While perusing The Escapist yesterday (and picking up the Lord B. interview), I read Allen Varney’s piece pondering on why more hasn’t been done with H.P. Lovecraft’s works, in terms of games.

Of course, there have been some. Infocom’s The Lurking Horror showed a definite Lovecraftian influence, and Shadow Of The Comet, along with the original Alone In The Dark, were certainly based on what has come to be called the “Cthulhu Mythos”. More recently, there was Dark Corners Of The Earth.

As Allen points out, however, Lovecraft’s works don’t, as written, make for a good game basis. We like to win, and the protagonists in many of his stories tend to die or end up in an asylum. These are not finales most players want to arrive at.

He also mentions that there is always that sense that humanity is living on borrowed time, that one day, “the stars will be right”, and the Great Old Ones will show up to take over the earth, or what’s left of it. Hardly a cheery prospect.

On the other hand, the titles listed above demonstrate it is certainly possible to create games derived at least in part from Lovecraft’s output. And they needn’t, necessarily, be all gloom and doom.

So why not more Lovecraft? Probably because, in the main, the horror tends to be intellectual. It is the slow unfolding of the story, leading to the ultimate revelation, that sends the character over the edge, one way or another. To truly understand the Great Old Ones, or anything about them, brings the crowning terror of madness.

Ergo, one must take selective elements from Lovecraft, but not the whole, to create a game. We’ve seen it can be done, but for most designers, it’s likely easier to come up with something more-or-less original.

I say “more-or-less”, as these days, there is a trend towards the “survival horror” game, which could otherwise be called “zombie shooting gallery”.

However atmospheric, however fabulous the graphics, such games reduce horror to “point and click” killing. Whatever eerieness the game may have quickly fades into more familiar action. The monsters might just as well be orcs as undead or anything else.

Unfortunately, it’s that “shooter” aspect that makes the games popular. A true horror – not shooter – game can only be played once with any satisfaction. After you’ve been through it, all the mystery is gone.

You know if something lurks in the closet, down in the cellar, up in the attic, or outside the front door, and you can deal with it as circumstances require.

The “unknown”, the sense that “anything might happen”, is no longer there, and fear of the unknown is a major aspect of horror. Tension and unease can only be maintained when you don’t know what’s coming.

As it is, the more traditional type of horror game – which means adventure game – comes out mainly from independent companies. Scratches and Barrow Hill are two examples, and neither is Lovecraftian.

And perhaps it is the case that Lovecraft can’t truly be translated to the computer. After all, the Great Old Ones are completely alien, from somewhere outside the Earth, maybe even outside the universe.

When all is said and done, we like our monsters to be familiar, not unimaginable. Even when they’re horrific. Lovecraft, however, goes after the mind, and the last thing we want is to go mental.

Cthulhu: Why So Difficult? on The Escapist