Arts & Culture

Game Picks: The Lovecraft worlds of ‘Cthulhu’ and ‘Arkham’

“Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” is spooky but fun.
“Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” is spooky but fun.

Along with Edgar Allen Poe, author H.P. Lovecraft is considered to be one of the original architects of the modern horror story. His influence on the genre is hard to overstate. Stephen King has called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

Lovecraft didn’t attain fame or fortune in his lifetime, though. He wrote mostly for the pulp magazines of the day, and at the time of his death in 1937, he was an obscure genre author at best. But Lovecaft’s mythos – of insane Elder Gods and hostile cosmic entities – gained traction after his death. Lovecraft encouraged other authors to continue his stories and incorporate his creations, like the eldritch city of Arkham or the sleeping underwater god Cthulhu.

In the world of gaming, you can make the case that no single writer – except maybe Tolkien – has had a greater impact on such a wide range of games, from tabletop RPGs to modern console video games. Lovecraft is practically a genre onto himself in gaming, with his world of doomed investigators, forbidden tomes and gibbous moons.

‘Call of Cthulhu’

“Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” is generally considered the most successful video game adaptation of Lovecraft’s work. Based on his short story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” it was originally released for PC and Xbox, and you can still get it via digital download through the online distribution platform Steam.

For serious Lovecraft nerds, it’s a lot of fun. The story is set in 1922 and players take the role of Jack Walters, a private detective investigating missing persons in the isolated town on Innsmouth. The designers have the Lovecraft vibe down, from the fishy-looking townsfolk to the dark and foggy cobblestone streets.

The game employs no heads-up display (HUD) elements onscreen. Your character’s condition is instead indicated by visual and aural cues. Color drains from the screen as you lose blood and a broken leg will cause you to limp. The game also incorporates a clever sanity system. As you confront the story’s various horrors, you begin to lose your mind, which is indicated in the game world with video glitches, sound distortion, controller feedback and eventually full-on hallucinations.

In terms of gameplay, “Dark Corners” relies heavily on stealth and evasion, though there are some FPS elements with era-appropriate weapons. Combat can be frustrating, though, as the designers have clearly put their efforts into story and atmosphere. But that’s the right call for an adaption of Lovecraft, I think, and “Dark Corners” is a fun retro find if you’re in the market for a spooky PC game.

‘Arkham Horror’

Lovecraft has also inspired several tabletop games, including “Call of Cthulhu” RPG and several board games.

The adventure game “Arkham Horror” is one of the coolest-looking board games ever to come down the pike, with deliciously weird art on the game board, cards and tokens. Each player assumes the role of an investigator trying to save the city of Arkham from an impending planar rift.

Players encounter the usual Lovecraft dilemmas – crazed cultists, tentacled monstrosities – and must preserve their sanity long enough to save the day. Each character card includes a back story, and players are encouraged to role-play their characters.

The game can be played by up to eight people, but also incorporates an innovative countdown mechanism for solo play. It’s complex, with a lot of moving parts, so to speak. You’ll want to set aside an entire evening –and a big table – if playing with a large group.

‘Cthulhu Fluxx’

For a quicker tabletop fix, the very fun card game “Cthulhu Fluxx” takes a lighter, faster and goofier approach to the Lovecraft mythos. Like other games in the Fluxx line – the franchise includes titles like “Zombie Fluxx” and “Pirate Fluxx” – the game is based on a system in which the rules and conditions for winning change throughout the game.

That’s a perfect fit for a Lovecraft-inspired theme, as the very game mechanics echo the sanity-shredding horror of Cthulhu and company. Fluxx also has fun with the more ridiculous tropes of the Lovecraft mythos. The sentient fungi, for instance.

Both “Arkham Horror” and “Cthulhu Fluxx” can be ordered online, or even better, you can support your friendly neighborhood gaming store and grab them off the shelf.