The following article contains spoilers for the games in question.
Howard Philips Lovecraft is one of the few writers whose written works garnered critical acclaim after his death. Somewhat appropriately, his innumerable short stories about the folly of mankind’s lust for knowledge, and understanding even in the deepest of depths became popular only once he couldn’t see them truly succeed.
The vast majority of his most popular tales – like The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness – concern how a protagonist usually finds themselves in contact with the Elder Gods, a race of impossibly old, hateful beings that play with reality itself. These creatures are often hideously malformed beings of almost alien nature, with entire families of Elder Gods springing up around his original works.
While not all of the Cthulhian Mythos is Lovecraft’s design, his work did give way to many other writers adding other Gods to the universe throughout the 20th century. Despite the grim nature of his tales, video game culture is no stranger to weird, scary, or outright depressing, themes. Meaning that his incomplete short stories that form the Cthulhu Mythos as we know it today, have heavily influenced a fair amount of developers ever since the mid to late 90’s.
This will be a look at the ways in which his mythos has directly inspired certain video games, and ranking them based on their connections.
5) Dead Space
While Dead Space as a series might have been pulled away from survival horror towards action in its later titles, the first game, released in 2008, was a wonderfully skin-crawling experience. Perhaps this series doesn’t appear Lovecraftian initially, but once you peel back the shiny glamor of the science-fiction, and remove the spaceships: it looks very Cthulhian indeed.
On a base level, it’s where one man (Isaac Clarke) fights against an impossibly powerful force despite being drawn into madness himself, to try halt the ritualistic conversion of the ships former crew into nightmarish abominations. The games themes are nearly perfectly in-line with what most readers would associate with a typical Lovecraft story; those being ritual sacrifice, secret zealous cults, pact suicide, and a force clearly pulling all the strings from behind the scenes. That force being the Marker, the main reason why the story unfolds the way it does. It’s even hailed by many in the game as the coming of a new age, and a new level of existence.
Even as the narrator/protagonist becomes ever more unstable across all three titles, he battles to ultimately destroy this maddening relic, despite knowing that he cannot stop ascension from occurring, merely slow it down. While very disheartening overall, the lore behind the main events of the story that can be prised from within audio logs, and notes, is incredibly intricate to read. But like in all Lovecraft tales: the more you know, the less you can do to stop it.
4) Alan Wake
Thriller-shooter Alan Wake might not be everyone’s first port of call when thinking about the Elder Gods in video games, especially when direct adaptations exist, but it’s all there, just under the surface (no pun intended).
Not only does Alan battle against a mostly formless, malevolent evil entity from under the town of Bright Falls, and not only is that entity connected heavily to the lake, everything that the game does tries to enfeeble you. You’re constantly dwarfed in battles of life and death, with possessed people, creatures, and even trains, attacking you. This level of manipulation, both physically and mentally, by the “darkness” in the game is thematically similar to Lovecraft.
Only once the player has stripped the enemies, the ‘Taken’, of their darkness, can they even be damaged. Lovecraft wrote feverishly about Elder Gods like Hastur, the King in Yellow, who took a personal interest in meddling with the lives of mortals, and about how they wish to see their will done in the physical world.
As the game heads to a climax, it’s made apparent that the “darkness” is using Alan to conjure new stories that allow it to escape from within its prison in Cauldron Lake. A writer using fiction, to create new states of reality is a terrifying thing indeed, especially when driven by such an ambiguously ill force.
3) Sunless Sea
Our oceans remain alien to us, even in this day and age. Recent estimates suggest that we, as a species, have barely explored 6% of our oceans. This fractional figure aptly shows why many of the Elder Gods from Lovecraft’s tales were tied to the deepest depths. A place that mankind cannot go, and maybe shouldn’t.
Sunless Sea is exactly that then. You take the helm as a captain sailing into uncharted waters, with a crew who are definitely not going to end up eating one another as they lose their minds to the sights within the abyssal waters. Definitely not. Your mission is simple: to explore, and to survive. The main catch of this simple mission is to avoid the infernal horrors that lurk around seemingly every corner of this game. Based in the same universe as Fallen London (by Fail Better Games), Sunless Sea takes that same lore, and narrative drive from the first game, but throws in giant sea creatures, and eldritch horrors.
It’s bleak, but that’s nothing new if you’ve played anything Lovecraft inspired before. A running theme is that the deeper you press into dark places, the more likely you risk your sanity to those places. Most of the Elder Gods are famously tied to the deep sea, with the legendary Cthulhu hailing from the blackest of seaborne trenches.
Sunless Sea takes that specific Lovecratian attitude as well, with a pinch of Victorian charm, that comes off as “eager to explore for any riches”, without fully realizing the consequences. Even as you, and your crew slowly, inevitably sink into madness, it might still be worth the risk just to try see something terrible, yet brilliantly ancient.
If the Dark Souls series is inspired by the long-running Berserk manga (by Kentaro Miura), then Bloodborne is director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s love affair with H.P Lovecraft, and Gothic horror.
Everything about the game oozes this refined, almost sharp, grace about it. From the combat, to the area design, every aspect is dripping with a certain maddening gore if you look at it in the right light. It’s no secret that Miyazaki based Bloodborne rather heavily off of Lovecraftian themes and mythos.
The ‘Great Ones’ are basically the spiritual cousins of the ‘Old Ones’, and the parallels only become more clear as you look further into the game. The expansion, The Old Hunters, released in October of the same year, isn’t just based off Lovecraft, it is Lovecraft. One area in particular, the Fishing Hamlet, is a direct take on the short story, The Shadow over Innsmouth.
The story tells of a man moving into a town where all the residents are in fact secretly a fanatic cult of Elder God-worshiping fish-people, and are sacrificing humans to gain greater strength, and favor, with their patron. If that sounds familiar to the Fish Men of the hamlet, and their ties to the former Great One, Mother Kos, that’s because you’ve been paying attention.
Beyond that, there’s a larger focus in Bloodborne on madness. Every area in the expansion especially sees a different kind. The blood-drunk hunters are mad with battle fury, the patients in the Astral Clocktower are mad with simply knowing about the ocean sat above their heads, and finally the hamlet, a place that was raided by scholars who were mad with a lust for knowledge. Understanding the incomprehensible, and then understanding how bottomless that really is, is a crucial theme in Bloodborne.
All throughout the story you, as the player, seek more Insight to understand exactly what is going on, but that same understanding simply drives you further from the truth because of how complex it truly is.
1) Darkest Dungeon
No Lovecraftian video game offers quite like the nail-biting experience of Darkest Dungeon. While some titles borrow themes, and maybe use the same ideas, Darkest Dungeon is one of the few to truly embrace H.P. Lovecraft wholeheartedly. The game aims to beat you to your knees, then asks why you bother to fight when the struggle is simply too much for you to handle.
Along the way of course, your brave, or foolish, heroes face madness, truths too great for a mortal mind, and enough stress to shatter anyone. Truly, this dungeon-crawling masterpiece is every bit a Lovecraft work as any of his books. The combat, narrative, and morals used in this game are all brutal because they need to be. Ever since your Ancestor delved deep into the catacombs within the mansion, the truth has been the same. This horrible, lurking truth, however, is that even in victory you lose.
Read any of Lovecraft’s short stories, and one key, continuous, theme is that they always win. The Elder Gods don’t lose, they cannot be stopped by mortal means, and this final tragic constant holds up in the final battle in Darkest Dungeon. As you take in the sight that is the Heart of Darkness, the grotesque creature gestating beneath the mansion, fed by the blood of those above it, you see just how small you are.
Even with battle-hardened veterans that all amplify one another’s tactics, you are at the whim of an Elder God. If you somehow manage to “kill” this being, the game implies that your efforts were actually for naught, because how could steel kill a creature from beyond the stars?
It ends with the same solemn phrase that it began with, suggesting to the player that another heir will arrive by coach soon, so that it may feed off the strength of brave warriors seeking riches. Even as defeating as this may be, it’s true to the source, as the Elder Gods were written to have been omnipresent, older than time itself, and any fraction of understanding of that truth is enough to warrant total, undying insanity.