"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown," said cult-favorite horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. While he achieved little fame and no fortune during his life (1890-1937), he's become incredibly influential in the decades following his death. Lovecraft's interconnected stories are linked by a backdrop of ancient creatures from unknown dimensions waiting for a chance to reclaim the Earth.
The creepy 1920s supernatural New England detective yarn he specialized in has become an established story archetype, and if you call something "Lovecraftian," at least a good portion of the room will immediately know what you're talking about. (And to be clear, part of why his work was so creepy may have been because he was himself a creep.)
Lovecraft's work has always had an outsize influence on video games, board games and , but these are some of my favorite games that directly credit him, including two new ones for this Halloween season, Stygian and Moons of Madness.
Lovecraft stories can take place in creepy abandoned arctic expedition camps, creepy abandoned old houses, creepy abandoned underground temples or in the just-released Moons of Madness, a creepy abandoned base on Mars. The game is more about exploration and puzzle solving than action, and has a few good jump-scares along the way. Yes, the scary-walking-simulator thing has been done to death, but doing it as a Lovecraft/sci-fi mash-up is a fun twist.
Moons of Madness is out now for PC, and is coming to Xbox and PlayStation in 2020.
A real hidden gem, this talky, spooky RPG uses a hand-drawn style that reminds me of Edward Gorey. In the game, the entire town of Arkham has been mysteriously whisked away by an evil force (or maybe it's the rest of the world that vanished), and everyone from hooded cultists to stranded Boston mobsters are fighting for control of the town.
Combat is head-scratching and frankly better avoided, but the vast number of character-building options, from academics to detectives to occultists, make it feel very much like your own custom narrative.
A Lovecraft game as reimagined by David Lynch. It sees you become a detective drawn to the fictional Massachusetts town of Oakmont, where you must investigate mysteries, find missing people and occasionally fight monsters, although ammunition is scarce (and your 1920s guns are pretty puny), so don't expect run-and-gun action.
The game's central hook is that Oakmont is a bit like a haunted version of Venice, half-flooded, with large portions only accessible by motorboat. The city has a dreamlike quality, a step removed from reality, with cults, fish-human hybrids from a neighboring town, and a local economy that has abandoned money in favor of trading spare bullets. The freaky stuff unfolds slowly, easing you in until you realize this is a very strange alternative universe.
I played the PC version of the game, via Epic's online game store, and it looked great. The art direction is all rain and ruin, like a 1920s Fallout. Being an open-world game, the potential for wandering the city and discovering new things feels huge, at least during the game's earlier hours. Scratch a little deeper, and the lower-budget indie side shows through. Townspeople wander back and forth on preset paths, only a handful can be conversed with, and most of the city is a Potemkin village of prop doors painted on empty buildings. Even the NPCs you do engage with usually only have a single line of dialogue, making them feel like theme park automatons.
But even with those limitations the atmosphere is expertly executed, and I appreciated the emphasis on clue-hunting and deduction over combat (some of the problem-solving is lifted from the same developer's excellent series of Sherlock Holmes games). The Sinking City is also coming to Xbox and PlayStation, but for PC gamers, it's exclusively available on the Epic Game store.
For more eldritch terror, here are a few of my other favorite Lovecraft-inspired games.
A highly serviceable, if linear, adventure that's slightly more grounded in semireality than The Sinking City. If anything, the game plays it too conservatively, offering few genuine surprises. That said, I found it to be an enjoyably creepy sneak-and-sleuth trek through familiar territory, helped by interesting characters and good writing.
From the same developer as The Sinking City, this retro adventure from 2008 combines Sherlock Holmes with a Lovecraftian mystery. It feels dated, to be sure, but still holds up as a hunt-and-peck brain workout, with some gory pixelated graphics.
Way back in 2005, this game promised smart monsters that would track you with AI, a dynamic "sanity" system for controlling reality, and many other marketing bullet points. It was really almost all hype over reality, but the game has gone on to become a classic of the scary game genre, and is now highly playable thanks to a new GOG version that runs great on modern computers.
Originally published earlier this year and updated for Halloween.