“As heretofore noted, consciousness may have assisted our species’ survival in the hard times of prehistory, but as it became ever more intense it evolved the potential to ruin everything if not securely muzzled. This is the problem: We must either outsmart consciousness or be thrown into its vortex of doleful factuality and suffer, as Zapffe termed it, a “dread of being”—not only of our own being but of being itself, the idea that the vacancy that might otherwise have obtained is occupied like a stall in a public lavatory of infinite dimensions, that there is a universe in which things like celestial bodies and human beings are roving about, that anything exists in the way it seems to exist, that we are part of all being until we stop being, if there is anything we may understand as being other than semblances or the appearance of semblances.”
– Thomas Ligotti The Conspiracy Against the Human Race
Thomas Ligotti gained prominence a few years back due his writing being linked to the grim True Detective: There were accusations lead writer and creator, Nic Pizzolatto, had cribbed from Ligotti’s works. Whether Pizzolatto did so deliberately, it is uncontested that Ligotti inspired the dark edges of the show, the sense of consistent dread, the cusp of weirdness on the horizon, pouring cosmic horror like a thin film over the plot.
Most people know cosmic horror arising from the mind of notorious racist HP Lovecraft. But Ligotti takes the weird, the uncanny, and translates it into the modern, the everyday. In his story “Purity”, an eccentric father scoffs at religious beliefs but treats hauntings as real as dripping faucets; in “The Town Manager”, a small town finds itself suddenly managed by some unseen (governmental?) force, putting the people under duress to snap their lives into a pattern which becomes a machine for capitalism. Roads suddenly lead nowhere, grown men transform their ordinary shops into playpens and the narrator serves a strange soup to people he’s never seen before.
Horror and comedy are not so much separate genres as two voices singing the same song. A grown man forced to wear a baby’s outfit could either illicit laughter or, in the hands of Ligotti, horror. Set the particular mood, tell it in a particular tone, and the same story results in a smile or frown.
The Silent Hill games capture this to some degree, with its alternative endings where we discover everything is controlled by dog. Is that as ridiculous as monsters created out of the image of a character’s fear? Is the idea of aliens abducting the main characters as out of line as pyramid-headed pursuers?
Perhaps the most obvious recent example of cosmic horror is Bloodborne. Here you find yourself in a world encapsulated by a mission at once unfathomable and yet inevitable. Gods and beings beyond the conception of ordinary mortals exist in realities parallel to the mortals’ own, yet which the gods influence. Progress is only measurable according to arbitrary and unfathomable calculations you often have no insight into. Decoding the meaning of the world is echoed in decoding how to play. The parallel between the in-game dark gods and the game’s developers as creators of the world is obvious: neither wants you to know the world but both have created the world for you to exist in.
Cosmic horror is a playground with poison slides and swings made of spikes, shrouded in mist and a menacing thump somewhere in foggy the distance, always getting closer. It is meant to at once make you small enough to be encompassed yet large enough to be the target of the powerful. You are both a bull’s eye and an ant.
Games don’t need to be horror to achieve this. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice captured this beautifully and remains one of the most haunting experiences of my life. More games should begin considering how to utilise cosmic horror, to draw players into contemplation about their space in this weird, burning reality we find ourselves in. I yearned for this in No Man’s Sky, but found its repetitive nature killed any sense of the cosmic – ironic in a game the size of a universe. But cosmic horror is dependent on the infinitely unknowable, not the easily obtainable. It’s a space (ignore the pun) for horror and comedy, yet seems so rarely utilised, especially by the bigger studios. This makes sense given the need for games being comprehensible – but to be able to strike the balance between the engaging and the unfathomable is a challenge all creatives working with cosmic horror attempt in their works. And it’s not impossible.
PS: Perhaps one of the most famous examples of cosmic horror in games is I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. I also recommend reading the short-story (PDF) before playing.
(Picture credit: Max Pixel)