Born in 1890, H. P. Lovecraft is perhaps the premiere American horror writer. His stories fed off one of the most basic of human fears, that there was something horrible lying just outside of the realm of the senses, incomprehensible to both science and religion. Many of his works are categorized as the Cthulhu Mythos, connected works of fiction about a series of deities of unspeakable grotesqueness, far older than humanity, who are simply biding their time until they can return and reclaim the world for themselves. Many of his short stories revolve around a normal person who somehow stumbles upon one of these abominations - or perhaps, cultists who worship them - and is either driven to madness, or, if he's lucky, brutally killed.
Lovecraft's works have inspired many auteurs, who sought to replicate the same brand of horror, either officially or unofficially. One of the first such works was Infocom's The Lurking Horror, developed in 1987, and several other later games, including Silicon Knights' Eternal Darkness and Darkling Room's Dark Fall practically rip off the concept wholesale, despite not technically being related. A company called Chaosium, who had published the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper role playing game in the early '80s, decided to produce their own line of official games, which were led by a development team from Infogrames in France. Their two games - Shadow of the Comet and Prisoner of Ice - were not explicitly based on any Lovecraft story, although very specific elements were drawn for both, and any fan should be able to recognize their influences.
Halley's Comet, one of the most well known astronomical phenomena, appears visible from Earth once every 75 years or so. In 1834, Lord Boleskine traveled from his home country to England to the quiet New England town of Illsmouth to get a better glimpse of the comet in action. He went mad and spent his remaining years in an insane asylum. Upon the next scheduled visitation in 1914, British journalist John Parker stumbles upon the story of Boleskine and becomes fascinated. He sets off to cross the Atlantic and attempts to follow in Boleskine's footsteps, with some impediments - mostly, anyone that knew of him is either dead, crazy, or simply refuses to speak of him.
Parker spends three days in Illsmouth, and the first day is spent interacting with the townspeople, who show varying degrees of friendliness or hostility towards his presence. It's only when Parker sets off to photograph the comet during that night when things start to get freaky - he happens upon a strange ritual in the middle of the woods, and upon developing his photos, discovers a pair of eyes staring directly at him. Further investigation reveals a group of families worshipping the demons known as The Old Ones, who, when called upon, will consume the Earth in their chaos.
The town of Illsmouth is obviously supposed to be a reference to Innsmouth, from The Shadow over Innsmouth, one of Lovecraft's most famous stories and one of the core elements of the Cthulhu mythos. Despite both being small towns in Massachusetts, they are clearly different settings - Innsmouth was a creepy, run down village full of off-kilter locals, while Illsmouth, on the surface, seems relatively normal. Therein lies most of the intensity, however - one goes into a Lovecraft story knowing that there's something insanely sinister behind the scenes, but it's all the build up that proves the most suspenseful. It's not until the later moments of the game that the real creepy monsters show up, making their appearance all the more impactful.
The visuals do a fantastic job of building the creepy atmosphere. While the character sprites are unimpressive, the backgrounds are exquisite, with gorgeous pixel art that, at times, seems like it's based off real photos, and perfectly emulates the small town feel of a turn-of-the-century American town. Many of the townspeople are portrayed with full-screen portraits of their faces, many of whom are blatantly based on various American actors and actresses, ranging from Vincent Price to Jack Nicholson to H. P. Lovecraft himself. Certain actions, like picking up items or unlocking doors, are also accompanied with a close-up cinema using rotoscoped graphics, reminiscent of similar cinemas in Out of This World and Flashback.
The music, too, is surprisingly tense, and even the Adlib FM synth is remarkably capable in generating an extremely unsettling mood. There are only two real songs that loop continuously for a good chunk of the game, but they're so well composed that it's hardly an issue. The voice acting in the CD-ROM version is strange, because so much of the acting is extremely monotone. While this could be viewed as evidence of poor acting, in the context of the game, it actually fits the rather unsettling mood of the whole affair.
While Shadow of the Comet is something of a brilliantly done horror game, it's let down by its rather unconventional interface. Despite being released in 1993, the game was not developed with the point-and-click interface in mind, and instead you're supposed to use the keyboard to maneuver Parker. To look at or interact with something you need to be next to it and then select the appropriate command. Any item you can pick up is highlighted with a sight-line. Using items is accomplished by equipping them, after which they'll be used automatically in the appropriate situation. It's all very weird and non-standard, and for no good reason either. The CD-ROM version adds some semblance of mouse control, but instead of directly pointing to where Parker will walk, it simply controls his direction relative to the mouse cursor. (If it's positioned to the left, you hold down the mouse button to make him walk left, and so on.) Parker walks slowly, although there's a quick map that lets you instantly travel to the major points of Illsmouth. Alas, only a handful of places are actually highlighted, and navigating the town on foot can get fairly confusing. There are several houses in the town, but it's easy to forget who lives where when there's no general "look" command to help you get a bearing on your surroundings.
The interface is at its worst during the climatic sequence of the second night, when Parker discovers a series of catacombs beneath the town graveyard. Many screens contain bats, rats, spiders, spikes, and various pitfalls, all of which need to be carefully avoided solely with the cumbersome controls. More frustrating are the occasional chase sequences, where you need to exit through a series of rooms in an extremely brief amount of time. All of these death scenes are indeed a necessity to invoke the kind of horror these stories demand - what would be the point of a horror game if there was no threat of death? - but the controls really let the game down, and make these particular segments more frustrating than scary, at least after the first few attempts.
A few other factors can potentially irritate. There are a handful of possible dead ends, and a limited amount of save slots to counteract them. And for all of the halfway believable sorcery that comes with a story dealing with the summoning of ancient guards, the part where Parker escapes from a lighthouse by donning a pair of mechanical wings and jumping off is remarkably stupid. And yet, in spite of these pitfalls, Shadow of the Comet's other qualities ultimately overshadow everything else. It's a creepy, ultimately fascinating game, and a fantastic realization of Lovecraft's stories in an interactive medium.
The year is 1937, and our hero is Lt. Ryan, an American in the British Royal Navy. During a mission in the Antarctic, the submarine HMS Victoria happens upon a piece of curious cargo. An attack upon the vessel causes the cargo to come loose, revealing a terrifying monstrosity that nearly spells doom for the entire crew. Upon their safe return, they learn that meeting these monsters - the eponymous Prisoner of Ice - was no isolated incident, as the Nazis seek to manipulate these demons in their quest for world domination. Although Prisoner of Ice initially seems unrelated to the previous Call of Cthulhu game, it is in fact a sequel, as Parker shows up about halfway through the game, having established a library in Buenos Aries, and becomes a primary character. The events during the Halley's Comet appearance at Illsmouth also become a central event due to some crazy time traveling, which also sends Ryan into the future to see what the world would be like if conquered by the Old Ones.
Unfortunately, Prisoner of Ice totally disregards the very rule of suspenseful horror that Shadow of the Comet pulled off so well - that is, to never show the killer right at the outset, to let a sense of dread build over the fear of the unknown. Here, you see a prisoner right in the opening minutes of the game, where it kills one of your crew members (and you, if you're not careful). There are similar situations spread throughout the game where you encounter one of the monsters and need to react in a timed situation, an annoyance lessened due to the autosave before any of these violent situations.
It doesn't help that the prisoners just aren't scary. Prisoner of Ice benefits from a high res SVGA graphics (standard VGA is also available in the DOS release), but the computer rendered sprites look awkward even at their best. The similarly rendered cutscenes are also dated, although at least the painted backgrounds look fantastic. Unfortunately the Hollywood rip-off character portraits are totally gone.
The game also utilizes a more standard point and click interface, lessening the headaches of Shadow of the Comet, but it's drastically inferior in practically every other manner. The dialogue is sparse and the characters are ill-defined. Whereas in the first game you spent a good chunk of time uncovering the mysteries of the town, here you're put through standard (and rather pointless) puzzles like figuring out how to climb a gigantic bookshelf. The only real saving grace is the story. Although the "Nazis seek strange ancient power" thing is a bit too Indiana Jones, the twists near the end keep the story from becoming too derivative. It's also quite short and not particularly hard, which is both a plus and a minus - while it can be beaten in an afternoon, at least it doesn't suffer from too much padding.
Versions of Prisoner of Ice exist for both DOS and Windows 95. It was also ported to the PlayStation and Saturn by XING and released only in Japan. Due to the low resolution of the consoles, the graphics are forced into visuals equivalent to the VGA version, and there are pretty substantial load times. However, only the text is translated, and the voices were left in English, making it mostly playable if you want to avoid any potential technical headaches with the computer versions. This version is subtitled Jashin Kourin, which translates to "Advent of the Wicked Gods".
The Cthulhu mythos has spread itself far and wide since its inception, and has influenced numerous works across all forms of media. One of the first famous computer games to borrow from Lovecraft was Alone in the Dark, also published by Infogrames. Playing as either Detective Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood, you are locked in a mansion filled with numerous frightening ghouls. Getting killed will result in a cutscene of your player's lifeless body being dragged into the depths of the earth and sacrificed to some sort of god which could possibly resemble an old one. It's notable for essentially beginning the "survival horror" subgenre of action-adventure games, as the general gameplay - 3D polygonal characters on 2D backgrounds, with camera angles that change as you move - was borrowed by Capcom's Resident Evil games. Although there are numerous entries in the Alone in the Dark series, each successive game drifted away from the source material - the second game featured zombie pirates, the third focused on the Wild West, and the fourth and fifth were more modern horror stories with little connection to its predecessors.
In 2003, Nintendo published Eternal Darkness, developed by Canadian studio Silicon Knights. Long in development since the Nintendo 64 games, the story focused on twelve characters through the annals of history, each coming in contact with deities unmistakenably inspired by the Old Ones. The core mechanic involves an "insanity meter", which depletes whenever the main character witnesses a monster or some otherwise frightening situation. If it gets low enough, the game will play tricks on the player, flipping the screen upside down, causing their heads to explode randomly, or breaking the fourth wall by threatening to delete the player's save game or stopping the game midway and informing the gamer that they're playing a demo. All of these were clever tricks to mimic the player character's descent into madness, which would eventually kill them, if left untreated.
In 2005, Headfirst Productions released the third official Call of Cthulhu game, Dark Corners of the Earth, for the Xbox and PC. No longer a graphic adventure, this game is played in the first person, although it's hardly a first person "shooter". The beginning is largely focused on exploration and you don't even get a real weapon until a few hours in. Even then, most of the action revolves around avoiding monsters rather than shooting them. The basic premise borrows liberally from The Shadow over Innsmouth - far, far more than Shadow of the Comet - as the game takes place in the eponymous town and borrows several plot elements from it, before diverging and expanding later on. The atmosphere is impeccable, although the game is a bit buggy and there are many frustrating segments.
Headfirst Productions, consisting of former members of HorrorSoft (of the Elvira and Waxworks games) and AdventureSoft (who made Simon the Sorcerer and The Feeble Files), initially planned two more Call of Cthulhu games - Destiny's End and Beyond the Mountain of Madness. However, due to Dark Corners of the Earth's extended development period and its apathetic consumer reaction, Headfirst went under and the rest of the line was cancelled.
Call of Cthulhu: Darkness Within was a planned series of mobile adventure games by Spain-based Mayham Studios. The first chapter was released in English. Further books, along with iOS releases, were in the works but eventually canned. They are the closest to Infogrames' series in that they were essentially point-and-click games.
Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land, by Red Wasp Design, is a strategy/RPG based on the tabletop role-playing game and released in 2012. It is currently available for mobile platforms and the PC.
Finally, Cthulhu Saves the World is a very much unofficial role-playing game developed by Zeboyd Games and available on numerous platforms. It's the spiritual sequel to their previous game, Breath of Death VII, and precursor to their next game, On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 3. Zeboyd's games are heavily inspired by Japanese RPGs, particularly Dragon Quest, and feature 16-bit pixel artwork, chiptunes, and turn-based combat. They've also got a very goofy sense of humor, since you play as Cthulhu, technically a villain character.