Could Cyanide's 'Call of Cthulhu' Finally Capture The Horror of Lovecraft's Books?

Could Cyanide's 'Call of Cthulhu' Finally Capture The Horror of Lovecraft's Books?

Author H.P. Lovecraft took the Gothic horror template and added an extra dimension – literally Cyanide

Video games have been trying for years to bottle the essence of H.P. Lovecraft's dark stories, but have almost always come up short

Video games have been trying for years to bottle the essence of H.P. Lovecraft's dark stories, but have almost always come up short

Of all the writers that have conjured horrors in fiction, the most ineffably terrifying was almost certainly the Providence-born H.P.Lovecraft – author of 1928's The Call of Cthulhu – whose deep and very dark journeys into parallel monster-filled dimensions has inspired everyone from Alien-doodler H.R Giger to Guillermo Del Toro, and everything from anime tentacle porn to the terrifying Upside Down world of the Netflix hit Stranger Things. And, of course, games.

It's debatable whether Frederick Reynal's 1992 survival horror classic Alone in the Dark inspired the Resident Evil series that followed, but what's not is how close it came to nailing the essence of Lovecraft's vision – a grand old Gothic house with a dreadful secret lurking beneath its floors, an outgunned hero flailing against impossible odds, a malevolent intelligence working to open a door to another dimension that will lead to the enslavement and eventual devourment of all life on Earth by things with as many eyes as teeth. Lovecraft never specified sluggish controls and impossible camera angles as obstacles in his books, but those were there too.

The author wrote in 1927 that "the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." Specifically the unknowns that drifted in the darkness of other worlds, waiting for a chance to drift into ours.

French game studio Cyanide is the latest developer to attempt to distil that essence, this time armed with the license for Chaosium's official Call of Cthulhu tabletop role-playing game and a self-professed exhaustive knowledge of the author's work. And, like all creators attempting to do justice to Lovecraft's grand theory of fear, the team has had to ask itself some tricky questions about how, exactly, you go about depicting something that is supposed to be unknowable – in this case interdimensional monsters from beyond time and space that cause you to go insane the second you look at them.

It's much easier in a book: you describe the bare minimum and leave the hard work to the reader's imagination, which will doubtless produce something far more unpleasant than even the author might conjure up. Even films can get away with it – and do. Horror-meisters John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro use careful scene composition, sound effects and music to imply the truly horrific without needing to show it and when the big reveal finally comes, it's that much more frightening for the work your mind has already done to make it so. Even in something as seemingly innocuous as a tabletop game, the inherently abstract nature of the game mechanics places the focus firmly on the effects and the aftermath of horror rather than the horrific event itself, forcing you to consider the longer-term impact of an incident rather than your immediate, visceral reaction to it.

Perhaps inspired by the success of games like Resident Evil, recent attempts to bring that more psychological brand of horror to our screens have blown it by focusing more on action than investigation – even the better ones. The 2013 hit, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs came close, and 2005's Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth nailed the atmosphere, but neither quite captured the slow-burn unravelling of a mystery (not to mention your sanity) that was such a hallmark of the source material.

Cyanide's take on Call of Cthulhu – which is due later this year – wisely draws inspiration from Lovecraft's original stories, the tabletop role-playing game and board games such as Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror and Elder Sign. De-emphasizing explicitly horrific and action-based elements, the game instead concentrates on investigation, exploring the common Lovecraftian theme of a "hidden truth" beyond human comprehension and the effects that uncovering this truth can have on the rational mind.

"We didn't want to make a shooter," says lead game designer Jean-Marc Gueney, emphatically. "There is action in the game, but it's mostly infiltration and escaping monsters. There is a gun in the game, but it only has a few bullets. Most of the game is a blend of RPG and investigation."

That RPG aspect was developed in collaboration with Mark Morrison, one of the creators of Chaosium's hugely popular pen-and-paper game, so those familiar with tabletop Cthulhu will feel right at home.

"We worked closely with the team [at Chaosium] to place the story within the Lovecraft universe," Gueney says. "The skills and sanity system are drawn directly from the role playing game. We took feedback from the community. It completely fits in the universe."

Call of Cthulhu's story is a self-contained narrative that slots into the broader mythos established across Lovecraft's original work and subsequently developed further by modern authors right up until the present day – and Gueney's intention is for the game to be considered part of Cthulhu canon.

Taking on the role of a private detective, your job is to investigate Hawkins Manor, a remote, isolated mansion where there was recently a fire that no-one seems to want to talk about. The official police report is full of inconsistencies and the case was closed rather hastily – clearly there's something more going on.

The game establishes its tone right away as your private detective takes a moonlit walk to the intimidating house – a spooky Gothic pile in the middle of nowhere – hurling a flock of ravens at you as you pass through the main gate. And right away there are things to investigate; a small family graveyard in the garden, for example, reveals fresh flowers on the immaculately kept final resting places of the mother and daughter of the house, but no such care has been taken with the master's grave. Upon encountering the elderly caretaker of the manor – logically, the only person who could have left the flowers and maintained the graves – this knowledge can be used in conversation in order to gain his approval and be let into the manor without having to resort to subterfuge.

It's clear that knowledge is your primary weapon in Call of Cthulhu. As you progress, you'll uncover clues that you'll eventually need to link together in deduction sequences to progress your investigation. Knowing "too much" can have semi-permanent effects on your character's mental health, ranging from affecting his maximum sanity level to giving him phobias. And to make matters even trickier, the game allows you to draw inaccurate conclusions from pieces of evidence and still progress, meaning that particular nugget of knowledge that turned your brain to pâté might not even have been necessary for you to uncover in the first place.

Information can be gathered in a variety of ways according to how you've chosen to build your character. Skills are split across three different categories, as in the pen-and-paper game: Social, which concerns people and their behaviour; Knowledge, which represents understanding of specialised subjects; and Professional, which determines your "detective" skills.

Successfully gathering a piece of information using one of these skills rewards you with experience that allows you to improve your abilities. In turn, this improves your overall effectiveness as an investigator. Like its primary source material, Cyanide's Call of Cthulhu ditches a traditional levelling system in favour of focusing on individual skill ratings. Since the game has very little actual combat, the typical "power creep" of more conventional role-playing games wouldn't make much sense, and we're instead left with a character with a distinctly more grounded, human-feeling spread of abilities that evolve over time.

The concept of knowledge as a weapon is common feature of tabletop adaptations of Call of Cthulhu. In board games Arkham Horror and Elder Sign, progress is dependent on finding clue tokens – abstract representations of some piece of acquired knowledge – and using them to accomplish goals. In both these games, dice throws are added in to reflect the fact that just having this knowledge isn't always enough: you need to apply it correctly, too. Cyanide's game uses a similar idea, only in this case you're dealing with concrete rather than abstract evidence, and not leaving the final result to random chance.

This isn't to say there's only one correct way through the game or an optimum build for the player character's investigative skills. In keeping with the tabletop role-playing game, there seem to be plenty of opportunities throughout to approach situations from a number of different angles and even to get things "wrong" without running into a roadblock or a game over screen. It's a pretty good reflection of how tabletop role-playing games work: a good Keeper in pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu is able to effortlessly handle players who go off target and steer their investigations in unexpected directions, whether through deliberate attempts to push the boundaries or simply an inability to solve the puzzles.

"The main story is linear," says Gueney. "But there are choices to make and multiple endings. The game is about 10-15 hours long, so it will be replayable, and different players will have different experiences according to how they play."

Cyanide's clear goal for Call of Cthulhu is for players to have a satisfying, authentically Lovecraftian experience, regardless of whether or not they get the investigation part "right". In fact, it's fun seeing the impact of getting deductions spectacularly wrong, or attempting to play through with a character wracked with phobias and mental health issues; one might even argue that this a truer reflection of a Lovecraftian tale than an investigation where everything runs like clockwork.

What's most striking about Cyanide's approach to the license, though, is the team's effective use of the quintessentially Lovecraftian narrative structure: starting off as a low-key but tense, "noir"-style detective story and gradually escalating towards characters dancing on the knife-edge of sanity as they're confronted with the knowledge of unspeakable horrors beyond their understanding. All too many video games that claim to draw inspiration from Lovecraft are keen to jump right into the survival horror pool by immediately throwing monsters at you, and while Cyanide's Call of Cthulhu doesn't shy away from that, the team is already ably demonstrating a clear understanding of not just the letter of Lovecraft's meditation on fear, but also the spirit of it.