Several hours in, Call of Cthulhu doesn’t seem that scary

So many books in the old Hawkins place! Oh man, whole walls of the things. Books on shelves, books opened on tables and stacked in chairs. And in the playroom – such a sad playroom! – there’s a fortress made of books laid out on the floor, with little wooden soldiers standing guard.

That’s a nice moment, the fortress of books. I took a screenshot, I think. I certainly paused on my theoretically tense exploration of the theoretically creepy old mansion I was poking through. A nice breather ahead of the theoretically shocking jump-scare that waited ahead of me, and the theoretically heart-pounding mini-chase that followed. I am several hours into Call of Cthulhu by this point, and that fortress of books now lies far behind me. I am easily scared – by Netflix shows, by games, by real life with its strange shadows and sudden clattering sounds. And yet so far Call of Cthulhu has not scared me at all. Not even a little bit. I can’t really imagine it becoming scary. And I think there are two reasons why.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. Isn’t it the case that I haven’t played enough to get to the scary stuff? This is certainly possible – and I am willing to believe that the game might scare the heck out of me by the end. And yet Call of Cthulhu is theoretically scary from the very start. From the first sequence it’s chucking stuff at you which feels like it’s A-grade material. I don’t think I’m simply trudging through the slow burn moments. I think the stuff it’s trying to pull isn’t working the way it should.

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And this is the other thing: I really like Call of Cthulhu. It’s clearly done on a budget – ropy animations, basic environments, very strangely lit teeth in everyone’s head – but there’s real care and effort put in, I reckon. It’s the kind of game you root for, and I love the way it’s picked its battles. No combat, at least not yet anyway. A character sheet with various attributes that basically just tie into creating better dialogue options and the ability to spot additional things as you wander around the environments. A pleasant flow of each level that mixes up snooping around, chatting to people, and doing a bit of slightly clumsy stealth and some very light item-based puzzling. You almost always know what to do, and you always know what’s at stake. And to add a bit of a thrill, almost everything in the environment ties into a sanity meter, which sees the character you control – a shell-shocked and heavy-drinking PI down on his luck – slipping closer and closer to unreliable narrator territory. Even now, I can imagine all the divergent endings. Even now I can imagine replaying the game to try and get the best ending – which is probably also the worst ending, since this is Lovecraft after all?

Oh yes, and it’s Lovecraft by the shovel-load. Spooky fishing villages. Rotting sharks with strange bites taken out of ’em. Cultists toiling in the gloom. Hospitals staffed by sinister doctors. Everyone looks dessicated and addled, as if they were left on the vinyl back seat of an old Mazda during a heatwave. Everyone has bad dreams and nobody sleeps without the aid of pills anymore. I dread the night, me. The dreams it brings! Newspaper clippings and pages from old letters hint at a deep and very thorough conspiracy. Everything you ask about burned down 10 years ago. (Maybe not that last part, but you get the gist.)

So why isn’t it scaring me so far? Partly I think it’s Lovecraft. The unknown horrors he trades in are now terribly, terribly known. Tentacle gods in the basement? So glad you could make it – do try a vol-au-vent! (It’s the most Lovecraftian of the dinner party snacks, though cheese footballs certainly have their uncanny moments.) Infernal geometry? Isn’t infernal geometry a right old annoyance when you’re buying a home? Lovecraft’s secret cults have had their secrets thoroughly blown over the last century. We know where this guy likes to hide his biggest frights. His star-heads and octopus-men are getting older and older, and since he’s long, long dead, he hasn’t been able to update them in a while. Without the surprise – and with the actual Lovecraft licence, you had better be sure to offer us the subterranean city of corpses and cyclopean architecture we’re expecting or we’re all leaving disappointed – what Lovecraft gives you is a sense of brooding unease, a sense of green-tinged claustrophobia. (Seriously, I just mistyped ‘Cthulhu’, and Google Docs stepped in to fix it for me – this nameless horror has a name, and Google will even help you spell it.)

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In truth, I reckon you absolutely can still be scared by Lovecraft, but you have to bring something pretty fresh, something pretty unexpected. Are you watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix at the moment? It’s scary, I think, because it’s suddenly all about family. You can take the Shirley Jackson out of it and it stands up on its own.

So if you take Lovecraft out of Call of Cthulhu, what do you get? So far – and again, I’m just under halfway through, so what do I know? – what you get is the other part of the problem. Deep down, for its first few hours, Call of Cthulhu is plucky and likeable and ultimately entirely competent. It’s a competent game. Its systems are nicely implemented – okay stealth is a bit annoying at times – but, like Lovecraft himself, they are deeply known.

What this means is that, after ten minutes of acclimatising yourself, you are exploring something that you pretty much already understand. This is the real problem: genre and its tells. Here’s a crime scene I need to restore in my imagination: I know I need to squeeze the triggers and then spot a certain number of clues. Here’s a desk drawer I can open: I can almost see the open-the-drawer icon appearing on it before it does because I am so sure it will be there. The icon changes the nature of the place I am exploring – no longer a creepy grotto, say, but a space filled with interactive spots I had better get on and interact with. Do I want to level up my occult and medical skills? You bet I do – so I’d better track down the items that allow me to do that. And I’d better use up all the dialogue options on everybody I meet. I had better completer-finisher the conversations and the exploration!

So many games fall into this trap, I think, and it’s barely a trap because it makes for pleasant busywork. But horror is a bit like comedy: you’re hoping that something magical arises from the simple pieces you have before you.

And when the pieces are likeable and competent and familiar? In those cases those very qualities are orienting you so firmly that it’s possible that the magic might never happen.

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