Honestly… I don’t think I do as much, but I’ll see what I got in me.
…Ok, I came back to the top after I finished writing this and I was so wrong. OTL Before I begin, feel free to shout out any other cosmic horror or lovecraftian game tips onto this post. Buckle up kids, you’re in for the long haul.
Lovecraftian horror/cosmic horror is a genre within a genre rather than a stand alone genre by itself. You’re gonna be looking at both the gameplay and writing pitfalls & highpoints of horror itself along with anything specific to Cosmic Horror (and monster-based horror for that matter).
“Fear of man being punted around by the universe like a golfball made of chalk” is the big key theme in cosmic horror as you know. Mankind’s insignificance on the cosmic scale of things and how cruel the universe can be us if you catch my drift. Oddly enough, this is why Puella Magi Madoka Magica is classified as Cosmic Horror by some people (myself included). Cosmic horror works generally start on the small scale of things with smaller, more human-sized stakes, and gradually build up to “then universe is screwing us over”.
In Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, you originally had a town full of fish people trying to kill you. Later, it bumps up to “fuck we gotta stop the fish people from trying to summon their ancient god and fucking over life on earth as we know it”. Along the way, the player (and main character Jack) gradually learn about about the cosmic forces that screw the universe over, and how they affect people. I’m bolding that for two reasons: A) You can’t just tell the player that the cosmic horror they’re dealing with is scary. You must show what the hell it’s capable of. B) How else do you instill the fear of humans being broken like a Popsicle stick by the cosmos if you don’t break some human in game??? We’ll come back to this in a second.
At the start of the Call of Cthulhu, most people are just getting screwed over by the cult of Dagon (the fish people) & the effects they have on both members of the cult and non-members, as well as people who are trying to investigate them. By the end of the game, the monsters of the cosmos are more directly affecting the events of the game rather than standing by idly and watching humans do their bidding. They both attack the player and affect the main character’s past and mental state directly, along with how you play the game & gameplay mechanics. It’s pretty metal.
You have to show the effects of the horrors as you go through the game, whether it’s on the players, the landscape, or the NPCs.
The horror needs to affect the player somehow. Some games do this by instilling a sanity meter, like Call of Cthuhlu: DCotE, Amnesia, or Eternal Darkness. Usually, the lower the sanity the more the game screws with your interface and your stats. Interface screws include blurring the screen, adding hallucinations in different areas, making everything wobbly, switching around meters, etc. An example of a stat change would be a player’s run bar could be increased while their shooting accuracy could be decreased when they’re in low sanity, which can either help or hinder the player depending on the situation. It could affect the player character’s actions, like have the player character make gibbering noises, which can alert npcs to your location in a stealth section. Sanity meters should have a way of refiling sanity of course, whether it’s by killing monsters, looking at cute pictures of puppies, or just having it regenerate naturally.
Good sanity meters condition the player to avoid & dread what they should be afraid of, and fear it because it gives the player a consequence for even staring/experiencing whatever horror there is in question. It also gives them a challenge rather than makes them want to throw their computer out their window in frustration. Logically, this means a bad sanity meter screws with the player too much and becomes a frustrating mechanic rather than an actual challenge.
Sanity meters are harder to do in RPG horror since you’re not in first person: you don’t have the option to look away. That means you have to avoid clicking on things you’re not sure will lower your sanity or not, or you have to stay out of certain rooms and can’t go in them for long periods of time, or maybe the terrain drains your sanity if you stand in various areas for too long like a poisonous swamp would in another RPG Maker game. No draining of your sanity just by staring at a statue for too long for you even if your character isn’t directly facing it. It still can be done if you’re up to it, you just have to get creative with how the player loses sanity & balance it out with how to regain it back.
I know some of you out there probably aren’t keen on a “sanity” meter, as it implies that “[…]sanity is like diesel oil or something, and you can get a reading on it by sticking a dipstick in your ear”, and ain’t friendly to showing how mental health affects people. I get that: a more accurate name for them would be “Panic” meter, “Will/Willpower meter”, or “How close I am to being done with this shit” meter since it’s less a monitor of sanity and more of a panic monitoring system. A “fear meter” or “stress meter” would be fine too, as long as you clarify it’s how scared the protagonist is and not your player as you can’t tell your player “it tiem 2 b spooped now”. It’s hard to compact a concept like mental health into one meter like physical health is in games as people with mental illness gets the short end of the stick if you call it “sanity”. It’s up to you to call it something different or decide not to implement it because of it. You can look at these other articles talking about sanity meters if you’re interested in implementing one.
Sanity meters aren’t your only option for cosmic horrors to effect the gameplay: any cosmic entity or arcane monster can affect the player in a variety of ways, from temporary obstacles to stealth mechanics and so on. Say you’re writing a game where a giant monster is slowly taking over a mansion. The player’s way to another part is blocked by the monster’s humongous tentacle, and if the player touches it they get a status condition inflicted by slime or spores that slows them down or gives some hallucinations for a bit. Another could be if that you try and head into their room too early or without the proper protection, you die from their scream or their gaze(medusa style!). The player could walk into a room, see a bunch of rats and not be bothered by them, then halfway through the monster could let out a sound and the rats all change and attack the player.
In addition to the player character, the cosmic horror should affect NPCs as well. Whether it’s directly or indirectly, give them a bit (or all) of hell too. Maybe the town is losing sleep over something the horror is doing and everyone’s acting irrational because of it, and you, the player, have to work around it. Maybe they’re part of an evil cult and antagonize the player, perhaps spying on them or fighting them directly. Maybe one of them touched something they shouldn’t have and are now experiencing a strange sickness due to it (that you either cure or turns them into a monster you have to fight or something), and their loved ones are racking their brains in confusion as to what it is and suffer as they watched the one afflicted get worse and worse.
It’s a nice way to add on to world building overall. There’s one part early on in Call of Cthulhu: DCotE where you meet a nervous man who’s wife is a full on fish person who’s kept locked in an attic and their daughter, a human girl who’s sweet but slightly off with her weird drawings. The wife-monster eventually gets released from the attic and kills her daughter on her rampage out, breaking her poor father’s heart. That one was pretty metal, and showed the relationship a few people in the cult have with the fish people and how the fish people are like.
You’re gonna be doing a good bit of worldbuilding for cosmic horror if you have a set of monsters. You can do a good amount through environmental stuff, which is always a boon in a game: having altars set up in people’s homes with little prayers underneath, drawings of runes or cave drawings on walls, paintings of the monster(s)/horror, left overs of a ritual, unique monster tracks and calling cards (the victims glowed faintly green after the encounter), pieces of nature that doesn’t sit right (trees that always sway without wind), etc.. Giving character to any world is a great idea for most horror games, honestly. Let the location scare the player as well as what’s living (or undead) in it. Pump up that atmopshere!
“Fear of the unknown” is a big theme in all horror, and Cosmic Horror is no exception. It’s ok to hide you monsters and let your player imagine them for the most part. If you got big monsters, you can show little parts of them at a time, and possibly never show their true whole body all at once and let the player think what the monster looks like instead (amnesia had the invisible water monster that would be interesting to program in rpg maker but at least makes for good inspiration).
You can also obscure the monsters via darkness, a common route a lot of horror games like to take. Be warned, though: there is such a thing as “too dark”. If you make something too dark, it becomes frustrating. It’s an incredibly hard thing to balance out, and few games have great control over it. My best advice for that is to keep your characte’rs
Cosmic horror is dark by nature. You can’t do much to fight back against the cosmos, thus why they’re so scary. …that also makes it hard to do a video game right, though.
So, when someone plays a video game, they want to feel like they’ve accomplished something at the end. Screwing the player over by having nothing changing blows. You can do this fine in say something like a lovecraftian/cosmic horror RTS or bejeweled game that has the lore or themes be cosmic horror but has no real plot and the main draw of the game is the mechanics and beating your high score/other players. People have something to care about there: having fun playing the game (because games), beating other people or npcs, getting a higher score, etc.. It’s just horror flavored and if you switched it out with something else you’d still have fun playing the game because of the game itself and not with what it’s decorated with.
However, RPGs and Adventure games are story based genres at heart. You’re supposed to care about the people in the story and what happens to them in addition to having fun playing the game. Therefore, you’re more likely to slip into darkness induced audience apathy if you write the story too bleak or you don’t give the audience enough of the reason to care about the main cast. People will still come and play if it has a good atmosphere and nice enough gameplay, but the story won’t have the same emotional impact if the player thinks it’s a lost cause.
The ye old horror adventure game “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” based off of the story of the same name had to have a somewhat hopeful ending you could get if you completed the game properly in addition to the horrifying ending of the original story. Call of Cthuhlu: Dark Corners of the Earth isn’t particularly upbeat, but by the end the main character does save humanity for a time even though like almost all of the named characters in the game are deader than disco and you’ve learned a lot of uncomfortable facts about the universe that make you paranoid out of your skull. End Roll isn’t a cosmic horror, but it has a pretty good set of endings that you can use to inspire your own cosmic ending if you still want to keep things downbeat but somewhat happy.
Alright we’re separating cosmic horror and L ovecraftian horror here. There’s not too much of a difference, I’m only separating them because there’s things specific to taking inspiration from Lovecraft directly.
Just like how people have a set idea of what “RPG Horror” is supposed to be , there’s usually a set idea when they think of “Lovecraftian horror” as well. When someone thinks RPG Horror they think 8-17 year old anime girls in cute outfits in a mysterious dream-like world probably inspired by fairy tales with jumpscares and blood and a small cast of characters who may or may not want to kill the MC with mixed RTP & custom maps, or corpse party/ao oni part deux, or you’re in a rtp dungeon/house you must ecape and there’s a light source you have to constantly refill, or some combination there of. Lovecraftian horror is more of a scholarly dude in the victorian-1940s era discovers shit that shouldn’t have ever been discovered by mankind, usually involving disgusting incomprehensible to humans monsters who are old a balls, and tends to be set in old/new england in a creepy town or on an expedition that is either in an old ruin or leads into an old ruin with a crazy secret. Cults, sci-fi, fantasy, realizing something monstrous is “in the blood”, going bonkers by the end of the story, humanity’s predicted death, sea creatures, fates worse than death, cute cats, and other fun things are optional optional.
Do you have to follow all these tropes set up? No, of course not! Feel free to experiment. As long as you end up with something scary, that’s what counts. Heck, August Derleth (Lovecraft’s friend & fellow mythos writer) encouraged people to do something new with the genre or at least set it somewhere different. Do you have to stick with all the monsters set up for you? No, the tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu as well as other writers introduce new gods, sects, and rules all the time. You don’t have to even use the same mythos itself if you want to make your own monsters, worlds, and rules. You don’t have to make your horrors fish-based either - Lovecraft was afraid of fish (as he was allergic to them), thus the amount of marine life horrors he had. You can base it on some other thing you’re afraid of whether it’s abstract (a monster that preys on memories and steals people’s memories away from them, having you forget your friends, family, and life), or concrete (a monster that’s based on snakes + cockroaches = call the eldritch abomination control i’m freakin done).
If you follow all these tropes, does it mean your story/game is bad? No, it’s about how you craft it! If you follow all these, does that mean your story is instantly stale? To some, yes, to others, they won’t be able to get enough of it. Just like how there’s people craving more anime girl horror with heart wrenching stories, there’s people craving more of the same here. You’ll always have an audience somewhere (
and not just me).
If you’re taking direct inspiration from Lovecraft, I don’t suggest you beat your player over the head with a thesaurus like he did. Lovecraft loved fancy words, but you can get the same effect by lavishly describing something with precise but more well-known words (feel free to throw a squamous or fungorious in there once or twice though). You don’t need to show off your knowledge of fancy words like he did!
Racism is bad mmmm’kay? (If you don’t know that by now, I can’t help you) Look if you didn’t know that Lovecraft was a turbo racist even for his time you haven’t stumbled across a few certain stories of his yet. He was also classiest and looked down upon rural white people as well, and basically afraid of everyone and everything different than him
and fish as he was allergic to them. You obviously don’t have to go down that route and definitely shouldn’t, and you never have to mention or deal with racism at all if you don’t want to (as in, you can write a cosmic or lovecraftian horror story just fine without insulting minorites).
I partly bring this up because the fear of “people/sentient beings who are different than you AND THEY’RE IN YOUR BLOOD” shows up across his work, and can still be used to good effect. Sometimes it’s better as a “body horror” thing, where it turns out the protagonist is a hybrid with some sort of always chaotic evil monster and will slowly mutate into one over the course of your game. However, you could make the protagonist a hybrid of something NOT chaotic evil and have them get some interesting powers and help from the monstrous being(s) they’re related to, as not everything has to have the end goal of eating humanity or making us it’s slaves. Sometimes, it can be a “sins of your ancestors” thing, worrying that you’ll repeat the actions of your murderous forefathers (without regards to race, religion, etc.). What I’m trying to say is that “Don’t make race mixing itself evil because that’s dumb”.
Lovecraft didn’t do as much character-focused writing as he did walking you through the worlds of evil. Or, I should say, he never sat down and had character vs character drama drama in his stories where the protagonist themselves has conflict and development with other people outside of “protagonist gradually going fucking bonkers from this crap”. His stories were more about describing the process and anticipation of horror + worldbuilding and less characters talking to each other. This isn’t as much of a pitfall in his writing as it is something you can explore in your game if you feel like it. Either/or is cool, it’s up to you on what you wish to focus on.
If for some reason you have spells and spellbooks in your game, you could make a rock-paper-scissors out of the elder gods sort of thing. You can also have spells that cost the player something big (health points or something like that) if you use them. You can have armor that protects you from one thing, but depletes your sanity meter or makes you very weak to something else. Basically, you can give players items that can both help and hurt them as an option depending on the style of game you’re going for. Even adventure games can work with that if you’re crafty enough.
You could also give players choices that will bite them in the ass one way but help them in another if they play their cards correctly. You can have the player travel with two people, then force to choose which person to stick with for the rest of the game and let the other one die. Both could give unique benefits at the expense of the other’s lost skill. That could be hard to pull off since that depends on the abilities being worth a darn, the player not feeling like it’s too much of a punishment, and the player liking the characters, but it would be fun if you could. You could pick up and use an item to easily close one hell portal, but it wipes out something important to the player if they don’t choose to go on the harder route. Cruelness like this is a part of cosmic horror as cosmic horror is depressing and cruel. You don’t have to put it into the game if you don’t want to of course - you can still make a dark or bleak tone without screwing the player or the characters in the story too much.
Fun fact: Lovecraft loved cats. If you’re in the mood, add in a cat the player can pet in the game. That’s a general game design tip tbh.
A few games you might want to check out if you haven’t already:
Here’s some extra specific guides to help out:
If you got here, hot damn, good job kid. I hope this helped and didn’t confuse the heck out of you. OTL Feel free to ask any more questions at any time as always ;w;
it’d be nice to do a lovecraftian game jam one of these days…
Originally posted on 02/08/18