Diehard GameFAN Hall of Shame Nomination: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

Every week, we will present a new game to be nominated for the Diehard GameFAN Hall of Fame and Hall of Shame. These nominations will occur every Monday and Friday, respectively. Our standards are just like the Baseball Hall of Fame: every game will be voted on by members of the staff, and any game that gets 75% of the vote – with a minimum of four votes – will be accepted – or thrown – into their respective Hall.

Game: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Developer: Headfirst Productions
Publisher: Bethseda Softworks
Release Date: 10/24/2005
System Released On: Microsoft Xbox, PC
Genre: First Person Shooter

Who Nominated The Game: I did – if only because I’ve played every bloody Cthulhu game ever made (Not an exaggeration.)

Why Was It Nominated: There are several games that showcase a disconnect between the press and the general gaming public. Beyond Good and Evil is one of those games. It was critically praised, but a financial flop. Chrono Trigger is another. Hardcore gamers profess to love it, but the re-releases have well…not done well financially. Perhaps strongest of these disconnects is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth where the average reviewer knew next to nothing about the Cthulhu Mythos and gave the game high ratings (mainly because Bethseda Softworks was the publisher and most sites didn’t dare criticize the game) while any (and nearly every) fan of the actual Call of Cthulhu license hated the game with such passion that the game sold poorly enough to put Headfirst out of business. Perhaps even more damning is that the positive reviews of the game were outed by most Cthulhu fans sites as “on the take” (whether that was true or not was never proved) as the highest scoring reviews actively ignored that the game had numerous bugs and glitches – main of which prevented you from progressing in the game and having to start over. These glitches were never addressed or patched by Bethseda or Headfirst by the way.

Perhaps the biggest cardinal sin of the game is that none of the actual feeling, tone or style that Howard Phillips Lovecraft put into his writing could be found in the game. Instead the franchise and its characters were merely window dressing for a less than mediocre first person shooter where you shot up creatures that Lovecraft specifically wrote were beyond human understand and there mere sight of them would permanently drive you mad. Not to mention manmade weapons could neither hurt, nor even phase, them.

The end result was a game that proved to be a financial humiliation for Bethseda Softworks, the final nail in the coffin for Headfirst, and a massive amount of outrage against a lot of game reviewers for letting rank and file people talk about a franchise or product when it was obvious they had no knowledge of the source material. Even today, Dark Corners of the Earth is considered the most appalling and embarrassing use of the Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Mythos franchise – whose Great Old Ones have appeared in everything from Shadow of the Comet down to the latest Splatterhouse. To Lovecraft enthusiasts or Mythos historians, Dark Corners of the Earth is up there with that movie titled Cthulhu that is just about homosexualty and nothing else as “Things that use the Cthulhu name to get people to buy a product that actually has nothing to do with the franchise.” Both the movie Cthulhu, andDark Corners of the Earth would have probably gotten off a lot better had they ditched the franchise and stood on their own to feet. In both cases though, you had two mediocre products that many consumers felt were a bait and switch.

Perhaps my “favorite” personal memory of the game was when I reviewed it and gave it “only” a 5/10 (back in the days when we had numerical scores) and the developers were so pissed the dared me to come to their official forums and debate what was wrong with the game, not realizing I had actually done some work for Chaosium back in the day and that at the time, I was one of the best known folklorists when it came to things that go bump in the night. The end result was even the fanboys of the game sided with me over the developers on the issues and lack of faithfulness to the original core product and gave me the thumb’s up even if they still liked the game. I also remember when Headfirst announced they were closed, one of the staffers wrote a hate filled rant about me on the site (Which has since disappeared or I’d happily link to it) and implied that I singlehandedly killed them. Ooookay then.

But to be perfectly honest, I didn’t nominate this game simply because I hate it. In fact I nominated it because everyone on staff that I know has played it (In fact everyone I know that has played it on or off staff hates it) has such venom towards this game that my disdain looks like apathy by comparison. As such, this seemed like a shoo-in to get it. How did it fare?

All in Favour:

Alexander Lucard: This is the worst Cthulhu Mythos themed game I’ve ever encountered. Not only is the game horribly made, but it is also non-sensual. The writing is god awful, you have characters dressed in summer clothes on a clear day talking about how cold it is here in winter and how thick the fog is, but the designers turned a Cthulhu game into a first person shooter. You kill Dagon with a fucking rocket launcher. FATHER DAGON. ROCKET LAUNCHER. This should automatically raise the ire of every Mythos fan ever, yet some deluded people actually defended and god forbid, liked this game.

If you ever want to see Mark, Matt and myself get into a tizzy, all you have to do is bring up this game and we’ll all launch into our respective tirades on the damn thing. I don’t like being vindictive towards an indie company but I cheered when Head First died a horrible horrible death and shuttered their doors. Five years later and I am still bitter over this game. Hell even bringing up the game pisses me off. If anything my ire from five years ago is stronger today for this game.

Matt Yeager: Man if there was a game that deserves to be in the Hall of Shame, Dark Corners of the Earth is certainly one of them. Then again if you are a long time follower of this website (How are both of you doing by the way?) you already know that this game is not one that is welcome in these parts. Maybe you’ve read Lucard’s review on it or saw that it was on the list of the 32 Worst Horror Games that in my modest opinion was the of the best lists since when Schindler put pen to paper. If you’re hoping my opinion is any different than that of Mark’s or Lucard’s, well let’s just say if two doctors say you’ve got cancer than a third opinion isn’t going to go so well.

So yeah. Call of Cthulhu: Annoying Name to Type More Than Once was a game that I looked forward to, and even enjoyed for about the first hour of the game. As a big Lovecraft fan, something many of the writers for this site have in common, I was pleased with how the game began as sort of an adventure game where you went around picking up information that tested the sanity of the main character. Then there was an awesome chase scene where you had to run weaponless from a bunch of fisherman. That was great, it reminded me almost exactly of a vacation I had in Maine after I asked why all the women in town smelled like rotten fish. Everything was looking up.

Then you get a gun.

Hey, do you remember that one Lovecraft story where the main character goes all Rambo with a gun and takes on some of the Elder Gods? NO YOU DON’T. Because that’s fucking retarded. You don’t wear white after Labor Day, you don’t mess with the Zohan, and you don’t bring a gun to a Cthulhu fight. Call of Cthulhu: Derp Corners of the Herp started off in the right direction by emphasizing
psychological horror over shooting monsters in the dark before the developers threw in the towel said, “Fuck it!” and decided they’d rather make Doom.

Speaking of the developers, the fine folks who made this must have had the attention span of Tiger Woods in the Bunny Ranch. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corridor of Failure skips around from being an adventure game to a stealth game to a shooter, all without doing any of those genres well. There’s a health mechanic that tries to deal with damage realistically by making it so that you have to bandage hurt areas specifically. Of course the “realistic” portion is thrown right out the window anyways, you’re leg broke? Select to splint that leg and you’re good to go fight Dagon. How this was any different than just using a regular heal pack is beyond me, I mean if this is realistic than we need to get these guys to help Obama reform healthcare. Last time I had a leg splint the only thing I beat was my high score on how many aspirin I could take in one hour.

The sanity system, an apparent requirement for anything Lovecraft, is so bad that it should have stood as a warning right away in the game that the rest of the game was going to suck. When you see something that drives your character a little crazy the screen blurs, vertigo can happen and so on. Because what you really want in a FPS game are more ways to get suffer motion sickness. Nothing like right in the heat of battle having the sanity meter slip a little and try to battle pissed off fishermen through drunk-o-vision. But hey, there’s an easy way to fix your sanity! all you need to do is STARE AT A FUCKING WALL. That’s right, walls have a soothing effect on the main character from a memory of the his first love, a short brick wall that was a lovely shade of red.

Note to future developers of any video game, at no point should the answer to a design question about how to do something in the game be Do Nothing. It’s interactive entertainment. Doing nothing is not interactive. Don’t do this thing.

So you’ve got sloppy mechanics, poor design choices, I could go on about garbled speech and more but you get the point. After the chase scene the game becomes a run of the mill FPS with puzzles where you flip switches. The game continues to go more over the top as the main character, by this point wearing about half a dozen splints, fights and defeats multiple Elder Gods with human weapons and an energy weapon. If you don’t see anything wrong with that last sentence, you can go fuck yourself. Call of Cthulhu: Dropped on Its Head at Birth is a mediocre game that takes a steaming dump on Lovecraft’s legacy.

Chris Whitehead: On paper, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth is one of those games that looks great on paper but the final product was one of the worst things I’ve ever played. This is compounded by the fact the game is a horrible disservice to the legacy of Lovecraft, Chambers, Bieth, Derelth and all the other Mythos writers. Playing as a P.I. that has to investigate Innsmouth for whatever reason? Like I said, on paper, any Lovecraft fan would find that cool. The actual game itself was so horrible, however, that I can’t think of anything positive about it.

I think my least favorite bit of the game was when you have to barricade a room to keep Deep One townfolk from getting to you and then platform style jump (from a first person viewpoint, mind you) to a safe point. Not only were the mechanics and camera horrible, but whoever thought of the concept of first person platform gaming needs to be drug out into the street and shot. I’m not exaggerating when I say Dark Corners of the Earth is one of the worst console games I’ve ever played.

All Opposed:

Mark B.: On one hand, I didn’t enjoy my time with Call of Cthulhu. I didn’t enjoy it at all. First person titles really shouldn’t be designed in a way that requires the player to perform jumping puzzles or movements where knowing where your feet are would be beneficial, because you aren’t aware of where your appendages are at all times in this sort of a game. I keep coming back to this one segment of the game, fairly early on, where you had to run from the townsfolk of Innsmouth by escaping from your hotel room and hiding from them repeatedly as you navigated through the game world, because it sucked out loud. After multiple deaths incurred while trying to escape from the hotel room in the first place, once I’d escaped from the room itself I eventually managed to break both legs while trying to navigate away from the pursuing hordes, and the whole experience left such a bad taste in my mouth that by the time I got to a point in the game where I was dealing with what I expect was supposed to be the “cool” stuff that I was completely disgusted with the whole experience.

That said…

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth was a very experimental game in a lot of respects, made by a company that didn’t exactly have a lot of money to work with to begin with. Headfirst, the developer, pretty much went bankrupt right after this game came out, due in large part, one suspects, to the poor performance of this game, and in many respects, I can’t really be too angry about that. The handling of the Cthulhu mythos in the game was fairly spotty, to be polite, and while something like Eternal Darkness can get away with allowing players the ability to kill off Lovecraftian horrors, it does so because it’s not a Lovecraftian game specifically, so it can play fast and loose with the rules as it sees fit. Call of Cthulhu, on the other hand, has rules that have been handed down to it based on the stories of Lovecraft, at the very least, and is asked to abide by those rules, so shooting said horrors with a hand pistol likely shouldn’t be able to kill them outright, for example.

That said, the game tried to experiment with a lot of different concepts, including limb damage, insanity monitoring as a game mechanic, and implementing survival horror concepts into a first person shooter, and while it didn’t succeed, I find it hard to hate the developer for that. A while ago, when Mirror’s Edge came out, after playing through the experience and experimenting with the game, the observation came to mind that when a game like this comes out, the developer is, in essence, asking you as the player to be part of the scientific method, as it were. You’re handed the game and asked to evaluate what you think does and does not work, and vocalize those opinions, so that when the developer has the chance to sit down and modify the experience for a sequel, they have that concept in mind. When someone releases a Gears of War, that’s a game that mostly comes out fully formed with little experimentation to be made, and the developers only have to make small changes to the formula to make the game work. With something that takes first person mechanics and attaches those to a Prince of Persia style game, well, that’s never been done before, so it’s hard to know what will and will not work, because it’s never been done before. At that point, I asked myself if I wanted to be a part of this method, and the answer that I came to was “no”, because I felt that the developer should be obligated to make sure their goddamned game works properly out of the box, and it’s not my job to do that for them.

After two years of ruminating on that concept and a month spent considering whether Call of Cthulhu deserves a spot in the Hall of Shame, I don’t think I feel that way anymore.

When I sit down with a game like Braid, which was hailed as being “original” by so many people that after a while I just lost count, and I find Super Mario Bros by way of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, I kind of wonder if this is what “originality” has become in the gaming world. It’s not even a matter of liking or disliking the game; it’s a matter of whether the game is original by way of actual experimentation or by way of applying existing formulas to other existing formulas, and if we want to see the medium advance, it’s better to see the former than the latter. I’d sooner see something like Disaster Report than something like Resident Evil: Code Veronica, for example, because I want to see people do things I never thought of. I want to see buildings fall on me because I assumed they’d be safe. I want to see potentially weird games like Child of Eden come out. I want this because, even if it doesn’t work, I can say “Well, Battle Construction Vehicles, you certainly tried to be a fighting game based on construction vehicles, and that’s different, at least”.

Which brings us to the point that, despite how much I don’t like the game, I can’t vote for Call of Cthulhu. It’s not at all a good game, and I don’t even want to pretend it might be, but it tried to do something different, and while conceptually it’s a maddening experience, mechanically it amuses me more than something like Haze, even if it didn’t work. Given the choice, I’d sooner see people try to make something that isn’t quite like anything I’ve ever seen before instead of making sequels or games based off of other people’s ideas, and while Call of Cthulhu is a poor game, its developers at least had some ideas, whether or not they worked, of how to make the game different, and I can ultimately respect that.

Result: 3 In Favour, 1 Opposed, 75% Approval = SHAMED

Conclusion: Well, Mark gave us a last minute swerve by voting Nay on the HoS (even though he listed it as the fifth worst horror game of all time), but Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth still makes the hall. It’s telling when even the nay vote considers this nominee one of the absolute worst games of all time, no? Congrats Headfirst, you may have been dead for several years now, but your legacy of a horrible disservice to Lovecraft will love on in infamy as the eighth inductee of the HALL OF SHAME.

Next Week: Although a lot of people point the finger at Hall of Shame Inductee E.T. as the death knell of Atari as a major player in the industry, next week we look at a game that had almost as much, if not the same amount of impact on them financially.

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