Interviews & Opinion

Insight: Why developers are turning to Cthulhu as the subject of their games

Insight: Why developers are turning to Cthulhu as the subject of their games

Auroch Digital design director Tomas Rawlings has volunteered to share his insight as to why the Cthulhu mythos from HP Lovecraft has proved to be so popular with game developers in recent years as the firm's Kickstarter for Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics comes to a close

Way back in In the summer of 1926, a then little-known writer - Howard Phillips Lovecraft - was busy scribbling away at a story titled The Call of Cthulhu. He didn’t know it then but it would go on from being published in Weird Tales two years later, to having an immense cultural impact - one that is still growing today.

Cthulhu has become a major viral meme from eating Justin Bieber in South Park, to being rendered as a cute plushie toy. While this work and his wider pantheon of writings would inspire other countless short stories, novels, films, songs, and more, it is very noticeable that in games, a genre Lovecraft didn’t have much to do with, Cthulhu has made some of its most memorable impacts.

For those unfamiliar with the Cthulhu Mythos - which surely isn’t many at this point - the titular Cthulhu is a gigantic alien god-like creature who slumbers in the sunken city of R'lyeh, located deep in the South Pacific. Many aeons ago, Cthulhu and other beings like him ruled our planet. Yet now they are trapped in sleep, dreaming of a cataclysmic return.

Such is Cthulhu’s power that even asleep he is able to influence the dreams of humans. Via these dreams and a motley crew of minions, Cthulhu has created a fragmented but worldwide cult of worshipers who consider him a god. Both Cthulhu and his cult dream of the time he’ll wake, break out of his watery prison, and retake his rightful place as the planet’s sole ruler.

Pro tip: If you’re somewhat struggling to pronounce “Cthulhu”, then that’s ok as it was kind of Lovecraft's point with the name - he wanted it to sound inhuman and like we’d struggle to enunciate it using our puny human voice boxes.

Lovecraft wrote a bunch of stories set within the same universe as Cthulhu, using common themes, characters, and objects, such as the fictional book The Necronomicon which documents much of this terrible “reality”. Other authors joined in with this world-building, adding dark gods, lost artifacts, even more forbidden tomes, and so on, until together they’d created a rich narrative universe now known as “the Cthulhu Mythos”. Notable contributors include Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch (Psycho).

Cthulhu is a common guest in gaming circles. As well as overt titles such as 2007’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, or 2012s Call of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land on Steam, his influence appears far and wide in the medium. It’s absolutely there in Quake, X-COM: Terror from the Deep has it in spades, World of Warcraft has lots of references (as does Hearthstone), he’s the main inspiration for the zombies saga in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, the mythos is all over the excellent Darkest Dungeon, and even the 2010 version of Splatterhouse has Cthulhu stuff jammed in it. Whole genres, such as survival horror, are bathed in Lovecraftian nightmare vibes, and there are cupboards full of board games themed on the Cthulhu Mythos too.

One of the reasons that the Mythos has been so prevalent, so enduring, is how well it can be mixed up with other elements to create new spins. From its inception, the Cthulhu Mythos became a sort of “open source” horror universe, so it’s not surprising really that game developers enjoy playing within it so much.

For example, we’re working on Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics right now. The setting has the occult-obsessed Nazis finding the remnants of the Mythos buried under the Earth and setting about plundering damned locations to try and co-opt this dark magic, attempting to merge these horrors with their inhuman science programs to create terrifying new weapons with which to win World War II.

Like all good mashups, this setting takes a kernel of reality and drops the “what if” question into it. It is well documented how obsessed the Nazis were with occult knowledge and ancient sites, so Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics asks “what if the occult was real? What if that occult was the Mythos?” and suddenly we’ve got the terrifying prospect that, in this fictional universe, all the resources the Nazis were pouring into esoteric research would pay dividends, but also that they are no longer the most terrifying being within the war - they are making pacts with beings older than humanity, and who seek humanity’s total doom.

This fictional universe has, at its core, that existential dread shared by most of this genre - which relegates humans (and those who make games about Cthulhu) as moths to an apocalyptic flame. As Lovecraft himself wrote:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

As I stare into the new weekly batch of Steam releases, I feel I understand exactly what he’s getting at. And it’s at this point that I usually tend to turn from my PC screen, to my shrine of unholy objects, lighting a Nyarlathotep-shaped candle as I begin the rite of summoning textures for my meshes... regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.