Here’s an interesting fact. Silicon Knights’
much-loved, heavily-delayed and now forever-lost-in-limbo classic, Eternal Darkness
, introduced one of the most player-questioning and progress-disheartening systems in a horror/psychological thriller, ever. It was as confusing as the structure of everything I just wrote above, but as was the developer’s point, it was ever-intentional -- just like my own prose in the intro and as I continue to do here. In (long) and short: players never knew what was real and what wasn’t, and when they thought they’d finally worked it all out, the game one-upped them every time.
What’s so interesting about that, beyond its function, you ask? Well, Nintendo
clearly knew both how difficult Silicon Knights was to work with, but what an awesome concept the dubbed ‘Insanity System’ was, and so now owns the patented rights
to “Sanity Systems” in videogames.
Interestingly, after a number of bad games and a clear desire to head back to the Eternal Darkness brand they so passionately worked on, a skeleton crew of ex-Silicon Knights staff, including head honcho Denis Dyack, attempted to Kickstart a “spiritual successor”
to the GameCube’s critically-acclaimed horror-thriller opus in hopes the Nintendo and ED faithful would jump on board. It was not-so-subtly called Shadow of the Eternals
and looked pretty interesting, if a bit old in its visual presentation, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Even a second attempt fell short, leaving Eternal Darkness’ clearly-not-so-wanted rise from the ashes nothing but an ever-eternal hope.
(I promise I’ll stop with the hyphens now.)
But, with Nintendo’s heavy hand on the “Sanity System”, would that team have been able to pull off what was so revolutionary in their original outing anyway? And, even more poignantly, where does that leave games of the modern era wanting to dabble in having players ever-questioning their actions, those actions’ consequences, and therefore the very fabric of what they’re playing? Is there a workaround? And is this arguably the biggest trolling move of all time, by a company whose colour pallette barely ever leaves bright ROYGBV?
We’d likely need a patent lawyer to help us trawl through those questions, but as we’ve seen with post-patent releases in the Resident Evil
series, Silent Hill
and more recently, The Evil Within
(among many others), it’s not that hard to continue to come up with ways to derail a player’s sanity while they play. There’s just a unique delivery system involved in that process, and likely more lawyers helping you through it. And it’s at the close of this very long preamble that I bring us around to Cyanide Studios’ Call of Cthulhu
because in the wake of everything mentioned above, this less-than-creatively stretched developer may have craft
ed something beyond ED’s Sanity System, while also putting themselves out into the wider world of truly innovative studios verging on Triple-A success.
I say that last part, because Cyanide is a studio made up of ex-Ubisoft
people, but through their partnership with FOCUS Home Interactive
over the past 15+ years, they’ve spent the better part of their creative side working on cycling games. More recently they’ve had their hands in the Blood Bowl
and even Game of Thrones
, but it’s in Call of Cthulhu that they might be about to break their own ceiling which is somewhat ironic, because they themselves were brought in to fix up another studio’s over-promise and under-delivered product of the same name, also with FOCUS. But enough digression.
Call of Cthulhu was a standout for me at this year’s E3
. It’s not a particularly visually punchy game, but it doesn’t need to be. Most of the game takes place in the dark, allowing the developer to work with shadows for both effect and art. The voice-acting also leaves a bit to be desired, though I did only see roughly 20-minutes of gameplay, but this is both a true throwback to Lovecraftian lore, and a direct homage to the pen and paper classic of the same name. However, Cyanide has gone one better, creating what they’ve dubbed an “RPG-Investigation” title that marries exploration, investigation, deduction and relationships with psychological (and straight-up) horror pulled directly from the Lovecraft Universe.
What’s unique about this, and it’s something the devs at Cyanide couldn’t reiterate enough, is this isn’t a game where the lead takes on monsters and wins. He’s dealing with gods, and these gods can’t be killed. All you can do is survive, but the grounding in the game’s narrative foundation which sees you playing as detective Edward Pierce -- a private detective in 1920s Boston, Massachusetts who is also a war veteran -- is one steeped in classic murder-mystery from the period. And this juxtaposition has allowed the studio to play with player-character senses that transcend your avatar. The game will leave you questioning a number of your gameplay decisions throughout the experience, because the consequences of how deep you decide to go, from an investigative sense, shapes your psychology. And how that mindset then plays out with the game-world as it shapes around you, and your myriad decisions across a number of different gameplay systems, will create a uniquely personal and jarring journey for both you, and Edward.
Our lead is investigating the death of a family on the island of Darkwater. The police report suggests an accidental fire consumed them, but he’s not buying it and takes to the small island coastal town -- at the bequest of the father of one of the victims. Darkwater is where the Hawkins family made their residency and they lived in, you guessed it, a giant fuck-off creepy mansion. The tragedy consumed Sarah Hawkins, her husband Charles and their son, and when Edward gains access to the mansion (after an awkward conversation with a groundskeeper that reveals the game’s conversation and NPC relationship system, which I’ll get to shortly), his reservations are immediately met and we learn -- quickly -- that there was foul play involved in what is now a murder-mystery. And thusly, your investigation begins proper.
While you’ll gain basic weapons, the game is practically combat-free. You will face enemies, but how you fight them will boil down to wits and guile versus brute strength. Interestingly, and as we’ve been alluding to, the game’s confrontation component is built off your investigative prowess, but it comes with equally challenging trade-offs. The deeper you dig, the more information you gather, obviously, and knowledge is
power, as they say, but seeing as this is based on Lovecraftian lore, digging deeper means you’re going to start seeing the truth
, and it’s in lifting this lid that our intrepid detective also gains true vulnerability.
For example, you can increase (and gain) phobias based on your investigation and discoveries -- replete with deductions that can be failed, thusly affecting your psyche (phobias, as exampled here, included) -- so you will get stronger the more you investigate, but there’s a dynamic trade-off. If claustrophobia strikes you, and becomes amplified through said investigation, then hiding from any of the aforementioned ‘unkillable’ gods in tight spaces isn’t going to work for you. Your heart rate elevates, your breathing intensifies and you’ll be forced from your hidey hole -- potentially in front of the very thing frightening you. It’s a fantastic system, and isn’t locked down from a canned perspective, stemming instead from how you go about your own gameplay. At this stage, the dynamism is game-changing, and while we’ve had confirmation there are four different endings, how you get there will all be determined by how you choose to play the game.
Adding to the above is an equally dynamic NPC engagement system, complete with a conversation meta, that can result in you recruiting helpers on the island who will go off and help you with your investigation elsewhere. You can be a right prick too, with Intimidation alongside Persuasion conversation options to get the islanders talking. However, it won’t always work, but thankfully you also have Small Talk on your side and the more you know about their own situations, the better off you will be in gaining information, access and help, from them. Which all swings back to the idea of deep investigation and the “knowledge is power” trip the devs are going for. If everything comes together in the way it was described and delivered to us, this might wind up being one of the most engaging, and important, games of the last decade. It honestly has that much going for it.
The game is running on Unreal 4 and passes competently for the most part. And while it might not be an absolute visual benchmark, the game’s art-direction isn’t to be faulted. Painted artworks are also a big part of the overall story as Sarah Hawkins herself was an artist (and this has serious bearing on the story). I got a distinct Francis Bacon vibe from the pieces shown in our demo, which fits very nicely with the Lovecraftian side of the game. Meanwhile, there is some familiarity in tow with structures befitting most survival-horror: item management, player-management, big scares, bigger big-bads… it’s the complete package as it stands, which we’re reminded by Cyanide in its demo form, is still pre-alpha. So I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thoroughly impressed.
What will remain to be seen is just how hard the game is sans traditional combat, but how refreshing that’ll be is likely going to overshadow our twitch inclinations anyway. What we really need is a story that’ll take the psychological component of the game to another level, and enough dynamism throughout to ensure we’re both never bored, and constantly questioning our own sanity, and reality. All the pieces are there, the lore is proven and the playing field for the genre is in dire need of something fresh (even if it’s old). So, let’s get this investigation on, Cyanide Studios -- we’re biking for you you to pedal us a real Tour de Force (really, really, really sorry).