‘Lovecraftian’ is a buzz word being thrown around by a lot of new horror games that don’t seem to understand what Lovecraft was really about. Tentacles and asylums does not automatically Lovecraftian make. Like much of the man’s work, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth doesn’t even feature the titular monster, because what it understands is that above all else, fear of the unknown was what really informed Lovecraft’s work.
Call of Cthulhu has a lot of horrors that it puts you through, only a handful of which you actually see. The developers knew the golden rule of Lovecraft’s work: the monster in your head will always beat the monster on the page. Or in the game, as it were. Within this universe, there exists creatures so monstrous, so impossible, that looking upon them can bring no level of understanding, and drives the viewer insane. You may be unlucky enough to witness enough traumatising images that your character simply can’t go on, and, without an ounce of your control, puts his revolver to his head and pulls the trigger. It baffles the mind to think that a game would punish you to this degree for simply playing it. It’s unfathomable. And that might just be its point.
Call of Cthulhu also proves that you don’t need to remove combat to be a story-driven survival horror game. You have a gun, you just suck at using it. And, more often than not, the things you’re shooting don’t really seem to be fazed by your weaponry. They know better than you do just how out of your depth you are. A spectacular chase through a seaside town that was adapted from the Lovecraft story it draws its most inspiration from is unapologetically cruel, and surviving it doesn’t bring a feeling of victory, but panic at what might be around the corner.
Not only is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth a true Lovecraft experience, it’s a true horror experience. There are no jump scares awaiting you here, just the overwhelming dread that comes with the knowledge of how significant you are not in this world that looks upon your self-assured notions of existence and chuckles to itself in the shadows, knowing that it could shatter your sanity with but a single step into the light.
Thirty Flights of Loving takes 30 minutes to finish, I’ve played it more times than I can remember, and I still learn something new every time I sit down to it.
Its non-linear storytelling offers itself to be picked apart and analysed down to excruciating detail, and for a while I certainly did. But then through one playthrough, I came to the credits, and I walked through an art gallery with installations depicting the events of the game while wine-sipping yuppies murmured amongst themselves pensively, and I realised that they were me. I was a wine-sipping yuppie inspecting every object obsessively, desperate to find meaning in a game that was perfectly happy keeping me in the dark.
Thirty Flights of Loving isn’t about anything. Sure, you can piece together some form of narrative, and semiotics have taught you to recognise there’s some form of strained relationship between its three protagonists, only one of which you play as. But all that it means is the feeling that it gives you. I’ve never played a game that portrays what it feels like to be significantly, stupidly drunk as well as this, and rarely have I played a game that has made me feel quite so in love (me, not a character I was following or playing as). I repeat, Thirty Flights of Loving takes 30 minutes to finish.
It’s an experience that is informed by all of the stage plays and books and albums and radio plays and films and television that came before it, but it couldn’t possibly exist in any of them. It’s a step forward for what games are capable of.
We don’t know how lucky we are to have Tim Schafer. If Grim Fandango’s Aztec afterlife and 1930’s Art Deco-inspired rumination on the philosophy of life and death was available on Steam, it would hold this place. Instead, it goes to the next best thing: an intensely dark, emotional and hilarious look at mental illness as seen through the eyes of a child, known as Psychonauts.
If ever there was a greater champion of Gestalt design in video games, I haven’t found it. Psychonauts is a 3D action platformer, a sub-genre that should understandably make you nervous. Developers are still trying to work out the best way to integrate jumping puzzles into a space that requires accurate depth perception, and this 2005 title was rough around the edges back then. But the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts here. You will feel like you’re wrestling a camera that wants you to fail at times, but it’s worth it. Psychonauts is a textbook example on how to design levels for a platformer: give the player a finite set of abilities, and then shift and shape the levels to create new ways to use them. Nothing in this game is recycled; every one of its ten or so levels is wildly diverse.
Thematically, this is because every level is within the mind of a different character. As a psychic secret agent in training, you use your brain-hopping ability to reconcile the inner demons of the many mentally-damaged denizens of Whispering Rock. Finding their emotional baggage (represented as crying suitcases), reveals some truly dark secrets. There’s the failed actress who went insane after her mother committed suicide as the ultimate act of criticism. There’s the pyromaniac milkman whose mind is a twisted M.C. Escher painting of paranoia. There’s the mutated lungfish you spend the game fearing until you learn that it’s greatest fear is you.
What truly makes Psychonauts special though is the light-hearted approach it has to such disturbing territory. The aforementioned milkman level turns out to be one of the game’s funniest, as all of the shady government agents that fill the environment wear awful costumes to conceal their identities and spout overtly conspicuous and culturally dated lines, like the agent wearing a wig and an apron in the kitchen who says, “Although over time my husband will desire me less sexually, he will always enjoy my pies.” You’re navigating the mind of a man who is tragically beyond repair, but the greatest comedy comes from pain, and what follows is understanding. This is constant for the rest of the game. Psychonauts is the video game equivalent of Pixar making a film about mental illness. I repeat: we don’t know how lucky we are to have Tim Schafer.
Mark of the Ninja knows something that many stealth games do not: good stealth is about feeling like you’re Batman. Good stealth makes you feel powerful when you’re waiting. Good stealth isn’t about combat, but puzzles. Good stealth makes failure fun. Good stealth isn’t about mastering a skillset, but about offering a power fantasy. Mark of the Ninja is good stealth.
Right off the bat, the 2D side-on aesthetic is both something new and, in my head, overpoweringly obvious to the design of an effective stealth experience. By essentially turning the game into a map, it allows the player incredible, immediate ability to survey the landscape and devise a plan of attack, without ever needing to swap to another screen. This results in lightning-fast gameplay that makes you feel like you know your environment so much better than the person in the room waiting for an enemy they don’t know is right below them.
Mark of the Ninja makes you feel like a predator, and something predators do a lot is wait for their prey. You will wait a lot in Mark of the Ninja, but it never becomes boring because every period of waiting is a chance to think of a new way to mess with the head of your prey before swooping in for the kill. At the end of the day, you want Mark of the Ninja to score you in a way that reflects upon your amazing ability to turn murder into art. This makes every level a collection of puzzle pieces that are just waiting for you to arrange them in the perfect way.
Someone could complain that Mark of the Ninja is too easy compared to its stealth peers. I say its peers are too hard, and miss the point of good stealth. Failure in a stealth game – nay, any game – should feel like your fault, not the game’s. Too many stealth games offer overwhelmingly difficult tasks in the hope that you will one day come to master their complicated systems. Mark of the Ninja does away with this and offers you an accessible power fantasy with freedom for experimentation. Failure will come in Mark of the Ninja, but it offers you the opportunity for some on-the-fly improvisation to clear the room and disappear before the backup arrives. The result is a game that is entirely your own. Be the Batman you’ve always wanted to be.
In my opinion, if you’re making a game and you want to tell a story, or have some sort of higher message, you need to make it work in tandem with what it is you do in the game. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is a mix of The Legend of Zelda, shoot-em-ups and rogue-likes that explores the positive and negative effects that religion can have on a child’s upbringing, along with parental abuse, sexual identity, disease and crying on enemies to kill them. And, believe me when I say, the mechanics and the theming blend seamlessly.
There’s an item in the game called Wooden Spoon. Upon picking it up, you’re told you’ve received an increase to your Speed stat. Your body is then showered in cuts and bruises. In a second and a half, you’ve had your gameplay altered and been delivered a heartbreaking story. No cutscene. No dialogue. Just an increased variable and an altered graphic.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth is brutally difficult, but, like designer Edmund McMillen’s previous title, Super Meat Boy, it’s been developed with that in mind. Where the former decreased the amount of time between ‘Game Over’ and ‘Try Again’ to almost zero, here he implements various rogue-like mechanics (specifically, permanent death and randomised dungeon layout/item drops) to make a game where success does and doesn’t matter. Death isn’t looked upon as failure, but as a chance to try out a new combination of items and see how far they get you.
Also, why the remake and not the original? There’s just way more content. And a game with a foundation this strong can never have enough. Yes, you may have a run that’s horrifically unbalanced, but that’s all part of the fun. If it’s not balanced in your favour, just see how far you can get this time. Who knows? You might find a new item that adds a new puzzle piece to the story, and if not, you’re only a few mistakes away from trying again.
With Episode 002 almost ready to publish, it’s time to find out what we’ve rolled for our next ‘1st 10 Minutes’.
Somehow, we each got lucky enough to roll a game we love, but do we share each others’ opinions? Tune in to find out!
We have reviewed the turnaround time for our recording, editing and reviewing. Also taking into account the feedback we have received about your listening habits, the weekly podcast will now go live on Sunday evenings.
So stay tuned, Episode 002 will be here soon. It’s a doozy, Tony tries to explain board game rules using only the power of the human voice. Steve and Aaron were intentionally board 😉
We’re eager beavers. Episode 1 isn’t even recorded yet and we have rolled our random games for Episode 2.
We have all rolled the dice, and our fates are sealed (particularly Aaron’s). The games selected for us by RandomSteamGame are:
We shall soon be discussing our experiences of The 1st 10 Minutes of these titles.