If you’re itching for a scare, try some of these cosmic horror video games
My fellow fanatics, Halloween is upon us. A time where we flirt with the darker, scarier side of the world. Where we put on costumes and masks and indulge in the fantasy of being something else. Of impish pranks and ghoulish decorum.
And for those of us who love us some gaming, it means playing some pulse-pounding bits of interactive terror. But one particular brand of horror has always been noticeably challenging for games: cosmic horror video games.
What exactly are cosmic horror games?
Popularized by the prolific works of H.P. Lovecraft in the 1920s, cosmic horror doesn’t rely on psychotic slashers or the threat of being eaten alive as its hook, but in the revelation that the universe as you know it is wrong; a mere plaything to the whims of things far greater than you. Where survival isn’t guaranteed, and if it happens, it’s because you escaped the unfeeling Great Ones’ attention the same way a flea alludes a giant.
While the work of Lovecraft was influential in many works, fully adapting his atmospheric and oppressive flavor of horror has been difficult to translate to games.
For many, games are a power fantasy – a way to feel like you’re in control. Lovecraft’s stories are always about someone slowly losing control and withering away into gibbering husks. The core appeal of gameplay is to overcome a challenge or figure out some great mystery, which is the exact kind of attitude that gets characters killed or worse in Lovecraft’s stories – to know more is to go mad after all. Where most games have you conquering evil gods in epic boss battles, the minute a Great Old One has the attention of an investigator is the minute the world ends. The list of challenges goes on and on.
Thankfully this year, publisher Focus Home Interactive and developer Cyanide Games are about to release their own honest attempt at it with an official video game adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu, based on the pen and paper RPG heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.
While the preview material for the game looks like its going in the right direction, this isn’t the first attempt to adapt Lovecraft’s work in games. The overall influence of the horrible things that man must not know has slipped its way into a lot of games over the years, some doing it well, others not so much.
Which will be the focus of this list today. These are five games that, based on atmosphere, quality of gameplay, as well as refinement and polish, tried to make you feel like you were in a cosmic horror story.
5. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
More an adaptation of the Lovecraft story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dark Corners of the Earth is an utterly strange game to look back on. In many ways, it gets the atmosphere and tone just right. You play as a reporter investigating odd things happening in the town of Innsmouth, only to discover that the small fishing village is the stage for horrendous rituals performed by an insane cult.
The gameplay was in the first-person perspective but didn’t have any UI. This meant that crucial elements like crosshairs or a heads-up display to show your health and ammo weren’t available. You had to aim down sights yourself if you wanted to shoot something, and you had to keep mental track of how many rounds you had yourself. Also, how close you were to dying was shown by visual and auditory signals like color draining from the screen or the sound of your rapid heartbeat.
And there was the “anity” mechanic. Every time you saw or experienced something horrific or unnatural, your mental state would start getting worse. Hallucinations would start popping up, weird things would start happening to the world that no one but you seem to notice. And if it gets bad enough, your character will take their own life resulting in a game over.
I am aware that 2002’s Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem gets credited with pioneering this system, but I ultimately gave the number five spot to this game over it for one simple reason: immersion. Eternal Darkness also messed with things when your sanity got low, but usually in disruptive, fourth wall breaking ways like the game pretending to crash or character models freaking out. It’s effective exactly once, and afterward, it just comes off as annoying. Dark Corners of the Earth meanwhile is more deliberate, the effects are more subtle and more unsettling.
But while Dark Corners of the Earth does a good job with atmosphere, as an adaptation it starts to fall apart when it devolves into a bog standard action game. What starts as a pretty tense investigation story where you are hiding from the more aggressive townspeople and assembling clues eventually turns into a stealth-focused action game where you can just shoot your attacker. At one point you get help from the US Navy and wind up killing Dagon after the cult summons him. Then you run around with a psychic alien gun to prevent the end of the world.
Quite a far cry from the end of the Call of Cthulhu book where a boat rams into one of the Great Old Ones…and it does nothing.
According to interviews by developer Headfirst Studios, a lot of this was due to the game’s troubled production, and I’m inclined to believe that. It is still a shame that the game’s first half is fantastically morbid and unsettling, only for it to turn into a horror-skinned shooter in the second half.
4. Alone In The Dark (1992)
The oldest entry on this list by a wide margin, the original 1992 survival-horror game, Alone in the Dark owes a lot of its influence to H.P. Lovecraft. Set in 1920s Louisiana, you play as private investigator Edward Carnby as he looks into the apparent suicide of wealthy artist Jeremy Hartwood. The investigation leads Carnby to Hartwood’s mansion, which turns out to be haunted by ghosts and monsters from beyond our veil of understanding.
There is combat in the game, but enemies don’t stay dead. The best way to completely stop certain creatures is to solve some puzzle or challenge while avoiding them at all costs, and there are even two instant game overs if you try to read certain books in the game’s library, driven mad from the secrets contained within. Yep, it’s a cosmic horror game alright.
In fact, at one point developer Infogrames wanted this to be an official Call of Cthulhu game, but the owner of the rights, Chaosium, ultimately turned down the licensing, saying the game was too simplistic to do the material justice.
Admittedly, Alone in the Dark doesn’t exactly hold up by modern standards. It was highly influential, codifying a lot of what would become the norm for survival horror games for decades to come, but time marches on, and the age really shows. Despite being the very first 3D survival horror game, the early 90s visuals are really hard to stomach, and the various puzzles can feel more tedious than brainteasing. Still, what the game gets right is the unraveling sense of the unknown holding untold power and influence over the mundane, which keeps the whole experience potent even now.
3. Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Of course, I had to put at least one of Frictional Games’ titles on this list, and this one is a doozy. Set in the 1830s, you play as an amnesiac by the name of Daniel, waking up in an ancient Prussian castle. Surrounded by unnatural phenomena and monsters crawling in the shadows, Daniel must explore the castle for clues as to what has happened while trying to stay alive.
Much like other games on this list, gameplay revolves around hiding from monsters, solving puzzles, and savvy inventory management. There’s a sanity mechanic where your vision blurs and things become more unsettling as you witness up messed up stuff or stare at monsters for too long, but there it’s noticeably more dangerous in Amnesia.
The best way to restore sanity is by being near a light source or having your lantern lit, but oil is limited and monsters will be able to spot you a mile away if you’re in the light. However, stay in the dark and let your sanity drop too low and you will pass out, leaving you open for an instant death by whatever horrific creature is stalking you at the time.
There is also a noticeable amount of ambiguity and unsettling vagueness throughout the game. There are three distinct endings, almost all of which involves you dying and being consumed by some dark entity, but it’s never entirely explained what exactly has happened or how things got to this point. Giving the whole experience the feeling of an uncanny nightmare.
The most iconic sequence by far is one in the sewers early on where you are chased by an invisible creature, one that you can only “see” when it distorts the water while moving. But, the monster appears to operate on sound, so if you can find a route through the sewers without disturbing the water or throwing small objects at the right spots, you might be able to escape.
It’s more in the spirit of Lovecraft’s work than a full-blown adaptation of any story in particular, but I think it captures the core ideas of cosmic horror. Paranoia, anxiety, trying to grapple with things that fundamentally undermine your understanding of the world, and becoming unraveled by the mere comprehension of those very things existing in the first place.
Honestly, just about any of From Software’s Soulsborne titles could have had a spot on this list. The great demon of Demon’s Souls is barely indistinguishable from a Great Old One with the way it terrorizes and corrupts the kingdom of Boleteria. The Dark Souls trilogy has always had some flavor of eldritch beings tucked away in the margins such as the entities of The Abyss or the concept of The Rot. But far and away the most overtly Lovecraftian flavored experience has to be found in the gothic hack and slash RPG, Bloodborne.
What’s really unusual about the cosmic horror used in this game is in how unexpected it is. In fact, when Bloodborne starts, it seems like the least likely place for Lovecraft’s themes to take hold. You start off as a superhuman monster hunter, carving werewolves and crazed townspeople to pieces with elaborate melee weapons, all while ducking and dodging at amazing speeds. The megacity of Yharnam is dripping with gothic atmosphere, and on the narrative on the surface is pretty straightforward: hunt down the monsters that are terrorizing the city. And once you take down the first three or so boss monsters, all large horrific beast people that can crush an average person effortlessly, you feel like you can take on anything the game throws at you.
Then something truly unsettling happens about halfway through: you discover the source of the monsters and your strength. Of course, this means getting into the deep lore and worldbuilding of Bloodborne so bare with me.
Basically, as you explore the city and its many ancient layers, you discover that Yharnam is in fact built on the remains of an ancient civilization populated by the Pthumerians. And the source of the city’s power and wealth comes from The Old Blood, the stuff your character is infused with at the beginning of the game and grants you your power, which was discovered by the Pthumerian Queen Yharnam. Blood which is infused with the power of The Old Ones. And they are eagerly awaiting the birth of a new god in the form of the Nightmare Child, one that you have to kill.
In other words, an infant eldritch horror is responsible for everything you’ve been fighting and the reason you’re even able to fight back in the first place is thanks to the indirect aid of another eldritch horror.
Then there’s the entire second half of the game where you must explore and fight creatures in Nightmare spaces. Horrific mockeries of reality where something as simple as light or hearing a creature singing a tune can instantly kill you. All of which is tied to a currency you have known as Insight, which increases the more horrible stuff you’ve seen and bosses you’ve killed. The more Insight you have, the more potent these unnatural attacks have on you. Just to sell this connection even further, the name of the item you can use to gain more Insight is called “Madman’s Knowledge.”
On the whole, this is probably my favorite dynamic shift in gaming. Where I was once an unstoppable monster hunter, suddenly I was hiding behind corners, trying not to die from horrible sights. Burning through medicine to keep myself dying of a heart attack. Facing increasingly distorted and disturbing creatures hoping against hope that I could kill them before my sanity fully dissipated.
Bloodborne is definitely the most action-focused entry on this list, but the way it slowly introduces elements of cosmic horror into the narrative, level design, and creature encounters makes it the most impactful in selling the terror of truly coming up against something out of your league. An experience no one has played will forget any time soon.
1. Darkest Dungeon
But of course there can only be one in this list, and I feel completely secure in giving it to Red Hook Studios’ brutal dungeon-crawler/base management game, Darkest Dungeon.
Keeping with the themes of Lovecraft, the game has a macabre set-up. A distant relative of yours has called you back to your family’s estate, claiming that you are to inherit it along with all of its wealth and riches. The problem is the last known owner dug deep into the caverns below and uncovered an antediluvian horror that drove him and his workers to madness. Said horror has now spread its influence to the surrounding area with nightmare-inducing results.
So, you must use what resources you have, hire some adventurers, and set them off to fight off the terrors created by the dark god’s presence, with the ultimate goal of killing it and claiming what is yours.
It all sounds well and good, but Darkest Dungeon makes it very clear just how taxing and mentally exhausting it is to challenge these monsters. Every time you boot up the game, you are greeted with a text box that basically says, “you aren’t going to win, this is about making the most out of a bad situation. You will have to abandon certain missions when adventurers die they stay dead, and you will get into no-win scenarios.” The gameplay further exemplifies this with each character possessing a mental health bar. If your party survives an encounter and makes it back to town, their physical wounds will heal up fine, but the mental scars of peering into the unknown will have lasting effects on them. If their mental health gets to a certain amount in the middle of a quest, the party member can have a mental breakdown and start lashing out at their fellow party members, develop phobias or fixations, and even just drop dead from anxiety.
But what really puts this game at the top of the list is how it subtly puts you in the role of someone who can’t leave well enough alone. While you can spend a lot of your earned treasure on getting adventurer’s the much needed mental relief they need, through either binge drinking, prayer, or a trip to the sanitarium, overall it would be more cost effective to just send them away and hire new help. Because the only thing free in this game are human lives, and your ultimate goal of getting your inheritance knows no limits.
This makes Darkest Dungeon one of the best portrayals of cosmic horror in games. Not only does it show just how fragile the human mind is in the face of the unknown, not only does it make you feel the desperation and anxiety of keeping such horrors in check, it quietly presses you to go deeper and deeper into the dark for your own personal ends, despite knowing full well what might be waiting for you on the other side.
After all, as Lovecraft once said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
And that’s my list for the five best cosmic horror video games. The Call of Cthulhu comes out October 30th for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, and I for one can’t wait to lose my mind to what Cyanide Games has to offer.
Ia Ia Cthulhu F’tagn.