Writing a Game – The interplay of Literature and Games in Gothic Horror

Writing a horror game? The title implies a peculiar mixture of  literature, computer games and gothic horror.  Can it be more than just another motley collection of different elements that are not meant to fit together? And what can it teach us about where one element begins and another ends? Of course we are talking about an intermedial approach here.

Our Working Group “Game Studies” at the International Graduate Center for the Study of Culture has been curious about this question since December 2016. When we were debating new topics for our future sessions, sitting in a poorly lit room during a frosty winter late afternoon (well, actually it wasn’t that frosty and the room was illuminated by clean halogen lamps, but let’s not have semantics ruin the mood), one of us came up with the idea: “Hey, we are talking a lot about how games actually work. But we are only looking at games that already exist. After all, there is no better way to learn about the inner workings of something beyond creating it yourself, is there?“. The next question was: can we do that? Yes, we can. So this blog will give some insights in our attempts to answer a number of questions while also coming up with new ones. To clarify some things before people get to exited: we are not actually aiming at creating a full-fledged computer game. One of us pointed out: wait a sec. What exactly are we planning to do here? Create a good game? We could do that, but we would put more time and effort in creating a game in view of the current expectations of players concerning game play, story, graphics etc., than answering our central questions. The compromise was that we would not try to create a complete game but rather short examples, individual scenes so to speak, to underline our research concerning intermedial interplay. We will explain that in much greater detail in later blog posts. After some more debates it became clear that we needed to narrow our scope. We wanted to look at games and literature. But what kind of literature? We looked at our own interests and research and realised that gothic horror was the thing almost all of us had some background with. To nail it down even further, we settled on the Cthulhu Mythos based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Why? Because every one of us was more or less familiar with the universe, because it is still immensely influential in pop culture and, last but not least, there are already dozens of video games based on Lovecraft’s works that we can use as guidance. Again, we will talk a lot more about Lovecraft and his influence on different media in due turn.

For starters, let’s go back to the initial questions of this post. Can literature, computer games and gothic horror coherently fit together?

Of course, there is a century long tradition of the unholy marriage of gothic horror and literature, arguable at the least since Horace Walpole wroteThe Castle of Otranto in 1764. There is a lot of research on the whole subgenre so there is a lot of groundwork we can build on, especially analytical works like Noël Carroll’s influential “The Philosophy of Horror” (you can find a review here), published in New York in 1990.

But computer games and horror? Certainly, the scholarly works on video games are growing exponentially, written by a wide variety of different disciplines, ranging from philosophy to psychology to physics. But what about our special field of interest? Luckily there are already some scholars who have put their minds to the task. For instance, the horror game Series “Silent Hill”.

It was honoured by an anthology (Neitzel, Britta et al. (Hg.), „See? I’m real …“ – multidisziplinäre Zugänge zum Computerspiel am Beispiel von ‚Silent Hill‘, Münster 2010), and even by an whole monograph (Perron, Bernard, Silent hill. The terror engine, Michigan Press 2012). Other horror games were dissected as well (Perron, Bernard; Barker, Clive (Hg.), Horror video games. Essays on the fusion of fear and play. Jefferson 2009). This list could and will be, extended.

See? I’m real…
Silent hill
Horror video games

Okay, then what about the research on H.P. Lovecraft? Admittedly, in comparison to his influence on pop culture, Lovecraft hasn’t really received that much attention by the academic community. Nonetheless, there is some research we can build on, especially the extended works by Sunand Tryambak Joshi (Joshi, Sunand Tryambak, A subtler magick. The writings and philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft, San Bernardino 1996).

Lastly, we already claimed that a combination of Lovecraft and games is nothing really original. Not by a long shot. Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (Infogrames 1993) was released  in the early 1990s, followed by Call of Cthulhu: Prisoner of Ice (Infogrames 1995), to name but a few.

The much acclaimed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (Bethesda Softworks 2005) will be a focus point for us for a variety of reasons, to be discussed at greater detail at a later point.

If we include games which were directly influenced by the Cthulhu Myth, we could name something around two dozen titles, in addition to board games, card games and even pen-and-paper role-playing games. Not to mention other media such as films, comics and, of course, literature. So there is a lot of ground to cover.

But wait. Didn’t we mention preparing to create our own Lovecraft-based gothic horror game? Well, so far we are still building up our scholarly groundwork, and the muddy details on game design are a bit too technical for our introduction here. But let’s just say, with the help of game-creating-systems like Game Maker Studio by YoYo Games game design is no longer the exclusive domain of professionals. These days, even amateurs can become developers, as the independent scene continues to impressively demonstrate.

So we raised some questions, prepared the scholarly groundwork and gathered a lot reading as well as reference material. Hopefully you will be as excited as we are in discovering where this journey will take us.