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Call of Cthulu, Vampyr Finally Turn RPGs to Horror

Christopher Coke Posted:
Columns The RPG Files 0

Fantasy is synonymous with RPG. It’s no surprise, with swords and sorcery following the genre back to its roots. Science fiction is right there too, and all the off-shoots therein and between the two easily make up most of what we’ve seen in the genre for years. The more I delve into this genre, however, the more puzzling it is that we’ve limited ourselves to these “standards” of what RPGs should be. Where are the horror games, the westerns, the globetrotting adventures of believable characters in our own believable world?

All of this can be dropped at the feet of publishers and executives paying the bills, of course. There’s a ball of ideas and standards and market research that defines what is marketable and worth investing in. Even though the RPG formula could easily be applied to themes that are downright common in other genres, somewhere, someone believes these themes are not what RPG gamers want. Because dragons, of course. RPG gamers must have dragons.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with dragons or any of the themes we see in RPGs. It’s working. RPGs are bigger than ever and, full disclosure, I happen to love a lot of these same tropes. As MMO players too, I suspect we all do. But what excites me most is new ideas. Or, as the case may be for this week’s column, old ideas done in a new way: Cyanide Studios’, Call of Cthulu and Dontnod’s, Vampyr.

Of all the genres that RPGs could explore, horror is hands down the best fit. I’m not talking about jump scares or torture porn or the other shallow schlock out solely to shock you. No, what RPGs are suited for is creating terror.

There is a misconception here; usually when people talk about horror, what they mean to say is terror, but years of publishers lumping everything under the generic “horror” banner has erased that distinction. Horror in fiction is the shock and revulsion of seeing something horrible (gore,torture, surprise monsters). Terror is the real deal, the looming dread, that unsettled feeling of danger without knowing the when, where, or how. Terror is the pure awareness that small and alone and hunted.

RPGs draw you into the experience like no other type of game. You build who you are in these game worlds and inject pieces of your psyche with every dialogue choice. You own your character, walk alongside it, even if he is the polar opposite of your real self. The very act of roleplaying in this way opens you up to a level of emotional vulnerability other genres more passively accomplish. In short, you are ripe to experience the terror of the best horror novels if done correctly. Call of Cthulu and Vampyr have the potential to do something unique in the RPG space and that is exciting.

There many things that could go wrong, but I don’t want to focus on that. Instead, what I’d like to do is talk about what I hope they do.

First off, avoid the camp. Take it seriously. H.P. Lovecraft, the author of the Cthulu mythos, wrote what’s known as weird fiction. Weird is type of cross genre, literary horror, that takes itself very seriously. It’s has high expectations of the reader and the payoff is a cosmic horror so effective that it’s still inspirational nearly 80 years later. Weird fiction, in fact, is in a renaissance with the likes of Laird Barron, John Langan, and China Mieville leading the charge. People are latching onto these unnamed horrors in powerful ways right now. The same is true for Vampyr, save the bit about cosmic horror.

Second, I hope they avoid full-on action. These are games and of course there will be combat, but leaning too heavily on bombast will rob them of the very thing that could make them special: dread. The focus needs to be on unsettling the player and making them feel vulnerable. If you’re a powerhouse gunning down tentacle monsters left and right, you may as well title yourself “generic shooter” and be done with it. A good horror story is a slow burn that subverts expectations.

Vampyr may be different here since you are the horror. That’s a different thing entirely. The atmosphere is just as important, though when the roles are reversed, a little power tripping could be a lot of fun. Still, as the vampire, you want players sunk into a believably dark and supernatural world.

Finally, I hope both of these games break the mold and are free not be full-on open worlds. Not every RPG needs complete freedom and in fact, many would better if they focused on just doing a few things well instead of everything mediocrely. The short story is on the rise in modern horror fiction because maintaining tension through and over-long novel is an incredibly difficult task. The same is true of games. Give us a good game with enough freedom to explore and know that, yes, this is an RPG. But don’t go full GTA on us.

As a huge horror buff, I wouldn’t look to these games to be scared. In fact, most horror isn’t really “scary” in that you actually feel fear. What good horror does, however, is draw you into the dark in a believable way that unsettles you. It’s not all Saw and Hostel. And for that reason, games like these have incredible potential to reinvigorate a sub-genre that desperately needs it.

Here’s hoping.

Quick Hits

Kingdom Hearts fan? Check out Bill’s thoughts on the new Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which packs remakes of two handheld games and an hour long cinematic as the final prep for Kingdom Hearts 3. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s best suited to diehards, however, as the actual gameplay leaves something to be desired.

A third entry in the Banner Saga series is in the works and the team has again turned to Kickstarter to fund their efforts. While the first entry was a hit, the sequel arrived quietly, though was still received well by fans and critics. This will be the final entry in this series (I wouldn’t close the door on future games yet) and send the clansmen beyond the Wall of Darkness.

Tales of Beseria released and we have a review of it! As a fan of the series, Rob found the game darker than those previous, and was happy about a number of small(ish) tweaks to the gameplay, but worried that the franchise was becoming a little stale and noted that the graphics feel decidedly low quality in some places. Overall, he scored it a 7.5, which seems to be close to what the majority of critics are also finding.

The Division is getting a meaty new expansion, titled Last Stand. The DLC will greatly expand the Dark Zone, almost doubling it and change a number of systems therein. Last stand will also expand zone control, challenging players to complete three objectives to gain control of a region. A new Lost Signal incursion will also be added, along with added character customization, legendary difficulty, and leaderboards.

Speaking of DLC updates, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided will receive its A Criminal Past add-on on February 23rd, flashing back to Adam Jensen’s first mission for TF29, the infiltration of a high-sec prison for augmented criminals.

Likewise, Dark Souls 3 will receive its final expansion, The Ringed City, on March 28th. The trailer (seen above) is archaic as ever, but describes the city as taking place at the world’s end and features some incredible new bosses. I’ve never been so excited to die repeatedly.

That’s all for this week. Let us know what you think in the comments below!


Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight