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Video games still can’t quite master Lovecraftian horror

Horror comes in all sorts of shades. Be it creepy ghosts and zombies or the banal fear of opening your mailbox. Like all other forms of media, video games have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to capture the many flavors of horror. Lovecraftian horror seems to be a type of horror that video games have trouble finding their way around. This genre is a creeping, unknown lump that tends to slip through the hands of game developers.

Lovecraftian Horror is by no means a mountain of madness that cannot be climbed. There are examples of video games that actually capture the essence of this existential fear. Unlike other media, games have the ability to use gameplay and player actions as another aspect of conveying topics.

Splash art from Call of Cthulhu.

Know the unknown

Let’s start by defining what Lovecraftian Horror actually means. It’s harder than you can imagine. The superficial answer is any horror created by writer HP Lovecraft and other writers who contributed to the myth. Cosmic horror is also closely related to Lovecraft horror, the concept of great unknowable forces that make human characters and perspective appear small and insignificant. Yog-Sothoth and the better-known C’thulu are powerful examples of cosmic horror.

Lovecrafts The reanimator and The Charles Dexter Ward case have no true cosmic horror in them, but are clearly still Lovecraftian in nature. Lovecraftian Horror is best described as a transgressive horror that uses themes of the unknown, hopelessness and horror to violate the rules of safety and the mundane.

Transgressive horror is difficult to convey in video games because video games are inherently a system of strict rules. How can a demon in Shin Megami Tensei 3 be an existential horror when it has a health bar? The unknown xenomorph in Alien isolation becomes known and trusted as soon as the player learns its patterns. Despite the game that tells players that fighting a giant mold monster is futile Resident Evil 7 an automatic weapon assures the player that this fight will be over in five minutes. How can the player feel insignificant when he is the main character in a story?

There are still ways games can create Lovecraft horror while maintaining the rules and systems in which they exist. Many games choose to use aesthetics to convey fear. The sinking city, Scary, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners all use Lovecraftian monsters and visuals to inspire horror. Unfortunately, these games lose the Lovecraft feeling as soon as the fingers touch the keyboard, so to speak. The gameplay reveals that feeling of fear and terror – especially Dark corners where you battle many monsters and creatures of the Lovecraft myth with arcade-like shooting sections.

That’s the most important part of video games: the gameplay. Compared to other media, player interaction is something completely unique in games and must be used. While many fail, there are some games that understand this and incorporate the gameplay into their games in creating Lovecraftian tones.

A hunter facing an amygdala.

Champions of Darkness

Blood transferred is probably the first thing that comes to mind when talking about games that get it right. In terms of narrative, the game is full of references to Lovecraft and the ancients are a perfect substitute for the Outer Gods, the ancients, and all of the other pantheons in the Lovecraft myth. Even the Church and its excessive use of the blood of the ancients is oozing the right tone and themes.

The aesthetics are also on point Blood transferred. The Victorian-inspired environment of Yharnam is a familiar and comfortable environment that we are used to from horror. The mixing of the godless atrocities that the player is fighting feels really transgressive in the sense of a Gothic horror story. All of this is underlined by the gameplay. Blood transferred‘s action mechanics often don’t make players feel empowered, they usually emphasize how weak they actually are. Depending on the player’s skill level, it may even be impossible to face common enemies yourself. Yharnam is full of traps and ambushes that give players a sense of fear and paranoia as they venture into town. Even the insight mechanic reveals more of the mystery of Blood transferred.

An unknown person in World of Horror.

World of horror is also a game that deals well with the themes of Lovecraft horror. Its old-school graphics set it apart from its competitors. It feels like a game that should be on the original Gameboy, which makes the Lovecraft and Junji Ito-inspired creature designs all the more terrifying.

The gameplay itself works incredibly well with Lovecraftian Horror because it’s a game that many players won’t complete. The game is structured like a board game, with each new playthrough having different winning conditions and monsters that you have to face – remember Arkham horror. As the player manages their health and sanity, they will have to roam the map solving puzzles that will reward them with keys that will unlock the final boss.

The great thing about it World of horror is his use of failure as a mechanic. As in some games, if you fail you will have to start over. Nothing inherits from previous games so the only thing the player brings with them is knowledge of past mistakes. There will be many runs where success is impossible. Perhaps the player does not have enough health or sanity to finish the remaining battles, or a much-needed item is locked away for lack of resources. The inevitable feeling of fear and possible failure haunts the player throughout each playthrough.

Making a Lovecraftian video game is certainly very difficult, and I don’t plan to dissuade people from games that take themes and aesthetics from the genre. Hell, if there’s a skin in a game that has tentacles on its face, I absolutely get it. For a game to be truly Lovecraftian, however, it has to be transgressive. It must feel almost wrong sometimes to play. It has to make us question things that we take for granted.

The only way for the unknown to scare us is to be truly unknown.

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