A colleague of mine loves H.P. Lovecraft even more than I do. He came across a YouTube video discussing the gamification of the Lovecraft/Cthulhu mythos. While the video is talking about video games we had an interesting discussion involving the board game world. That is what I would like to discuss today on Boxed Culture.
For those not in the know, HP Lovecraft’s stories are written in such a way that hope is never really an option for the character(s). They are put through the ringer and most times they do not even get to see the fruit of their forbidden labor. Stories like the Rats in the Walls and the Call of Cthulhu are representative of this. Having the main characters driven insane or left in unsurvivable situations. This is the vibe Lovecraft puts out with his stories. Hopelessness is the key thing he drives home alongside the fact that we, as humans, are not truly important enough or significant enough to affect the eldritch world around us.
Let’s have the worlds most abrupt segue and transition into gaming. Every game has a win condition, this is the fundamental point of any game. Someone can win and that inspires people to play hard and strive for success. I am not going to spend a lot of time focusing on this argument as I think it is fairly obvious and if you want to discuss it more we can talk about it in the comments. The ability to see a way to win in a game inspires exactly what the Lovecraft mythos is saying does not exist: the hope for a positive outcome.
The ability to defeat the Great Old Ones and The Ancient Gods is something that would probably awaken HP Lovecraft from the darkness of eternity that is death, in order to wreak havoc on the people of the world. There is no defeating the idea of madness, despair, and the eternal because it is exactly that, eternal. This being the case I think most board games have both acknowledged that and decided they needed to implement this hopelessness a different way. Stick with me I am actually going to make a pretty cool argument for how they do incorporate this lack of hope into Lovecraftian board games.
If we look at the mass of Lovecraft board games we see two kinds. The first is a kind that I will agree has does it wrong. Except Smash Up’s The Obligatory Cthulhu Set, they totally knew what they were doing and didn’t care, haha. Games like Cthulhu Dice, Cthulhu!!!, and Cthulhu Realms are simply using the mythos as a wrapper for some kinda “meh” games. They are banking on the fact that people will by anything with a green tentacled-faced monster on the box. The second kind of game is the best kind. Games like Eldritch Horror, A Study In Emerald, and Mansions of Madness fall into this second category. These games are typically a kind of co-op game where the players are collectively trying to survive and investigate the presence of the mythos in the world. These games use the most hopeless aspect in gaming to emulate the uselessness of preparation and planning and striving for success, Randomness.
Eldritch Horror uses decks of cards and dice rolling to determine success. There is always a chance that player’s best laid plans will fail, horribly. Yes there is also a chance that people can roll well but the designers set up the games so that success is hard, if not impossible. It is kind of the nature of most co-op style games. If we look at A Study In Emerald we can see hopelessness rear it’s ugly head in a different way. This game has hidden roles and they are very important to pay attention to since a team will lose if one of their members is in last place at the end of the game. On top of this, your agents you control can turn traitor and be killed mid mission and you won’t ever see it coming. In the last game, Mansions of Madness, investigators must literally investigate a mansion and solve a mystery, A MYSTERY!! The fact that each game is set up based on the decisions of the Keeper makes the mystery come through and not knowing what you have to do from the beginning leads to a feeling of “Wtf is going on!!!?”.
Yes, I will agree that the hopelessness in the Lovecraft stories is not translated exactly the same way into gaming, but I would not agree that it is gone entirely. The gamification of Lovecraft has had to transform his message into a different one. Things are not simply hopeless for the sake of being beyond our reach, they are hopeless because no one can prepare for the randomness of the universe. In fact, the reason Azathoth is such a terrifying being is because everything he does is completely random in the eyes of humans. Got a reason I am wrong or perhaps another game that does Lovecraft justice? Let me know in the comments. I’ll see ya next week!