Growing up in a household densely focused on literary science fiction, I was seldom far from the gaze of Howard Phillips Lovecraft. I mean this literally — both of my parents were recipients of the 1981 World Fantasy Award: a sculpture which, from its inception until 2015, was formed in Gahan Wilson’s grotesque caricature of Lovecraft’s cranium, eyes bulging outward in different directions not unlike one of the author’s loathsome Deep Ones. I would run my child-sized hands over his cold, stony head, poking at his eyes, fascinated by his visage despite lacking awareness of who he was.
For a long time, I was more familiar with works inspired by Lovecraft than the author himself. The eldritch, mind-shattering abominations that serve as many JRPG final bosses were clearly inspired by this author, while certain figures in his pantheon played major roles in the PlayStation 1’s Persona entries. And of course, there was the preteen, illicit late-night viewing of Urotsukidōji, horrific probing tentacles forever depleting my sanity stat. It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I finally approached Lovecraft’s work directly, likely spurred by a combined desire to experience first hand what served as inspiration to games such as Eternal Darkness and Eternal Punishment. After reading a few compendiums, I soon saw his influence everywhere; there would be no Hellbound Heart, no Uzumaki, and certainly no Megami Tensei without H.P Lovecraft.
Considered the Patron Saint of Cosmic Horror, Lovecraft’s bibliography, while influential and inspirational to hundreds of horror writers and creatives, is permeated by the author’s fervent racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and classism. Essentially, Lovecraft hated anyone who wasn’t a white, middle-class New Englander like himself, and his prejudices were so firmly ingrained in his writing that it is impossible to examine his art without acknowledging this. The bulk of his stories are concerned first and foremost with fear of the other, with miscegenation in particular often portrayed as the most abject terror. This baggage is itself enough reason for newer cosmic horror creators to step away from Lovecraft — see Bloodborne and Cultist Simulator for two excellent titles that uniquely transcend their inspiration — but even aside from this ugliness his work is quite outdated. Aside from perceived foreigners, Lovecraft’s other great fear was insanity. This was a very real fear for him, as his mother and father were both committed to asylum care at different stages of his life, but the image of the frightful insane asylum is, as of 2018, at best old hat, at worst deeply ableist.
That’s not to say that one can’t enjoy Lovecraft’s weird tales — I absolutely do — but it is important to be aware of his point of view. It was with this in mind that I gingerly approached Cyanide Studio’s Call of Cthulhu, the latest in a line of games seeking to capitalize on Lovecraft’s “brand” — in this case, a tie-in with Chaosium’s long-running tabletop game of the same name. While it’s not the responsibility of Call of Cthulhu to challenge or subvert the author’s bigotry (spoilers: it doesn’t), the creation of a Lovecraft game in 2018 inherently raises questions and demands thoughtful scrutiny.
Pitched as a first-person atmospheric horror RPG without combat, Call of Cthulhu opens in Boston with down-on-his-luck private eye Edward Pierce as he is commissioned to investigate the mysterious death of painter Sarah Hawkins, her husband, and their son, by her business magnate father. The last thing Sarah did before her untimely demise was send her latest work of art to her father: a painting of her squaring off against a giant monster. Desperately in need of cash, Pierce accepts and eagerly sets off to the Hawkins’ family home on forbidding Darkwater Island. No, it’s not the most nuanced setup, but it does the job.
Pierce is a static character, the requisite handsome, rugged, hard-drinking and tormented detective that horror games so adore. He’s Sebastian Castellanos; Ethan Thomas; Booker de Witt. He won’t surprise you, though you are given customization over his stats. Stats govern Pierce’s chance of success at various actions: a high Detection stat gives a greater chance of picking locks, while high Occultism allows greater insight into the story’s more esoteric elements. High stats aren’t a guaranteed success, as all challenges are subject to an invisible die roll. Furthermore, the result of the die roll is also invisible; sometimes the result is obvious — boy was I frustrated when my maxed-out Detective stat failed at every single lock in the game save one — but more often than not you have no idea whether you succeeded or failed a challenge.
The game is designed so players can reach the finish line irrespective the result of any individual die roll, but the level of opaqueness made it hard to gauge what exactly I was trying to do. Most notable is the curious Spot Hidden stat, which allows you to, well, spot hidden objects. It’s a holdover from Chaosium’s tabletop game, and one I’m not convinced works here: fail a secret Spot Hidden check when entering a room, and the objects in question disappear from the game entirely. This may work in a GM-led campaign but seems arbitrary and ill-fitting to a visual medium. These stats also govern the dialogue options available when interacting with other characters, but it’s hard to tell how consequential they are; I alienated the Hawkins’ ornery groundskeeper who seemed just about ready to tell Pierce to get lost, before making a surprise about-face and happily bestowing the key to the front door.
When Pierce reaches Darkwater Island, the next few hours are devoted following up on leads as to what happened to Sarah and her family. Call of Cthulhu never gives you full run of the island, but rather segments each of its locations into discrete chapters; the first of which sees Pierce explore the decrepit port town that was once Darkwater’s whaling hub. The buildings are falling apart, seamen and bootleggers lurk in the alleys, and a giant, mutilated whale has washed ashore at the harbor. It’s a spooky and fun area to explore, although the seams become apparent quickly. NPCs in conversation with each other loop ad infinitum; a group of sailors discussing the aforementioned whale’s sinister appearance quickly become goofy as they endlessly loop the same conversation in case the player missed a word. It’s awkwardly charming in that same earnest way that Shenmue is, especially due to its kitschy European voice cast doing their best stab at about every American accent you can think of.
It’s not all sleuthing, and it’s around the four hour mark that adversaries show up to dog you. Being a non-combat RPG, Call of Cthulhu handles its enemy encounters by falling back on an old favorite: stealth sequences. And they’re really, really bad! The first segment has Pierce escaping from Darkwater’s nefarious asylum, patrolled by guards who chase after you in an effort to grab you and send you back to the title screen. Sometimes I could evade my pursuers by ducking behind a desk right in front of them, while other times they could spot me through a solid wall 30 feet away. Egregiously, Call of Cthulhu has no manual saves (Why???) and an iffy checkpointing system. Combined with the obscure quest objective urging me to “find a way to escape,” it took me a good couple of hours to figure out what puzzle I needed to solve to open the exit and assemble all of the pieces while evading the guards. It all felt very archaic, as if from that mid-00s bygone era when misguided stealth segments were unfortunately de rigueur.
Somehow, I had an even worse time in the story’s big set piece, a sequence in which Pierce finds himself locked in an art gallery with a shambling abomination. Surrounded by roughly a dozen display cases holding similar eldritch knives, it soon becomes apparent you need to find the right knife to banish the creature. Lighting your oil lamp, walking without crouching, or smashing a display case all alert the creature to your presence immediately; you can hide in one of two cupboards, but this never worked for me and I was always pulled out and killed instantly. This devolved into smashing a display case, trying its knife, dying, and repeating/making a mental map of display cases I’d already hit. It wasn’t until my twelfth retry that the game took pity on me (or more likely, I succeeded at an invisible Spot Hidden roll), uncovering a piece of paper with a clear picture of which knife I needed. I ran all across the gallery, quickly finding the matching object and banishing the beast to the great beyond. I felt more frustrated than relieved.
More so than the frustrating stealth puzzles, the gallery served to exemplify what frustrated me the most about Call of Cthulhu: its insistence on keeping me at arm’s length. Before Pierce’s encounter with the nightmare beast, you’re given the opportunity to stroll through the gallery in the daytime. It’s filled with disturbing statues and mysterious glowing artifacts, all of which are striking without allowing any interaction. You, the player, can see with your eyes, but Pierce won’t examine, investigate, or remark on anything at all. I never felt like a detective, unable to suspend the fact that I was just searching for the next hotspot to trigger the next scene. It’s an apt metaphor for the game: “Here’s all your favorite Lovecraft imagery, aren’t you happy?”
Like one of Lovecraft’s protagonists, Call of Cthulhu was doomed from the outset. It’s a Greatest Hits compilation of the Cthulhu Mythos, hitting all the notes you’d expect without doing anything new or interesting with them. And yet, I can’t hate it. Cyanide obviously care very much for the source material, and their earnest desire to do right by the Sisyphean task of a celebratory Lovecraft adaptation is hard to fault. I may have struggled with the poor stealth segments, but I did feel compelled by its campy cast and cosmic intrigue to see the game through to completion — something that can’t be said of Infogrames’ or Bethesda’s attempts. Cyanide’s take on Call of Cthulhu is undoubtedly the best yet, for better or worse.