Game designers “base your spooky game in literally any other horror mythology than Lovecraft, please, I’m begging you” challenge.
I’ve not had a lot of time available to play video games recently. Well, I’ve not really had any time at all – we had a baby in November – so any time spent playing a game has to be chosen carefully.
Most of what I have managed has been opportunistic – a mobile game on the toilet, a protracted game of Civilization over several days while up doing feeds – but I did find time to play one game I’d been rather looking forward to: Call of the Sea, the first-person puzzler from Out of the Blue Games.
On paper, it’s everything I want in a video game, even more so with gaming time curtailed by the baby. Its origins are in first-person snoopers like Gone Home and Firewatch. It’s set on a beautiful, stylised Pacific island setting filled with clever puzzles, like Myst. It’s narrative-focused but nice and short. It doesn’t require fast reflexes and can be played like a TV series, with a baby in one hand and my wife co-piloting the puzzles from the other sofa.
On paper, Call of the Sea sounds perfect… but that feeling didn’t last.
Everyone loves Call of the Sea, a narrative walking simulator set on a beautiful island *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you that Call of the Sea is a Lovecraftian horror
Now. Before you jump down my throat. You could argue that Call of the Sea’s roots in Lovecraft would have been apparent had I read some reviews. That my being disappointed is my own issue for not understanding what I was getting into. But I’d argue that, with narrative puzzle games, it’s best to go into it completely cold, to avoid the risk of spoilers – of puzzle, of story, or both.
Moreover, Call of the Sea doesn’t explicitly cite its Lovecraftian influence in its marketing or on its store pages. A quick search for the word “Lovecraft” on its Xbox Store page returns no results. The same is true of its Steam Store listing, with only the user-added “Lovecraftian” tag hidden away behind an additional click. The game is simply described as “otherworldly” and a “tale of mystery” in the blurb. A two-second snippet in one of the trailers – of the protagonist with reptilian hands, that I assumed to be a dream sequence – the only indication I can recall seeing before playing the game.
You might think it’s a matter of personal preference, I know, but the rooting of Call of the Sea in Lovecraftian mythos is particularly unsettling given the game’s distinct setting, on an unspecified Pacific island.
In the first hour or so of the game the game’s protagonist, voiced by the perennially brilliant Cissy Jones, says the word “Polynesian” about a thousand times. Most all of the puzzles – save the specifically Eldritch ones – are in some way based around Polynesian culture, including pictographs, Unu and Tiki. It’s almost relentless. To that end, Call of the Sea feelsa bit like a research project, that its designers have used the game as an opportunity to show off how much they’ve learned about Polynesian culture while doing their homework.
This is a game whose machinations lie in trying to understand puzzles in a cultural context and language different to our own, making the protagonist feel like an outsider, an explorer delving into a strange and alien world. On its own, this is a somewhat unsettling worldview for Call of the Sea, even with the “historically accurate” context of the 1930s with Western explorers “discovering” things that were very well discovered by their respective first peoples, thank you very much.
But when you mix in the influence of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a racist and white supremacist writer whose horror is based in xenophobia and in fear of the unknown, that setting becomes troubling, to say the least.
When did Lovecraft become the default setting for horror?
I’m sure that Call of the Sea isn’t – and most other games rooted in Lovecraftian mythology aren’t – designed to be racist. I’m sure that their use of Lovecraftian themes lies more in that being the sort of “default” horror mythology of our age. If someone wants something scary, comma, weird, with optional tentacles, they turn to Lovecraft. It’s a basic piece of horror shorthand. That’s just the way it is, particularly in video games.
By way of napkin maths verification of that theory, at the time of writing, there are just over 5,000 games tagged “horror” on Steam, and around 10% of that number carry the “Lovecraftian” tag. Other horror mythologies are poorly represented or completely absent in Steam tags; far superior writers like Mary Shelley don’t get a look-in. Even simple horror archetypes – “vampires” with 220 results and “werewolves” with 100 results – appear less frequently than the cursed “Lovecraftian” tag. Everyone’s doing it, is the key takeaway here.
Just because everyone is doing it doesn’t mean that it’s fine, however. You can’t isolate the racist origins of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s mythology from stories moulded in its image any more than Cuphead, a fun platformer with a 1920s animation style, can be divested from the racist caricature of the Fleischer animation that inspired it. Cuphead isn’t designed to be racist, either, but if you choose to base your modern works in problematic historical references you bring those historical problems into the modern age, intentional or not.
HP Lovecraft was an absolute pit of the worst of humanity, using his own white supremacy and innate understanding of mankind’s fear of the unknown to sell scary stories. If he were alive today he’d probably be a right-wing grifter, wearing a MAGA hat and fabricating tales about the twin “horrors” of immigration and vaccination. Viewed with hindsight through a lens of fascism and white supremacy, Lovecraft is just awful, and all the while we perpetuate his unpleasant, fear-based mythology in our stories, we extend his gross legacy for future generations.
But do you know what else? It’s just so dull. It’s so tedious and so overdone. Lovecraft-inspired games are up there with “Souls-like” and “Battle Royale” on our list of words that cause your press release to go straight in the bin.
You might not care about the racism inherent in Lovecraft’s legacy – though if you don’t, maybe you need to ask yourself why? – but I’m begging you, please, do something new. Do something different. Do something interesting. Do anything! Game designers, please, stop making Lovecraftian horrors.
And finally, a note on Call of the Sea to finish: I’d like to take a moment to apologise to Out of the Blue Games. Your game isn’t bad and I’m sure you’re not, either! It was just the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, I think for the most part because I went to that lovely island not expecting it to be a Lovecraftian horror. I’m just so sick of Lovecraft and his horrible legacy and yours was the game that sparked this rant, not necessarily the game that deserved it.
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