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Looking at the Lovecraftian Influences in Bethesda Games

Stories and sights from beyond our comprehension.



Bethesda’s Lovecraftian Influences

Fear of the Unknown

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” —H.P. Lovecraft

There is a lot to fear in the massive, sprawling worlds of Bethesda games – from the hulking super mutants and merciless Deathclaws that roam the irradiated wastes of Fallout, to the devious Dwarven automatons and domineering dragons that call The Elder Scrolls’ Tamriel home – but as a rugged adventurer, the Sole Survivor, the Dragonborn, the Chosen One, it’s not long before the player becomes the most powerful being in all the land. And with so much power – to vanquish even the deadliest foe without breaking a sweat, or change the course of a thousand lives with a single word – what once seemed so daunting becomes a pushover. It’s the perfect power trip, but when the denizens of Skyrim or the Wasteland now fear the player above all else, what’s left for the player to fear? That is where Lovecraft comes in.

Cosmic horror can be found all across the world of gaming, from Gygas in Mother 2 (EarthBound) to the Outer Gods in Elden Ring, however, the writers and developers at Bethesda clearly have a love for the wonderfully weird author H.P. Lovecraft. Most every game they make contains at least a passing reference to the cosmic, the unknown, or the eldritch. Mainly found within the carefully crafted worlds of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, with their rich lore and detailed worldbuilding, these stories of strangeness and otherness, these eerie and unexplained side quests, these extradimensional and otherworldly abominations have become a staple of Bethesda storytelling, hidden away for eager fans to track down, or for the unaware to stumble upon blind. 

Bethesda’s quests, characters, and creatures may take inspiration from a wealth of books, movies, and pop culture references, but some of the best, most creative, and most disturbing are homages or straight adaptations of the strange and seminal works of H.P. Lovecraft.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - The unceasing madness of The Elder Scrolls' Apocrypha is dripping in cosmic horror.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – The unceasing madness of The Elder Scrolls‘ Apocrypha is dripping in cosmic horror.


With its postapocalyptic ruin of a world destroyed by the follies of mankind, its giant insects, feral ghouls, and run-of-the-mill murderous scavengers, you’d be forgiven for thinking the world of Fallout was terrifying enough as it was. It even has its own, real-life eldritch killer in radiation, which, with its invisible nature, ability to pass through most forms of matter, and tendency to ravage and ulcerate the human body from within, turning a person into living sludge just by existing near them, is already far more terrifying than anything lurking beyond the stars (and if you need further proof of radiation’s Lovecraftian properties, just watch HBO’s stunning Chernobyl mini-series). But no, Bethesda just had to sprinkle in a little touch of cosmic horror to tip things over the edge.

Fallout 3’s most obvious nod is in its Dunwich Building. This ruined office block in the heart of the Capital Wasteland holds more than just loot and feral ghouls. The name is a clear reference to one of Lovecraft’s more famous short stories “The Dunwich Horror”, but is only somewhat connected to its plot. It seems the Dunwich Borers, a drilling company who took up residence there before the bombs dropped, found something buried deep below the ground – something that never should have been unearthed. If the player is brave enough to venture inside, they will encounter all kinds of unexplained phenomena, from footsteps when no one’s there, to hallucinations, to a whispering obelisk found in the under-chambers. This last is the most Lovecraftian of all the discoveries the player can make, with its unknown origin, power to drive those near it mad, and the fact that it and several audio logs repeat the name “Alhazred” over and over. Alhazred, as it happens, is the author of the fictional Necronomicon, which appears in many of Lovecraft’s tales.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - While fairly unassuming on the outside, horrors lurk within the Dunwich Building.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – While fairly unassuming on the outside, horrors lurk within the Dunwich Building.

Point Lookout, a piece of post-launch DLC for the game wore its influences proudly. With its coastal locale, malformed and maleficent swamp folk, and a dark, esoteric tome known as the Krivbeknih that, according to the one who found it, must be destroyed at all costs, the DLC is a piece of Lovecraftian fiction in all but name.

Fallout 4 kicks things up a notch with its references to horrors unknown. Starting with one of the meatiest and a follow-on of sorts from the last, the Dunwich Borers sees a return of the drilling company who have expanded their operations in Boston by opening up a marble quarry. Once more digging where they should have left well alone, the Dunwich Borers found, not more marble, but a subterranean temple. Before the bombs dropped, being in such close proximity to such a profane place caused untold misery with unexplained accidents and deaths aplenty, but after, things got even worse. When the player stumbles across it, the quarry is overrun with Forged raiders, who hoped to use it to dig up iron but uncovered more than they had bargained for. Venture inside, and at the deepest point of the mine, the player will find themselves in a ritual chamber. Flashbacks and hallucinations show the horrors that occurred, complete with a bloody sacrifice on a marble slab being watched over by nine bound and bent individuals.

In the time since the bombs fell, a flooded chasm opened up down there. dive in and swim to the bottom, and players will find themselves face to face with a colossal cyclopean statue of unknown origin and power. Searching around in the murk around it, players can also get their hands on Kremvh’s Tooth, a unique machete stained with the blood of countless human sacrifices. The deep sea, shady cults, and obscure statues to obscene gods are commonplace throughout Lovecraft’s work, and those influences can be keenly felt here.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - Scenes of human sacrifice await those who trespass in the Dunwich Borers' quarry.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – Scenes of human sacrifice await those who trespass in the Dunwich Borers’ quarry.

Pickman’s Model” is a deeply disturbing story by Lovecraft, in which a renowned painter (who just so happens to live in Boston), creates the most hypnotically brilliant, yet fiendishly gruesome and disturbed, art anyone has ever seen, not from his own imagination, but from life. “Pickman’s Gift” is Fallout 4’s note-perfect homage. In this quest, players will find themselves in the Pickman Gallery, a house in which a man known only as “Pickman” has hung a number of grisly and horrific paintings, created from the blood of his victims. In twisting tunnels deep below the house, the player can choose to save the sadistic Pickman, let him die, or kill him themselves. Codsworth, the player’s robotic companion, even says of the paintings, “Ghastly, I hope these weren’t based off experience” – which clearly references the ending to the original short story.

Next, while not a direct translation of any of his works, “The Secret of Cabot House” quest takes heavy inspiration from Lovecraft. Essentially, the occupants of the house are all over four hundred years old, having created an anti-aging serum from the blood of their father, Lorenzo Cabot. Digging around, the player learns that Lorenzo was an archaeologist who unearthed the ruins of an ancient civilization in the Arabian desert, where he found a mysterious artifact that latched itself onto his head and altered his physiology, granting him (and later, his family) immortality. It’s up to the player to decide what to do with him and the Cabots, but the ruins in the desert, the lost civilization, and the mind- and body-altering artifact all scream Lovecraft at its best.

Finally, and similarly to Point Lookout, the DLC Far Habor is incredibly Lovecraftian in its design, with its isolated coastal locations and mutated fish creatures standing out most prominently. The cult, the Children of the Atom, are even Lovecraftian in their obsessively devoted worship of the deadly.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - Like the Pickman from Lovecraft's short story, Fallout 4's paints from life.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – Like the Pickman from Lovecraft’s short story, Fallout 4‘s paints from life.

The Elder Scrolls

The land of Tamriel is just as steeped in the stories and forces of cosmic entities as the Wasteland. From the lost knowledge of the Dwarves to the reality-bending realms of the Daedric Princes, Lovecraft’s fear of the unknowable can be felt in every thread of its intricately woven tapestry.

Let’s start in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with the quest “A Shadow Over Hackdirt”. As with the quests in Fallout, this is a play on the title of another of Lovecraft’s most famous stories “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In the story, the dilapidated fishing town of Innsmouth has been overrun with a pagan cult that worships the old god Dagon, and lives alongside the grotesquely fish-like Deep Ones. The people of Innsmouth have even begun interbreeding with the Deep Ones, creating hybrid humans with bulbous eyes, flat noses, and gills. In Oblivion, the small town of Hackdirt discovered Deep Ones living far underground, below their mines, and the entire town turned away from the Divines to worship these unsightly creatures. In accepting the quest, the player is tasked with rescuing an Argonian captured by the mindless cultists.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - While exploring Hackdirt, be careful not to venture below ground.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – While exploring Hackdirt, be careful not to venture below ground.

While every Daedric Prince is Lovecraftian in the fact that they exist outside of the laws of nature and reality as we know it, occasionally interfering with but often indifferent to the plights of mortal beings, none are quite as Lovecraftian as Hermaeus Mora. Also known as the Demon of Knowledge, this all-powerful entity often appears to mortals as a dark void carved out of reality or as pulsating masses of searching eyes and flailing tentacles. This shambling mass of formless shapes also happens to describe a fair few of Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, especially the madness-inducing Yog-Sothoth. But not only does Hermaeus Mora resemble the best of Lovecraft’s creations, it also acts like them.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s DLC Dragonborn, players travel to the far-off region of Solstheim, which has been covered in the ashes of a great eruption. It is also home to a cult of Hermaeus Mora worshippers, led by the ancient Dragon Priest Miraak. In fact, Hermaeus Mora’s influence has become so great by the time the player arrives that the inhabitants of Solstheim have found themselves constructing profane obelisks in their sleep and waking to find they have no memory of their actions. The only way to release these poor people from the Daedric Prince’s grasp is to defeat Miraak by traveling to the realm of Apocrypha through reading the Black Books, esoteric tomes of forbidden knowledge. This entire realm and story arc are based on the madness and insanity too much knowledge can bring upon a mortal mind.

The realm itself is shifting and never constant. Comprised primarily of a boiling green sea and a sky filled with writhing tentacles, dilapidated cathedral-like buildings make up most of the solid, traversable surfaces. And everywhere – everywhere – there are shelves, stacks, piles, and vortices of books. These volumes contain all the knowledge there is to learn, and are jealously guarded by Cthulhu-faced Seekers and Fish-like Lurkers. Incomprehensible realms accessed through dreams and the words of arcane tomes are deeply rooted in the Lovecraft mythos, as is the concept that knowledge of things not meant to be known begets madness, and Hermaeus Mora is a perfect example of Bethesda creating something wholly Lovecraftian yet entirely their own.

Image: Bethesda Softworks - Hermaeus Mora is as Lovecraftian an entity as they come.
Image: Bethesda Softworks – Hermaeus Mora is as Lovecraftian an entity as they come.


Lastly, let’s look to the future with Starfield. While H.P. Lovecraft’s tales aren’t exactly science fiction, they do dwell on themes of aliens, the cosmos, and things that dwell in the darkness between the stars. All things good sci-fi stories have in droves. With cosmic horror, the setting doesn’t matter as much as the mystery and the madness.

So, will Starfield lean into Bethesda’s Lovecraftian tendencies? With the near-endless possibilities 1000 planets presents, it’s impossible to think that none of the myriad quests and locations will dip into the realms of cosmic horror. And with their history and the cosmos itself right there and waiting, why wouldn’t they?

Image: Bethesda Softworks - What horrors might we find in the dark between the stars?
Image: Bethesda Softworks – What horrors might we find in the dark between the stars?

Finding the ruins of lost civilizations and uncovering otherworldly artifacts of great and unknowable power would make for some intriguing side quests. As would learning of ancient cults who once held the power to reshape reality or enlighten the minds of the ignorant with the true knowledge of the universe, and the chaos such things wrought. Or hearing whispers of a being that dwells between the stars or even catching a glimpse of some incomprehensible fourth-dimensional entity as you make a faster-than-light jump, would add a deeper mystery to the universe. And maybe, just maybe, make you shiver in your seat.

Whatever the future brings, if Bethesda’s past is anything to go by, we’ll find something Lovecraftian lurking in the dark recesses of the game’s map.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.