Scratches, Serena and Asylum creator Agustin Cordes has just launched a Kickstarter for the first officially licensed H.P. Lovecraft game, The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward. Based on Lovecraft's only full novel, it tells the tale of a young man in 1918 on a search for a wizard ancestor in Providence and Salem, with not a whiff of Cthulhu to be found. This project is intended to be faithful in a way that no other Lovecraftian game has been, but what exactly does that mean? And why do these old stories still have such a draw? I asked. He answered. Nice when things work out.
RPS: Just looking at the pitch, Charles Dexter Ward doesn't seem like a regular Lovecraft story. What was it about it that made you decide "Yes. That's the one we're going to do!"
Cordes: I have to say, it wasn't my first choice - it was my second. (silently, somehow makes a sound like fingers being confidently steepled in anticipation of future masterplans) I can't reveal more about that for now! But for the longest time, this story made an impression on me and I've always thought it would be an amazing adventure. Just about every aspect of it is perfect. The investigation, the themes, the sneaking around and the horrors uncovered all make it an ideal story.
RPS: It's been semi-used in one before, hasn't it - Necronomicon from a few years ago?
Cordes: Yes. To be honest, I only played a few moments of that one, and didn’t get the feeling it was too faithful. They didn’t have the rights, so they had to change a lot, like the names, and the marvellous sequences in Providence that are a huge part of the story.
RPS: Luckily nobody played it, so it doesn’t matter! I confess to not knowing the story of this one too well, but wasn’t it famous for being one that Lovecraft himself didn’t like, even if lots of other people later did? Is it out of his usual style, or was it more a question of form?
Cordes: The thing is, Lovecraft didn’t like any of his own stories. The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out Of Time… Lovecraft just wasn’t satisfied with the writing in those stories, to the point that he didn’t even want them to be published. Charles Dexter Ward is the most notorious case of that because it was published after he died, but I’d say it’s a very atypical entry in his bibliography. It’s a very autobiographical work, where you can really see… especially in the first half… how Lovecraft developed his feelings on Providence, his thoughts on the past, his passion for history, architecture, genealogy and of course, witchcraft, which is a very important theme that Lovecraft was fascinated by. But it’s an incredible story along with all that too, and perfect for this kind of game.
RPS: Structurally, it sounds a lot like Shadow of the Comet - go to a seemingly normal place that you know the later horror is going to contrast with, then the weirdness comes crashing in as everything spins out of control…
Cordes: You’re right, you can see some Charles Dexter Ward in Shadow of the Comet, which of course was inspired by Shadow Over Innsmouth. As for this game, I took the chance to design the full thing before the Kickstarter campaign, and I was amazed by how easily the whole story translated into the adventure format. All the trips Charles takes between Providence and Salem especially.
RPS: Lovecraftian style is very misunderstood right now - Cthulhu, the Necronomicon and so on are pop-culture icons and often dragged out to hijack a little extra mood or meaning, often when a story is failing to do it on its own. Do you think that’s meant they've lost its edge?
Cordes: Oh, absolutely yes. The problem is that Lovecraftian games have only scratched the surface of what he had to offer. The monsters, the Necronomicon… the thing about his stories which I haven’t seen in any game yet is that of cosmic horror, the sense that we humans are insignificant creatures.
RPS: An opinion definitely shared by my two cats. A fundamental problem of Lovecraft is that it doesn’t usually turn out well for the ‘heroes’, but on PC, even games like I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream will usually give up and offer a ‘happy’ ending - or at least a happier one than the hero dribbling in an asylum. How can you take those huge themes but also make them suitable for something as objective-driven as a game?
Cordes: It's an interesting thing for this story because the protagonist only really faces the horrors the once. Usually the fun part is pitting your strength against the monsters, but that’s usually when these games stop being Lovecraft. It kills the whole idea of the impossibility of even attempting to engage these things - just how unable we are to comprehend, never mind battle these things. Based on our past experiences, I’m not afraid of handling that. The inability to see monsters in Scratches for instance was part of the story, letting you form your own idea of the story and keeping a balance between the scientific and supernatural.
RPS: Something that jumped out for me with other Lovecraftian games is that usually the Great Old Ones are just villains and they always have a Plan - which always seems so banal. Like Shadow of the Comet, where the whole thing ends up being part of a big scheme to open a big wobbly doorway for... was it Yog Sothoth? Anyway, it feels like it could be any demon or alien doing basically the same thing. But the expectation is that it'll be that overt, because in comparison to their hype, even a guy like Narackamous is such a small-time villain.
Cordes: It’s true that humans in his stories are always attempting to bring back the Great Old Ones and all that, but in truth if you read the stories, you see the consistent line of thought that the monsters don’t care at all about them and it’s all humans interpreting them and foolishly working towards their own destruction. This is very interesting if you study Lovecraft, because it’s a commentary on his own views on religion, and on understanding the impossible.
RPS: I’m really thinking about people’s expectations with these stories - that there will be a monstrous bad guy, and Cthulhu will shake a tentacle and go “I’ll get you next time!” and all that kind of thing, when even in concept that seems far too close. It usually feels like it should be closer to a story about, say, astrology, where whatever effect the stars have on the narrative, you’re never going to go hang with them or do anything that they could notice.
Cordes: Exactly. And Charles Dexter Ward is a nice example of that, because you get conspiracies of wizards in Salem trying to bring back the dead and searching for immortality, but there’s always going to be the hints of horror in everything.
RPS: So, what about the gap between what people think they know and what they actually get - for instance, like how people still think of Watson as an idiot based on the Nigel Bruce years, or in Lovecraft, that they know of Cthulhu but are hazy on what he is?
Cordes: I think some will be disappointed, because as you say, they have expectations - players have been spoiled in a way by the weak translations. For instance, something that people take for granted is that it’s always dark, broody, and there are horrible creatures and tentacles… and it’s actually not that often that Lovecraft went that direction. There are no tentacles in our game! Instead, and what we’re trying to shed light on, is that they could often be… charming? Yes. In some aspects. There’s a love for architecture and detail, of sunrises, and what’s going to be shocking for many is that Charles Dexter Ward largely takes place during the day and actually feels more, like, say, Broken Sword, Indiana Jones…
RPS: Day of the Tentacle…?
Cordes: Ha. Not that one! I know that some will be disappointed because of expectations. A Lovecraft game in bright daylight? Yes, but we’re very serious about it. We’re addressing fans of adventure games first, of course, and I think think they’re going to be happy with what we have to offer, but also more passionate Lovecraft fans. I know that when they see it and realise just how much passion we’ve put into every aspect of the game… every detail, right down to symbols in the Kickstarter video that aren’t well known to the more casual fans of Lovecraftian stories.
RPS: Of the Lovecraft games so far, which do you think has been most successful at capturing the spirit of his stories?
Cordes: Of the official and semi-official games, definitely Shadow of the Comet. I think the first half was a brilliant translation of the mood that you get in many of his stories. You can really see the attention to atmosphere and feel. Unfortunately it loses it in the second half and everything falls apart. My other pick would be Anchorhead-
RPS: The text adventure?
Cordes: The text adventure, exactly. It’s not a straight adaptation and there are no direct references to Lovecraftian lore, but the mood is right. It really gets that feel of the weird and the alien… something else I found that was missing in Shadow of the Comet, really. It’s a good horror game, but not… weird.
RPS: I always had issues with Shadow, with the first half being really slow - taking too long to establish its baseline, and then the second half just being silly with its monster temples and wobbly magic from space… Presumably in this one, there’ll be a bit more adventure in the first half - Charles having a more focused task than Parker’s photography.
Cordes: That's funny. I loved the start of Shadow of the Comet.
RPS: I think for me the problem was that you know what's coming, and have probably seen the monsters in a screenshot or on the box or something already, so there's a long period of time where you're waiting for the shoe to drop rather than being unaware that it exists. While an inferior game, Prisoner of Ice was better at that at least - you hit the limit of what you 'know' in the first scene, and then have no real idea of where it's going. (At least unless you looked at the American box, with more spoilers than a Pimp My Car convention...)
Cordes: Yes, and that’s when the magic can happen - the tension, hinting at some things, and giving the players something to entertain themselves while the big story develops. In Dexter Ward, you’ll quickly be doing things like travelling to Salem and finding out about his mysterious ancestor and all these other triggers will start early… there’s so much material and historical background and things that we can tell players without unleashing actual horror. The story is fascinating.
RPS: It sounds very Gabriel Knight - a slow-burner game, where the horror is more implied than overt for most of the game.
Cordes: Yes, it has a lot in common with that. Time will tell if we got it right, but I’m trying hard to strike a good balance between being faithful and… even I’ll admit that the actual novel is very slow and takes a lot of time to get to the crux of things. As an adventure game though, the interaction will really help - there’s a lot that the player will be able to do.
RPS: Is it a completely faithful conversion, or will there be surprises for readers?
Cordes: It’s as faithful as possible, certainly more than the movie (The Resurrected), though we’ve had to change a few things, and we’re bringing a little more horror into the later sequences. We’re working with S. T. Joshi, the world authority on Lovecraft, who’s ensuring we get our historical facts right and that our interpretation of the story is accurate.
RPS: On the development side, how different is it doing this to your long-running Asylum project, which is a lot more pop-scary and overtly horrific?
Cordes: We’re grateful to have this project! The thing with Asylum is that it’s very dark and-
Cordes: What was that?!
RPS: Revenge for the end of the Asylum demo. (Glares) Please, continue…
Cordes: Ah…. Sorry about that! But yes. It’s a very dark game, staring at those loathsome environments all day, and it requires a very strong state of mind. This is definitely an 'easier' project like that. The two games are very linked together though, by Lovecraft and our past experiences with Scratches and Serena. I like to see them as two sides of the same coin. Asylum is dark, disturbing, gory. Charles Dexter Ward is more… I keep going back to ‘charming’, but I think more… dreamy. But it’s a dream where the horror soon starts slipping in of course, and that’s when the fun begins.
RPS: Obviously, Lovecraft is pretty famous for opening up his sandbox for everyone to play with. How do you think he’d feel about the plushie Cthulhus and so on?
Cordes: Lovecraft actually had an amazing sense of humour. I think he’d be very amused and happy with how his cosmology has been taken by people. Maybe he wouldn’t agree with Cthulhu being presented as-
RPS: The core of everything rather than just a minor player?
Cordes: Yes. Maybe he wouldn’t be happy about that, but he wouldn’t be disappointed.
RPS: Do you think we’ve reached the point where they’ve moved from fiction to folklore - not that people believe in them or anything, but baked into the culture in a similar way to things like Paradise Lost or the old folk tales of people like Robin Hood?
Cordes: Yes, yes you’re right. He created such a consistent cosmology and lore, with that feeling of the unknown and blasphemous that still remains so fresh. Those things just never get old.
The Kickstarter for Charles Dexter Ward is now underway. Should it be successful in hitting its stretch goals, the plan is to go on and do other official Lovecraft story conversions in quick order, provided that the Great Old Ones don't suddenly return and enslave all humanity in coils of madness beyond our comprehension, in which case there will probably be a bit of a delay.