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The Problematic Translation of H.P Lovecraft

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What Can Be Done?

As many know, I am an unapologetic supporter of the horror genre.

It allows for us to all feel one overwhelming emotion together in unity, while also telling a complex or surreal story with hidden themes and deeper messages. Personally, I feel it is the only genre that can deliver on all it is expected to, no matter what medium it is being created for whether it be television, film, literature or gaming. 

Silent Hill, The Twilight ZoneJacob's Ladder and The Shining all exist in different mediums but all tell complex (occasionally contrived) and creepy stories with a dark theme driving them forward.
The horror is easy to translate from the script to the screen/page due to how in your face or subtle it may be. 
It has been proven time and time again that horror can be used in practically any meidum and it has also been proven that horror novels or stories can provide great entertainment after being translated from one medium to another.

Unless it's the works of H.P Lovecraft.

These short stories sit in an awkward spot, with very few having ever managed to be translated from one medium to another. The way the stories are told, the first-person perspectives of unknown protagonists, the subtle and minimalist way that the horrors lurking in the shadows are described to the audience... It all leads to material that is just very problematic to translate to other mediums. 

It's been a long fascination of mine to see what people could do with the source material of Lovecraft, what with all the gothic imagery, interlocking mysteries and a wealth of original and terrifying beings. I mean surely using these detailed worlds as a layout for a video game would make the process easier right? 

Well as it turns out, not really. 

 

The Issues Faced

Lovecraft has a very specific way of writing his monsters.

They are never given fully detailed descriptions of what they look like, meaning a lot of it is open to interpretation, which normally would make a game developers job easier ("Go wild and create what you like") except, the monsters are meant to be open to interpretation in order to invoke a stronger sense of fear. 
These monsters aren't meant to have an identifiable, physical form.

And that is where the issue lies. 

Games are almost entirely a visual medium that can leave a lot open to interpretation but still require a narrative structure that players can interact with in order to be considered a good game, as well as being user friendly. 
As such, how would a game developer create a visual representation of a monster with little to no description? 

Some would argue that an artist would simply use his own interpretation to create a monstrosity that invokes fear, but in doing so, said artist would miss the entire point of why Lovecraft's creatures are scary in the first place. 
Making Cthulhu a boss monster at the end of the game would miss the point as to why Cthulhu is such a formidable creation.

It isn't something you can beat with your wits and your strength, Cthulhu is something that cannot be defeated by mortal men. 

Scary right? That thing is terrifying and easily something that equals the horror that my mother-in-law inspires whenever she enters a room. 
Yet it is a beast of flesh and blood, which, in the minds of anyone playing a video game, means that it can be beaten and possibly killed. 

How Did Lovecraft Do It?

Well, besides having stories filled with blatant xenophobia and a mild dose of social anxiety, Lovecraft also managed to create images of these deities through descriptions alone, normally descriptions that are incredibly brief and barely even give the reader any inkling on what the creature in question looks like. 
It also became a trope throughout his tales to have the character go mad upon the mere sight of these creatures, purposely keeping descriptions of his creations to a mere few sentences. 
Coupling the lore with his penchant for existential plots, Lovecraft managed to terrify readers with the possibility of madness-inducing terrors living in the real world, existing on a plane of existence we cannot yet fathom.

This isn't to say that Lovecraft never had monsters at the forefront of his stories; on the contrary, he normally wrote about people/monsters who are disciples of a more powerful being that operates in the background pulling the strings. In doing this, Lovecraft creates tension form the unseen horrors, but also crafts suspenseful action-packed scenes with the monsters that are present in the foreground. 

He also, like other great authors such as Dickens and Shakespeare, drew inspiration from the period of time that he lived in and allowed it to inlfuence his work... For better and for worse. Given the time period, his views on migrators were unpleasant at best and downright racist at worst, which carried over into his storytelling, especially in his charcaterisation of certain characters who are meant to be Arabic in origin. 
This does however, allow him to write some interesting stuff regarding humans as a race itself, especially when he began crafting the Cthulhu Mythos and started exploring the human condition. Existential storylines and insanity became staples of his connected universe, inspiring horror writers for generations to come, creating some of the most memorable short-stories in literary history. 

Of course, given the heavy themes and lack of description surrounding his creations, this type of storytelling is far easier to do in text than on-screen, so the big question is this: 
How do you translate so many heavy-hitting themes into a video game?

Well, apparently, you make Bloodborne.

Doing Some Things Right 

Bloodborne captures the feeling of Lovecraft not just through its creature design, but also through its thematic elements and its tone both of which, I'd argue, are far more important in capturing the feeling of Lovecraft's work. 
What's the point of playing a game inspired by Lovecraftian lore, if it doesn't feel like it belongs between the pages of his books? 

The villagers in both the Fishing Hamlet and Yharnam are effectively apostles of the Great Ones or are being manipulated to do their bidding, the world around you reveals itself to be hiding creatures of unlimited power, the race and class divide is shown to be present in Yharnam through visual storytelling and item description, the themes of different dimensions, the concept of religions being erected to worship these awful deities... These are elements that FromSoftware nailed, showing that interpreting Lovecraft's works into a game takes more than just having Cthulhu in the game. 

All of Lovecraft's works are on display within Bloodborne in one form or another, the most obvious ones being The Call of CthulhuThe Shadow Over Innsmouth, Nyarlathotep, The Nameless City to name but a few. 
The Fishing Hamlet in Bloodborne: The Old Hunters is effectively the town of Innsmouth, in both its architecture and town layout as well as its inhabitants being ripped right out of that specific short-story, what with their fish-like characterisation and their relationship with both those living in Yharnam and with the deities living in the nearby ocean. 

Ever noticed how similar the journey into the Upper Cathedral Ward and eventually Ebrietas' lair is similar to the journey into the depths of the Exham Priory in the story Rats in the Walls. They both share thematic elements as well: Your protagonist journeys up into an area beforehand locked away, while RitW's protagonist journeys downwad revealing a hidden world. 
Your protagonist finds creatures that were experiemented on and used for The Healing Churches benefit, while in RitW's story, the narrator finds people that were bred for the sole purpose of being consumed by the wealthy people above. 
Both have horrible creatures locked away from the world and both have a tone of melancholy scattered about the prevalent feeling of horror. They share major elements, both in storytelling and thematic terms. 

That's without delving into the other pieces of Lovecraftian lore so obviously on display: The xenophobia of the Yharnamites (especially as Djura points out the man and beast are no different) and the obvious class divide between those in the Healing Church/The Choir and those in Old Yharnam, the abuse of The Great Ones (who noticeably share a name similar to The Great Old Ones)  and the madness that is created when humans dabble in supernatural powers. 

That is just to name a few similar points between them. 

Evidently there is one overarching theme of both Bloodborne and Lovecraft's works, and it is that humans live in a world where horrors lay just out of eyesight. Both pieces constantly hammer home that we, as a species, are insignificant in the gretater schemes of the universe. 
As a loose translation of Lovecraft's works, I have yet to find one better than Bloodborne. 

And Doing Some Things Wrong 

Of course this doesn't mean that Bloodborne flawlessly adapts Lovecraft into the medium of video games. 
As a survival-horror game, and more importantly, as a Souls-esque game, combat is involved and weapon mechanics are implemented into it, meaning that these God-like beings are able to be slain. In doing so, the creatures lose some of their intimidation factor because your protagonist can stand in the presence of an Amygdala without snapping and going insane. 

This isn't the status quo the whole way through the game, on the contrary there are a couple of Great Ones stated to be unseeable and therefore cannot be killed, so it's obvious that Miyazaki understands why the monsters in Lovecraft's works are so terrifying, but it still stands that by including combat into the game, you feel like you can kill something no matter how many tries it may take you. 

Every creature is well-designed and incredibly detailed, making them all the more intimidating to the player, yet the intimidation factor is lessened somewhat by the fact that the monster standing in your way is gross and horrifying, but no worse than the countless creatures you have killed before coming up against it. 

The ability to kill the enemies makes them nowhere near as terrifying as those featured in Lovecraft's stories, though at least they still have their own aura of terrific majesty.

On the opposite side of this coin, the creatures featured in the video game Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (above) are fairly bland-looking from a design standpoint and are featured in a game that really doesn't appear to understand why Lovecraft's work is so revered, throwing in creatures and situations with a tenuous set of plot-threads holding it all together. 
Of course, the game doesn't start off with any combat, utilising a stealth/evasion approach to enemy encounters (though of course those tense encounters are spoiled later on after the weapons are introduced). 

CoCDCotE has all the elements of Lovecraft there for the taking, the ideas of insanity and the inclusion of The Deep Ones and The Great Old Ones really shows that they were attempting to translate Lovecraft's work into a video game format, but the awkward voice acting, tenuous story, awful animations and clear misunderstanding of what "horror" really is. 
The story does little more than reference creatures and places that are present in Lovecraft's short-stories, but nothing beyond that, coming together in a climax that is both disappointing and rather disjointed. 

The lack of foreboding and genuine horror is a severe issue in this game, making encounters with monsters feel either oddly crafted or downright boring... Not something you should be saying about a horror game that takes inspiration from some of the most iconic horror stories of all time. 

 

What Can Be Done? 

The short answer: Not much. 

Bloodborne is probably the best interpretation of Lovrecraft's work I've seen and probably the best we can hope to get because, in the long and short of it, I think Lovecraft created his stories in a way that perfectly suits the medium they were crafted for. 
They were to writing what Undertale is to video games, a creation that worked by using every tool their specific medium allows to create the best overall experience they can, meaning they cannot be faithfully translated from one medium to another. 

I really hope that the upcoming Call of Cthulhu is a great game, that it utilises Lovecraft's lore to its full potential while also crafting a narrative around it that feels involving and creepy. There has to be an air of menace to the game and its environments, but I am not holding my breath. 

While Bloodborne managed to make the creatures feel threatening and included well-thought-out themes present in the writings of Lovecraft, while Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth managed to partially adapt areas present in his work to the video game medium and while Amnesia: The Dark Descent translated the idea of going mad at the sight of hideous abominations, games are too different from Lovecraft's works to really click in a way that can prove successful, despite those examples I mentioned did a few things right. 
Bloodborne works so well because it has its own story but simply draws on themes detailed in Lovecraft's collection. 

I'm all for being proved wrong, hell I hope I am, but as detailed above there are so many problems that developers are forced to face when attempting to shift Lovecrafts stories from one medium to another. You do one thing right and automatically three things will go wrong and you're forced to be unfaithful to Lovecraft;s original vision. 

Storytelling issues are faced by anyone attempting to adapt works from one medium to another, it comes with the territory. Lovecraft's works are in a tough spot where they are incredibly well-written and still hold up all these years later, but will always suffer in one way or another when people attempt to translate the stories into a video game. 

I just hope nobody ever asks me to help translate a Lovecraftian story into another medium, because that prospect is more terrifying to me than anything that madman could ever hope to conjure up. 

 

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TheLimoMaker
TheLimoMaker   gamer profile

Hello there. I'm insane. From England. I love what you've done to your carpets. The horror genre means a great deal to me (mainly as they give me excellent ideas on how best to dispose of my e... more + disclosures


 


 



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