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LONG BLOG

Racism as a Game Mechanic

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There are two types of people; those who like H.P. Lovecraft, and those who roll around in mud, screaming in tongues and flinging feces at one another all day. Just big piles of feces being constantly exchanged in an endless, ultimately pointless contest to see who can throw more poo around, thereby marking their territory, and then eating the poo. Because you are dumb and like poops on your face and in your mouth if you don't like H.P. Lovecraft.

I mean, you can like whatever you want. No one will judge you, don't worry.

Actually, Lovecraft has been super popular and mainstream the past decade or so in a way he never has been before. Everyone loves Cthulhu. Most people have no idea what a Cthulhu is, or know anything about HP Lovecrafts mythology. But they got a plush toy of a Cthulhu once in their monthly "NerdBox" along with an Avengers comic and a Doctor Who Dalek Dildo and probably some Star Wars thing because geekus generica has now allowed Lovecraft into its festering folds. And that is weird, in a way, since Lovecraft wasn't famous until long after his death. But while most people preface their Lovecraft reference with "He WAS a racist" so they themselves aren't misconstrued as possibly being racist simply by enjoying the work of a man who died in the early 20th century, and then go on to talk about how "awesome" Cthulhu is because of a video game he was in, Lovecraft is consistently misunderstood and misrepresented by both his supposed "fans" and by the people who make content based on the mythos he developed through his many works of short fiction.

I'm so full of salt today, I should change my name to Premium Plus. I'm not trying to be jerky here. The generalization of Lovecraft is apparent. And that is just really bizarre considering the undertone of his work. I wrote the majority of this blog a few days before wutangclam published his own about insanity as a game mechanic. And while insanity is a huge element of Lovecraftian mythos, there is something deeper to the writing of H.P. Lovecraft; elitism, prejudice, and traditionalism, and these, I'd like to argue, are really what makes up the bedrock of his writing.

 

"Lovecraft always regarded himself as a Briton, even as an American. He didn’t like the American Republic—too modern, too new-fashioned, too new-fangled." -Jonathan Bowden

 

The fact is that Lovecraft created a universe so richly detailed that it has spawned its own devoted cult of content creators and general fans that spreads across all forms of media related entertainment. References to Lovecraft are present in hundreds of horror films, novels, and yes, video games. Sometimes these are subtle and well done. But much of the time, much like the surface scratchers who know something about the Cthulhu mythos but who have never really sat down with Lovecraft's work, video games generally dismiss the core of the sources content, the themes and tone that makes his writing so unique, and focus on "movie monsters" and cosmic entities; a small slice out of a very large pie.

Let's focus on racism for a moment. In an age where you can't make a simple game about a chauvinist banging endless titties in a snow white Slavic environment without some writer from Polygon pointing out there are no brown people to temporarily subdue their overwhelming life consuming "white guilt" complex and to get points from that one black guy in the office, it's pretty hard to celebrate the work of an author who was absolutely seething with hatred at the mere notion of anyone from outside his own race penetrating his beloved Providence. If Lovecraft were alive today, his head would almost literally explode. Lovecraft was a total xenophobe, and this is made shamelessly clear in his work. And as I said earlier, it's one of those barriers to entry for a lot of people (*cough* sensitive crybabies who can't separate the fiction of a dead man from his personal beliefs *cough) and one of those elephants in the Eldritch room that has to be addressed as a requisite to any conversation about Lovecraft. That's just the way things are these days, and it's something that will inevitably come up.

But xenophobia is a very real part of what made the fiction so effective in the first place. To finally throw "vidya games" into this article, let's get to the point; Bloodborne is the best video game featuring elements of the mythos, period. I'm by no means an expert in Lovecraftian lore, but I've read most of his stories. And despite having only one recognized entity that I have run across so far, the infamous winged Mi-Go, Bloodborne is more Lovecraft than Lovecraft. A lot of this boils down to the tone; a tone of xenophobia, paranoia, and general contempt for outsiders. Lovecraft was a man whose head was full of fear; fear of loss, fear of his own dreams, and a deep seated fear of outsiders that worked part and parcel with his perception that Western Civilization was being corrupted, rotted from the inside out.

 

"Now, Lovecraft’s America was white to a degree that many Americans now couldn’t even envisage, and yet he regarded it as appallingly decayed and decadent and utterly in racial chaos. And that was in sort of 1908, so what he would have made of 2008, 2009 is quite unbelievable." -Jonathan Bowden

 

The citizens of Yharnam fucking hate you, by the way. I feel like I should touch on Bloodborne a sec.

Right from the start of the game, everyone wants you to die. You get attacked by a werewolf in the first three seconds of the game. If you are new to the Souls series, you will try to fight it, and be horribly mangled and die. If you are a Souls vet, you will take one look at it, say "fuck this", and run right out the front door. But before you get to the first lantern, the very next enemy you will run into is clearly human, and instantly tries to chop your face off; a reasonable reaction for any member of a star-god fearing cult that drinks monster blood all day.

You are an outsider. You are not "one of them", and they know this, instinctively, the same way you can look at someone who is a different color than you are, and especially at a younger age, experience an instant sense of separation and tribalism. Luckily we are for the most part civilized human beings. And in an age where most of our biggest issues involve glitchy cell phone hardware, most of us I'd like to think have learned to suppress this instinctive xenophobia and have at least one black friend so you can get black friend cred. My black friends name is Jon. And he is really good at Smash Brothers. I hope he is reading this so I can tell him what a cunt he is for playing top tier characters in a room full people who can barely hold a Wii controller. Jon, you bastard.

This is a consistent theme in Lovecraft's work. An outsider stumbling upon a cult or society they don't belong too. There is an element of paranoid distrust. In Bloodborne, even when you find someone remotely likable which is almost never, you can never really trust them. They could turn on you in an instant, or you discover you have been deceived all along. I think it's important to recognize Lovecraft's own latent misanthropy and prejudice as an integral element to the source material; to not constantly apologize on his behalf for being "ignorant" but to understand that this lies at the core of his work. Lovecraft was a traditionalist at his core, and despite his work slowly developing a core of Cosmicism at its center and being very ahead of its time, Lovecraft was old fashioned even in the time he was alive; when the world was black and white and when going to view a moving picture only cost a half nickel, consarnit.

For as much as Lovecraft was about space monsters who could devour the whole of humanity in an instant like insignificant stardust, the most terrifying parts of his horror, and any horror, is the dissection and study of human psychology; the fear of ourselves, of others, and the implications of said latent fear. Bloodborne kind of does everything in this regard and does it very well. It progresses much in the way that Lovecraft's actual material progressed, starting with a very Victorian Poe-esque supernatural horror and maturing into something much more grand. Insanity, the notion that just by seeing the hidden cosmic horrors that a man would lose his mind from the grandiosity of it all is big here, and comes in the form of Insight. As the events of the game unfold and the blood moon begins to rise, the player sees more and more clearly the horrible truth of the world around them. They gain a perception, a sixth sense of sorts that envelopes them in the madness and chaos of their environment. Eternal Darkness was another game that did this pretty well, with horrible creatures appearing in apparently safe environments, and events that broke the fourth wall and tried to fuck with players directly. It was clever and new, and though Bloodborne is more oblique in this approach, it is effective in scaffolding an environment already shrouded in oppressive, hopeless doom.

 

The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.

 

Hopelessness. A constant fight against enemies that can crush you in an instant. NPC's that not only are unhelpful but that actively laugh at your misery. Overwhelming odds, and a constant sense of loss with each failure, a brief sense of relief with the small victories that ultimately don't account for much. This is an element deeply rooted in the core of all souls games, but it works fantastically well in perpetuating the philosophy of Cosmicism Lovecraft so often tackled in his writing. Unlike Nihilism, which simply states that life ultimately has no objective meaning, Cosmicism is concerned with external forces; the idea that we, as a species, are so incredibly puny and insignificant that we contribute less than nothing in the grand scheme of machinations of our universe. At any second we could be stomped out by an incomprehensible force beyond our imagination, and that said forces would view this event as having less import than turning off a light switch or stepping on a blade of grass. It's worse than Nihilism, because in Lovecrafts work, it isn't so much about objective meaning, it's that we are even LESS than meaningless. And this is a pretty terrifying thought to wrestle with. If there is a God, it probably has a tentacle cock and a million eyes, and doesn't even view us as being important enough to want us dead; if we happen to be around when it awakens from some eternal slumber, it might lift a finger to snuff us out of existence merely for something to do. But we will never be able to understand it or predict its real intentions.

Bloodborne not having a linear narrative really helps to drive this point out. There is a ton of lore present in the game should you choose to look for it, but much of the story must be pieced together simply by reading between the lines. As a hunter, you don't even really have a clearly defined goal. Without presenting any spoilers, you are more or less going through the motions. There isn't a pivotal moment in the game where it is really driven home that "You must do X to save X". You aren't a hero; you are a person with a weapon that is slowly becoming a monster and being driven to a special kind of madness. And out of the several endings possible to achieve, there is no "good" ending where all of the loose ends are tied up one way or another. There are simply endings, with different potential consequences, all being extremely grey in their moral ambiguity.

In short, Lovecraft is difficult. It's a difficult body of work to really get to the core of. It's really pretty miserable. Not so much about neat world sized monsters, more about the existential struggle of our daily lives. And to this day, I've not played a game that drove that home more while ALSO pitting the player against incomprehensible galactic nightmare creatures. It pulls of both, pulls them off extremely well, and does it all without every having to mention "Cthulhu." Lovecraft feared a world that has come to pass. In a lot of ways, like many traditionalists of his age, he predicted it. The aliens invading his own fictional society were represented by damned sea creatured; tentacled things. Because as much as he hated and feared outsiders, he was terrified of the sea. Much of his work is descriptive; it describes urban decay. A crumbling society losing its soul to industrialization. An empire, perhaps the last empire, falling to bits. It was said Lovecraft would see a foreigner on a bus with him and clench his fist in anger. It's difficult to wrap ones head around that kind of racism. It wasn't your Grandpas simple ignorance and misunderstanding; it was a deep mistrust, fear, and rage. The same sort of rage the citizens of Yharnam hold for you.

 

‘I dissent absolutely from the position of those who welcome the new machine-culture involving a complete break with the past. To me there is nothing really civilised in large-scale organisation & spectacular material development—while the modern worship of mere speed & quantity strikes me as being downright decadent.’

 

Us against them.

I've seen people try to seperate Lovecraft as a person from the mythos itself, and never understood why. I've always tried to reconcile the man and his fiction with his idealism because as a writer, there is a very defined core to ones work based on the values one holed. Sure, it's despicable, especially today. But the way values are now and the gravitas we place in them is different. We live in a more casual world. Our traditions and history, both on a racial and cultural level, are not held in high as importance. We live in an individualistic, almost meritocratic society. Nothing like the values Lovecraft held and felt so strongly about. So to ignore the apparent rottenness of some of his ideas is to ignore what makes his work so effective itself. And Bloodborne is one of the few properties to really seem to understand this element of Lovecraft, though, much like Lovecraftian mythos itself, you must dig deeply to find it.

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About Joel Petersonone of us since 8:14 AM on 11.07.2013

I write the things other people don't write, with liberal fart jokes thrown in for good measure. I like old games, old computers, old consoles, and old pizza.


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