Whatever happened to Call of Cthulhu? A look at its brief encounters with video games

By Paul Linfor

It has been often said that H.P. Lovecraft is the most important and influential horror author of the 20th century and it’s not difficult to see why. His influence has been seen throughout the collective works of almost every horror author and a notable influence in science fiction as well, be it in books, short stories, TV programs, movies, tabletop RPGs and video games. One of the most notable example of interactive entries of the Cthulhu Mythos is the Tabletop RPG, Call of Cthulhu.

call of cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu was written by Sandy Petersen and first released in 1981 by Chaosium Inc. It was notable because of its strong adherence to the principles of Lovecraft’s work which essentially means don’t count on succeeding in your quest and be prepared to have your character go insane and/or die, often in a very gruesome manner.

cthulhu meme

It was and has remained extremely popular and has been a major influence on other games that involve Lovecraftian horror elements. But there haven’t been many games that have made direct use of the Call of Cthulhu license, which is most often considered to be necessary to make use of the world of Lovecraft and Cthulhu and his other Elder Gods. In fact, there has only been a handful games that have actually made use of the official Call of Cthulhu license. That’s very odd considering how bountiful the Cthulhu Mythos is for storytelling and video games, and how well received they were.

The French game company Infogrames made two of these games back in the early to mid 1990s. The first and more notable of these was the graphic adventure game Shadow of the Comet, release in 1993.

cthulhu shadow of the comet

Shadow of the Comet was based primarily upon the short stories, “The Dunwich Horror” and “Shadow over Illsmouth”, and follows John Parker, a British scientist who travels to New England in 1910 to a small town called Illsmouth to witness the passage of Halley’s Comet in three days, as it has been said that one can have an almost supernaturally clear view of celestial phenomenon in that area. Parker also has an ulterior motive for his travel, as 76 years prior a man named Lord Boleskine traveled to Illsmouth for the same reason, but ended up returning to Britain stark, raving mad and spending the rest of his life in an insane asylum. Not long after Parker arrives, he discovers that not all is as it seems in the small New England town and must survive over the course of the three days to uncover what happened back in 1834. The game sold well and received rave reviews, enough that Infogrames greenlit an indirect sequel in 1995 entitled Prisoner of Ice.

prisoner of ice

Prisoner of Ice was based primarily on the short story, “At the Mountains of Madness.” This one follows Lt. Ryan, an American military intelligence agent who is assigned to a British submarine not long before the start of the second World War. It starts when the submarine he is on is fleeing the Antarctic just after rescuing a Norwegian man who had escaped from a secret German research base along with a mysterious crate marked “Streng Geheim” which is revealed to contain a monster, the eponymous ‘Prisoner of Ice’. While Prisoner of Ice got good reviews upon release, it is considered to be just an okay game today, making it a case of Damned by Faint Praise, especially considering how Shadow of the Comet was received upon release and the cult following it maintains to this day. This would mark the last time Infogrames would make a Call of Cthulhu game, as “Prisoner”’s less-than-stellar performance caused them to look elsewhere for success. The franchise would lay fallow for 10 years before another game was released with the Call of Cthulhu moniker. That game would be Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

cthulhu bethesda

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was developed by British development studio Headfirst Games and published by Bethesda Softworks for XBOX in 2005 and PC in 2006. The game takes elements from a number of short stories including “Shadow over Innsmouth”, “The Shadow Out of Time”, and the Call of Cthulhu campaign “Escape From Innsmouth.” Unlike the previous two games, Dark Corners of the Earth is First Person Survival Horror game that combines investigation, stealth, and FPS elements into a single game. In keeping with its Survival Horror designation, the game featured limited ammunition and enemies that often required wits to defeat instead of just blasting away at it with a Thompson Submachine gun or a M1911 pistol though there are a number of monsters and cultists that will succumb to just that. It also had no HUD, instead relying on audio and visual cues to hint and your current condition. In keeping with its Tabletop namesake, sanity plays a role in the game and if you look at an unsettling sight for too long or too often, you will find yourself going insane or committing suicide. The game itself follows private investigator Jack Walters who must venture to Illsmouth to investigate a missing person’s case and ends up caught up in a sinister conspiracy involving the town. (Sensing a theme here?)

The game was well received by critics who praised the gameplay and story but were less than enthusiastic about a number of serious bugs in the game due to it’s long and troubled development cycle (The game was originally announced in 1999). The game ended up being a commercial failure but it’s reception was enough for Headfirst to commission two new games, Call of Cthulhu: Destiny’s End and Call of Cthulhu: Beyond the Mountains of Madness. However due to troubles with Bethesda, Headfirst found itself without a publisher and was unable to secure another one. This caused both games to be canceled and Headfirst to go into bankruptcy. This would be the last time a AAA Call of Cthulhu game would be made however the moniker would still survive to see another game.

cthulhu wasted land

Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land is a tactical RPG released for iOS, Windows, and Android in 2012. The game is based partially on Herbert West-Reanimator and primarily on the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. It plays very similar to XCOM and is about a unit of soldiers and investigators who are investigating a conspiracy that involves the German military reanimating corpses from the fighting to build an undead army. The setting takes place right in the trenches of the Western Front and manages to gracefully combine all the elements into a standout game as evidenced by is good reception.

With all the games previously mentioned that makes only four officially licensed games over the course of a 23-year period, and only three from either a large company or development house backed by a large publisher. I believe that reason behind that is that the Cthulhu Mythos can be a difficult world to put to a video game in a way that does its source material and author justice. Another factor would be that even though the adventure genre has made a bit of a comeback over the past ten years, the general public by and large still seems to lean more towards the action side of the equation, but not only that, it can be hard to get into a world where your defeat is more likely than your victory and your effort are likely to be for nought. But even though they may not be huge money generators like FPS’s or other genres, they are still popular enough that they have hung on in other non-monikered games, and the Call of Cthulhu franchise has still managed to stay popular along with the rest of Lovecraft’s work. Part of this endurance can be attributed to the rise of independent developers who can afford to not worry about a publisher breathing down its neck in order to achieve a proper vision. The fact that it’s still popular proves two things: the first being that we still love us some Cthulhu. As for the other, well….I’ll quote one of Lovecraft’s most famous written lines: “That which is not dead, can eternal lie………..”

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