It is well-known that the development of video games as a creative medium is intrinsically tied to the reception of Dungeons and Dragons and the rise of tabletop role-playing games. What may be lesser known is the influence of another tabletop role-playing game that has also influenced a generation of creators and helped resurrect the works of a forgotten pulp fiction writer. The Call of Cthulhu Role-Playing Game was originally released by Chaosium in 1981, and its release at the very least correlates with the resurrection of the works of H.P. Lovecraft, whose ideas of cosmic horrors and entities from beyond have reshaped the language and depiction of modern horror narratives. His most famous character, Cthulhu, has even become something of a cultural icon, and the squid-faced elder god has become prolific enough to receive the Kawaii treatment of cute transformation.
Mechanically, Call of Cthulhu is the most famous of a number of games from the early tabletop role-playing days that shifted the focus from character empowerment to character development. Instead of leveling up, characters gain skill points to develop specific skills they can use to investigate horrors and combat monstrous entities. Rather than become empowered over time, characters become more advanced in a specific skill, but often at a cost to their physical health and mental stability. The role of investigation and the effects of those investigations on the characters mental state is a hallmark of the game, and while the original version’s method of handling insanity was clumsy and has been adjusted to be more nuanced and sensitive in recent years, the idea of “sanity” mechanics has been intriguing video game developers for years. The most infamous example might be Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, which employed a gimmicky sanity system that was notorious for its comically absurd interpretations of insanity, culminating in silly fourth-wall breaking moments such as pretending the television volume was going down or the game claiming to delete your save file.
While the narrative reach of Call of Cthulhu is long, direct mechanical translations are more infrequent, and the combination of investigation mechanics and mental damage has been an elusive cocktail to translate into video game form. The role of skill points and increasing specific skills has obviously translated well into the video game space, but the mixture of investigation mechanics with mental damage has been a perilous prospect. Presented here are a handful of recent games that make the attempt at various levels of success that match the success levels of skill checks in the Call of Cthulhu Role-Playing Game. All the titles were played primarily on the Nintendo Switch, but they are all available across most major platforms.
Failure: Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace
The Arkham Horror board game and its more narrative-focused version Mansions of Madness have been staples in the tabletop gaming scene for years because of their application of role-playing game attributes and dice-rolling mechanics within the rigid structure of a board game. Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace, is an attempt to translate the more narrative board game into a digital game that combines strategy, investigation, and mental damage.
It fails. The game performs exceptionally poorly on the Nintendo Switch, and reports are that it fares no better on other platforms. Bugs, glitches, and an abysmal framerate are your most frequent enemies in this short (about 4 hours) romp through standard Lovecraftian tropes. The game itself is just a series of corridors and rooms that you can investigate to collect items or clues and engage in turn-based combat. The combat itself isn’t awful, but it is basically the same from the beginning of the game to the end and offers little in terms of mechanical satisfaction. A few boss encounters attempt to spice things up, but they are largely forgettable and don’t offer much variety to the otherwise dull experience. The only time the game becomes interesting is when the mental damage comes into play; upon receiving enough mental damage, that character will suffer an effect that has a direct mechanical impact. When everything is going wrong and all your party are suffering sanity impacts, the game becomes at least more interesting. In true Call of Cthulhu fashion, much of the sanity losses come from looking at too many clues, so it at least offers some mechanical choices to thwart players that want to click and search everything in the room. There is a foundation here that could make an interesting game, so a potential sequel might have more promise, but this one isn’t worth the mental damage you’ll take giving it a chance.
Regular Success: Call of Cthulhu
Call of Cthulhu, developed by Cyanide Studios, is the most direct attempt recently to translate the Call of Cthulhu rule-set into a video game. And while it is clearly developed with a smaller budget and its level design and encounters are hit-or-miss at best, the dialogue and investigative options derived from your choices when assigning points to your character are at least interesting. While the game includes RPG-mechanics and skills lifted directly from the tabletop game, it functions mostly as a first-person point and click adventure game with some light (and often bad) stealth mechanics tacked on. The story is your typical Lovecraftian fare, but it is intriguing enough without just enough mystery to keep you hooked. It’s not a great game by any means, but it is an interesting one, so it is worth taking a look if it is on sale. The Nintendo Switch port is also quite solid and comparable to the PlayStation 4 and XBox One versions of the game.
Hard Success: The Sinking City
The Sinking City is the most mechanically rewarding game recently that attempts to marry investigation with mental damage, but it mostly succeeds attempting the former rather than the later. Developed by Frogwares, known for their Sherlock Holmes adaptations, The Sinking City is a big, ambitious, and flawed gem of a game. The main story is solid (and directly attempts to address the prejudiced language present in much of Lovecraft’s writings), and there are many sidequests with interesting storylines that are worth the time to investigate. Exploring and investigating reward the player with skill points, which can be used to improve mental stability, investigative and combat prowess, and item crafting. While the skill development deviates from what is found in the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game, the investigation mechanics might be the most pure and fully realized investigation mechanics yet. You’ll spend your time searching locations, talking to people, going to various public offices to search through records, then putting everything together in your “mind palace,” where you connect the threads and make your own interpretations and draw your own conclusions. The investigation mechanics in The Sinking City are compelling and rewarding, and most closely match the thrill of investigation in the tabletop game that inspired it.
The great investigation mechanics help alleviate some significant flaws in the game. There is a considerable amount of cumbersome combat in the game, and the combat encounters range from frustratingly bad to average, depending on the speed and movement of the enemies. The open-world design is intriguing, but the world itself is mostly empty, populated with the same few character models repeating the same silly animations throughout. Traversal in the open world is slow and clumsy, especially when you need to use a rickety little boat to move between areas. It is an atmospheric, if incomplete and poorly constructed world.
The game drips with atmosphere (quite literally), and the overall aesthetic can be quite ugly by design. What isn’t by design is the performance on the Nintendo Switch; while fully playable, there are significant concessions made for the Switch version (such as reduced lighting effects and an overall flat image quality) that only make the game’s appearance even uglier, and at times it can be a bit frustrating watching heavily pixelated brown grass pop-in only a few feet from your avatar. There isn’t a major difference between docked and handheld play, and the investigation mechanics work well for portable play. The sanity mechanics are also present, but mostly underwhelming. If you take enough mental damage, some superimposed creepy images will form on the screen, and if you take even more additional enemies will appear and cause physical damage, but the game supplies enough items to reduce sanity damage to the point where it can mostly be avoided. What works with the sanity mechanics is they are often directly tied to your investigation, and the more you uncover about a questline, the more mental damage you’ll take. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s not bad, which might be an achievement on its own.
Despite its notable flaws, the investigation mechanics and the individual quest lines in The Sinking City were enough for me to stay engaged and entertained. It won’t be for everyone, but if you are looking for a game of pure investigation with serviceable sanity mechanics, it certainly delivers. It also may be the most faithful adaptation of the Call of Cthulhu Role-Playing game to date. It is also on sale on the Nintendo eShop fairly regularly, but if graphical performance is a deal-breaker and you aren’t concerned about portability, it might be best picking this up on another platform.
Extreme Success: The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set
Part of what makes digital adaptations of Call of Cthulhu so difficult is they lack the key component that makes the tabletop game work: social interaction. While the mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons fit easily into the confines of a digital space, the more investigative and human-focused Call of Cthulhu relies considerably more on the social interaction of its players. Where a game like Dungeons and Dragons is built around player success, much of the joy of playing Call of Cthulhu comes from player failure and the dynamic response to that failure. Where a table full of players will cheer about defeating the lich king in Dungeons and Dragons, in Call of Cthulhu the best moments come from a failed sanity roll or a character heading directly into peril because of a failed “spot hidden” check. While the notion of “failing forward” is delightful with a table full of friends, it is a difficult mechanic to translate into a video game where our brain seeks progression and reward, and failing in video games is mostly tied to repetition and incremental progress towards benchmark achievement. If you have played Dungeons and Dragons, playing a game like Call of Cthulhu can be a gateway to the amazing breadth and depth of tabletop games that offer unique experiences and dynamic social narratives.
If you are interested in experiencing the tabletop game, I highly recommend picking up the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set from your friendly local game store. It has all the rules, starter characters, dice, and adventures you need to provide a spooky and probably hilarious evening for you and your friends. If playing together in-person is not an option, Call of Cthulhu is an easy game to play online because of its emphasis on character interaction and investigation, and digital versions of the game are available on digital tabletop sites such as Roll20.net . Any way you play is worth the time, so grab your friends (in-person or online) and spend a few hours investigating cosmic horrors that you are ill-equipped to handle. After all, it’s only a game.