You're Just Not Scary Anymore, Cthulhu 

Squidface elder god devotee.

I wanted to be frightened of Cyanide Studio’s new Lovecraftian horror game, but the scariest thing about Call of Cthulhu is the sloppy stealth action segments that try to add tension to an otherwise casual adventure game.

Back in 1981, when Chaosium first published the tabletop role-playing game on which Call of Cthulhu is based, the idea of twisted elder gods living in the salty depths of the ocean was terrifying. In those pre-internet days, occult ideas and concepts took firmer seed in young minds.

Younger me suffered quite a few nightmares based on the work of noted American horror writer/racist H.P. Lovecraft, dreams where I struggled not only with hideous tentacled beasts, but the concept of inescapable encroaching insanity. It was heavy stuff.

These days Cthulhu and friends just don’t hold the same power. Why not? Who’s to say, really. Perhaps the internet has given the nightmare prone among us a refuge from the dark night.

Maybe reality has proven more frightening than tales of eldritch horror. Or it could be the fact that I can buy an adorable Cthulhu plushie from Target.

Oh my god his little Dreamcast belly button,.

Regardless of the reasons, the watering down of the Deep Ones lends a campy air to Lovecraftian fiction, especially when it’s as by-the-book as Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu, out today for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC.

The game casts the player as Edward Pierce, an alcoholic 1920s detective hired by a wealthy industrialist to investigate the mysterious death of his daughter’s family. The daughter, an eccentric artist known for her disturbing paintings, lived with her son and husband on Darkwater Island, a remote whaling community off the coast of Massachusetts.

It’s like a Lovecraftian tale checklist:

  • Deeply flawed investigator (with trenchcoat)

  • Remote water-based location

  • Run-down town filled with working class folks suspicious of outsiders

  • Mysterious deaths that possibly corrupt local authorities rule accidental

  • Tons of occult artwork

  • Conveniently located asylum/hospital

Our hero admires an occult painting in the mansion of one of the small whaling community’s random filthy rich residents.

In the hours I’ve played Call of Cthulhu on Steam, nothing unexpected has happened. The accidental death? Not an accident. The friendly locals? Not so friendly.

Is there a cult on the island worshipping a mysterious and powerful entity that probably smells of calamari? Could be. It’s down to Pierce’s keen detective skills to find out for sure.

In order to investigate, Pierce travels to different locations on the island and searches for interactive spots in the scenery. One book on a shelf full of books. One photograph in a cluttered desk drawer.

He might find a door he can open, or an item he can add to his inventory. Eventually clicking on these things will lead him to the next leg of his investigation.

Inspect the bookstore. Are you inspecting? Good.

How well Pierce investigates depends somewhat on his stats. In keeping with the game’s tabletop role-playing inspiration, Pierce earns character points as the adventure unfolds, which he can apply to one of five stats—Spot Hidden, Eloquence, Strength, Psychology and Investigation. There’s also Medicine and Occultism, but those stats are only increased through reading books or stumbling across artifacts.

The game is ridiculously free with character points. By chapter ten two of my five manually upgradable stats are completely maxxed.

Stats also affect conversations with non-player characters. Having a high enough Eloquence might allow Pierce to talk a character into something they’d normally not do. As traumatic events cause Pierce’s sanity to unravel, even more dialog options appear.

Call of Cthulhu likes to play around with madness. Different sanity states unlock as the game progresses, depending on what Pierce sees and does along the way. Something as simple as reading a cast-off book can have an impact on the mindset of our hero. As the narrative unwinds, so does Pierce’s mind, provoking odd hallucinations and enabling the occasional jump scare.

I say scare, but again, nothing really too scary. Call of Cthulhu is mostly a casual adventure, the sort of game I’d recommend to my mother, whose all-time favourites include Myst and the CSI game series. Things get a little creepy, but otherwise it’s a walk in the tentacle-infested park.

Then there’s that stealth action I mentioned. At key moments in the story, the player finds themselves tasked with quietly avoiding asylum guards or more sinister creatures.

Suddenly the casual walking isn’t so casual. Previously nonexistent tension springs to life in a most unpleasant fashion. The game attempts to use sound and icons to indicate whether Pierce is being seen by whatever is looking for him, but it’s a bit hit or miss. I’ve had a guard in my face, only to turn around and go the other way.

Entering a room containing these hiding closets makes me want to turn off the game.

These stealth sequences (and later chase sequences) ruin a perfectly lovely and relaxing adventure game. They’re attempting to get the blood rushing when the blood would rather just slowly slush about, as blood does.

Seeing as some of the game’s more dramatic narrative twists play out perfectly well in non-interactive cutscenes, these sequences weren’t necessary.

You know what’s always necessary? Copious amounts of freckles.

Without the sporadic running and hiding, Call of Cthulhu is pleasant little romp. It never gets particularly scary, but that’s just fine. In a way, it’s an affirmation that childhood fears eventually fade away, and that which once terrified us can eventually become a cuddly plushie or cute t-shirt.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn of fresh marketing ideas.


Comments

    In other words the game failed to build a tense atmosphere where it's obvious there are worse things than just death waiting around every corner. I mean while never particularly terrified of say bloodborne the game does build tension rather well and get's the adrenalin pumping. different genre of game but, in general they should be comparable by atmosphere. in fact well designed Call of Cthulhu should be more tense. a game that uses stealth compared to a game all about combat, the one that should be most tense should be obvious.

      Elder Gods, Cthulhu and their ilk, Lovecraftian horror works best when you ratchet up the tension where there is honestly not right choice between the consequences of discovery/knowledge, and death.

      I'd imagine that would be quite hard to do, except that it has been done before pretty effectively in other horror video games (Amnesia springs to mind as an easy example - I had to choose between finding out more of this fascinating story, or closing the game down and never going back).

      (note: I never finished it)

      From what I've read, the problem with this game's pacing and tension is that it is very faithful to Lovecraft. The big problem with being faithful to the works of Lovecraft (aside from obvious racism being obvious in quite a few of them) is the same with Casablanca the movie. Casablanca is ridiculously full of stereotypes, 'twists' you see from a mile off and stuff you see in every other movie. It's stupidly bland compared to modern stuff.

      And then it hits you. Casablanca wasn't full of that bad stuff, because it invented that stuff. Everything else has ripped it off. That's why Casablanca has the reputation it does.

      Lovecraft is the same. Read his works now and it's boring, slow paced, too verbose/wordy, and lacking a real punch compared to modern works. But that's because Lovecraft invented it. The sad thing is, without the tension that we've come to expect from more recent horror - like you said - it just doesn't work as well as it should.

      Wait I just did a mini essay on literary deconstruction of Lovecraft on Kotaku. What am I doing.

        Amnesia springs to mind as an easy example

        Agreed. Its core sanity system was also a masterpiece of constant conflict - situational awareness required risking being spotted, hiding required sacrificing that awareness while constantly draining your sanity and prompting hallucinations. Unlike every other game ever, hiding was akin to curling up in a ball in a dark corner and hoping the bad thing went away, while constantly imagining what it would do to you if it found you.

        ...I also never finished it. That system worked way too well.

        Essay aside, you’re pretty much on the money with your thoughts.

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