’t as polished as one would hope.
It’s a shame, then, that there are sadly several areas where Call of Cthulhu really lets itself down and they’re largely technical problems. For such a wonderfully crafted world, the characters that inhabit it aren’t really all that great. Looking like Madame Tussaud rejects, skin textures are overly waxy, movements are stiff and mouths never line up with dialogue. It’s frustrating and can take you utterly out of the moment, as can some shoehorned in mechanics. An early area dabbles with stealth survival horror in the style of Alien Isolation or Outlast, focussing on hiding rather than fighting. This is tense and well done and promises more of the same, but it’s a promise that never really comes to fruition – the mechanic crops up a couple more times but only in frustrating, shoehorned ways including an encounter that begins as genuinely terrifying but quickly becomes boring and frustrating. There are also some terribly patchy moments with broken geometry (one mid game area particularly stands out with scenery tearing frequently on camera movement), confusingly written lore, mismatched dialogue paths and a genuine feeling that the game isn’t as polished as one would hope. If this was a mid-price or budget release it might be more forgivable, but for a £50 game it casts a long shadow.
What also casts a shadow is the xenophobia present in Lovecraft’s writing and its lack of a presence here. Lovecraft was hugely prejudiced, never holding back on his disdain and frequently casting people of colour as villains or describing them with disparaging terminology. It’s shocking to read these elements of his stories in 2018 and while the 2005 game made this part of its narrative, casting the NPCs as a xenophobic community themselves, Cyanide sidesteps the issue entirely. Writing out the more offensive elements is fine but given several recent think pieces on Lovecraft’s racist tendencies, there’s a missed opportunity here to tackle that in a modern light, subverting the original text and bringing it into the more progressive thinking 21st century. With this in mind, it’s especially notable how every character in the game is caucasian. Now don’t misconstrue this – I’m not saying that the game is inherently racist BECAUSE of this, but a diverse cast is notable in its absence, particularly given the history of the source material.
…a game that demands replaying to see all it has to offer.
Call of Cthulhu isn’t a long game. My initial playthrough clocked at around 12 hours and I know that there are certainly paths I chose not to take, dialogue options that I didn’t choose because of how I wanted Pierce to behave or because I was unsure of the potential outcome they would hold. I know that there are endings I’ve not seen and characters I could have saved from a horrible fate. This is a game that demands replaying to be able to see all it has to offer and I’ve already started a new game and found some different paths and early areas that expand the story further; but that lack of polish is still there hanging over proceedings. If you’re a fan of the Mythos and are willing to forgive that, Call of Cthulhu is recommended but you’d be better waiting for a price drop before you pick it up.