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Top 5 Lovecraft-Inspired Video Games

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The following article contains spoilers for the games in question.

Howard Philips Lovecraft is one of the few writers whose written works garnered critical acclaim after his death. Somewhat appropriately, his innumerable short stories about the folly of mankind’s lust for knowledge, and understanding even in the deepest of depths became popular only once he couldn’t see them truly succeed.

The vast majority of his most popular tales – like The Shadow over Innsmouth, The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror, and At the Mountains of Madness – concern how a protagonist usually finds themselves in contact with the Elder Gods, a race of impossibly old, hateful beings that play with reality itself. These creatures are often hideously malformed beings of almost alien nature, with entire families of Elder Gods springing up around his original works.

While not all of the Cthulhian Mythos is Lovecraft’s design, his work did give way to many other writers adding other Gods to the universe throughout the 20th century. Despite the grim nature of his tales, video game culture is no stranger to weird, scary, or outright depressing, themes. Meaning that his incomplete short stories that form the Cthulhu Mythos as we know it today, have heavily influenced a fair amount of developers ever since the mid to late 90’s.

This will be a look at the ways in which his mythos has directly inspired certain video games, and ranking them based on their connections.

5) Dead Space 

While Dead Space as a series might have been pulled away from survival horror towards action in its later titles, the first game, released in 2008, was a wonderfully skin-crawling experience. Perhaps this series doesn’t appear Lovecraftian initially, but once you peel back the shiny glamor of the science-fiction, and remove the spaceships: it looks very Cthulhian indeed.

On a base level, it’s where one man (Isaac Clarke) fights against an impossibly powerful force despite being drawn into madness himself, to try halt the ritualistic conversion of the ships former crew into nightmarish abominations. The games themes are nearly perfectly in-line with what most readers would associate with a typical Lovecraft story; those being ritual sacrifice, secret zealous cults, pact suicide, and a force clearly pulling all the strings from behind the scenes. That force being the Marker, the main reason why the story unfolds the way it does. It’s even hailed by many in the game as the coming of a new age, and a new level of existence.

Even as the narrator/protagonist becomes ever more unstable across all three titles, he battles to ultimately destroy this maddening relic, despite knowing that he cannot stop ascension from occurring, merely slow it down. While very disheartening overall, the lore behind the main events of the story that can be prised from within audio logs, and notes, is incredibly intricate to read. But like in all Lovecraft tales: the more you know, the less you can do to stop it.

4) Alan Wake

Thriller-shooter Alan Wake might not be everyone’s first port of call when thinking about the Elder Gods in video games, especially when direct adaptations exist, but it’s all there, just under the surface (no pun intended).

Not only does Alan battle against a mostly formless, malevolent evil entity from under the town of Bright Falls, and not only is that entity connected heavily to the lake, everything that the game does tries to enfeeble you. You’re constantly dwarfed in battles of life and death, with possessed people, creatures, and even trains, attacking you. This level of manipulation, both physically and mentally, by the “darkness” in the game is thematically similar to Lovecraft.

Only once the player has stripped the enemies, the ‘Taken’, of their darkness, can they even be damaged. Lovecraft wrote feverishly about Elder Gods like Hastur, the King in Yellow, who took a personal interest in meddling with the lives of mortals, and about how they wish to see their will done in the physical world.

As the game heads to a climax, it’s made apparent that the “darkness” is using Alan to conjure new stories that allow it to escape from within its prison in Cauldron Lake. A writer using fiction, to create new states of reality is a terrifying thing indeed, especially when driven by such an ambiguously ill force.

3) Sunless Sea

Our oceans remain alien to us, even in this day and age. Recent estimates suggest that we, as a species, have barely explored 6% of our oceans. This fractional figure aptly shows why many of the Elder Gods from Lovecraft’s tales were tied to the deepest depths. A place that mankind cannot go, and maybe shouldn’t.

Sunless Sea is exactly that then. You take the helm as a captain sailing into uncharted waters, with a crew who are definitely not going to end up eating one another as they lose their minds to the sights within the abyssal waters. Definitely not. Your mission is simple: to explore, and to survive. The main catch of this simple mission is to avoid the infernal horrors that lurk around seemingly every corner of this game. Based in the same universe as Fallen London (by Fail Better Games), Sunless Sea takes that same lore, and narrative drive from the first game, but throws in giant sea creatures, and eldritch horrors.

It’s bleak, but that’s nothing new if you’ve played anything Lovecraft inspired before. A running theme is that the deeper you press into dark places, the more likely you risk your sanity to those places. Most of the Elder Gods are famously tied to the deep sea, with the legendary Cthulhu hailing from the blackest of seaborne trenches.

Sunless Sea takes that specific Lovecratian attitude as well, with a pinch of Victorian charm, that comes off as “eager to explore for any riches”, without fully realizing the consequences. Even as you, and your crew slowly, inevitably sink into madness, it might still be worth the risk just to try see something terrible, yet brilliantly ancient.

2) Bloodborne 

If the Dark Souls series is inspired by the long-running Berserk manga (by Kentaro Miura), then Bloodborne is director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s love affair with H.P Lovecraft, and Gothic horror.

Everything about the game oozes this refined, almost sharp, grace about it. From the combat, to the area design, every aspect is dripping with a certain maddening gore if you look at it in the right light. It’s no secret that Miyazaki based Bloodborne rather heavily off of Lovecraftian themes and mythos.

The ‘Great Ones’ are basically the spiritual cousins of the ‘Old Ones’, and the parallels only become more clear as you look further into the game. The expansion, The Old Hunters, released in October of the same year, isn’t just based off Lovecraft, it is Lovecraft. One area in particular, the Fishing Hamlet, is a direct take on the short story, The Shadow over Innsmouth.

The story tells of a man moving into a town where all the residents are in fact secretly a fanatic cult of Elder God-worshiping fish-people, and are sacrificing humans to gain greater strength, and favor, with their patron. If that sounds familiar to the Fish Men of the hamlet, and their ties to the former Great One, Mother Kos, that’s because you’ve been paying attention.

Beyond that, there’s a larger focus in Bloodborne on madness. Every area in the expansion especially sees a different kind. The blood-drunk hunters are mad with battle fury, the patients in the Astral Clocktower are mad with simply knowing about the ocean sat above their heads, and finally the hamlet, a place that was raided by scholars who were mad with a lust for knowledge. Understanding the incomprehensible, and then understanding how bottomless that really is, is a crucial theme in Bloodborne.

All throughout the story you, as the player, seek more Insight to understand exactly what is going on, but that same understanding simply drives you further from the truth because of how complex it truly is.

1) Darkest Dungeon

No Lovecraftian video game offers quite like the nail-biting experience of Darkest Dungeon. While some titles borrow themes, and maybe use the same ideas, Darkest Dungeon is one of the few to truly embrace H.P. Lovecraft wholeheartedly. The game aims to beat you to your knees, then asks why you bother to fight when the struggle is simply too much for you to handle.

Along the way of course, your brave, or foolish, heroes face madness, truths too great for a mortal mind, and enough stress to shatter anyone. Truly, this dungeon-crawling masterpiece is every bit a Lovecraft work as any of his books. The combat, narrative, and morals used in this game are all brutal because they need to be. Ever since your Ancestor delved deep into the catacombs within the mansion, the truth has been the same. This horrible, lurking truth, however, is that even in victory you lose.

Read any of Lovecraft’s short stories, and one key, continuous, theme is that they always win. The Elder Gods don’t lose, they cannot be stopped by mortal means, and this final tragic constant holds up in the final battle in Darkest Dungeon. As you take in the sight that is the Heart of Darkness, the grotesque creature gestating beneath the mansion, fed by the blood of those above it, you see just how small you are.

Even with battle-hardened veterans that all amplify one another’s tactics, you are at the whim of an Elder God. If you somehow manage to “kill” this being, the game implies that your efforts were actually for naught, because how could steel kill a creature from beyond the stars?

It ends with the same solemn phrase that it began with, suggesting to the player that another heir will arrive by coach soon, so that it may feed off the strength of brave warriors seeking riches. Even as defeating as this may be, it’s true to the source, as the Elder Gods were written to have been omnipresent, older than time itself, and any fraction of understanding of that truth is enough to warrant total, undying insanity.

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‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season

Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.

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atelier ryza

The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.

Ryza starting her alchemy journey.

Like a Warm Blanket

Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.

The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.

The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.

The titular Atelier Ryza.

An Intimate Take on Storytelling

Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.

It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.

The town drunk and Lent's father, Samuel.

Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.

The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.

Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.

Atelier Ryza

Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.

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PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’

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PAX South

This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.

Tunic

Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.

Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.

All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.

Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.

Foregone

Foregone

These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”

Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.

If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.

And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.

The Artful Escape

Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.

As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.

It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.

This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.

For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.

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PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love

A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

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Boyfriend Dungeon

In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.

There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.

“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.

Boyfriend Dungeon

My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.

“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.

The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”

Boyfriend Dungeon

I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”

Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”

After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.  

Boyfriend Dungeon

Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”

Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.

An arcade environment

“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”

The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”

In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”

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