Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth preview
Learn more about the first-person game based on H.P. Lovecraft's series of horror novels.
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The works of H.P. Lovecraft have been a source of material for game developers for some time now. Electronic Arts released a few adventure games in the late '80s--games that were loosely based on some of Lovecraft's work--and both the original Quake and the seminal survival-horror title Alone in the Dark have used or drawn upon his many creations to create new worlds. Straddling the line somewhere between direct adaptation and the original Lovecraft tale is Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Headfirst Productions' upcoming first-person adventure game.
Dark Corners of the Earth is loosely based on both the Call of Cthulhu pen-and-paper role-playing game and Lovecraft's healthy collection of stories and novels. The pen-and-paper game was initially the brainchild of RPG maker Chaosium and writer Sandy Petersen, who later moved on to work on Doom and Quake at id Software before settling at his current job at Age of Empires developer, Ensemble Studios. The pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu puts you into a 1920s world that's populated with the creatures Lovecraft called the Old Ones, as well as other monsters. It was this aspect that initially attracted the UK-based Headfirst to the material. Designer Andrew Brazier explained, "The setting is interesting--the aesthetics of the 1920s provided a lot of inspiration for our artists. [And] there are massive monsters with loads of tentacles, which is always good." So when Headfirst's American agent acquired the rights to produce a game based on the Cthulhu mythos, "We bit his hand off...we knew it would make a cool game," Brazier said.
Headfirst may not be the first company that pops into your head when you think of psychological horror, as its only other game to date is the kid-oriented game Simon the Sorcerer 3D. But Brazier says although the two games are "completely different in every way," work on Simon 3D has prepared them for Dark Corners of the Earth. "What Simon 3D has provided us with is the experience of making our first real-time 3D game, so we have ironed out a load of problems and pitfalls during its development. We wouldn't dare take on a project like Cthulhu without that experience." He is also quick to point out that even though Headfirst has worked on only two games (Dark Corners of the Earth being the second), Mike and Simon Woodroffe, the heads of the company, have been in the industry for 15 years and, between the two of them, have shipped more than 100 games.
The game will draw upon a number of sources to keep things consistent with the Cthulhu mythos. Brazier says that both the pen-and-paper game and Lovecraft's original text will help flesh out the gameworld. "The original stories give us the best understanding of the environments and characters, [while] the RPG source material helps us adapt that background into interesting game situations with a cohesive plotline. Plus, the RPG is slightly more action-oriented than the stories were, which also helps." All the main characters in the game, however, are creations of Headfirst, and the plot isn't adapted from any particular Lovecraft story. This decision on the company's part should keep things scary even for those familiar with the source material.
With the license in place, Headfirst's next challenge was to decide on how to go about creating a world that would be familiar to fans of Lovecraft's work. Dark Corners of the Earth will be powered by NDL's NetImmerse engine, which was also used in Simon the Sorcerer 3D. In both cases, Headfirst decided to use a third-party engine so that it could focus its efforts on gameplay from the outset, without worrying about developing technology. As Brazier put it, another plus is that "the system is multiplatform, which makes console ports easier." In addition to using the NetImmerse engine for the game's visuals, Dark Corners of the Earth also features the Havok Physics Engine. According to Woodroffe, the lead designer on the game, Headfirst chose the Havok system because "it allows us to make a much more reactive environment and also get other physics-heavy things, such as a vehicle dynamics, into the game very quickly." He also says that the team has been working with Havok for some time now and that "ever since we saw their very early tech demos, we knew we wanted to get it in the game."
The Havok engine will be used to power everything from how objects are moved around in the gameworld to collision detection, character control, and cloth synthesis, allowing the designers to make Dark Corners of the Earth have a realistic, more natural feel to it. It will also be used to create realistic environmental effects, such as water and wind effects. But don't expect everything in the game to have physics applied to it. Brazier says this wouldn't be a good thing, since the designers wouldn't have any control over how you would interact with the gameworld, "which makes it a design nightmare."
Regarding the perspective of the game, the team looked at games like Alone in the Dark, which uses a third-person perspective, but it ultimately decided to go with a first-person viewpoint. Brazier says that a third-person perspective simply wouldn't convey the sense of horror that the team members were looking for. "The original Alone in the Dark is one of my favorite games of all time. The third-person perspective was used to great effect in games like that and Resident Evil, because of the dramatic camera angles, which added to the tension. However, you could always see if a creature was sneaking up behind you, which was kind of a shame. In the end, we chose a first-person [perspective] because we really wanted to immerse the player in the environment, and you can't do that if you are controlling a character you can see on the screen. We want players to feel like they are really there as much as possible." But Headfirst didn't just stop with a first-person perspective. Dark Corners of the Earth will literally have no heads-up display. Even Half-Life had a minimal HUD, but Brazier says even that would have gotten in the way "because of the immersion factor--you can't feel [like a] part of the environment if there's a big red beating heart and ammo counter on the screen the whole time."
Don't Play With the Lights Out
Lovecraft's creatures weren't created with current 3D technology in mind, so the design team has faced a formidable challenge in visualizing them. Brazier says Headfirst's technology helps, but it's hardly easy. "It's certainly a challenge, especially as your imagination often creates far more fearsome creatures and monsters than polygons can. We are fortunate, however, in that we are using around 10,000 polygons per character, which means we can get a load of detail into them, which will help make them as scary as possible."
Although the game isn't directly adapted from the pen-and-paper RPG, it will be using some of the tabletop game's established rules. Dark Corners of the Earth is technically a first-person action title, but it features some elements more common to role-playing games. These include character skills, which will be built up as you progress through the game, and an inventory system that is closer to an RPG than that of a first-person shooter. Also, like Clive Barker's Undying, your character keeps a "journal" throughout the game, which gets updated as you encounter new story elements and characters. By the time you reach the end of the game, it should resemble an original Lovecraft story of its own.
In both the original Lovecraft stories and the Call of Cthulhu RPG, characters descend into madness as they encounter creatures. Headfirst has recognized how important this is to the overall experience, so it has created a unique sanity system for Dark Corners of the Earth. Because of the first-person perspective and the lack of any sort of HUD, the designers have a rare opportunity to scare players by having their character slowly go insane. Woodroffe says that this was something the designers really wanted to implement. "One of the most important parts of H.P. Lovecraft's stories (and the RPG) is that often finding out about the horrors of the Cthulhu mythos makes people insane. We really wanted to include that in the game, so the player character's sanity can decline throughout the game. This can have subtle effects--perhaps you start hearing voices in your ears, perhaps every shadow looks like a horrific creature, or maybe you start hallucinating too. There are loads of different sanity effects in the game, which all add to the experience." Your character can get panic attacks, which affect your sanity level in a number of different ways, like encountering a creature or even looking down from a high location.
Due to the increased interaction with the environment, Headfirst has had to implement a new way for gamers to manipulate items. It decided to add a virtual hand, although Brazier is quick to point out how this differs from Trespasser, a game that was heavily criticized for its free-floating arm. "One of the main problems with Trespasser is that occasionally you could 'break' puzzles due to the physics engine, which is something we are going to avoid at all costs. Plus, it was very hard to control that arm thing onscreen, especially with those enormous breasts distracting you as well. Our 'grab' feature allows the player to interact with objects in a much more intuitive way, plus it has the benefits of inverse kinematics animation, which means the arm can move correctly to the required location while still looking human."
Dark Corners of the Earth will have you traveling to a number of Lovecraft settings, including the town of Innsmouth and even the undersea city that is home to the Deep One. But because of this setting and the time period in which the game takes place, don't expect too much in the way of weaponry. Although the game uses a first-person perspective, Dark Corners of the Earth's arsenal is pretty standard for its time period, consisting of shotguns, revolvers, and small explosives. Brazier does hint that there are others that Headfirst isn't revealing at this time, which he says are "more interesting weapons created by some of the creatures in the game."
In keeping with Headfirst's overall plan to make the gameworld as real as possible, healing yourself will be particularly unique for a first-person title. Brazier says that "there are no magical health rechargers conveniently lying around the place--occasionally, players will find medical kits, containing bandages and perhaps a morphine shot, which will recover some of their lost health, but not all of it. The player's 'life' will be very precious, so [he or she] will need to conserve [his or her] health whenever possible." He also says that it's possible to overdose on morphine, which would decrease your sanity level. It's also possible to hinder your movement through certain actions, as Brazier explained. "Certain events, such as a heavy fall, injury, or exhaustion, will have a slight effect on the player's mobility. [Players] won't end up crawling around everywhere painfully slowly, but it'll be enough to make them take more care of their character."
While the game will have atmosphere in spades, one thing it won't have will be background music, as the developers feel it would interfere with the sense of realism they are trying to create. There will be music, but it will be used sparingly. Still, audio is something Headfirst will be focusing its efforts on, and the game will fully utilize positional audio for those with the hardware to take advantage of it. "Sound effects are a vital part of creating a scary atmosphere, so 3D sound will be perfect for doing this. It is surprising how much you come to rely on stereo and 3D effects when working out where your attacker is coming from, so it is important we get it right in Cthulhu."
Although Dark Corners of the Earth bears little resemblance to first-person shooters such as Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament, the developers are nonetheless including online multiplayer. There will be a deathmatch mode, but the most effort is being devoted to co-op, which they say will let up to four people progress through the single-player game together. Brazier says this will make the game a slightly different experience. "In the co-op mode, players will be required to work together in order to complete the missions, so good communication and strategy are important. Plus, there is the added problem of sanity effects--for example, perhaps your character's sanity is very low, and [he is] hallucinating. You see a Deep One coming toward you--but is your mind deceiving you? Perhaps it's one of your colleagues?"
Work is progressing on the game, and Brazier told us that they are currently working on the level design. Plus, the AI and animation systems are firmly in place. While there isn't a set release date for the game at this point, Fishtank Interactive, the game's worldwide publisher, has it down for a fourth quarter 2001 release--so plan on having a very scary Christmas.
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