Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Cthulhu Mythos in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Video Games

     When I was a sophomore in undergraduate school I wrote a ten page paper on the influence of the Cthulhu mythos on popular culture. Since then I have come to realize that the Cthulhu mythos is such an overwhelming force that affects so many aspects of literature and popular culture it cannot be contained to a mere ten pages. While I no longer have a copy of my sophomore paper, I would like to tackle the subject of the Cthulhu mythos again, this time focusing on a few of my favorite games that fall into the genre of Lovecraftian horror or Cthulhu-inspired Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

     In case you're not aware, Cthulhu is a god-monster created by early 20th century author H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft created an entirely new mythos revolving around mysterious terrors like Cthulhu, and his works have influenced most modern stories in the sci-fi horror genre. Works of literature, games, and films in this genre are often called Lovecraftian horror, after the man who defined the genre. Genre-forming greats like Dungeons and Dragons and Robert E. Howard (author of Conan the Barbarian) have been heavily influenced by Lovecraft's creations, and thus the genres that these creators influenced have also heavily mirrored aspects of Lovecraft's writing. It makes sense, then, that video games have come to be greatly influenced by the Cthulhu mythos. If you want to know the exact scope of Lovecraft's influence on video games, you need only search for "Cthulhu" in the Steam store to see that there are hundreds of games claiming influence from Lovecraft -- and these are only the most evident PC games available on Steam. The list doesn't even count console-exclusive games.

A sketch of Cthulhu by Lovecraft himself.

     This article will focus on a few of the most interesting Lovecraftian games I have played, many of which have influenced my life as a gamer and as a literary scholar. First on the list are some of the most well-known games by mega-popular game developer and publisher Bethesda. If you're a major fan of Bethesda, you likely know that Bethesda LOVES Lovecraft. The Elder Scrolls games and the Fallout games are littered with references and influences from Lovecraft's work. I first noticed this trend when I played The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind over a decade ago. At first the game seems like a vibrant, exciting open world experience for players of all ages. That perception lasts until the first time you encounter an "Ascended Sleeper" -- a Cthulhu-like monster that quite likely will scare the wits out of your low-level character when you first see one in a dungeon. The name for this creature most likely originates from Cthulhu's position in the story Call of Cthulhu as a sleeping monster found beneath the ocean. The primary antagonist of Morrowind is also heavily influenced by Lovecraftian lore. Said antagonist, Dagoth Ur, is based on Robert E. Howard's Dagoth, who in turn is partially based on Cthulhu and other "old gods" created by Lovecraft. Like Cthulhu, Dagoth Ur originally sleeps under a volcano (rather than the ocean), and rises to spread terror across the land.

     The Fallout series is not without numerous references to Lovecraft. These are less evident than the influences found in the Elder Scrolls series, but if you have a basic knowledge of Lovecraft's stories you should be able to spot the references scattered throughout the series. The most obvious reference to Lovecraft is the Dunwich Borers company, which has locations in Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. Dunwich Borers is a play on the title Dunwich Horror, which is a key story in Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. When the player enters the Dunwich Borers location in Fallout 4, she is presented with the story of the company that was "mining" the earth as a cover-up for their search for the Lovecraftian creature that they worship. This story is shown through flashbacks and terminal entries. For the full story of the Dunwich Borers in Fallout 4, see the following video.


     Another game that draws heavily from Lovecraft is Sunless Sea, a PC game that is based on the browser-based game entitled Fallen London. The tagline for the game is "Lose your mind. Eat your crew. Die." This tagline shows the deep connection that the game has to Lovecraft through its primary themes: sanity/insanity, oceanic exploration, and the unknown. The horror elements of the game require no introduction, as the first few seconds spent playing the game will give most gamers a serious eerie sensation. Like its predecessor, Fallen London, much of Sunless Sea is text-based, but this does not detract from the horror inherent in the story.

Sunless Sea (Source)

     A list of Lovecraft-inspired games cannot exist without some mention of Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. This Gamecube exclusive is a cult classic, though many have not heard of it. Like Sunless Sea, Eternal Darkness revolves around a Lovecraftian view of sanity, but this game takes the theme of insanity further in that it actively tries to make the player feel as though she is going insane. While the game does include standard jump scares and other tactics normal to the horror genre, there are other aspects of the game (I won't spoil them here) that the player does not expect. Nintendo patented the sanity meter present in the game (which is much like a health bar, but measures the player character's sanity) before dropping the game's developers from their payroll, thus preventing any other games from utilizing this feature.



     Many other games could merit a mention in this article, but these are a few of the most prominent games in the Lovecraftian horror/sci-fi genre that I have played. Many space-themed games also fit the genre, such as Dead Space and the good and bad games from the Alien/Aliens franchise. Space games are easy to fit into the Lovecraftian horror genre, as Lovecraftian horror hinges on a fear of the unknown, and what is more unknown to modern man than space? All a creator needs to do is add some terrifying aliens, and a Lovecraftian tale has been created almost without even trying. There is also a plethora of table-top games based on Lovecraft; most likely inspired by the mentions of Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian monsters in Dungeons and Dragons.


     What are your favorite Lovecraftian or Cthulhu-inspired games? Is there a glaringly obvious game that I missed? Did I use the word "Lovecraftian" often enough in this article? Feel free to discuss these and more in the comments!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Disabled Heroes and Heroines in Mass Effect


     One of the most popular and thought-provoking franchises in the Sci-Fi genre continues to be the Mass Effect trilogy (which will be receiving a completely original sequel sometime next year). There are numerous articles and videos on the internet about the ambiguous ending of the original trilogy's story, and any fan of the series you come across is likely to have a lot to say about the ending. I, personally, am usually a fan of bleak endings (unless it involves the death of beloved Harry Potter characters) and found the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy acceptable, if confusing. The developers re-made the game's three endings after receiving a huge amount of backlash from the fan community, and these re-made endings are acceptable to me, if unacceptable to most fans. Why do I find the ending acceptable? Because ultimately, no matter how much "control" the player has over the direction that the story takes, this is still a piece of literature that has been written by an author (in this case, the writers who created this story), and it is the brainchild of said author to be consumed and constructively criticized by players just as a book has a definite ending that one can like or dislike.

    But believe it or not, I'm not here today to talk about the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. Many, many other people have already hashed out the good and the bad (and the very bad) of Mass Effect 3's final moments. Instead, I'd like to take a look at some of the characters in the series: specifically, Joker, Tali, and Wrex. What do these particular characters have in common? They each have complicated illnesses or disabilities that are intricately dissected and discussed throughout the trilogy. It is extremely rare for a video game to feature major characters with disabilities, and as a person who is disabled, I was surprisingly happy to find characters I could strongly relate to in a AAA video game franchise. Now, the argument has been made to me that Tali and Wrex do not qualify as disabled characters because their entire races suffer from specific diseases. I would argue, however, that in the universal world of Mass Effect, where many races from many planets intermingle in one society, the diseases that affect these particular heroes are setbacks that they must overcome, that other characters are unable to relate to.

     Tali's race, the Quarians, suffer from a fatally low immune system, and even a small scratch in her armor could cause a deadly infection to occur. Even though all members of the Quarian race have this immune deficiency, Tali is uniquely inconvenienced among the heroes of the Normandy crew in that she could suffer from a deadly infection at any time. The only thing that protects Tali from instant death is a specially sealed, technologically advanced suit of armor that her race invented to protect themselves from disease. This suit is as much a hindrance as a help, however. It is very difficult for Quarians to engage in sexual intercourse, and any form of physical contact is almost entirely out of the question. Their faces are concealed, as well, so they have more difficulty communicating with others than members of other species would. Check out the below video for some of Tali's own words on the subject:


   Wrex, another of the primary companions in the series, is a member of the strongest race in the known universe: the Krogans. Krogans are often recruited as mercenaries and used as soldiers in war because of their strength and battle-oriented disposition. Why, then, would Wrex, or any Krogan, be considered disabled? Because in the history of the Mass Effect universe, the Krogans were infected with a disease known as the "genophage" which prevents the Krogan from reproducing. All Krogan are infected with this disease. According to the Mass Effect wiki,
The genophage's modus operandi is not to reduce the fertility of krogan females, but rather the probability of viable pregnancies: many krogan die in stillbirth, with most fetuses never even reaching this stage of development. Moreover, every cell in each krogan is infected, to prevent the use of gene therapy to counteract it. (Source)
 While the genophage does not inhibit Wrex's ability to aide Shepard or perform his duties to his fellow Krogans, it is a disease that he is constantly battling with and aware of at every step of the story. Every decision that Wrex makes is affected by his disease, and ultimately the aide of the Krogans in the final battle of the story hinges on whether or not Shepard is able to arrange for a cure to be created and given to the Krogans. If the game did not constantly remind us at every turn that the Krogans are sick I might not have included Wrex in this article. But the genophage is a huge part of Wrex's personal identity, and it cannot be ignored.

     Finally, the most obviously disabled character in the Mass Effect series is Joker, the well-liked pilot of the Normandy voiced by Seth Green. Also known by his given name, Jeff Moreau, Joker is usually seen sitting in the cockpit of the Normandy. The Mass Effect wiki describes Joker's condition:
Joker's upbringing and career have been colored by his health. Joker has a moderate to severe case of Vrolik syndrome, which causes extreme brittleness in the bones; he was born with severe fractures to his legs and even with modern medicine he finds walking nearly impossible, relying on crutches and leg braces. (Source)
Joker's condition is usually only discussed in passing, and is often easy to forget as we normally never see him leave his seat. Joker tells us that he was able to become a pilot because, despite his condition, he was the top student in flight school and even surpassed many of his instructors in skill. In Mass Effect 2, Joker's illness is brought to the forefront of our minds, however, when Commander Shepard and the rest of the heroes of the Normandy conveniently leave the ship on a shuttle to perform a mission of some sort, and Joker is alone when the Normandy is attacked. The player suddenly finds herself playing as Joker, and must limp slowly through the ship to activate the ship's defense systems. The following video shows this scene (warning: there are a LOT of spoilers for Mass Effect 2 in the following video, so don't watch it if you're not ready!):


Though you may not be able to tell from watching the video, limping along as Joker at an agonizingly slow pace while aliens are attacking the ship is a terrifying experience. I think the scene does a great job of giving players a bit of understanding of how scary it can be to be disabled, especially in the midst of a crisis. I also applaud Bioware for creating one of the very first player-characters that is disabled, even if you only play as this character for about five minutes. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, disabled characters are very rare in video games, and playable characters with disabilities are almost non-existent. Occasionally you'll play a game where your protagonist has an eye patch (and is presumably missing an eye), but rarely does that actually hinder the character's abilities as it should (the main exception can be found in Metal Gear Solid 3, which I won't spoil here). 

     I find it remarkable that Bioware was able to delve so deeply into the topic of disability with their characters in the Mass Effect series, but then, Bioware is known for being very progressive for a game company. Tali is my favorite character in the Mass Effect universe primarily because I have never before been able to relate to a game character in terms of my disability. I am eager to see how disability, gender roles, and all sorts of other important topics are brought to light in the newest addition to the franchise, set to release next year.