How H.P. Lovecraft’s Horror Crafted A Subgenre Of Video Games

While Howard Phillips Lovecraft was alive, his work was relatively unknown. It wasn’t until after his death that readers came to admire the rich, self-contained universe of cosmic horror he had created. Inspired by his home town of Providence, Rhode Island, his short stories were typically set near the sea, and introduced readers to eldritch abominations like Cthulhu.

The recurring narrative of Lovecraft’s work was twisted, with each story building on the world he previously established. His writing often felt like a journalistic account of characters investigating the unknown, faced with unspeakable terror. The creations of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind fundamentally changed an entire genre of fiction, and his influence remains a strong presence in the world of horror games.

Though it was often bleak, Lovecraft’s view on the world informed the aspects that made his horror so distinct. The attitude in some of his writing is xenophobic and condescending to other races and nationalities – a point for which he’s been rightfully criticized over the years – and he was possessed by a degree of nihilism, expressed in contempt for many of his contemporaries and colleagues. This fueled the distinctive cosmic indifference fear of others and outside forces that can be used to summarize many of his stories. In the shadow of alien gods, why should the human race really matter?

Lovecraft’s style is not simply denoted by the presence of an otherworldly being that renders humanity worthless. Games inspired by the author tend to feature cults, abandoned mansions, and the loss of sanity. Eternal Darkness and Alone in the Dark both tell stories falling in line with his established style. The realm of Apocrypha in Skyrim’s Dragonborn DLC borrows heavily from Lovecraft lore, as do the Warcraft franchise’s old gods C’Thun and Yogg-Saron. His creations are so constantly referenced by developers that the phrase “Lovecraftian Games” earned its own tag on Steam.

Though Lovecraft has been referenced heavily in the past, there are more games on the way that will imagine his work in new ways. We spoke to a number of developers who have worked on games inspired by Lovecraft about the unique challenges and stories that come within the Lovecrafitan genre.

Weird Tales
Rather than freely take from certain characteristics of his established universe, some developers have chosen to outright adapt a number of published works. Infograme’s early adventures on DOS and Linux platforms, Prisoner of Ice and Shadow of the Comet, were so similar to certain Lovecraft novellas that “Call of Cthulhu” was later added to their titles. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth fully reimagined one of Lovecraft’s most beloved short stories as a first-person shooter. Two ill-fated sequels would have further explored the Cthulhu mythos, but were cancelled when Headfirst Productions went bankrupt.

With so many games citing the author as an inspiration, the challenge to tell new stories based on Lovecraft’s mythos is a daunting task. Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games, remains particularly wary of how exploited certain elements and creatures have become, but feels the author’s work as a source of influence is far from exhausted.

A screenshot from Thomas Grip’s Fiend.

Discovering books by Lovecraft at a local library inspired Grip to stylize his own stories as told through strange diary entries and letters. In his very first project, a top-down survival horror game called Fiend, entities from the Cthulhu mythos appear by name. Frictional continues to make horror games, like Amnesia and SOMA, in line with the same atmosphere. Lovecraft is such a prominent inspiration for the developer that all of their games are made in the HPL, an engine named after the author.

“When I was making my own horror game back in 1999, I just scrapped the story I had going and did an homage to Lovecraft instead,” Grip says. “Since then, Lovecraft has been very important for [our] upcoming games, especially the way he structures his stories, with notes and diaries making up the bulk of the writing, along with this layered mystery that is to be uncovered.”

The mystery to which he refers is what Grip admires most about Lovecraft’s writing. He believes the way fear builds in the reader’s mind when confronted with the unknown helps make the stories so appealing to a wide audience.

“Lovecraft lets us ponder the insignificance of our existence in a safer space,” he explains. “The monsters are obviously not real, but the feelings they provide certainly are.”

Read on to find out how Edge of Nowhere makes Lovecraftian horror work in virtual reality.


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