Can a retro FPS make a good Lovecraft adaptation?
Blessed be the band of nerds who, in the early ’90s, gathered in the grimy confines of a dark garage to line up lines of code on a dusty old PC and paste pixelated representations of the monsters they drew in their course notebooks between packs of beer and cold pizza.
Even though I’m well aware that reality has little to do with this somewhat cartoonish scenario, this is how I imagine DOOM’s development and I’d like to keep this image in mind, to each his own. If I had to sum up what DOOM represents for me, I’d probably say that it’s probably why the video game was created, just as the Internet was given to us so we could spend hours watching cat videos.
For me, DOOM is the quintessence of what you can do with a joystick or a keyboard-mouse combo, primary sensations, the purity of gameplay – in fact, when you think about it, DOOM is a no-brainer. What could be more natural than to shoot Shotgun demons from hell in the corridors of a research station on the planet Mars – this is a video game after all, isn’t it? And I’m willing to bet that, not so long ago, that’s precisely what our parents’ generation thought of video games, so it’s no wonder the medium had a reputation for being violent.
DOOM is so obvious that it gave birth to an entire genre. We’re talking, of course, about first-person shooters. Of course, it’s no secret that this isn’t the 1st FPS, but there’s a reason why it was originally called DOOM-like. Simply because it’s the best, and it democratized shooting things with a big gun in the middle of the screen to such an extent that today’s most popular games include Call of Duty, PUBG and CS:GO, all distant descendants of the DOOM guy.
But while these modern titles have little in common with their ancestors, in recent years there have been games that allow us to relive the sensations of yesteryear with more modern comforts. So, just as platformers have had their Shovel Knight and The Messenger, racing games their Horizon Chase and Hotshot Racing, DOOM-like games are also enjoying a wave of revival.
We’re now talking about Boomer Shooter, a term that brings together both the classics of the golden age and newcomers such as Project Warlock, Amid Evil and the excellent Dusk under the banner of ‘daddy’ shooters. We could sum up a modern Boomer Shooter simply by saying that it’s a game that brings back the regressive pleasure of an old-school FPS, with graphics inspired by the pixel/low-poly era.
Obviously, the point of this approach is not only to plunge back into a bygone era, but also to provide technical comfort. This is why, in many cases, save management and accessibility have been brought up to date, and if the graphics are intended to pay homage to the 90s, they are often trompe l’oeil. A good example is Prodeus, released in 2022, which pixelates and gives the impression of an old-school rendering, despite a very modern 3D engine.
Once again this year, the release of Warhammer 40,000 Boltgun has made a lot of headlines, and the fact that a mass-market license has been put through this ‘neo-retro’ mill confirms that what may seem like a niche for a few nostalgic fans can in fact appeal to a wider audience.
So, as you can imagine, the reason I’ve given you this far too long intro, in which I’ve managed to place the word DOOM eight times, is to set the scene, since in this article I’m going to talk about Forgive me Father, an excellent Boomer shooter, and I’m going to try to put my finger on why I think it’s a good adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, and particularly of the Cthulhu mythos.
You know right away what you’re getting into, since the game’s artworks and the logo itself include many tentacles, and I know what you’re thinking – it’s not very subtle, and might even put some people off. Indeed, it’s extremely reductive to sum up the Cthulhu legend in terms of this element. We’ve already seen more than one game limit their “adaptation” to tentacles and a few notions of madness, making us wonder if their creators have ever opened one of the man’s books.
In the case of Forgive me Father, I’ll warn you right away that we’re not talking about the pinnacle of subtlety either, but it’s precisely the contrast between a completely moronic bourrin game and certain well-understood elements of the Myth that makes it an interesting work. And it starts with the art direction.
Byte Barrel, the development studio, made a clever decision to keep the 2D sprites typical of the first DOOM-like games, but to replace their pixelated versions of the time with splendid HD drawings, all set in a low-poly 3D environment. It may sound strange when you put it like that, but the game’s look has really made a name for itself, since, let’s face it, the screenshots look great. It has to be said that the famous DA fits the style of the game magnificently and evokes Lovecraft’s writings perfectly. In terms of graphic style, the primary inspiration is to be found in Pulp magazines, Weird Tales in particular.
These early twentieth-century publications were a major source of inspiration for fantasy, horror and SF authors. In particular, it was in this magazine that Lovecraft’s first writings were published. If the texts left their mark, the cover illustrations left their mark on the retina and fed the imagination of artists whose work can still be seen today.
One of the contemporary artists claiming to be influenced by the Pulps is none other than Mike Mignola, the comic book artist best known for creating Hellboy. A closer look at Mignola’s work reveals a certain porosity with Lovecraftian legends. The author has released a series called Hellboy: Weird Tales, drawn several representations of Cthulhu and even created a portrait of the master of horror. The choice of this type of drawing for Forgive me Father’s monsters was therefore self-evident, and we’re reassured to see that the artists who worked on the game were able to appropriate the author’s style without falling into plagiarism.
As an aside, Mike Mignola’s work seems to be a growing source of influence in video games. His distinctive style was already apparent in Darkest Dungeon, another game that admirably appropriated Lovecraft’s writings. In 2020, the rogue-like West of Dead also made use of this graphic style, and development studio Upstream Arcade has just released Mike Mignola’s Hellboy Web of Wyrd, bringing us full circle.
To return to Forgive me Father and its AD, it should be added that beyond the hand-drawn 2D sprites and 3D scenery, the management of light benefits from a very modern treatment with dynamic lighting which, in addition to embellishing the whole, adds interest to the level design since, as in many contemporary games, light will often subtly help us to find our way through the levels.
The game even incorporates a flashlight which, while more or less anecdotal at first, proves indispensable in certain levels and even provides a source of tension since, as in DOOM 3, you have to choose between the flashlight and your firearm.
While we’re on the subject of weapons, we could dwell a little on the arsenal, which turns out to be rather classic for an old-school FPS. A harpoon, however, is a must for any Lovecraftian game, and can be found in the swamp level. While we’re on the subject of the author’s influence, some of the weapons seem to have come from some cosmic dimension.
In fact, one of the game’s best ideas is its skill tree, which may seem superfluous in a game of this genre, but is in fact admirably integrated. You’ll regularly earn a point to spend on increasing your life points, armor or the amount of ammunition you can carry. But you can also decide to invest these points in upgrading your weaponry, often with several options, thus multiplying the possibilities.
Perhaps I should have mentioned that you have the choice of playing as two characters, the priest or the journalist, each with their own unique special abilities, encouraging the player to replay the game to try out the other “class”. It’s worth noting, however, that the world’s most potent weapon would be nothing without the appropriate sound, and there’s nothing to complain about here. The cannons explode as they should and the heads make a nice sploosh on headshots – mission accomplished.
All these tools of destruction will be put to work to eradicate hordes of zombies, cultists with strange powers and cosmic creatures of all shapes and sizes. The game’s bestiary is surprisingly extensive, and we’ll be surprised to discover new atrocities right up to the final levels, which are designed to regularly renew our interest. All emblematic locations are represented, from gothic mansions to redneck farms and buildings with Cyclopean architecture straight out of the cosmos.
We’re certainly not talking about revolutionary level design, but for an old-school FPS, we’re regularly surprised to discover a few subtleties that spare us the impression of going round in circles. To make matters worse, the game’s soundtrack often plunges us into anguished atmospheres, and knows how to blast guitars tuned far too low for their own good when it comes to giving the player the adrenaline dose needed to commit a massacre. We’re even treated to some electro-darkening passages that are sure to have wrung an unhealthy smile from more than one player headbanging in front of his screen.
In short, Forgive me Father is a great little game, a good Boomer Shooter with a tempting AD and a gameplay perfectly suited to the experience it wants to offer. We could stop there, but the reason I’m talking about this game is to look at the way it takes on the Cthulhu mythos, and if, as I’ve already mentioned, the AD fulfills this function wonderfully, the homage doesn’t stop there.
As you’re reading this, you may be thinking to yourself that an outrageously violent retro FPS can’t possibly respectfully adapt the tales of the master of horror. You could argue that another action game, Bloodborne, managed to sublimate Lovecraft’s themes in a subtle way, but we’re talking about From Software here, and what’s more, the game that’s often considered their masterpiece. In Bloodborne, the homage is made in a noble and roundabout way, since no name from the Lovecraftian canon is directly evoked. We’re taking ideas and adapting them to Dark Souls, in a very first-degree, no-nonsense way.
In contrast, Forgive me Father’s visuals feature all the old-timers and their tentacles, and the game could have been called “Cthulhu: the FPS” and no one would have been shocked. To make matters worse, the tone of the game is very light-hearted, with onomatopoeia straight out of a comic book appearing regularly when you touch a monster, and you even get a ‘headshot’ when you’ve got your aim right (I particularly liked the zombie holding a head in his hand, which he’ll use to replace his own if you’ve decapitated it. Humor is omnipresent, and our avatar will often make absurd comments given the situation.
To top it all off, the game’s early levels are peppered with not-so-subtle Easter Eggs, ranging from portraits of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe to a “Wanted” poster of Luffy in One Piece and a campfire from Dark Souls.
And yet, despite all these elements, which clearly demonstrate a total detachment and a claimed lack of seriousness, Forgive me Father is a good adaptation of the cult of Cthulhu. But it’s not the storyline that makes me say that – it has the merit of existing, but its sole purpose is to give us an excuse to move forward and, we hope, finally take out some of the Great Old Ones. No, the story itself, told between levels in barely animated but not unpleasant cutscenes, isn’t really the main interest.
In fact, if you think about it, this is a regular occurrence in Lovecraft’s writings. Not that these short stories are devoid of interest, but often it’s less what’s being told than how it’s being told that matters. Most of the author’s stories come to us in the form of epistolary correspondence, newspaper articles, reports and rumours. We systematically learn about the events of the story from the outside, and the protagonist is rarely at the heart of the narrative. The Call of Cthulhu begins with this warning:
<<Found among the papers of the late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston>>
The story is told in the form of an investigation, with the protagonist beginning by discovering the first clues to Cthulhu’s existence in papers found at his great-uncle’s house after his death. The story continues with a detective’s report, and the final part begins with the reading of a newspaper clipping. The protagonist never meets any of the Great Old Ones, but learns of their existence through the tales of unfortunate people who have had first-hand knowledge of them. This way of narrating and reporting the facts gives us the impression of investigating with the characters, and is, in my opinion, part of what makes Lovecraftian stories so impactful.
In Forgive me Father, however, we play a character at the heart of the action, but as I said, his adventure is of little importance – it’s just a pretext to give us the opportunity to kill monsters. On the other hand, all the context surrounding the game, the reason for the presence of cultists, zombies and other aberrations are told to us through elements present in the setting.
While environmental narration is, as you’d expect from a game like this, kept to a minimum, there are regular opportunities to interact with various objects. A letter, a book, a photo or a simple wristwatch that you can guess belonged to a victim. You’ll even get your hands on a ship’s personnel list or cargo inventory, and by cross-referencing it with other clues, you’ll be able to make the connection with the tragedy that seems to have unfolded there. Here again, we find a roundabout way of bringing history to life through the stories of those who suffered it before us, even if, FPS obliges, we’re going to leave our mark with a shotgun.
All these elements, although presented to us in the least subtle way in the world since they are thrown at us next to a big “History” panel, will enable us, if we so wish, to link together the clues and thus understand the end of this terrible adventure.
Don’t expect a wildly original story, as this one, like every other aspect of the game, is hopelessly classic. However, it’s the way it’s told that not only makes it worthwhile, but also proves that a Boomer Shooter can be a good Lovecraft adaptation.