This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Despite the fact that Cthulhu himself has become so ubiquitously adapted and parodied in genre circles that he’s become an overexposed cliche, I still harbour a lot of love for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG. On its release in 1981 it perfectly captured a new style of playing RPGs, wherein characters didn’t so much become more powerful over the course of play as more scarred and hardened, and the emphasis was very much on investigative processes; it’s often the case in the game that avoiding combat entirely is the smart move.
This cerebral, investigative style of play should, in principle, be a natural fit for point-and-click adventures, themselves typically a slower and more sedate style of videogame in which action sequences tend to be rare and twitch-based game mechanics aren’t really the order of the day. So it was that in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the height of the point-and-click adventure boom, Call of Cthulhu publishers Chaosium licensed the videogame rights to French developers Infogrames. Despite Infogrames having previously produced a Lovecraftian-themed hit (and a breakthrough in 3D gaming) in the form of Alone In the Dark, the outcome of the collaboration with Chaosium would be less successful…
Shadow of the Comet
In 1834, renowned astronomer Lord Boleskine came to the isolated New England town of Illsmouth to observe the passing of Halley’s Comet. Rumour had it that some strange atmospheric phenomenon allowed celestial events to appear with far greater clarity over Illsmouth than elsewhere, and Boleskine intended to test the theory. Something happened there which destroyed his mental equilibrium; he returned home quite ravingly insane, and was institutionalised for the rest of his life.
In 1910, some 76 years later, John Parker decides to follow in Boleskine’s footsteps to repeat the abortive observations. Taking a few sample photographs on his first night, Parker ends up observing a strange cult meeting at some nearby standing stones, led by the sinister Narackamous – who displays some unusual powers as Parker flees. Later, when developing his photographs, Parker is momentarily shocked to see that one of his plates displays a malevolent face as vast as the sky, staring down from and somehow composed of the stuff of the stars themselves. There’s something terribly wrong in Illsmouth, and it’s down to Parker to sort it out – and quickly, for when Halley’s Comet flies in the sky, the Stars Will Be Right…
Shadow of the Comet takes an interesting approach to the Lovecraftian source material, taking just enough inspiration from familiar stories like The Dunwich Horror or The Shadow Over Innsmouth to feel like part of the same cosmos but differing from both enough to tell a distinctive story all of its own. Likewise, the chosen time period is close enough to the 1920s era of most of Lovecraft’s stories to be reminiscent of them, but allows itself to precede them a bit for the sake of working in the plot-significant Halley’s Comet connection.
Unfortunately, there are other ways in which the game is a little bit off-centre which seem to be less deliberate. In particular, the English language version seems to have run into some rather nasty translation issues. Quotations from Lovecraftian sources seem to have been translated into French for the purposes of Infogrames working on the game and then translated back into English by someone who either didn’t have the original sources to hand or simply didn’t know they existed, so for instance the Old Ones are referred to as the Ancient Ones and the translation of the iconic Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn Cthulhu cult chant at one point is horribly mangled.
But it isn’t just Lovecraftian quotations that are mixed up; simple exchanges seem to be very slightly scrambled, to the point where some conversations just don’t seem to make sense. This is particularly annoying when this comes down to simple errors which the translator could have avoided simply by actually paying attention to context and working out a basic timeline of the game. (There’s at least one point when you’re told quite authoritatively that there are two days left to go in the game, when in fact there is only one.)
Let’s not lay all the blame at the feet of the translator, though. The game has some serious issues in terms of pacing and tone, where the early slow pace and spooky atmosphere eventually falls to bits and becomes a risible morass of flashy action sequences, dungeon-crawling, and tonally inappropriate nonsense. (A particular misstep is a vision of the ancient past, which makes the ancient world ruled over by the Old Ones and their cultists seem like something out of a sword and sorcery novels. Whilst Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard liked dropping references here and there to each other’s work, so that the Conan stories could be interpreted as a prehistory of the world of Lovecraft’s stories, in practice such crossing of the streams within a story frequently just doesn’t work, and it certainly doesn’t work here.)
Moreover, at points the story becomes simply nonsensical. At one point Parker is directed to investigate a lighthouse as a place where “water, earth and air” meet. This turns out to be an entirely pointless excursion – all that happens is that he gets chased by some goons that he escapes from by, and I am not shitting you here, donning some Icarus-style strap-on wings and flying away, crashing to Earth in the presence of some racist stereotypes of Romany people so that they can give him an info-dump full of data which is actually kind of redundant set next to information you have already uncovered during the game. (This is the bit when you get the Conan the Barbarian temple flashback.) Not only is the trip to the lighthouse completely superfluous, but the thing it leads to is completely superfluous, so the whole sequence could have been cut without clogging up the story with such utter time-wasting nonsense and the game wouldn’t suffer for it in the slightest.
The user interface is quite nicely designed so that things like the inventory and controls disappear when not used, which lends itself to a nicely cinematic tone. Unfortunately, the actual implementation of the controls feels clumsy and awkward. (In particular, there seems to be a weird conflation between selecting something in the inventory and deciding to actually use the thing; the inventory management could have done with a serious rethink altogether.) The addition of a notebook in which Parker puts down his notes on what he needs to do next is handy, and probably represents the best idea offered up by the game.
In short, Shadow of the Comet represents a massive missed opportunity on the part of Infogrames. Perhaps most damning is the fact that the game came out in 1993, but its rudimentary mouse controls and clunky adherence to outdated Sierra-style conventions (right down to steering Parker around with the arrow keys like this is King’s Quest or something) makes it feel like a game that could have quite technologically feasibly come out three to four years earlier. Adding to the air of faint cheapness and corner-cutting is the way that almost all of the close-up images of the major cast members are thinly-veiled tracings of screenshots from movies, with no credit or attribution offered. It’s all just a bit clumsy, frankly.
Prisoner of Ice
The sequel came out in 1995, and had rather more modern-looking graphics and a much better control system combined with a story which, though it still comes untangled towards the end, at least doesn’t seem to suffer from translation-based mangling in its English version.
The game takes the timeline forwards to 1937; though the European powers are talking peace, everyone is preparing for war, and in the shadows and lonely parts of the world covert operations are already being carried out. Take, for instance, the matter of the HMS Victoria, a British submarine operating off the coast of Antarctica, with Lt. Ryan – an American naval intelligence officer – onboard in an advisory capacity. Engaging with a secret German base, the Victoria comes away with Bjorn Hamsun – a Norwegian anthropologist who had been kidnapped by the Nazis – and two crates encased in ice. When an accidental fire onboard melts the ice protecting one of the cases, its eldritch inhabitant emerges – and as it transpires, only a particular incantation known by Hamsun can banish it. The matter, however, is far from over – and before too long Ryan’s investigations will find him tackling a hideous alliance between Nazi megalomaniacs and ancient foes of humanity.
On the one hand, Prisoner of Ice is a great improvement over Shadow of the Comet in numerous areas. In particular, the main story manages to rely much less on borrowed ideas from specific, identifiable Lovecraft stories and at times manages to establish some genuine tension and offer some spooky moments. (Perhaps the creepiest bit is the part where back at a British military base in the Falklands you get these little cutaway scenes to illustrate the point that there’s something not quite right about Hamsun.) Plus, like I said, the translation is better and the controls are much nicer this time. (The game even makes a point of creating an autosave – which cannot be overwritten by the player – whenever you get into a situation where a Game Over may occur, which is much friendlier than Comet.)
Unfortunately, whilst it is the better game, it isn’t quite a good game either. Whilst the story starts out really strong, it ends up unravelling rather quickly midway though. Once Ryan goes to Buenos Aires and starts picking up the trail of John Parker (yes, the one from the previous game) the plot descends into two-dimensional villainy, heavy-handed time travel, and cartoonishly over-the-top action. It gets particularly bad when the game starts shoehorning in characters and locations from the previous game, with Narackamous showing up without explanation or, really, anything significant to contribute whatsoever and the closing sections of the game happening in the vicinity of Illsmouth.
The Illsmouth stuff is particularly clumsily handled. The various returning characters and concepts aren’t really explained at all, so anyone who came to this without playing Shadow of the Comet first would most likely be deeply confused. For that matter, what exactly the Illsmouth characters are doing here and what the point of their inclusion is isn’t really well-explained either, so anyone who did play Comet is going to be confused in a whole different way.
It feels, in fact, as though in between rehauling the controls and coming up with this greatly improved graphical presentation the developers ran out of time to actually execute the story. Whilst some sections flow reasonably well, other parts feel a bit off. We don’t actually get any coherent explanation in-game of how Hamsun got captured, or how he got rescued, or why the authorities care in the first place. Moreover, to progress in the game you regularly have to get Ryan to do a whole bunch of stuff which it makes little sense for him to do. For instance, you end up having to start subversively tweaking things here and there at the British military base well before you have any orders from your US superiors which could possibly justify that.
Perhaps the most glaring thing is the way in the initial creature encounter you end up using a tape recording of Hamsun’s ranting to banish it despite Ryan having seen absolutely nothing to suggest that it could possibly work. It isn’t much of a gameplay barrier – most players would probably work it out after enough attempts – but it makes a nonsense of the plot. It’s a perfect example of one of the things Ron Gilbert complained about in Why Adventure Games Suck, his classic manifesto which became the underpinning of so many LucasArts classics like the Monkey Island games. As Gilbert points out in article, you need to be able to tell the plot of an adventure game from start to finish without ever having the main character use information that they would have had to obtain in a previous playthrough – if that becomes necessary, the story no longer makes any sort of sense, and here it’s absolutely nonsensical for Ryan to use the tape recorder unless he already knew that he’d be killed trying to tackle the creature using conventional means.
(For that matter, this a failing which Shadow of the Comet also shared, particularly when it has silly “gotcha” moments like arbitrarily killing you if you leave a particular location with the Necronomicon when at that point in time Parker had every reason to want to keep the book to hand.)
The sense that the game was rather rushed extends to the pitifully shallow character development, with most NPCs being bland cyphers not even amounting to the two-dimensional cartoons that most characters in Shadow are. Diane Parker may be the epitome of this, since she seems to exist to fill out a pair of jodhpurs nicely and contributes absolutely nothing of value to the actual story; it’s almost like she was supposed to be a playable character at one point chasing up her investigation into John Parker’s disappearance, only for that whole strand to get cut due to time or money constraints.
In short, Prisoner of Ice fixes up some of the really obvious flaws with Shadow of the Comet which made that game clunky and unapproachable, but fails to tackle some of the fundamental issues with that game’s approach that prevents it working as an effective, high quality Lovecraftian horror game.
Lessons For the Future
It’s a real shame that Infogrames dropped the ball on these games, because the slower-paced, cerebral style of classic, purist Call of Cthulhu play would translate really well to a point-and-click adventure format. Unfortunately, for it to work, I think you’d need to make make some fundamentally different choices from those Infogrames made with both these games. To wit:
Go low-key and purist, not garish and pulp. Integrating action sequences into point-and-click adventures has perennially been difficult, and it’s particularly unnecessary to crowbar them in here since traditionally Call of Cthulhu has been more about evading danger than tackling it face on. Throwing in sections with lots of rushing around in dungeons or tossing around spells or zapping people with lasers might work for a pulpy Lovecraft pastiche, but it doesn’t really get across the spirit of the classic Mythos stories, in which occasional action sequences occurred but they were more exercises in nail-biting tension than cathartic zapping of bad guys. Moreover, taking the “purist” approach as opposed to the “pulp” style would help avoid those Conan the Barbarian-type temple sets and other tonally inappropriate moments.
Don’t skimp on the writing. Lovecraft was not great at dialogue or characterisation. These were weaknesses of his writing style which you absolutely do not have to follow to tell a good Cthulhu Mythos story. (Indeed, Ramsey Campbell has essentially made a career out of refusing to compromise there.) Give us characters that we become invested in, whose personalities stand out and whose destruction or corruption in the face of vast, uncaring forces outrages us.
Don’t skimp on the editing either. In particular, be absolutely ruthless about demanding internal consistency. Whilst Lovecraft gleefully messed about with the parameters of his mythology from story to story, he was rigorous about keeping the facts (both mundane and preternatural) consistent within the stories themselves; he once told Clark Ashton Smith that “My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care and verisimilitude of an actual hoax.” That’s one Lovecraft habit that it actually is worth imitating, particularly in the context of a game. Precisely because the player will be paying careful attention to clues and puzzles, because that’s the sort of thing the gameplay encourages, the player will notice errors, so be unflinching in rooting them out as much as possible before publication.
And for God’s sake, do Ron Gilbert’s exercise of retelling the story of the game to yourself so that you can pick up on any instances where a character would have needed to act on knowledge that they couldn’t have possibly had without dying and reloading.
Step back from the end of the world. Yes, there is an apocalyptic aspect to some of the Cthulhu Mythos stuff, and in the more garish campaigns published for the tabletop RPG saving the world is on the cards. At the same time, it’s really difficult to escalate a story to that point whilst simultaneously keeping the tense, claustrophobic feel so often necessary for survival horror. Take a tip from the Silent Hill games and remember that the personal scale is often more relatable than the global – and once you relate to something, it hurts that much more when it comes under threat.
Go deep with the mystery and lavish with the clues. Rather than making puzzles mere roadblocks on the path to progress, with weird and arbitrary solutions like flying off with Icarus wings, take a leaf from the better scenarios from the tabletop RPG – treat every enigma as a storytelling opportunity, and make sure the mystery behind the game is a deep and complex one with extensive and interesting clues to pore over rather than a random dilemma to click past in five minutes. (For all that I had my reservations and criticisms about it, Scratches actually did a really good job on this score.)
None of the above constitutes something that is impossible to accomplish in the context of a point and click adventure, and some of it is actively easier to do than the sort of thing Infogrames were wasting their time with in these games. Indeed, much of the above would still hold true for a modern survival horror game. There’s a new Call of Cthulhu licensed videogame coming out next year from Cyanide Studio – another French company! – and it remains to be seen whether they produce a game worthy of the licence at last. Personally, I’m hoping to see something reminiscent of my suggestions above rather than a rerun of Infogrames’ blunders.