Moon Chases Sun

Moon Chases Sun
Cthulhu: Why so difficult?

Allen Varney | 19 Jun 2007 08:01
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• Lovecraft's protagonists aren't two-fisted heroes but alienated, antiquarian intellectuals. (Hmm, wonder why?) A Mythos tale is an investigation, a painstaking piecing together of clues. "Throwing tentacles into your game doesn't make it Lovecraftian," says Tynes. "His terror is interior. The fear comes from sudden comprehension of a hideous truth, not from a monster at the door." This makes for, shall we say, rarefied gameplay, not to mention poor re-playability.

• One key Lovecraftian theme is corruption of the self. The narrator is shocked and horrified to discover he's really a Deep One, possessed by the Great Race, etc. How would the gaming audience greet this revelation? "Cool! What powers do I get?"

That last point highlights the deepest, and perhaps fatal, difference between pure Lovecraft and pure gaming. Gameplay is about, not "powers" as such, but agency - the ability to actively influence the environment. Lovecraft's investigators actively seek answers to mysteries, yet this usually brings them to a terrifying realization of ultimate futility: Humanity's reign is temporary and must inevitably fail; in the immensity of space and time, we are powerless and trivial. The Mythos entities, the Elder Gods who once ruled and will rule again, are not "evil" (a narrow human concept) but inscrutably alien. Humans can't comprehend them, and the attempt brings madness and death.

Yet in a computer game, you want to comprehend and gain influence. By some definitions, that's the entire point of playing a game! Futility may be a fact, but it isn't fun.


Game designer Jeff Grubb observes about Cthuloid lore, "Nobody makes any money off this stuff." He means, not reprints of Lovecraft's work, which can be lucrative, but new pop-cult Mythos spinoffs. Jeff speculates:

I don't think we're ever going to hit that sweet spot, that over-the-top moment where Cthulhu rises over the western ocean like Pokemon and turns into a national craze. Instead, I think it will enter our popular culture of the "things people know without really knowing," that Sheldrake/Gaia level where everyone knows that Supes is Clark Kent, and D&D uses a Dungeon Master and has levels and hit points. It is mired in its own hobby-dom, the realm of those more interested in it as a subject than as a marketing plan. And, all things considered, I'm OK with that.

Lovecraft's message will never be popular, either in computer games or society. But like Jeff, we should be OK with that. The insight embodied in the Cthulhu Mythos stories will still keep attracting disciples with its one fundamental, undeniable strength: Like it or not, it's true. We remember great writers because they convey what we call "timeless truths"; Lovecraft unblinkingly conveys truth, with its awful implications for humanity, on a time scale of thousands, millions of years.

And just as in Lovecraft's stories, the truth - unlike his doomed protagonists - survives.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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