There is a specter haunting RPGs… no, not Karl Marx: H.P. Lovecraft. I’m assuming that the people reading this aren’t going to be particularly familiar with the man and his work — or that he has had a remarkably profound influence on the horror genre since his death in 1937. And I mean profound: Lovecraft is to horror what JRR Tolkien is to high fantasy, and Heinlein was/is to science fiction. Which is to say, writers imitate him, learn from him, or reject him utterly; Lovecraft is many things in this field, but being ignored is rarely one of them.
This presence extends to video games, particularly RPGs. Off of the top of my head (and games that I’ve played): the Mass Effect series self-consciously evokes Lovecraft’s views of unknown, inimical aliens (as filtered, fairly blatantly, through the very Lovecraftian Ridley Scott Alien movie lens). Skyrim had an entire major-expansion DLC centered around Lovecraft’s vision of Forbidden Knowledge. Alan Wake (which is in my Steam library, but not yet played) apparently incorporates a goodly amount of Lovecraftian themes and shout-outs, while The Secret World MMORPG more or less name-drops Lovecraft at every opportunity in its first game “world.” Note that these are all games that evoke Lovecraftian themes, or reference his Cthulhu Mythos; over the last thirty years or so there have been a variety of games that are explicitly based on the Mythos itself. But we’re keeping this as simple as possible. Also: if you already know all of this, I’m sorry for going over old ground.
We sort of have to, because it is a testament to the raw power of HP Lovecraft’s style or ethos that his influence thrives among people who would have cordially, or angrily, despised the man in real life. It is pretty much de rigeur to preface all discussions of Lovecraft with the traditional “Yes, he was a quite awful racist” – and one of the old school racists, back when eugenics was not a dirty word and it was perfectly acceptable to condescend to Irishmen and Italians. Issues with race, issues with women (the extent of which is more hotly-debated), and a certain florid prose style that probably would have benefited if Lovecraft had gotten more physical exercise in; he’s not exactly a prime candidate for the Great Looming Figure of modern horror. So what gives? – And it can’t be just talent, which Lovecraft undeniably had. Talent doesn’t always ensure lasting fame.
Well, a large part of Lovecraft’s endurance is probably due to his approach to horror itself, which was spelled out in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This monograph is from 1927, but it was (and by derivation, still is) an influential way of looking at the horror genre in a systematic and organized fashion. Together with Stephen King’s invaluable Danse Macabre (more on that work later), the arguments in SHiL can be found, implicitly or explicitly, in a good deal of horror works. Certainly the essay’s thesis — “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” – is well-known, well-quoted, and (hopefully) well-evoked.
As to video games themselves — well, as King noted in Danse Macabre: there are three categories to this thing that we call “horror.” There’s the gross-out, which is more or less unthinking revulsion and visceral disgust; horror, which I at least define (King puts it slightly differently) as a physical fear reaction to a sudden event or entity; and terror, which is a very intellectual sort of dread and anticipatory fear. This is as reasonable a lens to view horror as is anything else: but it puts video games in a bit of a bind.
You see, while it is easy enough for a video game to do a gross-out, sustaining horror for more than five seconds is difficult. After all, when you see a vampire in most video games, you do not run away from it: you run towards it, usually while pulling out the vampire-specific weaponry and gadgets. It has a health bar; so, it can be killed. If it kills you, you’re not scared; you’re angry that the game beat you. To get a good horror moment that lasts more than one second you need a good deal of buildup: to give one example, the appearance of the Broodmother (a classic horror moment, as per King) in Dragon Age: Origins required about twenty or so minutes of game play and a cutscene to properly pull off.
On the other hand, terror is easier to pull off in video games, not least because health bars are not involved: you can use shadows, music, speech, and environment to seriously creep out a player in spite of himself. And this is where Lovecraftian themes are rather suitable, because Lovecraft worked with fear of the unknown quite often, and quite well. In fact, he refined his best material into “cosmic terror,” which takes as its starting point the notion that we are actually incapable of truly understanding true reality without going mad in the process*. Horror video game writers can work with this concept fairly easily, particularly since they’re already defining what a player can and can’t do in a game anyway: so adding a bit of soul-searing dread and inadequacy can actually be useful in practical terms.
And, of course, the last reason why Lovecraftian themes show up in horror RPGs is because he’s so well-known that you can get away with a mere reference to him and still expect your players to get the reference. This is not a trivial advantage to have. There is not exactly an infinite amount of space for original content and exposition, after all: simplifying things where you can is a viable production strategy.
*Stated explicitly in his short story “The Call of Cthulhu:”
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.