In Decadent, we explore two games united by a common theme and separated by time—specifically, by a decade or so.
Have you ever seen 2010: Moby Dick? Of course you haven’t. I hope I’m not spoiling the plot for anyone, but as this perversion of the Herman Melville classic nears its end, the whale somehow overcomes evolutionary constraints and actually runs out of the sea and onto an island, terrorizing the surviving members of the Pequod, a nuclear submarine captained by Weekend At Bernie’s II’s Barry Bostwick. This is probably the least terrible part of the film.
To paraphrase Ahab, these mindless adaptations leave a white and turbid wake that often completely obscures the source material in all but the most superficial ways. Is it any easier to adapt literary works into quality games? The 1994 Super Nintendo version of Lord Of The Rings and 2005’s Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth suggest it is not.
An adaptation can also go wrong if too slavishly devoted to the original text. Few thought Peter Jackson’s film version of The Fellowship Of The Ring was worse for a lack of Tom Bombadil, Tolkien’s crazy, ageless hobo—“merry fellow, bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.” It was a judgment call on Jackson’s part, and he rightly decided old Tom’s unexplainable presence would have hurt the flow of the hobbits’ tale. On the other hand, the Super NES version—dubbed Volume 1, which proved overly optimistic—incorporates many of Tolkien’s more mundane creations, in the least creative ways possible.
For those few unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien’s iconic tale of elves, Middle-Earth and talking trees, the story centers on a young hobbit named Frodo Baggins. Frodo, the nephew of a famous hobbit adventurer named Bilbo, comes into possession of a magic ring. This bauble is the property of a disembodied megalomaniac named Sauron who fancies himself dark lord of all creation and really wants his ring back. Sauron sends his minions after Frodo. At the urging of the wizard Gandalf, Frodo and his friends race to destroy the ring so that they might make the world safe for beer-drinking, weed-smoking halflings everywhere.
One of the first quests Frodo has to undertake in the Rings game is to search some nearby caves for the lost glasses of old Gaffer, the father of Frodo’s friend and manservant, Samwise Gamgee. Forget for a second how this little old hobbit ended up crossing wolf-infested land and misplacing his glasses in a dark, monster-infested grotto. The glasses are missing, and Sam can’t join your quest until you find and return them. This irritating find-the-missing-stuff task sets the tone for the entire game, which renders memorable chapters of the books as nonsensical annoyances.
This is an unbelievably boring game. Coming in the same era as some of the finest video game adventures ever made (Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, among others), and mining what amounts to the Bible of fantasy literature, The Lord Of The Rings: Volume 1 belongs in the conversation for most disappointing game adaptation of all time.
Frodo and company wander around familiar settings like the misty, wight-haunted Barrow Downs (another spot wisely left out of the films by Jackson) and the mines of Moria, collecting a baffling array of silly, inconsequential items that are nonetheless necessary to advance the game. Terrible as it was, 2010: Moby Dick at least boasted moments of kitsch hilarity. The most colorful parts of The Lord Of The Rings: Volume 1 are the vibrant capes worn by the hobbits, which contrast against the game’s vast, resolutely bland background. It is a mercy that the world was never inflicted with a second volume.
Not all literary fantasy is doomed to mediocrity in video game form. H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories and novellas—specifically, his Cthulhu mythology—inspired generations of aspiring horror writers and adaptations from the likes of Metallica and South Park. Cthulhu is an ancient, tentacled god thing from beyond the stars, totally evil and all-powerful. According to Lovecraftian lore, Earth was home to advanced, terrible races millions of years before humans crawled out of the primordial ooze. The greatest of these, Cthulhu, still lives, and sleeps away the millennia beneath the ocean in R’lyeh, a city that is “abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” His psychic alien brain waves, meanwhile, have inspired human cults around the globe. It’s now-standard “apocalypse by rampaging space monster” stuff, but Lovecraft does it better than anyone.
The 2005 game Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth makes heavy use of two Lovecraft stories—“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Shadow Out Of Time”—for its material. You play private detective Jack Walters. The game begins when Jack gets called in by the local police to act as a mediator with this armed cult. A shootout ensues, and Jack explores the cult’s hideout. Weirdly, the cultists appear to recognize Walters, even though he’s made it a general rule to not befriend insane Cthulhu worshippers.
Walters has a wry, Sam Spade-esque sense of humor about the whole thing. For instance, when one of the cultists takes a break from shooting at the police from out his window to tell Jack they’ve been expecting him, the cultist is killed by a stray bullet. Walters concludes that the bullet-ridden deceased died from “a bad case of lead poisoning.” Classic.
Despite his hardboiled one-liners, Walters doesn’t escape the house with his sanity intact. After uncovering hellish rites and strange creatures, he slips into a prolonged state of amnesia (a nod to “The Shadows Out Of Time”). He emerges back into his old self six years later, with few clues as to what happened during that blank chunk of his life.
But Walters is back on his old beat. After receiving a phone call about a missing person, he hops on a decrepit bus to the fishing village of Innsmouth—essentially the same idyllic fishing village described in the Lovecraft story—to investigate. Did I say idyllic? What I meant was even worse than Detroit. Innsmouth’s denizens are described in Lovecraft’s story as having “queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right.” That’s the kindest description I could find.
Despite the obvious warning signs, Walters is trapped and hunted by Innsmouth’s homicidal fish people. They don’t appear that formidable—no more so than a species of aggressive hobo—but Walters is mostly helpless against them. Often you’re forced to sneak past these guys and then they lay down withering gunfire once you’re spotted. This desperate flight fosters an atmosphere of imminent, crushing doom that heightens as the game goes on.
Both games require you to fight, as Gandalf might say, demons of the ancient world. But where Jack Walters facing the amorphous Shoggoth—a being described in the story “At The Mountains Of Madness” as “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light”—is a taut, visceral experience, the culminating battle of The Lord Of The Rings: Vol. 1 consumes 10 torturous minutes of your life.
That game’s ending truncates Tolkien’s own first volume, curtailing play after you face the mighty Balrog demon in the mines of Moria. This is one of the dullest final boss fights you’ll ever see. Members of your party that have managed to not be eaten by wolves or lost in caves run up to the edge of a precipice. The Balrog kind of floats back and forth, languidly swiping at you with his flaming sword. You dodge and stab. You can’t even kill the stupid thing if Gandalf is still alive and in your party—this is the game’s way of ensuring that he doesn’t make it out of the mines alive. Thanks for the literary fealty! But seriously, I dare you to watch this titanic clash and not fall immediately and willingly into a coma.
The Rings game never saw successive volumes for obvious reasons, but Dark Corners is an amazing game, and two sequels—tentatively titled Beyond The Mountains Of Madness and Destiny’s End—were being developed alongside it. Those follow-up projects never found a publisher due to poorer-than-expected sales. But while Dark Corners was a failure in box-office terms, its adroit translation of the text did show what could be done with the right mix of selective plot choices, original writing, and tentacled extra-dimensional nightmares.