Why Games Do Cthulhu Wrong – The Problem with Horror Games

Here is why games generally use Cthulhu so poorly. The answer is fairly simple- Cthulhu isn’t a creature.

It’s an idea. An existential terror. Cthulhu represents our fear of the possibility of our own human smallness. Cthulhu presents us with the revelation of forces that are so much larger than us that they’re beyond our control- or even our understanding. The fear in Cthulhu is in how it shatters our fundamental understanding of our own importance in the universe. To look on Cthulhu is to go mad. This is why it can’t be an enemy in a game. It can’t simply be a squiddy monstrosity that we’re meant to fight. It can’t even be a giant tentacled boss, because the moment I can shoot Cthulhu in the face is the moment that Cthulhu loses all of its effect. The fear in Cthulhu is not that it’s powerful- it’s that it’s powerful on a scale we can’t even comprehend.

We have no way to relate its unknowable vastness and illimitable power to our own mortal abilities. To make it possible for Cthulhu to bleed; to even just give it a life bar- is to give the player some shred of hope that they might have a chance. It gives them some vector of understanding the thing they face. That’s not how Cthulhu works. And yet, all too often, games either make Cthulu an enemy or give you the goal of sealing up Cthulhu or banishing it from this plane. This shows a complete misunderstanding of what makes Cthulhu work.


I mean- remember that at the end of The Call of Cthulhu, Lovecraft has the crew of ‘The Alert’ – the vessel that finds Cthulhu- ram the eldritch creature to zero effect just to show how futile and inconsequential human actions are to it. Cthulhu can’t be an enemy or a goal. It should be a presence. An insurmountable shadow that looms over our adventures. Our desperate hope shouldn’t be in our power to withstand it, but in the possibility that maybe that we’re too inconsequential for it to notice us. Unfortunately, this goes against what games are usually about. In general, games are about empowerment. They’re about making us the hero- making us larger than life. Making us more important in their world than we could ever be in ours. And this goes directly against the fundamental terror that lurks behind Cthulhu. It’s possible, though, that we might be able to get around this in games. Parts of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, some of the Silent Hill franchise, and even System Shock 2 at times manage to deliver that disempowering sense of smallness.

But there’s another problem that goes with delivering on the idea of Cthulhu. The terror behind Cthulhu is in the fear of lack of control. While we think we’re in control, and that we’re the dominant species, and that there’s no problem that our minds can’t master, The Cthulhu mythos makes this a carefully constructed lie- maintainable only through our own ignorance. Terror and madness comes when the veil is ripped away. But how do we capture that in a game? How do we really bring in the idea of Cthulhu- the horror that true lack of control inspires? If it were me, I’d play against the expectations that games set up for us. The further into the game the player went, the more I’d make them realize how little control they actually had. The more I’d expose them to bouts of ‘Eternal Darkness’-esque insanity, and- where normal games go out of their way to point out to you just how meaningful your decisions were, I’d turn the tables, and late in the game, show the player just how meaningless- how inconsequential all of those those big decisions they thought they were making really were.

I wouldn’t guarantee the happy end you normally see from video games, either. I wouldn’t have you win. I’d have a debatable “best ending”. Is simply surviving the best ending? In the ending you got, did your character go mad? Or was the ending even what really happened? I’d force the player- as a human being, not as the character in the game- to try to make sense of the obscure. I’d also have most of the NPCs in the game not be in on the mythos.

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In the world Lovecraft creates, most people would think that any mention of the creeping things, the colors out of space, were a sign of madness. If the player tried to talk to them about the experiences they were having, they’d simply be shunned- or possibly thrown into a ward. Because part of Cthulhu is isolation. It’s having an experience the world needs to know but that no-ones’s willing to accept. Part of Cthulhu is in questioning your own sanity, and having to ask your rational self whether it’s more reasonable to think that the entire world is ignorant to their peril, or that you yourself just might have gone mad. For those of you that have played the ‘Call of Cthulhu’ role-playing game, you know that it’s perhaps one of the best systems for capturing this. And much of that lies in the fact that every character is, in the end, doomed to madness. They aren’t precious or mighty. They aren’t even heroes. They’re simply people trying to follow their curiosity to its inevitable end. So to use Cthulhu right, to create a game that’s not about some big, scary-looking cephalopod, but is really about delivering the terror that Cthulhu evokes in Lovecraft stories, we have to turn much of what we know about games on their head.

First, we have to get rid of the idea that Cthulhu is a creature to be overcome or defeated. Then, like in most truly good horror, we have to move away from an empowerment fantasy: instead, allowing us to feel disempowered while safely ensconced in our own rooms. And lastly, we have to move away from the feeling of control- the feeling of agency that almost all games impart simply by their nature as part of an an interactive medium. And to do that, we’re really going to have to play against the expectations that years of playing have instilled in most of us.

We’ll have to upset the player’s sense of control in both the narrative and the play without interrupting the flow of gameplay itself, and, in the end, leave them questioning their character’s sanity. If we can do all of that, if we can move away from fighting Cthuhlu to living in a world where its existence exerts an inexorable force on existence itself, perhaps, when you turn off the controller and tuck under the covers for the night, maybe we can leave you awake- staring into the dark, wondering what really is outside the window. What sits waiting just past the dimness you can see. Maybe we can leave you with that horror and that smallness that Lovecraft brings. If- that’s what you really want, of course. Sweet dreams..

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