Saturday, 1 October 2016

October Nightmares II #1 Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (2005) - A Fish-wife's Tale

Well boys and ghouls, it’s that time of the year again. Time to put sheets over our heads and chase some minorities out of town…I mean pretend that we’re ghosts. As you may know, Halloween is my favourite holiday; if only because the others (I’m looking at you Christmas) bring forth the desire to commit seppuku with a butter knife. Last year I decided to get into the spirit of things and review a horror film for each day of the month; a challenge which I rather enjoyed. And so I decided to do the same again this year. Only this time I'm picking from my favourite horror-based video games. I could have chosen more movies again, but decided against this for the same reason no one drinks the dregs of a cup of tea. 

During last year’s October Nightmares I reviewed H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu. At that time I stated that the film industry owes a debt of gratitude to author H.P. Lovecraft, whose influential brand of nihilistic cosmic horror shows up everywhere from Prince of Darkness to SpongeBob SquarePants. But there’s one medium even more indebted to Lovecraft and that's video games. The video game industry is ‘inspired’ by Lovecraft’s writing in the same way that my maths’ class companion was ‘inspired’ by my homework. Yes, I’m referring to you Chris. Cheating prick.

One such game, and my earliest foray into the unfathomable depths of cosmic horror, was Headfirst ProductionsCall of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. An unholy amalgamation of several Lovecraft short stories (The Call of Cthulhu, Dagon, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Shadow Over Innsmouth), Dark Corners is not an easy game to summarise. You play as Jack Walters, a police detective sent to Innsmouth to investigate a missing person’s case. Innsmouth, Lovecraft’s second most celebrated creation after Cthulhu, however is a decrepit little fishing town which stinks of rotten fish and decay, and somehow still less xenophobic and insular than Japan. The town is basically a large scale version of that "local shop for local people" sketch from League of Gentlemen. This would perturb most protagonists, but the game’s Alone in the Dark-esque creepy mansion prologue establishes that Jack has balls of steel. Jack’s entire case load, it seems, is steeped in the occult and eccentric Americana. Just call him Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Dark Corners belongs to that awkward category of games in that it switches gameplay style halfway through. What begins as a first person Tex Murphy style adventure game later transforms into a horror shooter. I suppose the signs were all there, what with Dark Corners' weirdly extensive health system and abundant ammo pick-ups. Which is ironic, as combat in Lovecraft’s writing is usually the sort of pre-WWII literature shtick in which a moustached gentleman sits around with an elephant gun for hours contemplating the nature of things. Once the game becomes about fighting monsters with guns it feels rather generic and less impactful. As the quote on the NRA membership card states: 'Bravery is in direct correlation with how many assault weapons you own'. But it is Dark Corners' moody first half which makes it effective; capturing the ineffable brand of oppressiveness and hostility which permeates throughout the work of Lovecraft and other video games such as the Silent Hill franchise.

Atmosphere is as vital to horror as the disappointed third party is to the threesome. The modern horror genre has devolved into lazy jump scare simulators. Games which grown men record themselves reacting like the woman from Tom and Jerry to, so that they can get popular on Youtube. Dark Corners works because it takes the time to immerse the player in a setting that is paradoxically forbidding and alluring. Innsmouth is rife with visible decay, shadowy hideaways, and grey-skinned inhabitants, and each dank corner hides a terrible secret. Exploring the town reveals a grisly tableau of alien cultures and forbidden knowledge. This leads to several memorable set pieces such as the little girl whose ‘mother’ is kept locked away in the attic; a sequence that’s basically Wide Sargasso Sea as adapted by David Cronenberg.

Headfirst Productions created a world which married together ancient conspiracies with fear of big government. Dark Corners represents a truly twisted American identity in which small town paranoia regarding the outside world becomes synonymous with domination by eldritch forces. The ancient otherworldly forces at work in Dark Corners’ setting dominate both mind and body, and this goes beyond the game’s health and sanity systems. Both systems may be fairly comprehensive, with a Metal Gear Solid 3 style system of tracking specific wounds, and a sanity system that produces results anywhere from gameplay effects to Jack pulling a Kurt Cobain. But it’s the horrifying implications of Innsmouth’s darkest secret which really hammers Dark Corners’ story home and gives the term 'fish-wife' a whole new meaning. Dark Corners, like the work which inspired it, is horrifying on a more existential level. Cthulhu himself doesn't even bother to show up. He was with Pyramid Head cashing the cheque he got for selling out.

Unfortunately, past the first few hours Dark Corners fails to live up to its momentum. It's almost surprising just how captivating scouring every squalid inch of Innsmouth can be. Searching rooms for the magic pube that'll let you progress is infinitely more enthralling than fighting fish-men from outer space. The later level design (the game goes further out to sea as it progresses) and the increased reliance on combat encounters and boss battles, mark the game down from its Innsmouth high. The controls are a handful of arse, which for survival horror is, admittedly, practically tradition. But hyper-sensitive controls, which handle like an old man having a seizure whenever you try to perform delicate actions like, say, bolt a door closed during a fast-paced chase sequence, are beyond the pale.  Dark Corners is, however, still worth playing even if just for the oppressive Innsmouth sections. If only so you can feel like how Jeremy Corbyn must feel whenever he watches the news.