Being afraid has been part of the human experience since our inception. Culturally, horror can be traced back to fairy tales and allegorical stories meant to protect children and impart moral lessons. This has taken many forms over the years, but one specific sub-genre of horror has perhaps been the most impactful in our current culture; Cosmic Horror. This fascinating sub-genre has been adapted into almost every form of media: short stories, novels, short TV series, and even some films. But, there is one medium that has had an abnormally hard time effectively creating products of this genre. This medium is, of course, video games.
What is Cosmic Horror?
To understand why this is, we must first understand what Cosmic Horror is. It was a specific type of horror writing popularized in the early 1900’s; pioneered by the now famous H.P. Lovecraft. This sub-genre was a combination of sci-fi and psychological horror; Lovecraft blended the genres, combining tropes and practices from both while adding his own dark sense of pessimism. All powerful, apathetic cosmic entities, forbidden knowledge, dark magic, unreliable narrators, literally indescribable monsters, abundant use of adjectives, all of these concepts are “must haves” to create even the most basic Lovecraftian tale. But one element above all else embodies what Cosmic Horror represents; Cosmic Pessimism.
Cosmic Pessimism, a term while not coined by Lovecraft or directly addressed in his writings, is the core philosophy behind the majority of his work. Described by Eugene Thacker in his book, aptly titled, Cosmic Pessimism: “The contours of cosmic pessimism are a drastic scaling-up or scaling-down of the human point of view, the inhuman orientation of deep space and deep time, and all of this shadowed by an impasse, a primordial insignificance”. To put it simply, cosmic pessimism states that humans as a species, and all the collective achievements and knowledge we have accrued, are utterly insignificant on a cosmological scale. It states that we simply do not, and likely will not every truly matter. Lovecraft himself mirrored this sentiment in his primary, and his most well-known antagonist, Cthulhu.
The Basics of Game Design.
Let’s take a moment from the dark reaches of the cosmos to look at something slightly more pleasant, game design. You don’t have to be an E.A.E. (Entertainment Arts and Engineering) major to know that most games go by a simple design philosophy; the game presents the player with a set of increasingly difficult challenges to overcome and a series of rewards to be gained from completing said challenges. In other words, challenge + accomplishment or reward = gratification. While not all games go by this model, and it is extremely simplified, it does encompass a huge portion of game design philosophy and understanding this is key to understanding why Cosmic horror doesn’t mesh well with games.
It is at this point I believe we find the first major hurtle most games and game designers face when approaching Cosmic Horror. These two core philosophies clash by nature. Games require that the player feels rewarded for succeeding in the challenges placed before them; what’s the point of playing a game if there’s no reward? No light at the end of the tunnel? In the majority of Lovecraft’s tales, the protagonist rarely survives; and if they do, they don’t survive with their sanity intact.
Many stories go so far as to say, “death is usually preferable in these two cases”. So much so, in many of Lovecraft’s stories, the narrative is presented as a recap of past events in the form of the protagonist’s suicide note. Not the best set up for a game.
The argument could be made that survival, can and should, be the reward in these kinds of games; and there is some credibility in this. Many other horror games present survival as the primary goal of the protagonist. But even in these games, the majority of cases still have the player defeat or outwit the antagonist. This still doesn’t work with Cosmic Horror.
The Cthulhu Problem.
Cthulhu can never be an end boss; his, as well as all other cosmic entities which comprise the genre, presence doesn’t represent the protagonist’s end; but humanities. The key defining feature of cosmic entities in this genre is absolute destruction. This is where cosmic pessimism comes into play. Humankind is so far below these creatures, that the mere moment they enter the fray, it is already over.
We can never have Cthulhu as a boss because he just wins. Period. The moment Cthulhu is presented in a context in which the protagonist can defeat him is the moment the game has lost its credibility as a cosmic horror title. This does not mean that cosmic horror games lack the possibility of an antagonist. The few games which got cosmic horror right, instead have the player face the cults which worship said cosmic entities.
Games like; Eternal Darkness, and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, have the player match wits with vile cultists instead of their cosmic overlords. This functions extremely well on a surface level; the cultists act as a stand-in for their all-powerful gods, presenting the danger of cosmic entities without having the protagonist face them directly. This structure comes extremely close to being a strong representation of true Lovecraftian style but falls slightly short.
The Curse of Pursuit.
Games in which the player faces representations of cosmic entities still encounter one glaring issue; a principal I like to call The Curse of Pursuit. Simply, in any “true to form” cosmic horror story, the moment the protagonist attempts to pursue any form of action, they have already lost. This may seem absurd, but it ultimately holds true.
Lovecraft believed that the human mind was greatly susceptible to corruption or irrevocable damage from inhuman knowledge. In nearly all of his stories, the moment the main character chooses to pursue their inquisitiveness, be it opening an ancient tome, venturing into the decrepit house, or even dreaming the wrong dream, they have already lost.
This idea of gaining corrupting knowledge has been adapted well in some Lovecraftian styled games; often represented by a “Sanity Bar”, Eternal Darkness being the first game to design this feature. But this ultimately comes down to being a gameplay function which only scratches the surface of the core philosophy. The truth of it is, if the player presses go, moves forward, or in any way tries to progress the game, he should by Lovecraft’s standards lose the game.
How to Mix Oil and Water.
What this leaves us with, from a game design standpoint, are very little options. Ultimately, if a game is to hold absolutely true to Cosmic Horror techniques and philosophy, it wouldn’t really be a game. Or at the very least it wouldn’t be a very fun one. So, this leaves us with a decision, what should we do if we really want to make a Lovecraft styled game? I present to options:
1: Ignore the finer points of Lovecraft’s philosophies in regard to technical design.
Take Bloodborne for example. This game does an amazing job incorporating Cosmic Horror into both its narrative and core gameplay mechanics. The game’s aesthetic is dripping with a Victorian / Gothic style Lovecraft was known for; I would even dare to say that some of Bloodborne’s monsters are better than Lovecraft’s!
On top of that, the narrative is so Lovecraftian it hurts; for the player character to combat the cosmic entities existing within the universe, they must become the very monster they pursue. They do this of course, by consuming cosmic entity essence in the form of blood; hence the name, Bloodborne. This works on both fronts, the player gets the satisfaction of progressing the story and has enemies they are capable of defeating; but, they have also already lost the moment the story begins. By becoming they very thing they seek to destroy, they lose their very humanity, and by the end their sanity.
This idea is not only extremely Lovecraftian in nature, but also reflects the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
2: Break traditional game design practices and have a game focused primarily on narrative.
This is by far the riskier choice and one I have yet to see implemented well. Here I posit one could design a game that understands The Curse of Pursuit and uses it as a narrative device. The game designer could allow the player to make the common mistakes frequent in Lovecraft’s protagonists, and all the consequences therein, or allow them to simply walk away.
By making this the core of the narrative and molding the story around it, one could create a truly unique, Lovecraftian game. It would show the decent into madness, slowly and deliberately alongside the player’s actions. The game wouldn’t be as fun as it would be gripping and reflective. It could even take a meta route, presenting the player directly at fault; it could ignore the fourth wall altogether and place real responsibility in the player’s lap. The game could tell the player “You did this. You chose this. This is your fault.”
This would take the previously mentioned model, and turn it on its head. The player would be acting in their own worse interest, doing so because games have conditioned them to do so. This would then act as both a statement on video games and human nature; constant success and gratification create complacency and arrogance, sometimes there is no victory in action, only survival in inaction. This kind of game could be amazing narratively but would take a great deal of time and subtly to complete properly. I would take the route of a Telltale game, or a branching path RPG.
Overall, I believe Cosmic Horror is one of the most interesting and unique forms of horror; I find that by its very nature, Cosmic Horror opposes to the principles of basic game design. Because of its strict rules and pessimistic nature, it doesn’t allow for an easy transition into an interactive media. At least that is, by using the current standards and practices for game design as we know them. In the end, it is possible to make a truly Lovecraftian game; but to do so would require going against what we normally think of as game design. Doable, but only by twisting the rules of game design, as Lovecraft himself twisted the rules of horror.