Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cthulhu fhtagn

He may be a fictional entity, but the Great Priest Cthulhu still has a far-reaching hold on many in the gaming culture. The nerdier you are, the more likely you are to know who Cthulhu and Yog-sothoth and Dagon are. Which is pretty much the reason I know all about them.

In case you didn't know, I have the habit of maintaining an obsession over a particular subject or activity which leads to me knowing it inside and out, before I lose interest and promptly drop it for something else, while retaining some encyclopedic knowledge. When I was a kid these things would include the Marx Brothers, dinosaurs, the Titanic, and Monty Python. More recently I've been fixated on Halo, zombies, Fable, and currently the Cthulhu Mythos. That's why just about every other thing I've had in my mind for the past week or so has in some way been Cthulhu-related.

For those fortunate enough to be ignorant of the mind-twisting horror of the Mythos, Cthulhu is a fictitious ancient alien creature locked away in a city at the bottom of the ocean, psychically influencing humans on the surface to do his bidding and hasten his return so that he may bring about his reign of madness on the earth. Maybe you've seen depictions of his distinctive appearance: a colossal humanoid creature with a scale-coated body, talons, giant non-functional wings, and a head resembling an octopus. He's mentioned in many of H.P. Lovecraft's short stories, and is the subject of the story "The Call of Cthulhu". Lovecraft's work is typically classified as "cosmic horror", a genre of horror that focuses on sources of terror on a universal scale. The basic idea is that the universe itself is alien and apathetic, humanity is insignificant in light of this, and there are creatures greater than ourselves in both knowledge and power whose scope, scale, and form would drive any of us insane if we were to catch a glimpse of them. Essentially there is nothing anyone could do when confronted by this truth except try to maintain one's composure, since human science and abilities pale in comparison to the awesome power of these alien horrors. It's a genuinely unsettling notion and makes for some great fiction.

Although Lovecraft's stories in of themselves may not be for everyone. At first I had a great deal of trouble trying to follow what he was even saying. His writing style is dense and almost archaic, and he spends a great deal of time on detailing the environment. This would be fine if Lovecraft did not have a thing for describing New England architecture in very extensive detail. I'm still not exactly sure what's supposed to be horrifying about urban decay or the insanity of the dreaded Cyclopean masonry. How exactly is an angle maddening? The stories themselves are almost always the same, too. A bourgeois, aristocratic, rational, Anglo-Saxon man is traveling through New England for completely mundane reasons, such as collecting an inheritance or sightseeing (architecture of course); the man then comes across a terrible, dark, and ancient truth underlying the whole of human existence; thus he goes insane. That's it. I dunno, it still works oftentimes.

Oh, and Lovecraft himself was a racist. Yeah, it's kind of obvious in his work too. For instance, Lovecraft describes the mad cultists in "The Call of Cthulhu" as "men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type", since being half-black is somehow supposed to be a mental detriment in this case. And in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" many characters attribute the horrible biological degeneration of the Innsmouth townsfolk as being the result of mixed blood from Asia or the South Pacific. He also had antisemitic beliefs, which is odd considering he married a woman of Ukrainian-Jewish ancestry. His racial hatred dimmed somewhat as he became more well-rounded in his travels interacting with people of different ethnic backgrounds, but he was still a bastard.

Anyway, the themes that lend to his horror stories still have a great deal of influence to the point where many consider Lovecraft to be the most influential horror writer of the 20th century, which is probably justified. I'd recommend anyone to give it a look. The fear of the unknown and unknowable is certainly more effective and memorable than the excuses for "horror" that are modern slasher films. And some of the creatures portrayed in Lovecraft's stories are in of themselves genuinely terrifying. Ever hear tell of a shoggoth?

These are the kinds of themes I keep in mind when trying (or trying to try) to write my own stories, although not necessarily featuring alien monsters. But the kind of maltheism that appears in his work still intrigues me, which is a main theme in the series I'm working on, if I ever get around to doing it.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, gaming. Somehow the Cthulhu Mythos managed to gain a footing in the world of role-playing, since there actually is a Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, which I intend to get, if the gaming company that makes it will get around to accepting my orders. I've even gone so far as to get specially crafted glow-in-the-dark Cthulhu Mythos polyhedral dice, complete with an Elder Sign on one side of each die. That's right. Cthulhu d20. I went there.

For the time being though, I've been fixated on this one bit of Cthulhu gaming which has been taking up more of my time than it ought to, and that is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, for the Xbox. As far as I know, this is the first and only attempt at an adaptation of Cthulhu literature into a video game. In case it wasn't obvious, it plays like a survival horror game, with limited puzzle-solving and shooter gameplay elements. Despite the title, it's more of an adaptation of "The Shadow over Innsmouth" than anything, although it makes references to several other works, including "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Shadow Out of Time", and "The Rats in the Walls". The fact that it's Cthulhu-inspired is reason enough to get a hold of a copy, and it's not really that bad. It certainly has kept my attention, hasn't it?

But I do have problems with it, and more than the common bugs and glitches associated with playing an old Xbox game on a 360 (I should get one of the original consoles for these purposes). I guess the game would have been better if there were more resources put into it. It was made by a small company called Headfirst Productions that went bankrupt while it was still working on the second in a planned trilogy of Cthulhu games. It's actually pretty ambitious for such a small company to try something like this, an M-rated survival-horror with profanity and a great deal of blood and gore, and a lot of people were probably hoping this would be a really good game. I'd support any kind of effort to make another Lovecraftian video game adaptation a reality.

As for Dark Corners, I've been thinking of reviewing it, since I have yet to find a satisfactory review or playthrough of it. Sure, there are videos of how to play through the basics, but nothing very amusing for someone like me who thrives on video entertainment, especially when related to games. I'd definitely like to review it in the form of a video, but I don't know how to record video game footage and I'm not sure I'd have the resources to record and edit a lengthy video review of the entire game. But it's something I'd really like to do if anyone could point me in the right direction. If I can't do that, I could always do a text review. Not that I'd find that satisfactory. I think this little niche of gaming deserves something more substantial and entertaining.

In the meantime I'll wait for those damn dice.

I'a Cthulhu! I'a Dagon!

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