Isn’t it strange that a branch of fiction should thrive so fully when its most prominent emissary has been widely ostracized for his odious politics? Yet the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, and the numerous writers inspired by his work, persists, nowhere more so than in video games—to the extent that one could engage solely with titles that traffic in overt references to their works, and still amass an impossible-to-exhaust backlog in the process. It’s getting so out of control that multiple opinion pieces have been written calling for developer restraint in regards to pumping out games in the genre of what’s generally referred to as “cosmic horror”—not due to concerns about Lovecraft’s racism, but to stem oversaturation in the market. October 2019 saw nine games bearing the “Lovecraftian” tag released on Steam alone.
Why are we so obsessed with tales of people at the mercy of vast, unknowable forces? After more than a century of being exposed to cosmic horror’s formless monstrosities and conspiracies against humanity, science has finally come up with a cause. Building on earlier anthropological work, psychology professor Sheldon Solomon has conducted a series of experiments linking our fraught political moment with a kind of existential dread, the feeling that “we are ultimately no more significant or enduring than turtles or turnips.” Such pessimism on a cosmic scale is undoubtedly the defining sentiment of the last decade, a byproduct of rising inequality, precariousness, and the growing unaccountability of massive corporate entities shaping our daily existence, while operating outside the realm of our understanding or our control. All of which sounds suspiciously close to cosmic horror’s hallmark: Stories about characters trapped in the movement of unfathomable powers whose magnitude ensures that they remain indifferent or unaware of their impact on individual lives.
These are affinities that resonate with some of the year’s more interesting releases, though nowhere more explicitly than in ALPixel Games’ A Place For The Unwilling. Called upon to manage the estate of a childhood friend who hanged himself, your clueless protagonist becomes embroiled in the ongoing power struggle between the local gentry and unionized workers while investigating that unlikely suicide. Even on your first day in the nameless Victorian town, you’re big news: “Who is the new arrival?” runs the headline in the establishment newspaper, your photograph front and center, as if the whole community has become an eye and fixed itself upon you with inscrutable purpose. Lost amidst a sea of shadowy figures, early impressions strongly recall the subtly political work of Thomas Ligotti, especially The Unholy City, in which Ligotti writes of a void “calling out for more heads to carry out the business it wants done, its black voice roaring across the infinite black space of its heads factory.”
Heavily influenced by the mixture of supernatural enigma and resource management that’s a signature of games like Failbetter’s Sunless Skies, the mysteries of A Place For The Unwilling are hardly restricted to the fate of a half-forgotten acquaintance. There’s social upheaval, the distinct possibility that an ally may be poisoning you, and the upcoming grand opening of a certain blasphemous play to look forward to. All that before you even discover that the city itself is dying. It’s a fascinating narrative experiment unfolding in panic-inducing real-time—even if it’s occasionally hampered by an unorthodox control scheme and frequent bugs.
Like A Place For The Unwilling, Stygian: Reign Of The Old Ones grounds its eldritch horror in the roots of class consciousness. A turn-based RPG obviously indebted to Chaosium’s Call Of Cthulhu ruleset, the game finds players trapped in the town of Arkham in the aftermath of the Black Day, an event that saw the entire city torn from the surface of the planet and sent hurtling into the darkness of distant galaxies. You’ll have to earn the trust of the terrified citizenry and fight against threats both supernatural and mundane to make any progress, but the stubborn denial displayed by Arkham’s ordinary denizens is possibly the most insidious threat. Shopkeepers and petty criminals absurdly cling to their old roles with obsessive glee, ignoring the ghouls and monsters in their midst. There’s no deeper questioning of the cataclysmic changes at work, let alone solidarity with their fellow exiles. Only clockwork cruelty and the merciless pursuit of profit—the depressingly familiar image of a world in tatters, still performing the rituals of an economy that has been rendered meaningless on a chunk of rock drifting through space.
A parable about blind faith in dubious doctrines lies also at the narrative heart of Sea Salt—though the subject is treated with a much lighter touch, as vengeful Dagon turns against his own church following a display of less than unwavering devotion. What YCJY’s latest release suggests, however, is another reason for cosmic horror’s growing popularity with game developers: The malleability of those recognizable, copyright-free deities. Not only can a game grab the attention of a built-in audience by invoking an obscure corner of the Lovecraftian mythos, but its vagueness and scale allow developers to pretty much do anything they want with it—in this case a deliciously gory mob-based action strategy title in the vein of the 16-bit classic Cannon Fodder. It’s snappy, violent fun, with a surprising amount of replayability depending on your choice of cultist—a welcome palate cleanser from the category’s more serious fare.
The versatility of cosmic horror doesn’t translate just to mechanics, either. (Apart from, perhaps, sports sims, is there a genre that hasn’t received the Lovecraftian treatment?) It also allows for a considerable degree of freedom in terms of narrative and setting. In a year of thematically conventional AA adventures (most notably The Sinking City and Song Of Horror) Moons Of Madness distinguishes itself by removing the action from creaky manors and underlit alleys and instead looking to the stars—specifically, a secret research outpost on the surface of Mars. Unfortunately, that’s about the game’s only departure from tradition, as the clichés swiftly start piling up. It’s a shame, too, because the player’s infrequent, solitary forays on the Martian surface feel genuinely unsettling: alone and tiny in an unfeeling universe.
Even a genre seemingly tailor-made for these types of stories, adventure, allows for deviations from the formula. Not that there’s a dearth of classic-style cosmic horror in point ’n’ clicks: Cloak And Dagger’s The Terrible Old Man, a straightforward adaptation with wonderfully grotesque visuals, was among October’s wave of Lovecraftian releases. (Also, it’s free.) Gibbous—A Cthulhu Adventure, on the other hand, borrows liberally from the LucasArts playbook to infuse your foray into the arcane with a self-referential comedic tone, as a disgraced librarian joins forces with a down-on-his-luck detective to curtail the Necronomicon’s destructive influence. Although a promising debut from Stuck In Attic, the game stumbles with an unnecessarily convoluted plot revolving around two independently operating cults, a slippery figure playing them against each other, a benevolent quasi-deity pulling the strings from the background, sleeping leviathans, immortal alchemists, and a wisecracking feline. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant ride that features, arguably, the finest use of a rap battle ever to grace the world of cosmic horror.
While hinting at the range, the titles discussed above hardly exhaust the depths of the year in cosmic horror—which also included an astonishingly ominous use of ASCII characters, a naval simulation, and the requisite roguelike. Nor does the flow of tentacled beasts and mindless, self-destructive cults seems likely to stop in the near future, as the United States heads towards the elections that could define the course of humanity for a generation. After all, there’s only one kind of dread that goes hand in hand with cosmic horror and, in this climate, it’s not by accident that it named dictionary.com’s 2019 word of the year.