From twisting tentacles to mental torture, Lovecraft’s influence runs deep in digital storytelling
It is difficult to imagine what modern pop culture would look like without Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Not only did he invent an entire subgenre of horror fiction but his stories went on to inspire artists decades after his death. You can feel his influence on horror authors and visual artists all over the world, from Stephen King to Junji Ito.
Lovecraft was the creator of ‘cosmic horror’, a subgenre that blended science fiction with gothic horror and mixed in a healthy dash of Lovecraft’s own deeply rooted sense of isolation and alienation. Cosmic horror’s most significant product is the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ collection of stories, which dealt with the hidden world of ancient gods and monsters lurking just out of our collective sight. These include Cthulhu (the most famous Lovecraft creation, a terrifying tentacle faced monster that sleeps in a sunken city in the depths of the ocean) The Ancient Ones (immortal aliens hibernating at the north pole), and more abstract horrors such as the entity from ‘The Colour Out of Space’ where the corrupting influence of a fallen meteorite warps and poisons a farmstead and the surrounding land.
Protagonists of Lovecraft’s fiction were almost all well-to-do and bookish men (and they were definitely all men, as we’ll discuss later) who through a combination of curiosity and bad timing become exposed to the Eldritch Truth: that our entire understanding of our world is wrong and humans are absolutely insignificant.
This revelation tends to drive said protagonists mad, and they end their days incarcerated in psychiatric facilities or dead, often by their own hands. At best they are irretrievably shaken by the experience and most Lovecraft stories are told from the perspective of these traumatised men, writing a warning to those that would follow in their footsteps.
So all good, light-hearted fun really.
Before we go any further, there is something we must address. The ugly, putrid secret at the heart of this genre, the unpleasant truth that risks shattering our appreciation of cosmic horror and leaving us forever changed… H.P Lovecraft was hella racist. I hate it, and it sucks, but there it is. Lovecraft’s horror was the horror of the Other, his fears about the unknowable nature of the universe and the alien minds of the terrible beings that dwelled there. But this, filtered through the prism of his privilege (as a straight white man early 20th century America), manifests as a distinct and specific fear of (in particular) black people, Jewish people and women.
Unpleasant and derogatory description of minority groups abound in his works, tales of savages worshipping heathen gods and more uses of the N-bomb than a Wu-Tang Clan album. Even if this was just ‘how everybody thought back then’ which it definitely was not, bigotry is bigotry. It was wrong then, it was wrong now. But there’s no denying that Lovecraft channeled those fears into work that speaks to people in many different ways, many of them people that Lovecraft himself would have disliked intensely. Enjoying reading The Shadow over Innsmouth or the Rats in the Walls, with all of their deeply problematic content, doesn’t make you a racist. But we have to acknowledge the less pleasant parts of the art and artists we enjoy, so yeah… hella racist.
As mentioned, this particular brand of horror has been popular with many different artists and writers, although Lovecraft was not hugely acclaimed in his time. There have been many other books set in the world Lovecraft envisioned, plenty of comic books and movies drawing on the well of existential dread. Videogames are no exception. There’s plenty of visual queues taken from cosmic horror across all manner of games. The use of tentacles as an inherently inhuman form is straight from the H.P. book of visual shorthand. Any game where secretive locals hide a terrifying secret about a remote town probably shares some DNA with the original Shadow Over Innsmouth tale.
Games as diverse as X-com and Borderlands pay homage to the themes explored in cosmic horror. But it takes more than a few fishmen or some tentacles to make a game truly Lovecraftian. Happily, some games draw from the influence of Lovecraft to great effect.
A possibly strange first entry here, given that it features none of the hallmarks you might expect from a Lovecraft-inspired game. There is no ocean or sleepy rural village in sght. But Dead Space draws on the cosmic part of cosmic horror, taking the isolation and fear of the unknown and hurling it upwards into the stars. Also present is arguably the most Lovecraftian of all tropes, the constant growing terror of knowledge and the corruption it brings. As protagonist Isaac Clarke, an engineer, slowly uncovers the source of the malevolent force that warped the crew of the USG Ishimura both physically and mentally, remaking them first into paranoid cultists and ultimately into mindless slavering undead known as necromorphs. As Isaac gets closer to the truth, the knowledge he’s obtained starts to destroy his mind in turn, changing his perception of reality and leading him closer and closer to disaster.
Staying with the cosmic theme, we have Sunless Skies. A more text-based experience, Failbetter games have been talked about far more expertly by Caroline in this piece. You take to the steampunk skyways as the Captain of an engine nominally transporting cargo, but the true thrust of the game is encountering the strange and inexplicable denizens of the High Wilderness. Just spending time in the desolate wind-plagued wilderness slowly but inexorably drives up your terror meter, making you more and more susceptible to the influence of the weird beyond. Not to mention the threats to your physical self – space pirates and imperial privateers are small potatoes compared to the insidious mycelium of the Hybras fungus or the operatic viciousness of Chorister bees. The visual novel style for the storytelling and interaction matches the Lovecraftian style of beautiful language used to tell terrible stories, although Failbetter manages to master the eloquence and dread inducing prose Lovecraft strived for without any of the prejudice that undermines much of his work.
Lovecraft was a huge influence on those who came after him, but even he was influenced by those whose work he enjoyed, particularly gothic horror like Edgar Allan Poe. Darkest Dungeon combines these two genres, a gothic straitjacket wrapped around the oozing tentacular forms of Lovecraft. You play as the inheritor of a formerly magnificent estate, now corrupted and infested with the spawn of the evil unleashed by your ancestor in his foolish quest for, you guessed it, ancient and terrible knowledge! To do this you recruit a party of vicious disposable mercenaries/stalwart adventurers, and send them off into the crumbling hallways and abandoned depths of the estate. Lots of games use the notion of sanity as a direct call back to Lovecraft, but most do it poorly, implementing a ‘sanity’ meter to manage an ‘objective’ level of mental health. Darkest Dungeon channels it in a more effective and brutal fashion. Every new obstacle you face, from blocked hallways to monstrous elder things gives your characters stress. Once the stress counter fills, they reach breaking point and the damage to their psyche creates a dangerous new negative personality trait. These range from the relatively benign Selfishness all the way to the actively suicidal Masochism. The sensation of creeping dread you feel as the tension ratchets up and the traumatic catharsis of your characters reaching breaking point is a dangerously addictive loop, and you find yourself matching the inheritor’s obsessive drive to reclaim the former glory of the estate, no matter the human cost.
Speaking of gothic horror, arguably no game has used the lavish trappings of gothic and cosmic horror better than Bloodborne. FromSoftware’s action rpg drips style and ichor from every frame, evoking Lovecraft’s terror at the both the great beyond and the beasts beneath our skin. In the city of Yarnham you face ravening mobs driven to kill and beasts that were once men who contaminated themselves with something divine. The central metaphor of Bloodborne’s early game is another good use of Lovecraft’s style without the racism. Religious fervour fulfills the same degrading role that Lovecraft assigned to interracial relationships. And that’s not the half of it – Yarhnam is infested with gigantic Cthulhu-esque monsters, only visible if you’ve accrued enough Insight into the world. And in the Old Hunters expansion you see where the horrors began, at the Fishing Hamlet, as close as any game has ever come to recapturing the fetid terror of Innsmouth itself.
Despite being horror games, these four titles are about as disparate as it gets in terms of tone and setting. What links them is the fear of the unknown and the insidious thought that, just maybe, the world is more grand and terrible than we were ever meant to know.