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Words: Sara Elsam
This article contains story spoilers for Bloodborne. We know it came out ages ago, but if we don't write this here, someone will complain.
Once upon a time, the bulk of gaming's cosmic horror revolved around author H.P. Lovecraft's creations: tentacles, Euclidean geometry, librarians going unspeakably mad under dark stars, and so on. This, while fun for a while, soon got tiring, leaning again and again into tropes that lost their meaning in the haze of all those appendage growths and screaming.
Recent games like 2019's The Sinking City attempted to incorporate Lovecraft's legacy of racism, to mixed results; while 2018's Call of Cthulhu featured a loathsome sanity meter mechanic which - along with being reductive and uninspired - is maybe even a bit offensive.
This was always the issue: as terrifying as Lovecraft's horrors were on the page, it's hard to capture that horror in video games. The lurking, sap-soaked nightmares of his work often get reduced down to jump-scares and simmering madness in games.
Games like The Sinking City captured his imagery - which is always scarier in your head - and some aspects of the dread. But the true crux of his horror, namely that cosmic unknowing, the sense of being a tiny nothing in a world of vaster things, remained more elusive in video games. Cosmic horror, it transpires, is hard to translate from the page to the screen.
Because how can you capture the unknowable in a video game? By its very nature a game must be playable, and most require a level of player entitlement to function. Blasting a billion flying Cthulhus with an Uzi was never going to be very effective, although it was fun mowing down interstellar beasties in the original Quake. And even if we put our cosmic Uzis aside for a moment, how do things remain unknowable when you can punch them and talk to them and start up the ol' investigator-psychic-vision to unravel them?
But regardless, cosmic horror has stuck around, and is becoming ever more popular. Perhaps because of our increasingly wild times, or perhaps because a bunch of cultists chanting around the soothing red flames of a profit margin saw an opportunity.
That said, I think it's because of games like the Dark Souls trilogy and Bloodborne, and more recently 2020's Paradise Killer. These games take the cosmic visions of Lovecraft and create something familiar, but also original. Through them, we experience an entirely new breed of cosmic horror, shaped to our own exceedingly cursed times; a type of cosmic horror that moves away from the sanguine crooning of Lovecraft, but still retains the aspects that have kept his work captivating for the last century or so. While tentacles abound, they are more subtle then their screaming counterparts.
And although these games might not even be marked as "horror" in a genre category, they follow the same themes and terrors of Lovecraft and his ilk.
Take FromSoftware's PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, for example, where you play a sinister dual-weapon-wielding Hunter, trying to unravel the source of a hideous plague while fending off furry aberrations and cosmic horrors alike. Although you are very powerful in your right (not a theme within most Lovecraftian cosmic horror stories, where ideally you're cowering in a dark corner with a torchlight and britches), the world of Bloodborne slowly reveals to you that you are meaningless, that everything you do is part of an eternal game played out by beings you cannot fathom.
You are an ant, waiting to be crushed by larger things. And it wraps it up with gothic grandiosity, all sinking moonlight, extravagant gowns and those last, distant droves of sunlight, cracking in at the end of a long dark tunnel. It's all very comparable to the gothic genre of books that influenced Lovecraft.
Furthermore, that nothing you "know" is really true, because you are contending with not one, but a multitude of conspiracies, each revealing increasingly terror-fuelled cores and awful, eons-long secrets. You are ultimately a pawn, and what constitutes victory is down to what you decide represents winning when it's actually clear that this cosmic game can't be won by anyone.
Bloodborne has numerous endings, one of which leads to the Hunter replacing another character in an unfathomable loop. Another sees you forming into a mishmash Great One yourself, where the best you can wish for is a dying gasp of hope on a blank white shore.
This is all that different, thematically speaking, to the same studio's Dark Souls series, where you are, of course, less a super-powered gun-toting chap and more a hapless undead wisp to begin with. But the core themes, and the underlying horror, remain the same. The ruin of a world dying, teetering on the edge of rebirth. The unknowable thing that waits beyond the stars.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne players are well known for their tenacious efforts to uncover the stories of these games, dismantling items to carve out the juicy lore within. This is predominantly because the games do not reveal that much of their worlds to you outright; they rely on environmental storytelling as much as they do blood-soaked cinematics and enigmatic dialogue. And even then, the item descriptions are often vague, alluding to a great struggle or a being you have no comprehension of.
That feeling is not dissimilar from reading Lovecraft, where you are always a bystander, in a sense, piecing together details of a world you'll never truly fathom. But for all their sadness and grandeur, Dark Souls and Bloodborne still fit within a dark world, a hopeless world. Is a dark palette and sombre music the key to cosmic horror? Can these themes even work in some place that isn't drab and obviously haunted?
Enter Paradise Killer, a neon-lit extravaganza of flashy cars and unknowable titans from the beyond. You play a trans-dimensional, ostensibly immortal detective tasked with working out who murdered a whole heap of folks in one room, moments before Paradise - a singular dimension that resets with a council of presiding immortals - was about to reset.
Paradise itself is a decadent Miami-esque wasteland of brazen inequality, all white sand beaches, towering apartment blocks, opulent mountain temples and giant Eldritch statues, whether they be your standard black obelisk, your weeping Old God, or even just your average interstellar centaur. As you traipse Paradise's crystal-clear seas and solid-gold ziggurats, you'll meet a range of characters, mostly posed seductively, in the realm of an anime visual novel. Occasionally they have mechanical arms, wear sinister masks or, as is the case with suspect Crimson Acid, a long-lashed goat's head. Most are not above a little flirting.
And yet for all its trashiness and lurid grins, Paradise Killer unravels into something quite terrifying, and wholly comparable to the horrors of Dark Souls and Bloodborne - albeit in tune with the easy beats of smooth jazz and Japanese-style city pop.
In the realm of Dark Souls and Bloodbourne, not everything is revealed from the off. You have to piece the world together around you, and what you find out is pretty grim. And while Paradise Killer's mythos speaks of gods - inscrutable dancing horrors found in Siberian catacombs and inside labyrinths and citadel planets - they are not the worst things out there. For one thing, Paradise's eternal loop is a thing of unfathomable cruelty.
There is a purity to cosmic horror that supersedes Lovecraft's legacy. It is the transcendent and sublime, facing off with our own cosmic insignificance. And while doom and notions of forever suffering play into that, it's also about how we persevere through it, for better or worse. But it's also, and this is explored extensively in both the Soulsborne games and Paradise Killer, about hubris.
Golden ziggurats and murder conspiracies fit into the genre as much as tentacles and bawling fishpeople do, because they exhibit that same pointless struggle: we are ultimately always fighting others, often, in a grand stand to make a mark, a cosmically hilarious pursuit in a world run by vast unknowable forces. We are, of course, painfully impotent as a species; as we always have been. And the parts of us we know are true, we will never reveal to others.
So, I welcome the new weird of gaming, whether it's brutal black-and-white RPG roguelite World of Horror, the ruined wastelands of the Soulsborne games - forever teetering on the cusp of something beautiful - or the neon-lit Syndicate palaces of Paradise Killer. Because it's about time we looked past the veneer of scary tentacles and stared straight into the abyss itself.
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