“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” — H.P Lovecraft
Lovecraft may have been wrong about a great many things in his personal life, but he's a pretty reliable guide to horror. Any studio making a game in this genre should sellotape this quote to every developer's computer, because it encapsulates a paradox at the heart of the matter. In contemporary horror games — not survival games such as Resi or Silent Hill, but straight-up horror like Amnesia and Outlast — the experience should be designed in such a way that the player never actually dies. The fear is in the threat. The moment that threat is followed through, the player now has nothing to fear: it is a known experience.
Would people be as scared of death if they knew what happened after they died?
One of the big problems that comes from this is repetition. Outlast, Alien Isolation, Slender Man and the myriad of similarly inspired indie titles all function on the same run-and-hide system. Once the player understands that system, once they are able to recognise how things work, the game loses The Fear. We all know the routine: you're trapped in an enclosed area, be it a set of rooms in a spaceship or small huts in a satanic village, and you’ve got a puzzle to complete in order to progress. The kicker is that your cellmate is an unkillable Alien, giant, monster or whatever, and so you have to sneak your way around, and hide under a bed or a locker when they're about. To be brutally reductionist about it, ten hours of this and you've got a modern horror game.
Flying in the face of this ethos is Call of Cthulhu or, at least, Call of Cthulhu’s first three hours. The opening does without the scary big bad, patrolling enemies and stealth, opting instead to rely on its storytelling, a brilliant atmosphere on par with Alien Isolation and the illusion of choice. It's most definitely not a glorified hide and seek simulator.
Just watch the short collection of clips below, headphones recommended. The sound alone is phenomenal, particularly in the final segment. Call of Cthulhu has a haunting beauty.
The player takes on the role of professional investigator and WWI veteran, Edward Pierce. Set in 1924 on the dilapidated island of Darkwater, Pierce has been hired to investigate the mysterious death of the Hawkins family, and specifically the renowned occult painter, Sarah Hawkins. A combination of first person and point-and-click investigations, the majority of the game will have you searching areas, finding clues, reconstructing scenes and questioning the locals as you search for the truth.
There is an RPG levelling / point mechanic that you can assign to various different attributes. Put some points in the Investigation skill and you’ll be able to pick harder locks, whereas investing in Eloquence or Psychological prowess opens up new dialogue choices. Level up the Spot attribute and new items and clues will spawn into the game world, potentially blowing the case wide open. The point allocation system is of the same design as Big Bad Wolf’s excellent The Council.
The multiple-choice elements are accompanied by the ominous legend “this will change your destiny” which certainly makes you feel less sure of every action. Whether or not it’s true, and let's be honest it probably isn’t, the events of Call of Cthulhu create an effective illusion that they're malleable, that you have real influence over how things are unfolding, even if you can't quite grasp how.
[Spoilers about a core gameplay system in Call of Cthulhu follow]
This is where the game's greatest strength lies. The whole appeal of H.P Lovecraft's fiction is the unknown and the unknowable. Things happen that are completely out of the protagonist's control, and so-called eldritch horrors are impossible to for humans to comprehend while remaining sane. Which fits perfectly with this game’s decision-based design because, as things progress and Pierce discovers more of the truth, he begins losing his mind.
As Pierce fell further and further into insanity, the less control I had of him in conversations. Sometimes the options were entirely illegible. Eventually Pierce’s mind fractures, and the fragments argue against you. I’ve never played a game where one of my decisions was met with the character's subconscious calling me an idiot. I, the player, became just another split element in Pierce’s mind, vying for control, trying to exert my will, adding to the cacophony.
At the three-hour mark, as I was introduced to a new area in the game, I groaned in disappointment on finding a cupboard I could hide in. I thought this was it. This is where the rest of the game starts, and more or less the first thing you do is duck and hide from some nearby guards while solving a puzzle.To my delight, after escaping that situation, that tired mechanic never cropped up again. Call of Cthulhu's design sees it regulalry introducing a new horror mechanic or objective, and yes some of them are familiar, but once they're done that’s it. No repetition. This keeps the player in the dark throughout the game, making every new encounter is an unknown. In theory, brilliant. In practice? A bit messy.
As the game jumps from mechanic to mechanic in a successful effort to keep the player flat-footed, to keep the fear bubbling nicely, each mechanic comes across as just a tad underdeveloped or unfocused. Some are just not very enjoyable: I spent 30 minutes in one encounter that relied entirely (as far as I could tell anyway) on trial and error.
The ghost of PT haunts this generation of horror. There is no genre where the potential for audience subversion is higher, and never have the audience's expectations been easier to define. The time is ripe for something that throws the rules out of the window. Call of Cthulhu is not that game, not the new must-play genre-redefining horror title I initially thought it might be. But it's far from a disappointment.
Call of Cthulhu surprises the player with how it incorporates Lovecraftian themes and finds imaginative ways to hook them into a multiple-choice adventure structure. Some mechanics may be a little iffy, but there are also great ideas and some genuinely inspired moments along the way. Best of all the game remembers what the oldest and strongest kind of fear is, and knows best when to keep things unknown