The Resurgence of Lovecraftian Themes in Video Games
Due to external influences and internal struggles, all forms of entertainment evolve into different “periods” over time. Over the last decade, many video games have revived and incorporated tropes and themes from the writings of one early-20th century author, creating what may be a new period in gaming history: the Lovecraftian.
Some may – erroneously – believe this to be merely a golden age for the survival horror genre. While I would agree that survival horror is experiencing such a renaissance, the games I’ve profiled here bear little resemblance to each other outside of a common, Lovecraftian influence. While pinning these titles into a single genre is nigh impossible, all of them fall easily within the confines of the broadly-defined action category.
H. P. Lovecraft’s Influence
To begin this analysis of the new Lovecraftian period, we must first look at the work of its namesake: Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Since he published “Dagon” in 1917, H. P. Lovecraft and his brand of cosmic horror have had a lasting influence on media creators. Much like his predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft was dismissed in his own time as a writer of dreck, and never found financial success – or even stability – in his lifetime. He was well-known in the “weird fiction” genre, however, and had extensive connections to fellow pulp authors, such as Robert E. Howard and August Derleth.
It was Derleth who expanded Lovecraft’s most famous body of work into a full-blown universe-theory: the Cthulhu Mythos. These stories – both those written by Lovecraft and later contributions from Derleth – revolve around humans’ interactions with a pantheon of ancient, forgotten gods: eldritch abominations who inevitably drive their mortal thralls crazy. This mass-insanity stems from the concept of a god as a higher being in possession of a power and a presence too great for human minds to fathom. As a result, the Elder Gods, Outer Gods, and Great Old Ones can render a person completely insane with only their image or presence.
Lovecraft’s thematic fear of the unknown – present in both his Poe-inspired stories and his cosmic horror tales – and Derleth’s capacity for world-building influenced novelists and filmmakers throughout the 20th century. Several video and tabletop games centered around the Cthulhu Mythos were released during that time, but 2008’s Dead Space was the first AAA-title in the incipient Lovecraftian period.
Dead Space Ushers in a New Era of Survival Horror
When gamers talk about the rejuvenated survival horror genre, the conversation will work its way around to the Dead Space trilogy. That is, if it didn’t start there in the first place. Visceral Games’s most famous franchise puts players in the role of Isaac Clarke: an engineer who responds to a distress signal from a mining vessel, only to find the ship has been overrun by the reanimated and mutated corpses of its crew.
Isaac learns that the ship has retrieved a relic, known as the Red Marker, which causes almost any human in close proximity to experience vivid hallucinations, fits of rage, and suicidal ideations. Anyone who dies after being exposed to the Marker may be reanimated by the virus it carries. Being sacred to the popular Unitology religion, the Red Marker was brought aboard upon discovery.
Throughout the trilogy, Isaac must fight to survive, not only against the murderous Necromorphs and Unitologist zealots, but also against his own crumbling sanity. Like Lovecraft’s stories, Dead Space gives the audience a protagonist who is being driven mad by a cosmic abomination. Players experience Isaac’s hallucinations and delusions as if they were their own, an element that adds more to the game’s overall ambiance than its violence and gore.
Destiny Draws Heavily on Lovecraft for World-Building
Many new horror games launched after Dead Space proved successful, but a survival horror title wouldn’t be the next major installment in the Lovecraftian period. Instead, it would come from a company with a history of using eldritch abominations as villains.
When Destiny launched in 2014, gamers were expecting lots of things, but Lovecraft’s brand of horror wasn’t on the list. Still, it wasn’t entirely surprising when two of the villainous races in Destiny – the Vex and the Hive – turned out to have Lovecraftian elements in their lore. Developer Bungie’s former franchise, Halo, featured the Flood: an almost invincible race of parasites controlled by a telepathic hivemind. Most Destiny gameplay bears little resemblance to anything Lovecraft and Derleth wrote, but its raid activities revolve almost entirely around cosmic horrors.
The game’s first raid, the Vault of Glass, is “a place that is a time before or after the stars,” inhabited by the Vex. This race of sentient robots is born in the Black Garden. This location – like the Vault – exists outside of measurable time and space. The Black Garden is the source of an “abominable presence,” which the Vex, who were unable to understand it, began instead to worship and emulate.
The Vault is, in theory, a passage the Vex use to travel through time and space. Its first boss, the Templar, is fittingly described as “a [creature] of impossible capabilities – a creature out of time.” These small hints at Lovecraftian themes make the Destiny companion app’s description of Atheon, the final Vault of Glass boss, even more impressive:
To speak of Atheon is to accept certain limitations. We are ill-equipped to understand an entity that defies simple causality. Let us accept these limitations and proceed.
Atheon waits in the Vault of Glass. Just as Atheon sidesteps ‘past’ and ‘future’, [sic] it is impossible to say whether Atheon created the Vault or the Vault created Atheon. Causal pathways converge on Atheon from every axis in the space-time bulk.
Outside of the Vault and its inhabitants’ unknowable aspects, the Vex lack a distinct Lovecraftian feel. Little is mentioned of the Vault of Glass having the ability to drive mad those who dare to conquer it, and the Black Garden has not – according to current knowledge – corrupted any members of the Light-aligned races in Destiny.
However, the exact opposite is true for Crota’s End: the second Destiny raid. Crota is the Hive’s god-king, who led them to conquer the Moon and then retreated to a parallel realm of his own making. The Hive worship an array of wicked gods, of which Crota is the youngest member. His creator, Oryx, is the ultimate god in the Hive pantheon.
Oryx’s name will be familiar to cosmic horror fans, as it bears a striking similarity to Orryx: one of the Great Old Ones. Orryx is not one of Lovecraft’s original creations, but was instead added to the Cthulhu Mythos by Derleth. He is described as a pillar of white and purple light who blinds those who look at him for too long. Derleth’s Orryx bears little resemblance to the Hive god in Destiny. Oryx is a mystery to the Light-aligned races, and Crota, his creation and servant, is the closest any guardian has come to him.
Destiny players first learn of Crota through Eris Morn, the sole survivor of a fireteam who failed to eliminate him. Her fascination with the Hive gods borders on insanity, but her mental illness is not fueled by survivor’s guilt. All the members of that ill-fated fireteam succumbed to madness in the depths of Crota’s world, even the legendary Toland, who claimed the Darkness itself told him secrets. After losing her comrades, Eris spent years lost and alone in Crota’s dark realm. In that time, she lost an eye to the Hive; as an act of revenge, and partly driven by her obsession with Crota and Oryx, she took three Hive eyes – eyes she now uses and that weep forever – in exchange.
That the world created by Crota’s own power could drive someone to self-mutilation is obviously characteristic of eldritch horror, but Destiny doesn’t stop there. Both the Vex and the Hive willingly participate in ritual sacrifices to their deities. The Hive undergo painful transformation rituals in order to ascend their ranks. These cultic ceremonies ring with Lovecraftian themes, though some of them, admittedly, seem to have come more by way of Clive Barker than from Lovecraft himself.
Bloodborne Takes on the Cthulhu Mythos
Like Destiny, From Software’s Bloodborne keeps its Lovecraftian influence under wraps. Like the developer’s infamous Souls series, Bloodborne takes time to beat and dedication to master. It isn’t until players are halfway in that they begin to discover the game’s ties to the Cthulhu Mythos.
The Great Ones are not-of-this-world deity-like figures in Bloodborne, who have contacted and shaped humanity since its existence. Players are tasked with killing these beings, who are planning to shift creation’s power dynamic entirely. After coming in contact with the first Great One, players begin having what, at first glance, appear to be vivid hallucinations. As they collect Insight, players start to see the dark and weird things present in their world; new creatures, attacks, and events come to light.
The concept of hidden knowledge as dangerous comes up a lot in the Cthulhu stories, but in Bloodborne – as in Destiny – Lovecraftian influences are largely subtle. Die-hard fans will recognize them on sight, in spite of developers’ tendencies toward vagueness, but those less familiar with the Cthulhu cosmology will view these eldritch moments as little more than creative applications of horror in non-horror titles.
Even Indie Games Are in on the Trend
Triple-A, mainstream titles are the focus of this article, but their developers are certainly not the only ones bringing cosmic horror to the video game fold. Indie developers have been making Lovecraft-inspired titles for years, and we would be remiss not to mention some of them here.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent launched on PC in 2010 to become an immediate cult-classic, spawning play-in-the-dark challenges, downloadable content, and a 2013 sequel, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Like Dead Space, this PC title was labeled a survival horror game with little to no analysis of its Lovecraftian elements. Yet the game’s plot makes it feel as if Amnesia is an adaptation of an unpublished Lovecraft story.
Then there’s Phantasmal: City of Darkness, a procedurally-generated roguelike set in the Kowloon Walled City. Developer Eyemobi isn’t shy about its admiration of Lovecraft, and that the game is inspired by the writer’s twisted works has been a major marketing point. While Dead Space deals heavily with the protagonist’s madness, Phantasmal includes an insanity meter, which fills as the player comes in contact with the game’s monstrous enemies. Taken along with the game’s penchants for tentacles and cryptic runes, this meter cements the eldritch horror feel of Phantasmal.
Lovecraft fans will be quick to tell you about the many recent indie games that are direct adaptations of the author’s work, which include the Call of Cthulhu series, Cthulhu Saves the World, and At the Mountains of Madness, among others. While these games are of obvious importance when discussing the Lovecraftian period, some gamers will agree with me when I say that these titles are too close to the source material to accurately show how weird fiction is influencing game development today.
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