Even in a super-early, so-far-ahead-of-pre-alpha, hands-off presentation featuring placeholder art and a lot of imagination filling in for completed work, Cyanide Studio's Call of Cthulhu looks wickedly alluring.
Set in the twisted reality that is the Lovecraft universe, this set-for-2017 title, a digital reinvention of the 1981 pen-and-paper game, will star frightening, grotesque creatures and test the player's nerve as they stumble into insanity, irreversibly scarred by the supernatural extraterrestrial imposing on the world they thought they knew. But there's one word notably absent from the preview pitch of lead game designer Jean-Marc Gueney and narrative designer Maximilian Lutz: "horror".
"A lot of people have asked us if this game is like Amnesia, or Outlast, games like that," Lutz tells me, once I've seen all that the Paris-based team has to show, so far. "Those games are really horror games. But for us, we want the atmosphere of a horror game, but not all the time. You'll be able to catch your breath in this game – it won't always be stressful. Sure, in some sections, you won't be happy to be there. But this isn't a game of jump scares – we're going more for atmosphere."
"Exactly," says Gueney. "This is an investigation game, set in the Lovecraft universe. That means you will encounter horrific creatures, and you'll have to work out how to defeat them. But it's not a horror game – it's an investigation game, in this particular universe."
Cyanide has the official Call of Cthulhu licence in hand, meaning that its game is more closely related to the 1980s role-player published by Chaosium than any single one of Lovecraft's many novels and novellas. Penned between 1917 and 1935, several of the writer's works combine to create the Cthulhu Mythos – a fictional universe of cosmic entities and ancient deities that authors continue to mine for inspiration.
Video games have regularly leaned on the Mythos, too. 2015's Bloodborne has its share of Lovecraft-inspired nightmares plaguing the player; 1992's survival horror cornerstone Alone in the Dark was heavily influenced by all things Cthulhu; and the GameCube's Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem of a decade later used an array of techniques to imply the avatar being controlled at the time was losing their mind to the visions around them.
Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, developed by the now defunct British studio Headfirst Productions and published by Bethesda in 2005, was based on Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but reduced its story of the Deep Ones and their hold over a small Massachusetts town to a buggy and bastard-hard first-person shooter. Which isn't to say it didn't succeed in several respects, but Dark Corners' difficulty was its greatest flaw. Many Lovecraft admirers couldn't see it through to its climax.
Cyanide's game is different. It doesn't want the player to fail. The heart of this experience is the narrative, the investigation, which first attracts the player character of Edward Pierce, a Boston-raised, 45-year-old First World War veteran turned private detective, to the small community of Darkwater Island. He's here to discover the truth behind the death of an artist, Miriam Hallows, who'd only recently settled on the island. The year is 1924 – prohibition is in full effect, so these odd glimpses of things that aren't quite right in Pierce's peripheral vision probably can't be attributed to booze. There's definitely something wrong with this place, with this reality.
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"The Lovecraft universe is always, in the classic novels, about a common person who finds themselves discovering something more, something beyond our world," Gueney explains. "And beyond our world, there are monstrosities. We want to present Lovecraft's vision to players. So we start the game as a classic investigation, but as you arrive on the island you will discover that there is more to it. There's more beyond the reality that you initially see."
"The real issue in the Lovecraft universe is that the moment you begin to see this other reality, this real truth, you start to completely go insane," Lutz continues. "Because you're not prepared, as a human, to see that. Even in the sounds that the creatures make, the language they speak, it's not meant to be heard by humans. So all the characters in the Lovecraft novels become completely insane."
And it's insanity that poses the greatest risk to the player in Call of Cthulhu. "You can see a sanity system, and you begin your mission with a full amount," Gueney says. "You have to manage it across the game. And if it drops to zero, that's game over. Between missions, you can regain part of your sanity – you have a safe haven, to take time out. So the sanity system works like that. But when you refill your sanity, it won't completely regain, to the amount you began the game with – so you have less and less as the game goes on, making it harder."
Unfortunately for Pierce, going slightly mad is essential to progressing in Cyanide's game. He'll need to see certain things in order to really understand what's afoot on Darkwater, and will therefore have to sacrifice some of himself to further the investigation. "It's a bargaining process," Gueney states. "You're faced with this situation: I know there's something more than I see, than I perceive. So I want to know more – I need to know more – but it will cost me. It will cost my own sanity."
Pierce can visit a police station to examine the clues he's discovered on the island – some of which can be attained by befriending residents and sending them off on missions (not that their return is guaranteed). Here, he's safe – "There will be no monsters coming out of the closet," Lutz says. "It's a regular station, full of regular police officers who you can talk to." He then explains that the game's system of processing evidence and coming to conclusions isn't set up to lead the player down any dead ends.
"For the investigation parts, you can't really fail – the story will always push you forward. But we really want the player to feel smart during the investigation. You'll have a lot of documents to read, a lot of facts to find, clues to find. And if the player has all the documents, they can have everything they need to for working out the investigation. The player has many answers to choose from – but if you're paying attention to the other characters on the island, you will always ask the good questions. Ask the wrong questions, and you can affect your relationship with the other characters. The only fact that we want you, him, to know is that you might lose complementary information about the case."
Which is a way of saying that, basically, the choices you make in pursuing the case of Miriam Hallows won't have an impact on the way this story ultimately concludes – Call of Cthulhu will begin in the same way for everyone, and all will see the same ending. However, how you get from A to B will vary wildly from playthrough to playthrough. "The choices you make are important, and they will define who helps you," Gueney explains. "Every player will experience the same final scene, but the way they manage to get there will depend on their individual decisions."
Making their game so accessible should allow Cyanide to appeal to players who aren't already familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos. "We need the game to be fun for everyone," Gueney says, before Lutz adds: "A lot of people know Cthuhlu – it's in the geek culture to know the creature. But we are not targeting only Lovecraft fans, of course. Even people who haven't read the novels can get into the game. And we'll have a codex, too, that will help the newbie to learn some things – even things that won't be shown in the game, but is useful background for the story."
Personally, I'm more into horror games that present a sustained atmosphere of dread and discomfort over cheap jumps scares. And if I learn a little more about Lovecraft's bizarre world in playing this one, that's a bonus. Cyanide isn't making Call of Cthulhu to get gamers into the inspirational fiction, but Gueney admits that if their game sells a few more books, and creates more fans of Lovecraftian lore, "that'll be a great reward". It's too early to say for sure that what the studio's making will transcend the existing Cthulhu fanbase (and as you can see here, there's not a lot of publicly released artwork to get excited about); but so far as first impressions go, this not-your-average-horror affair is making all the right wrong moves.
Call of Cthulhu is released in 2017. Follow the game's development at the Cyanide Studio website. VICE Gaming conducted this interview in Paris at the "Le What's Next de Focus?" preview event, with transport and accommodation covered by Focus Home Interactive.
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