Lovecraftian is a term referencing the literary works of horror author H. P. Lovecraft. It’s a word you’ve almost certainly heard if you play horror video games. Searching the term on Steam alone produces a whopping 220 hits. The problem is, there is a lot of confusion about what exactly Lovecraftian means.
The term was never used during Lovecraft’s life, when he was just an obscure author publishing in pulp magazines. It wasn’t until after his death when a network of Lovecraft’s horror author colleagues wrote stories inspired by his work, which in turn inspired further authors, that the term emerged.
While there is no official definition, most people seem to agree on at least the following overlapping aspects as themes of Lovecraftian fiction:
- Horror of the cosmic variety - Lovecraftian horror focuses on entities and powers that are outside of or even incomprehensible to mankind. It doesn’t include antagonists like vampires or ghosts that, while scary, have recognizable humanity and understandable motivations. Instead, horror comes from unknowable alien forces whose revolting forms can only be glimpsed by the protagonist.
- Human insignificance - Lovecraftian horror is inherently pessimistic and holds the view that human existence is fleeting and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. We are to the cosmic beings that surround us as ants are to humans; a minor curiosity when noticeable at all.
- Mental fragility - In Lovecraft’s own famous words: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” I.e. the human mind can only handle a very narrow slice of reality and straying outside of that is risking the development of severe mental illnesses.
- Unequipped protagonists - Lovecraft’s protagonists were generally fashioned after himself; bookish intellectuals without any propensity for fighting or otherworldly powers. They weren’t military men or dark wizards who might attempt to use might to overcome obstacles but instead scholars and antiquarians. To borrow a phrase from Wet Hot American Summer, they were the Indoor Kids. Flight, not fight, is the default response for a Lovecraftian protagonist facing an eldritch abomination.
In my experience, it is common to call fiction that contains at least two of these aspects Lovecraftian. Fiction that only exhibits one of these aspects is less clearly Lovecraftian and might be more accurately described as Lovecraft-influenced.
Compounding matters is that Lovecraftian often gets mixed up with Cthulhu Mythos, yet another term not coined until after old H.P.’s passing. The Cthulhu Mythos refers to the shared fictional setting and body of work created by Lovecraft and contributed to by numerous other contributing authors.
The Cthulhu Mythos includes the fictionalized New England setting that has come to be known as Lovecraft Country (not to be confused with the book of the same title), including places like Arkham, Innsmouth, and Dunwich, the monsters and strange gods found within the stories, and the events of the stories themselves.
Lovecraft himself referred to the shared mythology he created as Yog-Sothothery, after another fictional god from his work, or the Arkham Cycle, after the commonly featured fictional city.
While attempts have been made to create a codified Mythos, the truth is that there is no real canon. Like the alien gods that inhabit it, the Cthulhu Mythos was never meant to be fully comprehensible to human minds. Rather, it was only ever meant to evoke the feeling of an ancient and vast shared mythology that humans can only begin to chip away at.
Anyone can contribute to the Cthulhu Mythos, something that Lovecraft himself personally encouraged, leading to an expansive patchwork mythology. As a result, everyone’s personal interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos is slightly different based on which stories they choose to include as part of it.
Furthermore, plenty of creators pluck one or more things they like from the Cthulhu Mythos and plop them down into entirely different fictional settings.
To summarize and clarify what I’ve discussed so far, these are the terms we are working with:
- Lovecraftian - A style of horror fiction containing themes of cosmic horror, human insignificance, mental fragility, and/or unequipped protagonists.
- Lovecraft-influenced - Works with some similar aspects to Lovecraft’s but not strongly enough to be considered outright Lovecraftian.
- Cthulhu Mythos/Yog-Sothothery/Arkham Cycle - The shared universe of stories, creatures, and locations contributed to by Lovecraft and others.
- Lovecraft Country - The fictionalized New England setting most Cthulhu Mythos stories take place in; includes locations like Arkham and Miskatonic University.
To see how these terms are applied to games, let’s go through some examples of games featuring the Lovecraftian tag on Steam. Let’s start with an obvious one...
CoC:DCotE is actually a retelling of sorts of two of Lovecraft’s stories: The Shadow over Innsmouth and The Shadow Out of Time (the guy liked his shadows), with some references to other Mythos stories thrown in. It’s pretty clear to say that the game takes place in the Cthulhu Mythos, although it would be considered non-canon by most people since it overrides the original stories. The game also takes place in Lovecraft Country with the protagonist exploring locations like Arkham Asylum and Innsmouth.
But is the game’s storytelling actually Lovecraftian? Let’s examine the themes.
- Horror of the cosmic variety - Ancient undersea gods, shambling protoplasmic abominations, portals to strange realities. This one definitely fits the bill.
- Human insignificance - This one is harder to make a case for. The game definitely makes it clear how much more powerful these forces are compared to humanity, but then it proceeds to give you a machine gun and tasks you with taking them down. Like most first-person shooters, this one is a power fantasy at its core.
- Mental fragility - Like the tabletop game it is partially based upon, CoC:DCotE makes maintaining one’s sanity a central tenant of gameplay and a clear theme in the storytelling from the start.
- Unequipped protagonists - No chance here. A hard-boiled detective loaded up with weaponry and some strange powers is well outside the mold of a Lovecraftian protagonist.
So CoC:DCotE hits about half the themes and it’s fair to say it earns its Lovecraftian tag, though it’s certainly not the most Lovecraftian game out there.
Next, let’s look at 2010's favorite horror game...
The game bears no obvious connection to the Cthulhu Mythos and takes place in Prussia, well outside of Lovecraft Country. Does it feature Lovecraftian themes though? Well...
- Horror of the cosmic variety - Bizarre monsters that can only be glimpsed, conspiring extradimensional forces, strange vistas of reality, etc. This one pretty much hits the nail on the head.
- Human insignificance - This isn’t as strong a theme throughout the game but I would argue it is present to some degree. Much of the game’s pathos comes from what happens when humans seek power they were never meant to have.
- Mental fragility - Just look at the title. Sanity and memory loss are fundamental aspects of the story and gameplay in Amnesia.
- Unequipped protagonists - This absolutely fits and is actually something that made Amnesia stand out back in 2010. The protagonist has no guns, no fighting abilities, and no help. Running and hiding are the only chance to escape the terrors that roam the halls.
So, while Amnesia: The Dark Descent is not a part of the Cthulhu Mythos, it is a very strongly Lovecraftian game.
Let’s try another example...
Eldritch is an excellent action game with Rogue-like elements that takes place in a fairly loose version of the Cthulhu Mythos. It features Mythos creatures like Deep Ones, shoggoths, and Elder Things but never visits traditional Lovecraft Country. So is the game Lovecraftian?
- Horror of the cosmic variety - Although it certainly has tense moments, Eldritch isn’t really a horror game and the enemies are all cute caricatures of Mythos terrors. On the other hand, the game’s story centers on the threat of the alien gods known as the Old Ones.
- Human insignificance - I wouldn’t say that this is something the game really touches on and I certainly didn’t feel any existential dread playing through it.
- Mental fragility - Mental health isn’t a mechanic in Eldritch and doesn’t feature into the story at all.
- Unequipped protagonists - Definitely not. Between magic spells, weaponry, and athletic maneuvers, the game’s protagonist is capable of superhuman combat prowess.
So, despite its very prominent Steam tag, it’s a huge stretch to call Eldritch Lovecraftian. At best it could be considered Lovecraft-influenced. I’d also like to make clear that this not a statement on the game’s quality or my enjoyment of it. Eldritch is a fantastic game that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with.
Let’s look at one last example to really drive these points home.
A satirical old school JRPG, Cthulhu Saves the World finally puts players in the role of the big bad tentacled guy himself. Despite the titular character, Cthulhu Saves the World eschews basically all of the Cthulhu Mythos and instead takes place in a fantasy realm full of sorcerers and elemental beasts.
Without going point-by-point, it should be pretty clear from the above description that this game isn’t Lovecraftian, despite the Steam tag.
These examples illustrate the problem with the use of the term Lovecraftian regarding video games, particularly on Steam. It’s become a catch-all that is applied to everything from true Lovecraftian horror to games that just happen to feature a tentacle. It’s also become deeply entangled with the Cthulhu Mythos, even though the two are separate concepts that do not always need to overlap.
“Isn’t this all just pedantic as hell?” you might ask. You bet it is! I’ll be the first to admit that. My intention is not to gate keep or to try to be the arbiter of language, which is inherently fluid. Words have meanings that change over time and it may be that Lovecraftian will come to have a broader meaning or become completely synonymous with the Cthulhu Mythos. It may have already happened.
Why I think that this kind of terminology matters is that having specific language gives us a tool set that we can use to analyze the media we consume. It allows us to trace a lineage of ideas and themes and better appreciate the thought that goes into creating works of art and culture. It also makes it easier to identify the media a person might enjoy, which becomes difficult when the term can be applied equally to horror and comedy games.
Lovecraftian horror fiction is near and dear to my heart and it is something that I hope continues to grow in video games, regardless of whether or not the terminology remains.
If you enjoyed this article, why not try my own video game based on H. P. Lovecraft’s The Beast in the Cave? You can download it for free.