I’m not keen on mincing words on this one. H.P Lovecraft was a racist and before you go making an argument for separating the art from the artist, let’s be clear on another point: so are his stories. They encompass other problematic elements too, of course – misogyny, homophobia. Right down to their core, right down to the very themes that recur throughout his works, you’ll find the hateful perspective he had of the world: the ignorance of someone who viewed anything unlike himself with revulsion. While he drew inspiration from works predating him, what Lovecraft gave to the genre of cosmic horror was his hate.
Which is now video games’ problem. For decades video games have been regurgitating the themes, plots and aesthetics of his stories with not one ounce of scrutiny. The half-breed monsters that embody the very essence of Lovecraft’s revulsion, the troubled white male heroes that contain his arrogance and his gross simplification of mental illness are recreated in video games with no subversion, no critical thinking. In doing so they are breathing life, again and again, into Lovecraft’s hate. At least Bloodborne had the decency to suggest that its protagonist could be the real villain of the story.
Here’s the other thing. It’s not just deeply problematic, it’s boring. How terrified can we be by even the most lavishly rendered Lovecraftian monster after so many dozen encounters, across so many dozen games. They’ve slipped from being horrifying or even pulpy fun and now they’re just downright boring.
It’s time to let go of Lovecraft. No more tentacled multi-eyed monstrosities, no foggy fishing towns or ancient aliens posing as gods. These are jokes and the remnants of a poisonous world view. Let’s move on. Because let’s remember, the things people say they love about Lovecraft’s work? The existential horror? The sense of helplessness and unknowable horrors? Guess what, they don’t belong to him. They existed before him (Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from the works of Robert Chambers) and they’re gonna be around long after.
If you’re wondering how to do this type of horror without the trappings of Lovecraft then look no further than the 2015 title SOMA. It tells the story of a man, Simon, waking up in a dark underwater facility full of machine horrors with no idea how he got there. This game uses technology to explore themes of identity, consciousness and yes, existentialism. It does so most effectively not by throwing alien creatures in our faces but by confronting us with the nature of our existence. There are no ancient alien gods, just heavy reminders of mankind’s place in the universe. How would we cope when faced with the reality that we’re simply one of many copies? What matters more, the continued existence of some version of yourself or the continued existence of your specific consciousness? These are deeper and more personal questions than we typically get from horror games and yet SOMA explores them deftly. Yet it still touches on many of the core fears people get from Lovecraft’s work, just without any of the baggage. There is no fear of the other here, only of our own reality.
It’s proof that not only can existential horror do without Lovecraft’s dusty old tropes, it can flourish. Let’s breathe new life into the genre and not let one author’s hatred define our games. Next time Chtulhu calls, maybe don’t answer?