“It’s like you’re on an interactive adventure through a Lovecraft novel.”
By Terri Schwartz
“You have to become mad.”
If there is one promise Cyanide Studio has for players interested in picking up their adaptation of Chaosium’s pen-and-paper RPG Call of Cthulu, it’s that you’re not going to get out of this experience with your sanity. I got to sit through a presentation of the upcoming title during E3 2017, and was charmed by the way it brings both an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired world and the pen-and-paper experience to life.
You play as private investigator Edward Pierce in the early 1920s. As Pierce, you’re investigating the death of famous artist Sarah Hawkins and her son and husband, after they died in a fire in their home on Darkwater Island. Like all Lovecraft stories, everything in Pierce’s investigation is normal… until it’s not. The more you investigate and find clues, the more that knowledge will affect your decisions later in the game. But as is promised by lead level designer Romain Wiart, Pierce losing his mind is inevitable by the end of your Call of Cthulu experience.
“The more Pierce investigates, the more he may fall into madness,” said Wiart.
It’s clear that this is a game Cyanide is making because the developers have a deep love for the Chaosium RPG. Pierce’s stats screen is described as his “skill sheet,” and many of the dialogue tree options are reminiscent of choices a dungeon master would ask you to make. Information is your best weapon to navigate the bizarre setting of Darkwater Island, especially as the game progresses and the player — as well as Pierce — will begin to question what is actually happening and what is just Pierce losing his mind.
Different facets of Pierce’s “skill sheet” are developed at different stages in the game. In the early chapter, your success at choosing various dialogue tree depends on how well you’ve developed skills like Intimidation and Persuasion. Throughout the 20-or-so hour gameplay experience, Pierce’s “Sanity Gauge” will become integral as he slips further and further into madness by witnessing bizarre, terrifying occurrences he can’t quite explain.
We saw portions of two chapters of Call of Cthulu: in the first, Pierce is investigating Hawkins Manor, showing how the information you pick up affects your likelihood of discovering clues. He explores the room where the fire in Hawkins Manor took place, using it as evidence to disprove a suspicious police report deeming the Hawkins’ death to be an accident. But first, you need to explore the area around the manor, noting small key details that later inform your ability to discern clues. That’s what helps us discover that the fire was not started by an accident but during a fight, and that the police were inaccurate in determining when the incident took place. Rewarding exploration in this way and making it additionally challenging to take a speedrunning approach through the game is one of the smarter and more intriguing facets of Call of Cthulu’s gameplay.
In the second, later section of the demo that takes place during Chapter 6, Pierce starts seeing things that don’t quite make sense, like a horrifying creature coming out of one of Sarah Hawkins’ paintings and chasing you through the room. But by Chapter 6, Pierce will have developed phobias like claustrophobia after experiencing traumatizing events, and those phobias will prove debilitating in scenarios such as this one where Pierce’s best solution to survive is to hide in a small, dark closet. While our short demo presentation wasn’t outright scary, I can easily imagine how the cumulative experience of accompanying Pierce’s descent into madness will be personally discomfitting in the way a Lovecraftian story should be.
By forcing Pierce to experience his phobias, he will start acting out of his own accord — for example, charging out of the closet before suffering a heart attack — and the player will lose their free will with the character. Though I didn’t get hands-on with Call of Cthulu myself, the sanity mechanics (which were adapted from elements of the pen-and-paper RPG) sounds like a really cool way of bringing the descent into madness integral to Lovecraft’s stories to life in a new way.
And that’s the goal of the experience, according to the developers at Cyanide. “It’s like you’re on an interactive adventure through a Lovecraft novel,” explained Wiart. There are multiple paths the player can take through Pierce’s journey, though some are set. And one way or another, you’re going to have to become mad.
Terri Schwartz is Editorial Producer at IGN. Talk to her on Twitter at @Terri_Schwartz.