Cthulhu Returns to Video Games
  • Cthulhu Returns to Video Games

    Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game has been influential in sharing H.P. Lovecraft's work across a variety of media, including other role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and video games. License Call of Cthulhu games have debuted on PCs, gaming consoles, and mobile platforms, but each adapted the tabletop game rules to suit the medium. Will the new Call of Cthulhu video game be faithful to the tabletop RPG?

    Lovecraft's D&D Influence

    The squid-headed entity known as Cthulhu that debuted in Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulhu" has been with D&D since its earliest incarnation. As Zenpous Archives reports, Cthulhu is mentioned in the Greyhawk supplement published in 1975:

    Description of the Gate spell: "Employment of this spell opens a cosmic portal and allows an ultra-powerful being (such as Odin, Crom, Set, Cthulhu, the Shining One, a demi-god, or whatever) to come to this plane" (pg 28)

    It's clear that co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax, was influenced by Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos -- a shared universe in which other horror writers borrowed and reused concepts from each other. Gygax mentions Lovecraft by name as "Fantasy/Swords & Sorcery: Recommended Reading" in Dragon Magazine #4 (1976), which would go on to become Appendix N in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide (1979). The contribution would be formalized by Dr. J. Eric Holmes (who helped create Basic Dungeons & Dragons) and Robert Kuntz in "Lovecraftian Mythos in D&D" in Dragon Magazine #12. Jim Ward revised the material for inclusion in the AD&D hardcover, Deities & Demigods. It was not without controversy, as explained by editor Lawrence Schick:

    Gary had written to someone he knew at Arkham House (the name escapes me) for permission to use the Cthulhu Mythos. They said yes, largely because even then that mythos was an open-source setting, and they didn’t really have the right to say no. However, Chaosium felt they had acquired the exclusive right to do Lovecraft games, and were willing to fight for it. TSR was not, because they figured the book would sell with or without the squids.

    Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos wouldn't return in an official capacity until the D20 Call of Cthulhu version in 2002, but the influence of Lovecraftian monsters has never gone away: ghouls and ghasts (lifted verbatim, but altered in D&D to perform a different function), sahuagin and kuo-toa (inspired by Lovecraft's deep ones), and of course mind flayers who look a lot like Cthulhu but perform a more literal brain-eating function (instead of a sanity-blasting one). A more formal alignment of Lovecraftian horror came about with Bruce Cordell's introduction of the Far Realm in The Gates of Firestorm Peak adventure, which has since been responsible for the monster type known as "aberrations" in various incarnations of D&D since.

    While D&D has sometimes been ambivalent about its relationship with Lovecraft's works, Call of Cthulhu has haunted the video game world since as far back as Infograme's Alone in the Dark.

    Lovecraft's Video Game Influence

    Alone in the Dark introduced several elements of the 3D survival horror genre when it debuted in 1992. It's Lovecraftian influence was significant:

    Grimoires found in the mansion's library include the Necronomicon and De Vermis Mysteriis, both taken from Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. Other Mythos references include books that feature the narrated history of Lord Boleskine, a direct reference to another Infogrames Cthulhu Mythos-based game, Shadow of the Comet, and the last name of player character Edward Carnby, a reference to John Carnby, a character in the mythos tale The Return of the Sorcerer by Clark Ashton Smith. Several of the supernatural opponents are recognizable creatures from the Mythos, including Deep Ones, Nightgaunts and a Chthonian.

    Alone in the Dark was almost the first debut of an official Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu video game:

    Months later, the game obtained the Call Of Cthulhu licence Bonnell had bought from Chaosium Games. HP Lovecraft’s bestiary replaced every zombie but for the few that Raynal insisted on keeping for sentimental reasons. Ultimately, the game wouldn’t be released under the Cthulhu banner, Chaosium deeming it too simple to honour the complex rules of the pen-and-paper game. But during the first half of 1992, this consideration became increasingly minor, soon to be left behind.

    Alone in the Dark would go on to influence the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises, but it was a tough act to follow:

    Even though the Infogrames classic demonstrates an alluring mixture of compelling story and quick-reflex action, most developers stuck to the gaming medium that was arguably closest to literature. This allowed them to reproduce the eerie essence of such masters of the macabre as H.P. Lovecraft. Stories were told in the old-fashioned way, with their authors relying largely on atmospheric prose, scary surroundings, and a ripping yarn to chill the gamer.

    Rolling Stone sums up the Lovecraftian elements in video games:

    It's debatable whether Frederick Reynal's 1992 survival horror classic Alone in the Dark inspired the Resident Evil series that followed, but what's not is how close it came to nailing the essence of Lovecraft's vision – a grand old Gothic house with a dreadful secret lurking beneath its floors, an outgunned hero flailing against impossible odds, a malevolent intelligence working to open a door to another dimension that will lead to the enslavement and eventual devourment of all life on Earth by things with as many eyes as teeth.

    Chaosium licensed Headfirst Productions' Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, an action-adventure game that combined first-person shooting elements with stealth, in 2005. Although well-regarded, it was considered a commercial failure, which led to the cancellation of two sequels: Destiny's End and Beyond the Mountains of Madness.

    In 2012, Chaosium worked with Red Wasp Design to create Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, a tactical horror role-playing game set during World War I for mobile platforms. Tomas Rawlings, who wrote the Dark Mirror monograph for Call of Cthulhu, explained the parts of the tabletop game he incorporated into the mobile game:

    ...the core idea developed around taking the compelling universe of Call of Cthulhu, pulling out the core gameplay stats and the like, then overlaying that with my own experience as a games designer. For example this meant keeping the combat system in its broadest form but altering the Sanity system a little to account for the lack of people in the same room as you over-acting their Phasmophobia. On the subject of Sanity, in the paper game of Call of Cthulhu your characters slowly lose their minds over many adventures alongside brief bouts of madness between here and their final asylum of rest. For The Wasted Land, we’ve adapted the Sanity system so that your characters suffer from bouts of either mania, where briefly they become strong with rage before collapsing, or become paralysed with fear yet can recover their Sanity again. This adaptation means you need to ensure that you steal your character’s minds as well as their bodies for the inevitable tentacled-evil they will meet, yet the gameplay never spins away from you and stops being fun.

    Rawlings also incorporated the role-playing game's magic system:

    As another example of how we’ve adapted a system, lets look at magic...Magic is one of the defining aspects of most paper RPGs, and Call of Cthulhu is no different – it has magic, but a Mythos-like take on it. Magic in Call of Cthulhu is a much more expansive affair than in many other fantasy genre RPGs. In Call of Cthulhu, spells often take lots of time to cast and require considerable preparation. As a result I’ve always felt that magic in the Call of Cthulhu games has an authenticity that means it was almost believable and in-line with occult magic as described by famous historical figures like Dr John Dee. (Indeed Dee is reputed to have translated the Necronomicon into English!) Another important facet of magic in Call of Cthulhu is that is costs Sanity to use; this stops magic simply being an ‘easy’ weapon because this additional cost to your character incurs by their subversion of the laws of nature.

    Given the open-source nature of Lovecraft's shared universe, there's plenty of other influences in a wide range of media, including video games. With the latest announcement of an upcoming video game by Cyanide studio, it has the potential to be the most authentic adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game yet.

    The Tabletop Game Gets its Due

    Chaosium hasn't posted much about the video game license other than to express their excitement about the game. An interview with a producer from French game studio Cyanide is curiously vague about the role-playing game elements, mentioning every other form of media (except the RPG it's based on) as an influence on game design. Fortunately, a Rolling Stone interview with lead game designer Jean-Marc Gueney goes into much greater detail how the tabletop RPG will influence the video game. It was developed in collaboration with Mark Morrison, one of the co-authors of the modern day campaign for Call of Cthulhu, At Your Door and numerous other supplements for the game. Gueney explains:

    "We worked closely with the team [at Chaosium] to place the story within the Lovecraft universe," Gueney says. "The skills and sanity system are drawn directly from the role playing game. We took feedback from the community. It completely fits in the universe."

    The game also uses a similar skill system as the tabletop:

    Skills are split across three different categories, as in the pen-and-paper game: Social, which concerns people and their behaviour; Knowledge, which represents understanding of specialised subjects; and Professional, which determines your "detective" skills. Successfully gathering a piece of information using one of these skills rewards you with experience that allows you to improve your abilities. In turn, this improves your overall effectiveness as an investigator. Like its primary source material, Cyanide's Call of Cthulhu ditches a traditional levelling system in favour of focusing on individual skill ratings.

    And what would Lovecraft have thought about all this? If his letter to Robert E. Howard on October 3, 1932 (as quoted by James Jacobs in Dragon Magazine #324) is any indication, probably not much:

    There is a basic difference between the tense drama of meeting and overcoming an inevitable problem or obstacle in real life, and the secondary or symbolic drama of meeting or overcoming a problem or obstacle which has merely been artificially set up. The chess player has no breathless sense of uncovering unknown secrets of the cosmos, as the real research scientist has; while the football-player lacks the intense exaltation of knowing that his efforts are necessary to save his country from disaster. Accordingly, I feel quite justified in believing that games and sports out not to be ranked among the major phenomena of life. However--let it not be thought that I am denying them any place whatever in the scheme of things. They have, undoubtedly, the poetic value of symbolism. Chess, by bringing into play the same human forces which are used in conquering the unknown and planning life, is as a sort of ceremony in celebration of those forces -- an exaltation of the forces as intrinsic things in themselves, all apart from the question of object.

    The Call of Cthulhu video game will be released this year on on PS4, Xbox One, and PCs.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon. Special thanks to Angus for pointing out two official video games I left out!
    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      On the topic of all-games-Cthulhu, can I suggest a complimentary piece regarding the plethora of similarly inspired boardgames on the market these days? Many publishers are now accessing what I believe has recently become public domain. One of my favorite game companies, Fantasy Flight Games, has a number of variations including board, card, and dice games, and even recently launched a novel line based on their own IP creations (i.e. Characters) created as recurring pieces throughout their line.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
      On the topic of all-games-Cthulhu, can I suggest a complimentary piece regarding the plethora of similarly inspired boardgames on the market these days? Many publishers are now accessing what I believe has recently become public domain. One of my favorite game companies, Fantasy Flight Games, has a number of variations including board, card, and dice games, and even recently launched a novel line based on their own IP creations (i.e. Characters) created as recurring pieces throughout their line.
      Great topic! My only concern would be trying to capture it all, because there's sooo many (as it was, Angus saved me from massive embarassment when I left off two official video game adaptions, and that's a relatively small market of official Call of Cthulhu games!).

      I'll look into it and see what I can come up with, thank you for the suggestion!
    1. teitan -
      Lord Boleskine was actually a reference to Aleister Crowley who would sometimes call himself the Laird of Boleskine and Lord Boleskine after his manor in Scotland.
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