Once upon a time, H.P. Lovecraft was an obscure fiction writer. Today, in large part due to the impact Lovecraft’s work has had on video games, Lovecraft is a well-known name to even casual readers and casual gamers. While many games base their material directly on Lovecraft lore, the impact of Lovecraftian ideas is immensely broad.
Before we explore what makes this compelling for game designers, and especially so for game designers building RPGs, we should define the term Lovecraftian:
Where other genres of horror might rely on extreme violence or twisted human villains, Lovecraftian stories build upon the fear of the unknown, especially as it relates to otherworldly or supernatural threats. In these settings, humans discover that they are specs at the edge of a vast cosmic ocean filled with all manner of terrors–some from forgotten eras of magic, some from unknown dimensions, all underlying how little humans understand and how little power they really have.
Dungeons & Dragons writers have directly referenced Lovecraft as back as the 1970s, but Lovecraft innovation really began in 1980 with Call of Cthulhu, published by Chaosium. Where most tabletop experiences relied solely on hit points as a measure of a player’s status, Call of Cthulhu introduced the sanity meter. Not only did players need to manage the physical damage they endured, but they also had to manage the mental damage they endured as well.
Zen Studios isn’t the first game company to revisit these themes in video game form (though we think Dread Nautical is a unique entry), but few game designers have talked about why Lovecraft has become a deep well worth going back to again and again.
Here’s our perspective:
- In an industry saturated by high-fantasy, Lovecraftian elements feel fresh. We’ve touched on this topic in the past, and it rings true here as well. RPGs have heavily relied on Lord of the Rings material or derivatives of it for decades. While we are huge fans of this material, Lovecraftian lore provides an entirely different mythology to explore and customize, and that feeling of freshness can breed new ideas for story and for mechanics.
- Lovecraftian games are heavy on emotion. The very nature of Lovecraftian plots and settings means that your characters, and therefore your players, are confronted with intense emotions of fear, foreboding, and dread. While you can certainly build these elements into any RPG experience, it’s in the DNA of Lovecraft and gives a designer some powerful building blocks for the foundation of a gaming experience.
- Lovecraftian lore opens the door to modern, familiar settings. The Dungeons & Dragons roots of RPGs has meant that many RPGs take place in medieval or purely fantasy worlds, but Lovecraftian games make it easier for a design to use a present-day or a relatively recent time period for an RPG setting, and the opens the door to very different opportunities for combat, for characters, and for setting. Yes, some amazing designers have accomplished this in other ways, but Lovecraft provides a framework to build on rather than forcing a designer to wholly invent a new universe.
We’re proud that we get to add Dread Nautical to a growing list of amazing Lovecraftian video games, and we hope that our entry inspires more designers to tap into Lovecraftian elements in their own work.
For the Lovecraftian fans reading this, what do you find compelling about this genre of games? What are some of your favorites?