More so today than ever before, Lovecraft would have been a misfit and a recluse. Born in 1890, he already appeared to his contemporaries, in the years of his youth, to be an obsolete reactionary. It’s not hard to imagine what he would have thought of our society today. Since his death, it has not ceased evolving in a direction which could only have led him to hate it more. —Michel Houellebecq, H.P. Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life
Ladies and Gentlemen of the internet, it is my dubious pleasure to inform you we’re currently in the midst of a tiny Renaissance of cosmic horror, the genre invented and perfected by H.P. Lovecraft. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most important is distance. HPL was a brilliant artist and his correspondence shows him to be of a mild and amiable temperament, but he held enough repulsive views. Among them were a tendency to be philosophically pessimistic, a disinterest in sex so pronounced it amounted to a categorical refusal to acknowledge the female gender’s existence, and being virulently racist to the point of soberly endorsing genocide. This scared off many people tentatively interested in his work. Purists will no doubt refute me on this point, but it is my firm belief that the Cthulhu mythos has only benefited from being subjected to influences beyond the man who conceived it.
Some skepticism is natural when considering diversity in regards to Lovecraftian horror. Are stories of world-devouring, life-negating nightmare monster gods, stories specifically designed to elicit the most profound dread imaginable, really enhanced by voices outside the literary mainstream? Let us take, as our answer, the fact that the best cosmic horror story being told at the moment is The Last Door, a video game created by The Game Kitchen, a self-described “small, young indie game developer based in Spain.”
The Last Door frankly admits that its staking its claim in Lovecraft’s territory. In Episode 2, the main character encounters a copy of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine that first published HPL. But, it is so much more than a mere continuation of HPL’s work. In The Last Door, The Game Kitchen is not merely inhabiting the house HPL built, but building additions onto it, leaving a more sprawling, baroque, and horrifying edifice than the one they found.
The Last Door is an episodic, point-and-click adventure game. The pilot episode was originally funded via Kickstarter. The Game Kitchen has since gone on to produce an entire season divided into four individual episodes, with the second season slated begin in Summer 2014. This episodic approach has allowed The Game Kitchen to be remarkably productive on a shoestring budget while delivering a product that’s more or less* free to play. The Last Door‘s graphics are crude but functional, while the music, prose, and sound effects convey a remarkably rich vision of cosmic horror. The story contained in these episodes is both compelling and genuinely frighting. It is also ludicrously overwrought, in true Lovecraftian fashion.
The Last Door opens with the player helping a character hang himself. The corpse in question is one Anthony Beechworth, the man whose death sets the events of The Last Door in motion. This brief inaugural act of assisted suicide serves as a mission statement of sorts, as it is The Game Kitchen telling players precisely what kind of game The Last Door is going to be. As is the case in all cosmic horror, the characters of The Last Door are inexorably doomed. Your job, as the player, will be to facilitate their doom in the most horrifying and entertaining manner possible. Forbidden knowledge will be quaffed, powers beyond human understanding will be toyed with, doors that should have remained closed forever will be thrown open, and subtle intimations of creeping doom shall blossom into blaring klaxons of mind-shattering horror. That’s quite a dramatic burden to place on The Last Door‘s blocky 8-bit shoulders, yet it acquits itself surprisingly well.
The Last Door cultivates dread with all the deliberate care of a jeweler cutting a diamond. The integrity of the world navigated by our hero, Jeremiah Devitt, is maintained by a thin thread of normalcy that violently unravels at the slightest tug, and the exaggerated gentility of the game’s fin-de-siècle setting provides the perfect counterpoint for the exaggerated grotesquerie Devitt encounters as he seeks to discover what drove his estranged boarding school chum to suicide. Devitt wears a coat and hat that he removes indoors like a proper gentleman, then he proceeds to deal with raving lunatics, grotesque suicides, mutilated animals, and the encroaching force of an extradimentional evil god.
The events that unfold in The Last Door are unabashedly grim, with The Game Kitchen exploiting the creative freedom their indie bestows to make The Last Door even more frankly bleak than other games set in the Cthulhu mythos, like the tragically underplayed Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. As point of reference, Episode 2 has Devitt visiting his former alma mater, which in his absence has been transformed into a mental asylum run by the church. The Last Door takes a relatively sympathetic view of the mentally deranged, yet unflinchingly portrays religion as archaic, impotent, and hollow, an institution subject to the same cosmic entropy that so degrades everything else in Devitt’s world.
All this grimness is made atmospheric, as opposed to oppressive, by the game’s rich sound design and Carlos Viola’s gorgeous classical score. The sound design builds atmosphere and gives weight to the crude 8-bit visuals, while the music provides a much needed sense of beauty to The Last Door’s dark narrative landscape. Still, the darkness is never banished, only held at bay, and when it strikes in full force the effect is harrowing. I warn you, The Last Door does contain jump scares, but at least they feel earned, as if they’re naturally arising out of a landscape already bathed in menace.
Not that The Last Door is immune to the natural pitfalls the point-and-click adventure genre. Ideally, a point-and-click adventure game has the player following reason and logic to determine how items naturally combine to unlock puzzles, but it’s an ideal I’ve never encountered. For the most part, I progressed through The Last Door‘s puzzles via a judicious mix of memory and logical deduction, but I also encountered the odd puzzle that made no discernible sense. How was I supposed to know to use the sheet music on the bird cage, or the feather on the tree sap? How could anyone? The fact that I never had to look up the answers isn’t a testament to my astonishing powers of deduction, so much as the relatively small sandbox each Episode occupies and my apparent willingness to force the union of random objects again and again like they’re a pair of recalcitrant pandas in captivity. There are many good puzzles as well. It seems random object puzzles are simply the price of admission to any point-and-click adventure game, good or bad. The Last Door is the former.
Such issues aside, The Game Company has done an incredible job of building their own rich tale of cosmic horror. Though, their greatest creation may not be the game itself, but the community that sustains it. Not only does their sustained interest keep the series going, but some collaboration has been incorporated into the process, with comunity-led translations of the game’s text and the individual fans writing descriptions of particular in-game objects. We’ve come a long way since cosmic horror was the exclusive avocation of Providence, Rhode Island’s resident recluse. Hopefully, if interest in The Last Door is sustained, we’ll go much further still. The first 3 episodes of The Last Door can be played for free. Episode 4 costs a minimum of 1 euro to access now, and will be free when Season 2 begins this summer.
Site [The Last Door]