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Mythos Video Games Through the Ages

In MU Podcast episode 53, Ethan wrote in to give us an encyclopedia of digital Lovecraft gaming material. It was too long to put in the regular show notes, so it gets its own post here.

Hi guys, I’m getting caught up on some of your recent episodes, and recently listened to Episode 49 where you talk about Lovecraftian video games. There are actually quite a lot of these, and I keep inflicting them on myself so others don’t have to, so I thought I’d give a partial chronology along with my thoughts on the ones I’ve played. Cheers, -Ethan

(This is not meant to be anything like a complete list – I’m sure there are many I don’t know about, and for the sake of brevity I’ve omitted non-horror games and games with only a tenuous Mythos connection such as a name-drop or a borrowed monster.)

1987
The Lurking Horror: A text adventure by Infocom, the creators of the “Zork” series. Reputed to be good; I haven’t played it myself. The Lovecraft Ezine has a link to a free download.

1992
Alone in the Dark: The series credited with launching the “survival horror” genre, the original AitD had numerous Lovecraft elements sprinkled throughout it, including this extremely coolgame-over screen. Unfortunately, the graphics and controls have not aged gracefully (the humans look like twisted blasphemies of hyper-Euclidian biology, while the monsters look like adorable googley-eyed plush toys), so it’s likely only of interest to the nostalgic or those curious about gaming history. Available on GOG.

1993
Shadow of the Comet: A licensed COC adventure game set in the New England fishing town of “Illsmouth”, where a great deal of Mythos activity has been stirred up by the return of Halley’s Comet. Not particularly scary, but those who enjoyed the classic Sierra adventure games may find this to be a nicely squid-flavoured similarity. (Though purists may be annoyed by the “thwart multiple Outer Gods before breakfast” storyline.) I’m not aware of it ever being re-released, so you’re probably off to e-bay for this one.

1995
The Prisoner of Ice: Another officially licensed adventure game, this one begins aboard a submarine that picks up a mysterious cargo while enroute to an Antarctic rescue mission. Naturally, nothing whatsoever goes wrong. Another one you’ll probably have to find on e-bay.

1998
Anchorhead: A text adventure set in an Innsmouth-like coastal village, but there’s far more than fish-men afoot here. Surprisingly good (it’s often considered one of the best text adventures of all time), it’s also available as a free download at Interactive Fiction Archive, so you’ve got no excuse not to try it. (Note: You may need to download a text adventure program like Frotz, also free, in order to run it.)

2001
Necronomicon: The Dawning of Darkness: A point-and-click adventure adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Sadly, this game is badly marred by what was blatantly a rushed release, with many points where it’s clear that there was meant to be a puzzle or a story element that was just never finished. The cutscenes and voice acting are also rather embarrassing at times. I want to like this game – it’s obvious that someone involved genuinely cared about Lovecraft, and there are even a few effective bits, particularly a creepy conversation about alchemy with a brain-in-a-jar and a pretty cool rendition of a “City of the Great Race” towards the end. However, with its glaring flaws it’s impossible to recommend to any but the most patient and forgiving Lovecraft fans. Available on GamersGate.

2002
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem: An action/adventure game for the Nintendo Gamecube that plays out like a series of Mythos vignettes in various times and places (ancient jungle ruins, a church on the battlefields of WWI, vast alien underground cities, etc.), connected by a “hub story” of a young woman learning all these tales while trying to solve the murder of a relative. As your characters lose sanity, the game starts to mess with them in creative ways – including psych-outs aimed at the players themselves, such as flashing a “controller unplugged” message just as monsters swoop down on you. Widely regarded as one of the best horror games of all time, this one is tons of fun.

Dark Fall: The Journal: A first person adventure game set in an abandoned train station haunted by a series of ghosts as well as a more malevolent and alien presence. The game is clearly inspired by the second story-arc of Sapphire and Steel (which I loved) – not explicitly Lovecraftian, but with enough similarities to please. I’ve left the two sequels off this list as they strayed somewhat from the formula. Available on GOG and Steam.

2005
Dark Corners of the Earth: a COC-licensed first-person shooter set in Innsmouth. Haven’t played it, as shooters aren’t really my thing. Available on Gamersgate and Steam.

2006
Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened: Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu! A third-person adventure game. I played it years ago but hardly remember a thing about it, so I suppose I’d have to call it “forgettable” – not awful (I’d remember that), just not particularly impressive. Available on Steam.

Scratches: A first-person adventure game set in a spooky old house; by the same creator as the upcoming Kickstarter game Asylum. Scratches is not explicitly Lovecraftian, but the influences are definitely there. Unfortunately, the story is very predictable, and some of the puzzle design is downright irritating (the player often can’t “solve” things until the infuriatingly slow-witted main character figures them out). Available on GOG and Steam.

Trilby’s Notes: The third game in the “Chzo Mythos” series of adventure games by internet personality Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of Zero Punctuation fame). This is the first game in the series to go in a heavily Lovecraftian direction, and is my personal favourite – the previous two games were more directly influenced by the Friday the 13th movies. The entire series is, in order: 5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby’s Notes, and 6 Days a Sacrifice – I enjoyed all of them except the second one, which suffers from the usual curse that attends a horror series that suddenly decides to pack its bags and move to outer space. All can be downloaded for free from the creator’s website.

Barrow Hill: Curse of the Ancient Circle: A first-person adventure title set in an isolated patch of Cornwall where everyone has mysteriously disappeared (leaving behind suspicious piles of goo). Not explicitly Lovecraftian (its most obvious inspiration is the classic Dr. Who episode “The Stones of Blood”), but will probably appeal to fans anyway. I’m very fond of this game – if you can get past the somewhat low production values, the rendition of the Cornish countryside feels compellingly real and very immersive. Available on GamersGate.

2007
Darkness Within: In Pursuit of Loath Nolder: In this first-person adventure game, a police detective must solve the murder of a wealthy occultist while slowly losing control over his own faculties. The game features an interesting clue mechanic, in which the investigator hunts through old journals and tomes and underlines clues, which he then “combines” in his “brain” in much the way that most adventure games would have you combine items in your inventory. This is one of the most authentically Lovecraftian games I’ve ever played, and I highly recommend it. It avoids the usual pitfalls of excessive monsters, excessive gore, and excessive Mythos name-dropping, and instead relies on good old-fashioned storytelling and atmosphere to get the job done. The clue mechanic, which could easily have been gimmicky, actually felt very well implemented. Available on Desura and Gamersgate

2010
Darkness Within 2: The Dark Lineage: Sequel to the previous game. I haven’t played it yet – it’s reputed to be good, but not as good as the original. Available on Desura and Gamergate.

2011
Alpha Polaris: A third-person adventure title in which a science team at an isolate Arctic petroleum research facility are beset by an ancient presence that starts to twist their sanity. Not explicitly Mythos-related, and production values are on the low side, but I still enjoyed this one quite a bit (I have a soft spot for arctic horror, and a few of the puzzles even required a bit of actual thinking). Available on GamersGate.

2012
The Wasted Land: A WWI tactical RPG with a Mythos storyline. Originally a mobile game; unfortunately, I found the PC version too buggy and unstable to play, so I don’t have much to say about it – the little bit I played had awkward controls, and couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be pulpy or creepy in tone. Available on Gamersgate and Steam

2013
The Occult Chronicles: sort of a mashup of Arkham Horror, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and other board game influences, The Occult Chronicles is a viciously difficult roguelike that has you exploring an old mansion as an agent of the Occult Defense Directorate (O.D.D.) and attempting to defeat the evils within. Agents can specialize in different areas (combat, psychic talents, magic, etc), and the game plays out very differently depending on the skills you favour. (For example, my first agent was an O.D.D. accountant who was great at negotiating with demons, but died when he was unable to explain optimal economic decision matrices to a pack of zombies.) Skill checks, including combat, are resolved via a Tarot trick-taking mini-game, which I initially found off-putting but soon got used to. The beta release I played still had some balance issues and a few bugs, but they may have been resolved by now. Overall it was fun while it lasted, but I could imagine the various quests getting a bit repetitive before too long. Available on the publisher’s website. (Incidentally, the publisher’s earlier game Armageddon Empires is a super-cool post-apocalyptic strategy game with an entire playable Cthulhu-inspired race, but I haven’t put it on the list as it’s not really a horror game. But seriously – Cthulhu vs. Skynet vs. The Lord Humungus vs. mutants riding dinosaurs! Check it out.)

Eldritch: A first-person roguelike with Minecraft-style blocky graphics. I had initially dismissed it as “cutethulhu” based on early screenshots, but have since been informed that it actually tries to take its horror atmosphere seriously, so I may need to check it out at some point. Available on Steam.

The Future!
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: An adventure game that looks to be inspired by a mixture of Lovecraft and M.R. James. Expected to release sometime this year. The creator’s website is here.

Night of the Cephalopds: I’m not sure what the status of this project is (possibly defunct), and it’s not the type of game I would normally put on this list, except for one thing: it’s supposed to feature a “Lovecraft 3000 Dynamic Narration System” in which an in-game narrator describes everything you do in the prose style of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m guessing that can’t possibly be as cool in execution as it sounds on paper, but on the other hand, it sounds seriously freaking cool on paper… Project website can be found here.

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