Compromised Vision

March 20, 2009 at 12:00 am (Game Reviews)

coc

It was not until partway through Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth that I realized H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology extends far beyond Lovecraft himself. Lovecraft Mythos, it turns out, is rather a complex and intricate web of story-cycles. And I had fancied myself “in the know” after only reading a short (and by no means exhaustive) collection of Lovecraft’s works. I hadn’t even scratched the surface. Therefore, I can’t rightly comment on how faithful the game is to its mythos. Perhaps I am not even its audience. Nevertheless, I was still subject to chills, and in that I must say it is a successful homage to Lovecraft.

It’s a great compliment, since I played the PC version of the game. I am told the original Xbox version was, save game bugs aside, a solid piece of work. I must take their word for it, for my PC experience was nothing short of horrible. It was so bad that when a puzzle stumped me, I wasn’t even sure it was the puzzle’s fault. 5 times out of 10, it turned out to be because of a bug – a scripting bug, a collision detection bug, an AI bug, or even a display bug that rendered one section of the game unbeatable. (I passed only by downloading a game save from a fansite.)

You could rightly say that my gameplay experience was underwhelming, but inexcusable bugs were not completely at fault. Part of it was that I was playing an adventure game, a genre famous for “trial and error” puzzle solving. Part of it was that Call of Cthulhu is a bad adventure game. Progress eventually became so arbitrary that I had to finish the last third of the game with a walkthrough, something I rarely have to do.

A shame too, for the game is otherwise thoughtful in its narrative. Imagine engaging with a good book only to discover that pages are missing and sometimes the book throws itself out of your hands whenever you turn page fifty-three. Frustrating – and yet, if it’s good, you’ll put it up with it. Which I did.

The fact is, Call of Cthulhu‘s story cannot be downplayed in its creepiness – or perhaps I am just faithful to Rebel FM’s Game Club, with whom I played the game. And in any case, the game was scary – particularly the asylum scenes, which left me unsettled if not in abject terror. “It’s just a dream sequence,” I would tell myself. “It’s just this thing they’re doing. Nothing to be scared of.” Easier said than done.

Immersion is what makes horror games work so well. When the mechanics are right and the game can suspend your disbelief, the terror of your character becomes your terror. I was the one walking through the asylum. I was the one opening doors I should not have. I was the one running for my life from unspeakable monstrosities.

The problem with human psychology, however, is that it is very good at acclimating itself. This was well understood by the seminal Silent Hill. Trap the player in horror, it knew, and the mind would get used to it, and you’d lose the effect. So Silent Hill only cast you into the darkness irregularly – and terrified you every time. Hence, the success of the asylum scenes, of which there are around four total. Hence, also, the loss of suspense and horror during the game’s closing sequences.

Not that losing the scare factor is a bad thing, if you replace it with something equally compelling. Call of Cthulhu does not. There are some moments, during the end, when you are struck by “Lovecraftian goosebumps” – realizations that things are not what they seem to be in the humanity’s-role-in-the-universe sense. Mostly, however, the final chapter boils down to an extended stealth/action sequence, something a game this buggy and unpolished has no business attempting.

A fair question: why did I bother to finish this game, which is inconsistently engaging and terrifying, and not Golden Axe: Beast Rider*? For one, inconsistent is better than never. For two, the game is a successful work of Lovecraft Mythos – and that means it compels you to push on, to uncover the dark secret waiting for you on the next page, because the answer is always scarier than you thought it would be.

And that’s really the crux of it. A desire to uncover the truth about Innsmouth is what kept me up until 4am one night, not the game’s muddled puzzle/stealth sequences. That is not even to mention the game’s gutsy climax. Is it worth playing? If you’re unfamiliar with Lovecraft Mythos, I would say absolutely: it nails Lovecratian horror. Unfortunately for those of us who are familiar with it, the game breaks little new ground and is a stodgy “game” to boot.

* I will be posting more about this game sometime soon.

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