H.P. Lovecraft – Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth [Retrospective/Review]

The popularity of the works of H.P. Lovecraft wax and wane in unusual ways, comparable to the shifting movements of the oceans’ tides, and as with those waves, it is beneath them that we find some of Lovecraft’s most iconic creations. It wasn’t until after his death in 1937 that Lovecraft’s writing gained a traction and wider popularity of its own. They were for the most part released in pulp serials such as Weird Tales or occasional anthologies, the difficulties of their publication and distribution perhaps deserving an article of their own. While they had a dedicated but small following, the scheduling and range of their distribution prevented Lovecraft’s writing reaching the audience that was yet to find so much intrigue and enjoyment within its pages.

Yet, while it may have taken time for Lovecraft’s work to find its audience, find its audience it eventually did – to the point where it has been a foundation stone for many subsequent authors and creators both within and outside of the horror genre. Names that would be readily recognised such as Stephen King or Arthur C. Clarke that in part owe a debt to the once, Gentleman of Rhode Island.

It is perhaps the Cthulhu Mythos, though disproportionately represented (to a much lesser extent) in the body of Lovecraft’s work, despite its influence, that is for what he is best known and remembered. Cosmic terrors of unspeakable nature, ancient deities and the fragility of the person’s mind and perhaps soul are the wheelhouse in which it turns. It is less a fear of a direct action carried out against the person – an immediate threat, but more the inability to comprehend powers far in excess of human understanding. It is a fear of that which cannot be understood, that drives the individual to the brink of, or beyond the limits of their sanity. The variety of international settings present in Lovecraft’s work and the sense of longing for other worlds, and the variety of mysteries they may contain run through many of the stories, a desire for a mixed palette of local flavours, equal parts tantalisation and threat.

There is a feeling;

Everything I loved had been dead for two centuries…

Lovecraft wrote in 1916

I am never a part of anything around me – in everything I am an outsider… But pray do not think gentlemen, that I am an utterly forlorn and misanthropick (sic) creature… Despite my solitary life, I have found infinite joy in books and writing, and am by far too much interested in the affairs of the world to quit the scene before Nature shall claim me… A sense of humour has helped me to endure existence; in fact, when all else fails, I never fail to extract a sarcastic smile from the contemplation of my own empty and egotistical career…!

…a feeling when reading Lovecraft, of a frustration with life as it is on Lovecraft’s own part and a longing for the exceptional, every sentence is wrung for each singular drop of detail and impression in a thinly veiled assault against an every encroaching ennui. It is done with an air of attempted disinterest, the maintenance of an expected form and social manner which matches a tendency of Lovecraft’s (a notorious Anglophile) to communicate in the style of an eighteenth-century, landed, English gentleman – ending letters; ‘Yr. Obt. Servt., HPL’. within correspondence, of which Lovecraft was a prolific proponent, right up until his death, having by estimate written 100,000 letters in his lifetime. There is perhaps an unfair tendency to regard Lovecraft as a cold and distant individual. I think that he was simply trying to find his place in world and his voice within it. He created worlds that take effort to understand and approach, why would the same not be true for the man himself.

Attempts by others to realise the worlds that Lovecraft created have experienced varied success. The translation to pen and paper role-playing games: Call of Cthulhu RPG and board games having been arguably the most successful – their nature allowing them to recuse themselves to some extent from some of the requirements and difficulties in representation of a video-game or film. Direct translations of his creations seem to struggle to find the initial support to allow their creation, as compared to efforts that make use of elements or themes from Lovecraft’s work, while not being complete adaptations.

I think one of the biggest challenges, is the one of Lovecraft’s tendency to shy away from a reveal as it were. Quite frequently within his work the final realisation of the horrors that were encountered went undescribed, a lapse into unconsciousness or a visage too terrible to behold or entertain, let alone describe – an “unspeakable horror”. As a literary device it makes sound sense, the ability of the reader’s mind to conjure up innumerable nightmarish visions is going to be a more powerful engine than a deliberate and singular effort to describe what is being faced. For some it can be a cop-out, others a deliberate and effective method of promoting fear and an introspective terror. When there is a necessity to give form to the idea it becomes a challenge.

As of May 2017 there are a number of in progress; Call of Cthulhu, recent; Cthulhu Saves the World and formerly completed works; Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, that either are directly built upon Lovecraft’s work, or strongly influenced by it. We’ll eventually be looking at one of these in particular; 2005’s Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

Cthulhu Saves the World, Call of Cthulhu (as of 2017 in development) and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

We are in a period of Lovecraftian waxing. As crowd funding platforms enable niche productions to gain funding the time is and has been ripe for a new wave of Lovecraftian media. As the cycle turns forward, let us look back.

Considering that we’ll be looking at a video-game, there is the inescapable point (bar games built for the purpose of accessibility in case of blindness i.e. Shades of Doom of it being a principally visual medium. No more do the totems of the Cthulhu Mythos get to hide under a wave of speculation or mild inference. They must been seen and faced for what they are. As an exercise in translating Lovecraft’s prose into a tangible form that can be faced it is fascinating, the efforts and consideration that must go into the design, ever so slightly more difficult (in its own way) than meeting the expectations of a solely original work.

Let’s look back now, to see where we can move forward from.

I had originally written a review for Dark Corners of the Earth about a year ago and parts of that are going to be reused, but not without revision. It was the release of improved compatibility fixes for the game that in their way necessitated a review of the review.

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth [2005-06 XBox/PC] – (DcotE) is a variety of things. It is an innovative survival title, an experiment in minimal interfaces, a love letter to The Shadow over Innsmouth and it’s also a buggy headache which at times is a pain in the arse to get running yet I still have a fondness for it no matter how much it may cause me to grit my teeth at times. I’d tried playing the game a number of times with the physical Ubisoft published release. I had the most luck previously playing it on a Windows XP machine, about twelve years old. Now however there are a series of patches which should enable you to play on more recent operating systems; Windows 7, 8.1 and 10. I’ll be providing links to these fixes and a guide for their installation at the end but will be making reference throughout to the problems they fix and some of the changes that can be provided.

Immediately on starting the game you’ll be glad of these fixes. They allow you to skip the promotional logos on startup which are otherwise unskippable and quickly grow to be a nuisance. You’ll be able to set a custom FOV (Field of Vision) and have the game run at a preferred resolution also. Support for each of these was shaky at best previously. With each of the issues that cropped up quietly quashed, you’ll be able now to better be drawn into the air of decay present and the world that it flows through. DcotE notably succeeds in crafting a world of decay and the constant feeling of being an interloper. The game makes creative use of the Quake III Arena engine with subtle lighting that draws the player into its ink black voids, bathes characters in a grain that drains the life from them and there is a feeling of light fearing to try and piece the fog that surrounds it. One of the side-effects of the patching and fixing process that I’ve been so far unable to find a way around is that the bloom effect on lights/lanterns has been toned down strongly which is a shame. They acted as something of a beacon, a warm hint against the darkness that seemed ever so fragile and fleeting.

The map geometry is well laid out and coherent, reasonably detailed and helps create the sense that Innsmouth is a living, or perhaps dying place, occupied as much by its denizens as the creeping malaise and worn coating of grime on their souls. There is a feeling that this is a place that was either left behind, or more likely withdrew into itself for reasons that will slowly become apparent as you play. It doesn’t draw a great deal of attention to itself however which is an interesting choice. Animations and interactions with environmental objects feel natural if subtle, flavour text on the examination of features within the world are varied and numerous. Even the Eldritch Horrors that await you have a subtlety to them that you might not expect. I think a lot of this due to the challenge that exists in trying to sufficiently convey Lovecraft’s creations to an audience via visual means. In a lot of Lovecraft’s writing he would shy away from the money shot, you’d not get too detailed a description of what was being faced, but instead vague notions of an alienating and inscrutable horror. You could pick up a thesaurus, look up “horrible” or “scary” and then pick the longest subsequent synonyms and you’d have a very tongue-in-cheek, basic guide to – if not emulating Lovecraft’s writing, then doing a half-ways passable rendition. That challenge of representing the terrible visage that awaits the player is essentially a challenge that would be a failure waiting to happen, so instead, a more subtle approach was taken. Small details adding embellishment and a greater focus instead placed on the general atmosphere and sound allowed DcotE to portray its world to the best of its abilities, choosing its battles of realisation carefully.

Two effective ways of illustrating this can be found at the opening and end of the game. At the start we are given a section of the town of Innsmouth within which we are subtly guided around – just enough freedom to allow us to maintain the illusion of independence as an entity and within the investigation. We build up tension to dramatic beats that not only release the accumulated pressure, but create new levels from which to once again build pressure from. The opening allows us to discover small pieces of the puzzle; text logs, conversations and physical interventions that establish an atmosphere and confirm our suspicions that we are facing something far greater than we can define.

Rather than try to provide too much detail and continually maintain that level and frequency of release, the game saves its energy and surprises for when they can be most effective, that building and release of pressure. It knows that to constantly bombard the player with twisted imagery, it would be setting itself up for an arms race that it could never sustain.

At the end of the game however we are faced with one of those “indescribable beings”. This challenge of realising what is being defined as something which cannot be realised is tackled head on. The game has spent its time up until now implying, giving glimpses or hints, brief scraps of text or fearful dialogue. It has built curiosity and pressure as well as a currency of player goodwill. It has created an environment and demand that it can afford to directly supply. Where if the game had embraced that initial arms race of ever increasing need for spectacle, I doubt it would be possible to actually create something so utterly alien and affecting that it drives its audience to insanity, satisfying a demand it created but could not fulfil. It can instead create and display something dramatic and alien, and maintain the demand of spectacle. It chose a battle it could win – though it had been carefully been building up to it.

The downside to this is that the time the game spends creating this tension and speculation is extensive and can, depending on the investment of the player, run out of momentum. It’s worth noting that Lovecraft’s writings tended to be more of the length of short stories – most suitable to be serialised. There would be occasional novella length pieces, as well as Lovecraft’s 30,000 word essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, published in W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal ‘The Recluse’ in 1927 – but as for a full length novel, it was not to be a form that Lovecraft’s writing would take. DcotE can at times fall into that trap of overextending itself and straining the patience of the player in a way that its inspiration did not have the length to be able to do so.

To give relief and variety to the game’s pacing, the player character at moments reviews and narrates, documenting progress through the story and his own personal descent into insanity. The actual narrative order can confuse a little both on the basic level of; what happens when in the sequence of events, and as characters are introduced and removed from the story. This can equally help and hinder the narrative’s development. It is also worth noting that one of the patches provides a toggle to make the game’s true ending possible to attain, regardless of difficulty level chosen or percentage of evidence recovered. Given the importance of the information that is imparted in this ending it comes as a surprise to me why it was made that much more awkward to attain – especially given the pacing issues that the game can be hampered by which unfortunately make the game a less appealing proposition to replay with a mind towards that 100% completion requirement.

It is DcotE’s experiments with interface, conveyance of sanity state and interaction that will either make or break the game for you. For example there is no HUD (Heads Up Display). You’ll need to keep a track of ammunition in your weapon mentally and rely on the iron sights to aim accurately. It is worth mentioning at this point that for the Colt 1911 pistol, the in-game magazine capacity is inaccurate. It is possible to use one of the released patches to change the quantities of ammunition carried in the inventory and within the magazine of each weapon – helpful to maintain consistency with their historical counterparts. The carrying capacities also sit in an awkward middle ground. Too much to be accurate and too little to afford the player with breathing room to make too many mistakes. It adds to a sense that the game stuggles to position itself confidently – unsure of whether it wishes to be a punishing survival experience or a more accessible adventure. It’s conjecture but I think it is fair to take a guess that publisher pressure was the issue here regarding the neutering of the game.

Health is checked and maintained from a separate panel on the inventory screen where individually focused injuries can be sustained and monitored – each with varying effects on your ability to move, aim or respond to threats. Healing takes time as treatment is slowly applied through collected first aid supplies, each specialised to particular injuries – if you run out of splints and suffer a fracture then you’re out of luck till you can find more supplies to treat the injury. Blurring of vision, slow and staggered movement or a weakening of aim can all be penalties that are applied for not sufficiently maintaining your health. The way damage is distributed however can be questionable at times and lead to a feeling of it being a nuisance to maintain as opposed to a critical aspect to pay attention to. Treatment times, falling damage and damage multipliers based on location hit on an enemy can all also be edited via the patch tools. I’m in two minds whether to recommend you to use these features though. There is a good argument for playing the game as it was originally intended, however its tendency to become a slog makes it compelling to tweak and adjust parts of the game to either be more forgiving or brutal. The player movement speed for example is truly deserving of the word ‘slog’. Adjustments to those speeds allow for movement to feel more natural, they are also a great help when it comes to sections that require platforming. Why first person games insist on shoehorning in platforming sections I don’t know, but this is another title that ill-implements them. Consider boosting movement speed a little, if only for the sake of making the experience less frustrating, particularly in the “Marsh Refinery”.

Your sanity is another feature that was vaunted during development, though its actual realisation is perhaps underdeveloped. If you focus on disturbing sights or experience traumatising events then your heart rate will increase, your vision will blur and your hearing will suffer a penalty. You suffer from vertigo also, so trying to climb along rafters thinking that you’ll be able to get the drop on an opponent from a higher vantage point will result in your plan backfiring and movement back to safer havens that bit more difficult. If you’re unaware of these effects then it’s just as likely that you’ll regard them as ill conveyed annoyances as much as you may see them as interesting experiments. To make mention of the patches again, sanity recovery times can be adjusted and the negative effects of the use of morphine can also be adjusted. These however I would suggest you leave intact. Playing through the game normally I haven’t been able to create a critical situation where the player’s character “breaks”. What I would point out as something to be aware of and something I would have liked improved is the issue of voice-overs and sanity states.

There will be frequent times where your sanity takes a hit due to something you have witnessed, yet you will also be able to interact and receive commentary on features within the world. They’ll be delivered in the same default tone of voice that the player uses for all commentary. This more than anything in the game created a disconnect for me – your vision a haze and a ringing in your ears and the player character casually comments on frayed and yellowed posters on the walls. While I understand the issue and cost of recording alternate voice-overs, I genuinely think this would have been a worthwhile investment to maintain the illusion of the game’s sanity effects.

That felt need for compromise between more typical FPS gameplay conventions and the experiments that were undertaken by the developer lead to some shifts in tone and the inclusion of some sections that are closer to gauntlets and shooting galleries, interspersed with the game’s primary experience of having you on edge and always on the back foot. They work well enough, but the tonal shift that may raise the occasional eyebrow does manage to justify itself with the way in which it keeps the narrative moving.

Interspersed inventory based puzzles and a need to slow down and observe your surroundings also temper those moments of more typical FPS gameplay. Stealth sections have been somewhat awkwardly inserted into the game’s final sections to again shift up the dynamic. The speed of movement though when creeping is so unbearably slow it borders on nuisance, the tension is spoilt by its restrictions being that little, too harsh. It just about manages to keep itself going though, held together with the glue that is the setting and Cthulhu Mythos. If you’re not especially interested in the same, then your mileage with the game is likely to vary, particularly the closer to the end you get. It raises the question of what, it was if not for the Cthulhu Mythos that drew you to the game in the first place? That is something only you can answer, I would be interested to know what it was that brought you here. It’s perhaps fitting that I am one of those people. It was the preview coverage around 2003 that drew my attention, the talk of the sanity system and the sense of loneliness and decay in its screenshots. That was enough to draw me in, what the game delivered though was something slightly different.

It is the hope that the journey and not the destination will stay with you and demand your attention for as long as it requires. It is a setting and an atmosphere, a desire to realise Lovecraft’s works in tribute and exploration that the game hopes to compel the player with. When the game rushes you – particularly in the brilliant hotel escape, or when it gives you the time to take in the surroundings under an illusion of safety, then it shines. It has a control over you, it’s dictating your moves and pace even when it isn’t. It fits that notion of the unspeakable and inconceivable power that is controlling you without you even knowing it. The tone matches the setting and inspiration, the alien meets the art deco, decaying colonial brickwork is coated in foreign decay. It is however those times where it occupies the middle-ground and is closer to a standard FPS experience, where the player experiences a measured level of autonomy that it occupies, to its own detriment a more middling ground, its distinct identity and efforts lessened.

Another issue is raised however; When there is a consistency within Lovecraft’s work for the protagonist to be driven to the brink, or past of sanity, then should it even be possible to “win” in such a scenario? If a survival/horror experience is comprised of a number of small, momentary victories that build to an (ideal) escape, then we’ve still got a new baseline from which we would then need to begin again. DcotE is no exception. We should be broken by it. Yes… with the true ending there is some justification for why we aren’t. I can’t help but think that the expansion of events and circumstance that are revealed lessen the overall effect of the game as a survival experience though. It turns from an intensely personal one into a wider scope. It becomes a more interesting story, but a less effective experience. It’s inspiration from a non-participatory medium struggles to translate to the active participation that video-games afford while reaching their most effective implementations.

That’s what you’re going to be buying into with DcotE. Identity. The challenges of defining it and its exploration. If you’re not interested in the Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraft’s other works and you’re not drawn by the game’s mechanical experiments, then little but frustration and confusion is likely to meet you. If however you have a vested interest in the setting then you’ve got the makings of a cult classic, if but one that can be a nuisance to get working.

For the record; the images that appear here are from the first hour or two of the game. There are a range of settings within the game that I don’t want to spoil for you. The importance of journey to the game would make it counter-productive to do so, no matter how tantalising they may be and the questions they raise. DcotE is a game better experienced blindly than revealed, it is in that darkness that it’s able to best do its work.

DRM restrictions are to the best of my knowledge limited to a disc check to run the game, at least on the physical release. As the years quietly tick by though it is more likely that you’ll have purchased the game through Steam (currently) and depending on future licensing other potential digital storefronts. The Steam release of the game as far as I’m aware does have some restrictions regarding its executable which is very important when it comes to…

Modding: The range of projects that are available for DcotE are quite limited. There have been experiments with changing and increasing the resolution of the game’s textures as well as the choice of you using the SweetFX Post Process layer to adjust settings such as colour tint and saturation levels which may be of interest to you. Most efforts though have been directed towards compatibility fixes and adjustments via the executable. These would include the already referenced changes to the player’s movement speed, resilience and changes to weapons and carrying capacities. There tends to be an attitude of maintaining the original design of a work but I’d highly encourage you to play with the modified executable that has the slightly increased movement speed and increased ammunition capacity for the inventory. It lessens the frustration that you may encounter and results in less backtracking which can be a welcome change. As well as these player character centric changes there are also player as a participant changes; the disabling of startup videos, accessibility of difficulty levels and endings.

Fixes:

To be able to make these changes and enable fixes you’ll need a number of files:

Call_of_Cthulhu_Modern_OS_BUGFIX.zip can be found at the bottom of the following page: Modern OS Fix – unpacked and overwriting the game’s /shaders folder will take care of one previously game ending issue and other display issues.

DCoTEPatch will enable you to make the executable changes to inventory, accessibility and other improvements. It requires a non-Steam executable however, which due to the legal grey area I won’t be able to provide a link to. I would use this as an opportunity to remind you of the importance of a roll back against DRM platforms though. This patch can be readily used without further work on the physical release of the game however. https://github.com/sucklead/DCoTEPatch/releases

ThirteenAG’s Widescreen Fix is a relatively new release that enables the choice of widescreen resolutions and fixes for FOV issues.

It may also be necessary to enable a 60fps V-Sync lock for the game. The process of enabling this will depend on your graphics card and should be relatively easy to research.

Credit for the creation and compilation of the fixes needs to go to their respective authors and to PC Gaming Wiki and the quite aptly named Steam user; “i_hate_drm“.

 

Please do remember to be careful with any downloaded file and take the usual precautions vis. Malware/Viruses.

The end of the journey.

DcotE is a likely candidate for a cult title, there’s little getting around that. That brings both boons and hindrances with the label, similar to what Lovecraft’s writing received through his life and still after his death. Genre expectations and boxing, the struggle to find an audience… The mechanics that run counter to typical FPS gameplay and its twinning with the Cthulhu Mythos make it a curio for those with an existing interest. For those uninitiated in the Esoteric Order of Dagon, if you’re interested in some gameplay experiments and are willing to put the effort in to get the game working and push through some more awkward portions you’ll likely find some memorable moments within the game.

Overall though and regardless of your existing familiarity with its source material, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is a good title – a 7/10 rating if you feel the need to assign a number. It’s a cult curiosity with its own range of foibles, but if you’re willing to give it a try – to give in to the Unspeakable Esoteric Horrors… while being aware of the limitations and demands it places on the player… Then you could find something that will make you hope for a continuance that is more confident in its identity and as a continuance of Lovecraft’s world, works and thematic style. For now though you have the Dark Corners of the Earth and the journey through them, a fragmented love letter to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, yet…

 

Not quite a swim with the dolphins…