Dark Corners: The Game that was too Much of a Game to be a Good Game
(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
If I’m playing a game that I do not have to review, and it’s not a good game, my tolerance for its existence is reduced to practically zero. I’m not the sort of person to continue suffering a bad game if I don’t have to, so usually I’ll spend up to an hour with it, determine it is terrible, and then get rid of it as quickly as possible. Every now and then, however, comes a bad game with a certain … magnetism. A magnetism that never quite manages to stop me from abandoning it, yet still draws me back again and again. No matter how many times I’ll uninstall or sell off this particular game, some perverse and possibly malevolent force has me possessing it once again. It’s not unlike Stanley Ipkiss and the Mask. I could toss it out of the window and it’ll still wind up on my coffee table in the future.
One such game is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. This is a bad game. It’s not just structured poorly, it’s a broken piece of shit. While it was generally well received back in the day, history has looked back on the game unfavorably, with most folks accepting that it’s not very well made. The first time I played Dark Corners, it kept freezing at a certain point. The second time I played it, it kept crashing. The third time, I got a little further, but stopped enjoying myself. Subsequent times, I got a little further, deemed it unworthy of my precious life, and tossed it aside. Yet I kept coming back.
Primarily based on H.P Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” Dark Corners is set in the notorious coastal town as players take on the role of a private detective. The opening section of the game is set in the center of this town, with players allowed a modicum of free exploration and minor interactions with the hideous, disturbingly similar, inhabitants. This section is also the reason I keep coming back. Whatever Dark Corners may do wrong, this introductory entrance to Innsmouth is something of a masterclass in how to create a truly atmospheric game. It is graphically limited, and there’s not a huge amount to do, but nevertheless, Innsmouth remains one of my favorite videogame locations in terms of places that scare the absolute crap out of me.
It’s quite telling that, for many people, Dark Corners of the Earth falls apart as soon as the game places a gun in your hand. From the astoundingly atmospheric opening, everything builds in terms of suspicion and suspense until it’s confirmed that the people of this town want you dead. The terrifying “hotel chase” sequence, in which Innsmouth’s residents attack the defenseless player in his or her hotel room and proceed to give chase through the building, is lauded by many as one of the most truly effective pieces of interactive horror a player could hope to experience.
Lacking the capability to fight back, players must think fast, barricading doorways and finding a path through the decrepit hotel that won’t put in range of the single-minded and lumbering menaces that pursue him. The feeling of panic as one locks doors behind them and agonizingly pushes heavy dressers out of the way of escape routes, all the while hearing banging and smashing from behind, is hard to compare to any other videogame. It is a truly remarkable moment, aided by an effective build of tension that demonstrated from the outset that something bad was going to happen, before suddenly springing the trap.
Unfortunately, as I said, it goes downhill once the game stops building tension and decided it needs to act like a videogame. After this chase sequence is where I stop playing, as the player character obtains a gun and the gameplay takes the form of a horrendous stealth mission, full of the kind of first-person sneaking about that rarely ever works. I’ve never gotten much further than the chase sequence, though I always tell myself I will, before another series of crashes, freezes, or annoyances of a more pre-planned nature get on my nerves and force me to stop. In all honesty, I’m not coming back to see how much farther I can get. I’m coming back to retread the stuff I’ve already done. To experience, once again, the intimidation and terror that Innsmouth inflicts upon me in those opening minutes. That is what I am there for. That is the Mask that keeps coming back to my coffee table.
It’s interesting how some games get worse the more they try to be games. Take, for example, Gravity Rush, which recently released on the PlayStation Vita. This is a game that works beautifully, and is a joy to play, until it starts relying on “game-like” elements to pad itself out. Gravity Rush, initially, is a game about exploring an open city by manipulating gravity — altering the direction from which gravitational pulls occur in order to “fall” from destination to destination and ostensibly fly throughout the world. It’s a fantastic concept, with controls that are surprisingly effective. Just floating around, collecting things, and seeing where one can go is breathtaking and endlessly entertaining. But that, sadly, isn’t enough. Gravity Rush has to be a “videogame”, and so we have a combat system, and a series of time trials and races, none of which play to the core concept’s strength. These missions are to Gravity Rush was the gun is to Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. It imposes a traditional gameplay idea onto an initially wonderful idea, an idea that benefits more from not sticking to old fashioned gameplay ideas.
Meanwhile, let’s look at Telltale’s The Walking Dead game. Although it bears many similarities to the studio’s usual point-and-click affairs, it has a lot more in common with Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain — a game that, itself, remained successful despite distancing itself from more common gameplay elements. The Walking Dead’s puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, and its action sequences aren’t particularly interactive. However, it’s a beautiful experience, because it focuses on storytelling and atmosphere to such a degree that gameplay almost takes a complimentary role. It’s not, really, the star of the show. Yet The Walking Dead remains compelling because we’re invested in an environment that has been fantastically realized. The action sequences remain intense because they were so expertly built towards, and because they occur at the perfect moments, those moments when we’ve gained a fondness for the characters involved and are now fully invested in their wellbeing.
Being a zombie game, it would have been easy to give players a gun and send them off shooting. It would have been easy to throw in more dynamic stealth elements or tricky environmental puzzles. However, that could well have taken away from what makes the game so effective at what it does. The Walking Dead doesn’t worry about trying to be a videogame, and that is why it succeeds where Dark Corners fails. Because it builds to a crescendo, then winds down, and prepares to build to the next one. It doesn’t worry that players will lose interest thanks to a lack of action-packed combat. It doesn’t worry that there’s too much talking and not enough sneaking about.
We’re seeing a fair few successful games that are successful in spite of — or thanks to — how un-game-like they are. Minecraft is a fantastic example. Some even go so far as to say it isn’t a game at all. Whatever you call it, there are no true objectives outside of what you make for yourself, and while there is a combat system, it’s completely ancillary and can be ignored if chosen. Again, this is a game that has managed to remain surprisingly atmospheric and, to some players, even quite scary. The intimidating threat of an incoming Creeper is quite overwhelming for some, while the darkest dungeons full of skeletons and zombies can invoke true terror. There’s a haunted element to Minecraft, and I don’t think that element would work if players were ever forced to do something. Able to play at their own place, players are afforded the chance to soak in that atmosphere, and become lost in a world that begins to mean something to them. They’re not constantly reminded that they are playing a game, because the game keeps forcing them to do game-like things.
Is there a point to these ceaseless prattlings? Not really. As I play Dark Corners for the billionth time, and experience yet more aggravating crashes, I nonetheless feel compelled to get my thoughts down, and think about certain games that would have benefited from sticking to what they’re good at, even if that meant not resembling a videogame much. Of course, on consoles, this idea that there are arbitrary checklists to fill still exist. So many games cram multiplayer and co-op into their feature sets, for no other reason than it’s the done thing. For many games, like BioShock 2 and Dead Space 2, these modes feel like the gun in Dark Corners. There to fill a sense of duty, and adding nothing to all the good that had been done up until that point.
I sometimes wonder how good Dark Corners could be if it had not been trying to meet its own arbitrary checklist. If it continued what it started and put atmosphere above gameplay. Not every game can pull that off, of course, and not every game should try. But sometimes, along comes a game with a core concept so good, it doesn’t need more traditional features thrown in for the sake of it. Had Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth realized that, this article might have been a nostalgic wad of praise for one of the best horror games of all time. Sadly, I can only praise what is one of the best ten minutes of horror a game has.
Still though … what a ten minutes.