"His palms are sweaty / knees weak, arms are heavy / there's vomit on his sweater / mom's spaghetti"
Granted, compared to Mr Mathers here, I'm actually able to cook for myself. The rest, however, is a rather apt comparison to myself a few hours ago. "What happened?" you might ask. Well, I played a game called "Thumper" and yup, it is freakin' intense. What I also discovered was, that this was actually the most lovecraftian game to come out in quite some time. This might make you raise an eyebrow since Thumper's, at heart, a rhythm game, but imagine how I felt when that thought hit me.
Before I go into the "why" though, let me make one thing very clear: the term "lovecraftian" almost immediately puts me off of buying a game. As a huge fan of the literary works of said person, it's gradually become really frustrating, but even worse is, how "lovecraftian" has become almost synonymous with the absolute inability to understand what makes that kind of horror work. Now I'm not generally opposed to namedropping, or even featuring the likes of Cthulhu in itself if the game is any good. "Cthulhu saves the world" is a good example here, as is (even though it falls apart towards the end) Magrunner: Dark Pulse. However, these games understand what they are and don't try to give themselves the aura of grandeur, that comes with associating yourselves with the likes of a literary great.
The worst sin you can commit is showing a monster, call it an "old one" and call it a day. Lovecraft, while sometimes very direct and crass in his depictions, never really made the monster the star of the show. Sure, there was Cthulhu in the eponymous "Call of Cthulhu". There are fish people in Innsmouth as well as SOMETHING on the doorstep, but the real danger always lurks in something else: the fleshy, frail confines of your mind.
The gray matter is easily tricked and the nefarious part is that it gets easier the smarter you initially are, because you actually notice something is off. The protagonists in Lovecraft's works are almost exclusively doctors, scholars, professors or people who travel the world in hopes of attaining knowledge to understand it better. Their drive to peek behind the curtain is what makes them go to extreme lengths to do so and thus relapse even harder when confronted with what lurks beneath. Be it a cosmic something or just highly non-euclidian, monolithic architecture: it challenges not only what is thought of as normal, but even possible as it mostly comes down to shattering the very fabric of what we think our world to be woven of.
And this is where Thumper comes in. You might look at it and dismiss it as a derivate of Audiosurf, Guitar Hero and all those "DRIVE YOUR MUSIC, BRO"-games that popped up. Well, considering the studio is headed by former Guitar Hero-devs, you wouldn't even be terribly wrong. That though is where it begins to fall apart.
The best rhythm games are the ones that are easy to understand and let you get into the flow of things until you feel like a riff-shredding god amongst thy lowly brethren. You shall get as comfortable as possible and just enjoy the music while "pulling it of".
Everyone who played it already knows, where I'm going with this: Thumper, if anything, is pretty much the exact opposite of that. The game actively tries to make you uncomfortable in every conceivable manner. The most obvious thing is the cacophonous soundtrack that evokes memories of Trent Reznor's experimental phase crossed with Atari Teenage Riot and Einstürzende Neubauten thrown in there. There is hardly any symphonic element to it and even if you might find hints of it here and there, that perception is thwarted and suffocated by menacing bass and beats. Hell, even the rhythm itself is designed to throw you off. All the time, there is something else in your ear designed to throw you off. A little hiss here, a weird off-note beat there. The effect? You have to concentrate harder on the task at hand to even have a chance of survival in the world.
Speaking of the world: Remember the non-euclidian stuff I mused on about? This is one of the best examples of that since the Call of Cthulhu-romhack for Super Mario World. The path you're on twists and turns, but sometimes, even the turn you suppose you'll take is a strange angle from what you expected. Throw in the constant churning tentacles or un- and refolding tunnels, the debris of everything you encounter and the overall grain that lies over this 70s Sci-Fi dystopia and you never feel comfortable in your ability to make sense of three-dimensional space. That is also not helped by the constant shifts in speed and perceived velocity relative to where you are.
Also: driving through a tunnel that just so opens up as a gateway in the middle of wherever it is you are, just to pop out somewhere else entirely, but still theoretically grinding along the same path is something I still find myself unable to wrap my head around.
Speaking of heads....yeah. At the end of each level you will encounter what can only be described as the methed-up version of a Simpsons-alien in a combat of rhythm and survival. Everything that was true until now gets even more cranked up. The rhythm gets all kind of messed up, the track itself twists and turns like you're stuck to a giant tentacle trying to shake you off while warping and distorting what little fabric of time and space therre was around you seemingly at leisure. And yet: you are forced to embrace it. The way the game makes you uncomfortable is also why it forces you to embrace it. You can't turn your head away from the madness; it's not even enough to face it. You have to immerse yourself in the madness, let it permeate you and use this knowledge to decipher it and persist among the odds.
And thus, even when you ultimately succeed, you feel like you merely survived. I was glad that I "beat" the level, but the feeling I got was not one of triumph: it was pure relief. I didn't feel like I won; all I could think of was embracing that brief moment of calm and peace after having escaped a fate worse than death, if ever so slightly and short-lived. The only game I can compare it to is maybe Hotline Miami in the way that you knew, you had to face the abyss of cosmic atrocities again all to soon.
Did you notice something? Yes, all the while we didn't even cover the giant chrome-sized elephant in the room: while doing that, you are in the most kafkaesque of ways a giant, chrome scarab. What are you? WHY are you? What's your purpose? Are you victim or perpetrator...or maybe a bit of both?
Suffice to say: Thumper is one of the most dysphoric experiences I've had in quite some time. It stresses me the fuck out. It gets under my skin, makes me queasy and at times flat out horrifies me. Yet I love it....kinda. Like the protagonists of so many a Lovecraft-tale, it's way past the point of return for me. I stared into the abyss for too long to escape. The abyss didn't just stare back (quite literally) but extended and pulled me in, drowning me in a cacophony of visuals and sounds that have no connection to what I perceive normal or pleasant. Alas, here I am, diving deeper down. It's too late for me, yet I'll be damned if I just give up. The only victory to achieve is merely surviving with as little damage as possible, having gained nothing in the process but the knowledge that there's things that are so far out of your reach and control, they laugh at your feeble attempts to grasp them, as they toy with you.
*disclaimer: Bought the game at full price, played it not in VR, yet in complete darkness with good headphones on on the biggerst screen I could repurpose. The screenshots are from my gameplay....and boy is it fuckin' hard to make those xD