Well kiddies, it’s getting to be that time of year again — my favorite time of year — Halloween. All Hallows’ Eve. Samhain. Consequently, it’s about time I start focusing on the, ahem, season-appropriate video games.
H.P. Lovecraft is, in my mind, the single most influential figure in horror. His work was ahead of his time, and to this day it remains chilling. Cthulhu, Dagon, Yog-Sothoth, shoggoths, night gaunts — the list goes on. Lovecraft did for horror what Tolkien did for fantasy: he didn’t just write stories, he constructed an entire universe.
Wander through the horror section at your local Blockbuster and you can find direct adaptations like Re-Animator and From Beyond, or Lovecraft-inspired films like John Carpenter’s The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness. Lovecraft is ingrained in the horror genre in all available forms, including video games.
And that brings me to the meat and potatoes of the article before you. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005) is based on Lovecraft’s story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and it is one of the most effective horror games I’ve ever played — and that’s saying a lot.
Set in the 1920’s, players take control of Jack Walters, a private investigator who is sent to the New England town of Innsmouth on a missing persons case. Investigating Innsmouth is fairly mundane at first, since that’s exactly what you’re doing: investigating. But, before long, you find yourself stranded in the little village and the townsfolk seem to be getting a bit uppity. Your peaceful evening at the local inn is interrupted when a mob of angry villagers attack and try to murder you. From there, the game is a lot of cat and mouse, puzzle-solving, and combat.
Before I continue, I need to get something out of the way. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is broken. The developers, building this game as something of a passion project, were shut down before the game was completed. They rushed through as much as they could, trying to polish it up and make it playable — and it is, but barely. But go back two paragraphs and read what I wrote: “Call of Cthulhu…is one of the most effective horror games I’ve ever played — and that’s saying a lot.”
You see, despite all of the bugs, CoC: DCotE is still amazing. It is intense and creepy and it oozes Lovecraft. I only wish I could have played a completed version.
I’m sure many will look at CoC and think it looks like a janky First Person Shooter with elements of exploration and puzzle-solving, and, to an extent, that’s exactly what it is. What makes it so different is its pace. Players won’t pick up a weapon until they’ve put in two or three hours. The game encourages deliberate exploration…to an extent.
While uncovering the truth behind Innsmouth is important, there are some things that are better left unknown. That is where the sanity effects — the coolest mechanic in the game — come into play. You see, Jack is just a simple human being. And, like all human beings, Jack has a breaking point. Stare at a gruesome murder for too long and Jack will start to panic. His vision will blur and his motor functions will deteriorate. Eventually, if Jack is under too much stress for too long a time, he will suffer from total sanity failure. If he happens to be holding a gun at that point, he’s going to use it…on himself. Game over. Jack’s sanity is just as deadly as any of the derranged townsfolk or murderous fishmen.
So, if you’re excited about Halloween and thinking about playing something scary, I’d recommend picking up Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. It’s got a lot of flaws, but if you can make it past those, you’ll find a very atmospheric game, complete with both physical and psychological horror. The downside is that it’s only available on PC and original Xbox — your best bet is picking it up off of Steam for the low low price of $9.99.
Also, if you never have, I’d recommend picking up a collection Lovecraft’s stories. The language is a little dense, but the contents is unbeatable.