If you’re a denizen of the internet, and I don’t mean just a guy that logs in once or twice (or thrice or whatever the one for 4 is) to check facebook or various other social media, but someone that goes to imgur for memes and such, then you’ve probably come across Cthulhu in one form or another. If not, let me give you the basics you’ll generally find in this world wide
cesspool web: Cthulhu is an all-powerful entity and he has face tentacles, and that’s pretty much it. Sadly, internet culture has turned him and the Lovecraft Mythos into that caricature, ignoring the (and forgive me for using this word) deeper meaning behind the work.
Firstly, an introduction to the whole Lovecraft Mythos. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was one of those comical old timey reclusive racists. He would’ve been forgotten by history like most of them, if not for the fact that during his forty-six years of life he wrote a lot of horror fiction. Sadly (or rightly, depending on your point of view), he saw none of his fame as it came posthumously, and died a very poor man. For the sake of brevity, we shan’t discuss every author that’s added to the mythos. Now that you know the man, let’s get to know the work the man put out.
On the surface, his stories were sci-fi-esque tales of a strange, unfathomable pantheon of creatures that inhabit impossible-to-reach places of space. Indeed, this is the aspect of his work that seems to be the one most entrenched in the zeitgeist. What seems to fly over everyone’s head (well, more like nobody cares enough to even scratch the surface because the theme is obvious) is the theme of the stories deals with the inconsequential nature of man when compared to the vastness of the universe. Think about it, if humanity disappeared right now, what would happen? The universe would continue and our influence on the cosmos wouldn’t even be a footnote.
That is the beauty of Lovecraft’s work. When space is involved, writers tend to go one of two ways: malevolence or benevolence. Let me explain. Malevolence here means that man is faced with issues of a cosmic scale to show how powerless mankind is. An example would be something like War of the Worlds, but think about it for a moment: we’re so important that aliens and such travel thousands of lightyears just to wipe us out. They want to wipe us out. Benevolence here means that aliens come and give us tech or something of value because they see something special in mankind. Both of these stories are opposite in nature, but both have the core theme that man is special.
That’s where Lovecraft comes in. What is more terrifying than being irrelevant? Lovecraft’s “aliens” (more like gods, really) don’t care about mankind: they neither want to destroy us nor help us. They don’t even register our insignificant lives, just like the greater cosmos. The universe will not stop expanding if mankind disappears, just as Lovecraft’s cosmic deities couldn’t care less. This is the underlying theme of his work: we’re irrelevant. There’s things out there we can’t even fathom, and isn’t that just scary and beautiful at the same time?
Now, as Acts of Terrorism often does, I will go into game design talk. Let’s face it, games are the movies of our filthy millennial generation. Lovecraft’s stuff has never had a significant Hollywood presence, but boy does it show up a lot in games, both digital and corporeal. I won’t get into Cthulhu and his fellows in video games, as there’s a very well-crafted video about that, which you can view here. In fact, I encourage you to watch that video, then you can finish reading this article; it’s that good. What I will be discussing is Lovecraft’s work as adapted by two physical games I’ve played: Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. Shall we begin?
Lovecraft, as adapted by Yu-Gi-Oh, is a series of six cards (2 Elder Gods, 2 Great Old Ones and 2 Outer Gods) from the Extra Deck that all serve to speed up your summonings in some way. They’re not all that powerful on their own with their mediocre stats… which should be raising red flags in your head right now since that’s already not Lovecraft. Now let’s talk about what Yu-Gi-Oh did right before we get to what it did wrong.
I’m generally not a fan of anime art. I tend to find them overly flashy (look at any anime knight’s armor), brightly-colored, and just gaudy with how messed up body proportions tend to be. I’m very down on Yu-Gi-Oh’s art in particular because it went away from the unique, if ugly, horror stuff that the game started with and that (minus the “ugly” part) Kazuki Takahashi, splashed all over his manga. With all that said, the Korean-created Lovecraftian series of cards eschews all the usual cliches in the game’s art and is comprised of very accurate art that fits the descriptions given about the creatures and entities. That said, whilst I respect the effort put into the art, I am not a fan due to how bright and busy the arts are, instead of the terrifying silent horror they’re meant to hearken back to.
The loyalty to the source material begins and ends with the art, however. Save Azathoth, all the monsters are just means to the end that is summoning a bigger monster. They’re essentially the same generic summon-enablers the game is plagued with, but in a different flavor. Their effects, if you squint hard enough and go through the rigorous mental gymnastics needed… their effects still wouldn’t make sense in relation to the lore upon which they were based. That is sad. Azathoth himself is essentially useless when compared to the easy-to-make powerhouses that share Rank with him and the infinite toolbox of cards that are a Rank below him. Azathoth is essentially the biggest, baddest god, and he’s not even playable compared to the others in his group. That is obviously not Lovecraft.
Now let’s move on to a game that captured Lovecraft’s ideas both flavorfully and mechanically: Magic: The Gathering. Released April 23, 2010, the Rise of the Eldrazi expansion was the third in the Zendikar block. It told the story of the Eldrazi, a group of extra-planar deities that were trapped on the world of Zendikar for thousands of years, breaking free of their seals and rampaging through the land. Simple enough, but what makes it true to Lovecraft? Several things, which I will list:
- The Eldrazi had been foreshadowed in the two previous sets, but very lightly. You might’ve missed the hints, and that’s great. In Lovecraft’s stories, there’s just so much hidden detail that points to an obvious conclusion, but you miss those details until you realize how they come together, and by that point it’s too late.
- The Eldrazi’s gameplay mechanic, “Annihilator” was extremely flavorful.
Annihilator X (Whenever this creature attacks, defending player sacrifices X permanents.
It perfectly captured the essence of the mythos. Just the creatures being near you ate away at you, before they even actually did damage to you. The beauty of Annihilator is it didn’t instantly win you the game, but if you got it off once or twice, you were often times guaranteed to win the game, but slowly. Annihilator slowly chipped away at your opponent, but kept the game going even though it was clear they were gonna lose. It’s a painful and demoralizing mechanic. That is the mythos incarnate. Your insanity slowly goes as you begin to see the universe for what it actually is, and you know you’re going insane, but you can’t do anything. You’re powerless. Needless to say, the people that loved Annihilator are in the minority, myself included.
- Two tribes on Zendikar each have a pantheon of gods: the Merfolk and the Kor. We see mentions of the merfolk deities all throughout the first two Zendikar sets, but in Rise of the Edrazi, it is revealed that both of the pantheons are actually ancient but faint memories of the Eldrazi titans: Ulamog, Kozilek and Emrakul. When I read that it blew my mind. That’s just so perfect. The Eldrazi are so ancient and so powerful that even though they are to be reviled, word of mouth and stories over many millennia slowly warped them from incomprehensible beings bent on the consumption of Zendikar to benevolent deities among the populace.
- The art direction and design of the Eldrazi went beyond anything we’d seen in Magic before. They were completely unique and weird. That is perfect.
All the respect in the world to the lead designer of the Rise of the Eldrazi set, Brian Tinsman. He was a massive Lovecraft fan, so he worked feverishly to bring across that these monstrosities were Magic’s take on the mythos, and he did an amazing job. The Creative team that brought Tinsman’s mechanical ideas into flavor also deserves as much respect, as it could not have been easy. I implore you to read through this article, and maybe it’ll suck you into Magic as it did me in 2013.
That was the first iteration of the Eldrazi. Battle for Zendikar is the sequel to the first set featuring the Eldrazi and tells the story of what happens after they were released. Well, they kinda destroyed a large chunk of the world and are currently wiping out the rest. At the time of this writing, it’s an ongoing storyline, so I can’t judge where the story is going, but from what we’ve seen so far, this story doesn’t do Lovecraft justice as the first set did for multiple reasons. I’ll give you a short summation of why.
See that guy? That’s Gideon Jura and he fights Eldrazi. As big a fan of Gideon as I am, that’s wrong. That’s the cardinal sin of Battle for Zendikar. It completely misses on the nuance of Lovecraft and goes for what the internet thinks it is. Rise of the Eldrazi captured the cosmic horror aesthetics and themes, but Battle for Zendikar is just a typical alien invasion story. It should be noted that during the 5 years separating the sets, multiple people that worked on Rise have either left the company to pursue other ventures, have been fired or otherwise replaced. Make of that what you will.
Now that we’ve talked about how games tend to mess up Lovecraft, let’s talk about something that did it right throughout: South Park. More accurately, it’s the show’s Coon trilogy from back in 2010 (what was with this year and Lovecraftian things?) I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right, Cthulhu does get defeated there, does take notice of humanity and does fight, so how could it possibly be accurate? Well, that’s why I’m writing and you’re reading. I’ll fill you in.
Well, it’s as simple as just a couple reasons. The first is South Park gives zero context to Cthulhu, which is important since Lovecraftian Horrors aren’t meant to be understood. Secondly, Cthulhu represents an inescapable madness that slowly eats away at your rationality as you realize your own impotence, and that’s captured delightfully as the world only descends into more and more utter lunacy as Cthulhu and Cartman rampage. No, do not mistake what I said as talking about the destruction they cause, but the fact that even though freaking Cthulhu is there, what everyone’s attention is on is the disappearance of Captain Hindsight: that is looming insanity.
Finally, and the most important reason, South Park is a comedy. I doubt Trey Parker and Matt Stone set out with this in mind (or maybe they did, what do I know?), but in featuring Cthulhu as they did, they essentially made fun of all the stories that have him and Lovecraftian elements without doing them justice. It shoehorned Cthulhu into the plot because that’s the cool thing to do, and then they make fun of the absurd notion without mercy.
Now you have an understanding of Lovecraft. Bow before me and rejoice for me passing my enlightenment to you. Or you can drag your friends here and make them read this, I will also accept that. If you’re a game designer of any kind, you can repay me by not having Lovecraft caricatures. Until next time.