Sunday, February 24, 2008

On Gaming

This sad specimen - once a virtual superman but now a disgraced dissolute and notorious aesthete - demonstrates the unhealthy dangers of refraining from regular boardgaming

A while back back on the yog-sothoth forums, Blair Reynolds made
the following announcement.

In brief, Reynolds bemoans the trivialisation of Lovecraft not only in the field of roleplaying games but within popular culture more widely. One wonders what Blair Reynolds would have to say at the venerable Ken Hite’s recent supplement of Lovecraftian superheroism for The Mutants and Masterminds rpg, or indeed Hite's forthcoming Lovecraftian children's picture book...

No doubt Lovecraft would view much of what is produced in the name of the Cthulhu mythos as a crass commercialisation of his cosmic vision. Perhaps, then, the only genuine route to a ‘pure’ Lovecraft experience is to abandon all attempts at replicating the master’s vision in other media and simply spend one’s time reading Lovecraft in the original.

Needless to say, many respondents on the forums challenged Blair Reynolds' somewhat petulant tantrum, citing the way Lovecraft’s treated his own pseudomythology with a certain playfulness. Indeed, this leads me to ruminate more generally on Lovecraft and gaming. While Lovecraft did not seem to hold much thought for gaming in adult life, his childhood was replete with rich imaginative efforts that many miniatures wargamers and rpgers would recognise (a point I hope to return to in a later post about roleplaying and the occult). Indeed, this leads me to speculate that perhaps Lovecraft’s adolescent roleplaying did continue into his adult life. Yes, you heard me aright. Lovecraft was a roleplayer: as S. T. Joshi suggests, Lovecraft’s ‘Yog-Sothothery’ came to constitute a kind of parlour game and a shared imaginative space which Lovecraft and his literary circle explored - a form of collective storytelling (one might even say proto-geekdom)which I'm sure many contemporary rpg players would not only recognise but also feel a deep sense of kinship with. Indeed, the elements that inform today's roleplaying experience also informed Lovecraft's literary theory (an emphasis on verisimilitude) and his personal aesthetics (the evocation of particular moods - 'adventurous expectancy' - often via the imaginative suspension of natural law).

To push the gaming analogy further, the protagonist in virtually all of HPL’s tales was Lovecraft's own player character - usually an idealised imaginary of his very own self as genteel New England aesthete himself as genteel aesthete. In addition, we can see HPL as engaging in a kind of proto-Call of Cthulhu rpging during his literary exchange with Robert Bloch in their Haunter of the Dark – Shambler From the Stars escapade: each 'player' (Lovecraft and Bloch in turn taking the role of the GM) sought to drive mad and ultimately kill off the other’s player character in the context of an interesting and engaging narrative. Indeed, in a hyperreal twist the kind of literary and epistolarian roleplaying in which Lovecraft indulged formed the methodological basis of an actual rpg (the Lovecraftian themed letter-writing game De Profundis).

On a more personal note, this has led me to reflect on my own experiences of gaming and rpging, which I've been doing for nigh on 30 years now - although more of an occasional activity during the last 15 years or so. 2004 – 2006 was an especially fallow period, during which I set out to uncover the ultimate solitaire gaming experience in lieu of more social forms of the activity. Thankfully, at London's Dragonmeet in 2006 at London’s Dragonmeet I bumped in to a friend from university I hadn’t seen for over ten years, and have since resumed gaming on a quasi-regular basis. However, the kind of gaming that we have both come to involve ourselves in has changed considerably from the halcyon years of rpg all-nighters and non-stop dungeoncrawls during the summer holidays. The gaming industry has also transformed to reflect the changing demographic of its customers: in brief, the kind of games I’ve been playing of late are the Eurostyle and Ameritrash kinds of boardgames and cardgames; in fact, it seems that this 'new' breed of boardgames has become the dominant order of the day in contemporary gaming geekdom: as gamers get older and have less time (and more responsibilities), rpging is becoming less of a viable option (especially those of us approaching - of having surpassed - middle age!). To this end, rpging has also transformed , with game systems becoming more streamlined, requiring less prep time and emphasising storytelling over simulation. This is also mirrored in the structure and content of rpg books, which are often more visually appealing than in the heady days of the now almost mythical D&D white box, emphasising setting, background and plot over rule complexity and the guilty pleasures of killing imaginary monsters and taking their imaginary stuff while exploring an imaginary hole in the ground. Although roleplaying is becoming a distant memory to me, I’m sure I’m not the only person who buys rpg books just for the pure pleasure of reading them (like China Mieville, I’m especially partial to the odd rpg bestiary or two).

Back to boardgaming though. Earlier today I participated in a marathon 7 hour session of Fantasy Flight Games’ Twilight Imperium. Twilight Imperium is Big. Epic even. And in all senses of the word: it covers the sweeping saga of galactic empires in conflict whilst taking an epoch to play (in addition to which, the game is housed in a box of monolithic proportion). Six of us played and, although unable to finish the game, it was (for me at least) an immensely enjoyable and incredibly involving and immersive experience. Fantasy Flight Games are one of the main players in this new kind of boardgaming which offers outstanding production values, tension, strategy and, importantly, theme and setting to facilitate a kind of condensed rpg experience which far outstrips the abstract mechanics at the heart of most of these games (although with the best of this ‘new’ breed of games, the mechanics are often closely tied to theme). Despite the often competitive nature of these games, theya re often rich enough and grande enough that the playing itself - and not the winning - suffices(no, really!).

I might even go so far as to say that boardgaming is the new rpging. Well, perhaps not. Yet this ‘new’ boardgaming milieu maps out the topography of a genuinely unique gaming experience - albeit highly commodified and neatly packaged - which is more immersive and involved, often engaging players (albeit minimally) in forms of rpging. This, of course, is a godsend to those of use who are rpgers at heart, yet lack the time or opportunity for roleplaying. That said, the high production values do offer a lazy way into the gaming experience: the gaming worlds are presented through outstanding graphics which mean that on a visual level the imagination becomes a little redundant. Even so, with the best of these games offer potential for tense and engaging immersion into the themed player interactions.

Bringing this back to Lovecraft, it struck me that there exist one of this ‘new’ breed of boardgames that neatly encompasses a highly immersive Lovecraftian experience within a solitaire gaming medium - and in doing so might even be more ‘authentically’ Lovecraftian than the classic Call of Cthulhu rpg experience. Playing Call of Cthulhu is great fun, but often it does become something closer to a pulpish world-spanning Indiana-Jones-meets-the-Mummy kind of affair rather than evoking the nameless dread indicative of the Lovecraftian milieu.

In any case the boardgame in question is Fantasy Flight Games reissue of Arkham Horror: a cooperative boardgame in which the players take on the cosmic awfulness of the mythos. And usually lose. The game is gorgeous (especially in its first printing - the second printing included a less colourful board) and is appropriately cyclopean (it comes with one of the biggest boards I’ve yet encountered, barring Railroad Tycoon - though add the Dunwich Horror expansion and it probably eclipses the RT board). Where the game excels is in generating a sense of tension and impending doom through the clever mechanic of the, erm, doom track. What this means is that the players are involved in a battle against time and the forces of the mythos. When the doom track is filled, it pretty much means you will be eaten by some Monstrous Thing From Beyond Time and Space and the world will end. This, coupled with a few other clever mechanincs allow a single player to battle against the game system goes a long way to evoking the structure and content of many of Lovecraft’s best tales which, unlike the Call of Cthulhu rpg rarely involve loosing gangs of borderline-psychopathic gun-toting pyromaniacs (i.e. the player characters)amongst the tropes of Lovecraft’s mythos.

Not only does Arkham Horror neatly fuses an elegant and fairly simple system (although it might not seem so from reading the rather poorly organised rulebook), it also ties mechanics to the rich and evocative themes of Lovecraft’s mythos - and in such a way that even loosing the game by going insane or dying horribly (as often the end result of the game as it is the fate of Lovecraft’s protagonists) is fun.

Dare I say it: gaming is dead. Long live the new gaming!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Lovecraft in Italy DVD

As an addemdum to my last post, it seems that Il Mistero di Lovecraft - Road to L is in English (with Italian subtitles - and presumably English subtitles to the parts of the film which are in Italian). It is available in DVD format and distributed by Raro Video of Italy.

Lovecraft in Italy: Il Mistero di Lovecraft - Road to L

I've recently dug up a few intriguing scraps of information concerning a Blair Witch style mockumentary - Il Mistero di Lovecraft: Road to L - which claims to have uncovered evidence of Lovecraft's travelling to Italy in 1926. There he apparently encountered a decaying town (somewhere within the Po delta) harbouring strange rites and abominable...things which would become the model for Innsmouth. Il Mistero di Lovecraft was made in Italy in 2005, but I've yet to track down any information regarding an English language DVD release. A trailer (in English with some Italian) can be found on Google Video, though it's unclear as to whether the film was produced for an English- or Italian-speaking audience. A three-part background documentary (in Italian with English subtitles) to the mockumentary (akin to the Curse of the Blair Witch that preceded the release of the original movie) can also be found here.

Based on the available documentary-of-the-mockumentary, the film seems to regurgitate the usual misguided fare about Lovecraft - that he was extremely knowledgeable about the occult, believed in Cthulhu, etc. Of course, Lovecraft's life is extremely well-documented, and the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft was nowhere near Italy in 1926. Nonetheless, those who recall Ghooric Zone Central's good friend H.P. Albarelli and his claims concerning Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the strange case of the 'Awful' will no doubt be wondering how long it will take the Cthulhuvian conspiracists out there to jump on this as 'evidence' of Lovecraft's occult proclivities and the reality of Cthulhu et al...

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Night Thoughts: On Cloverfield (SPOILERS)

While Cloverfield is far from being a 'Lovecraftian' movie in any purist or canonical sense, I did feel that at times a Lovecraftian mood was nicely evoked. The monster itself being a case in point.

Although not explicitly Cthulhoid (whatever that means) I've noted that the monster has been described variously as 'weird' and 'creepy' on some of the internet forums about which I've been lurking of late. Indeed, these do seem apt descriptors: although not entirely unanthropomorphic the beast does have a rather curious - one might even say 'strangely angled' - anatomy and mode of locomotion, attributes suggestive of its 'outsideness'. Certainly the monster is a bit different from what one usually encounters in the standards of the giant-monster-on-a-rampage movie genre. This on top of what I felt was already quite a 'weird' movie, where an intrusion of otherness leaves a trail of chaos, confusion and ambiguity where nothing is fully or satisfactorily explained. In turn, this leaves plenty of scope for the play of the imagination and the mapping of one's own vague fears and terrors onto the tabula rasa of Cloverfield's monster(s).

Interestingly, after I'd seen Cloverfield a number of friends expressed their concern about watching a monster movie where one never actually gets to see the monster. In actual fact (and as should be evident from the above), the monster is seen on a number of occasions (especially toward the end of the film). All in all, the revealing of the monster is handled rather expertly and in what I took to be a very Lovecraftian fashion: you do get to see what it looks like, but the shaky-cam gimic means that it is never revealed too clearly or for too long - somewhat akin to Ridley Scott's strategy in Alien. That is until very close to the end of Cloverfield where the director has seen fit to go for a close-up of the beast - presumably the film's 'money shot'. Here we are given a very clear view of the thing's torso and head (and in full daylight). Whether this was supposed to evoke horror I can't say, but at this point Cloverfield departed from what was presumably J.J. Abrams' original vision, and in doing so nearly ruined the movie for me. In revealing everything, you invariably reveal too much - in this case something like the hybrid bastard of the Rancor from Return of the Jedi and the Honey Monster.

So, Hollywood still seems a long way off from producing the quintessential Lovecraftian movie (and as the HPLHS' version of Call of Cthulhu demonstrates, maybe Hollywood isn't the right place to be looking anyway). Still, assuming it gets green-lighted we at least have del Toro's touted At the Mountains of Madness to look forward to a few years hence.

A Forgotten Episode of Lovecraftian Ufology?

Gray Barker’s famed 1956 book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers first introduced the mythology of (what was to later become) the Men in Black into ufology. In the book Barker documents his friendship with Alfred Bender, who claimed to have stumbled upon the truth about flying saucers. Before making this knowledge public, Bender was apparently visited by three strange men dressed in black. The men (who, with diabolic aplomb, always left behind them a faint smell of sulphur) initially claimed to be representatives of the US government. Bender was left terrified and in fear of his life, refusing to say more on the matter.

Bender’s silence lasted until 1962 when he revealed the horrifying truth in his own account of events, Flying Saucers and the Three Men (New York, Paperback Library Inc.) There he states that the MIB’s are in fact aliens in disguise, having established bases on Earth (usually in remote locations) with the intention of siphoning-off a chemical from sea water for some unknown purpose - an activity not so far removed from Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth. Bender also claims that the MIB’s visited him numerous times, on one occasion - and here the story takes a truly Lovecraftian turn - spiriting him off via some sort of teleportation or hyperdimensional travel to their central base of operations buried deep beneath the Antarctic ice.

There, one of the MiB’s reveal its true form: according to Bender a ‘hideous monster, more horrifying than any I have ever seen depicted in the work of science fiction or fantasy artists’ (p.81). This latter admission of familiarity with the sci-fi genre may be important, and a point I shall return to. Needless to say, in true Lovecraftian fashion the alien is so horrific as to be indescribable. Or in any case, Bender apparently lacks the vocabulary to do so as there is never any attempt at description made in the manuscript.

Perhaps more interesting is the fact, in marked counterpoint to the utopian and millenarian messages offered to other contactees of the period, that the MIBs reveal to Bender a nihilistic cosmology that seems to have jumped right out of the pages of Lovecraft. The monstrous aliens tell him that the physical universe is the product of a ‘vast glowing body so immense one cannot calculate its density. It is the creator of us all, and more families of planets are constantly being formed and thrown off into orbits’ (p.79). I certainly discern here something quite similar to Lovecraft’s Azathoth.

Later in the book this cosmology is elaborated in more detail:

‘there is a large main body from which all the planets and their suns are formed by means of being cast off into the vast void we call space. This main body seems to grow in size and never diminishes, despite the fact that it discards new bodies constantly. It is so hot a mass you could not go near it, even in terms of billions of your light years. All the bodies cast off are hot burning balls of fire, and as they reach the cooler parts of space they explode and form smaller bodies that circle them. These smaller bodies become planets as they cool off, but the cooling-off period consumes many, many years. We have sent out spacecraft to explore the regions beyond the circling bodies where there is an area that is deep black and in which you are unable to see anything…We have lost many of our exploring craft who went too far into the deep black and never returned’ (p.98-99)

This rather dark, melodramatic - and suitably cosmic - vision of the cosmos is reified in the aliens' comments on religious matters: they reveal that there is neither god nor life after death, and that Jesus was a fraud. Morally ambivalent entities themselves - perhaps akin to Lovecraft’s Old Ones who are ‘beyond good and evil’ - the aliens are quite open about the fact that they have abducted, experimented upon, and even killed humans to protect their interests; they also implant Bender with a small metal disk (foreshadowing a key element of later abduction narratives) and make dire warnings not to reveal what they have shown him until they have left the planet. Almost as an afterthought, the MIBs tell Bender that the Dero of Richard Shaver are real (and, in fact, the source of most human accounts of supernatural beings).

Indeed, the themes of abduction, experimentation and implantation by sinister forces which Bender’s apparently experience owe a massive debt to Shaver’s imagined underground worlds book (and in turn inspired the tales of alien underground bases which gained renewed vigour in the 1980s and 1990s when American ufology took a decidedly disturbing turn). Elements of Bender’s tale also seem strikingly akin to themes found in Lovecraft - even moreso given the disparity of Bender’s paranoid vision with the more optimistic provisions supplied from within the contactee movement. A likely source of inspiration for Bender's tale would be The Whisperer in Darkness which seems to have set the template not only for the ‘abductee’ phenomenon that swept ufology in the 1980s – 1990s, but also introduces MiB-like figures in the strangely hypnotic human agents of the Fungi from Yuggoth. Similar to Bender’s narrative, and central to Lovecraft’s Whisperer, are the awe-inspiring but nihilistic revelations of cosmic magnitude revealed to the narrator - albeit only hinted at for the reader - by the character of Akeley (or an alien who is impersonating Akeley).

Sadly, there is no hard evidence to support the claim that Bender was drawing upon Lovecraft in the construction of his and Gray Barker’s conspiratorial narrative (one that set the tone for later ramblings of ‘darkside’ ufologists). However, I noted earlier Bender’s implied familiarity with genre fiction: Bender does, in fact, admit to a fascination with the literature of the weird and supernatural, mentioning Shelley, Stoker and Poe as favourites. No sign of Lovecraft per se, but it seems that Bender was familiar with the later pulps such as Palmer’s Amazing Stories, so it is possible that he had a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s tales. If so, Bender's work may represent an additional link in the chain between Lovecraft and contemporary ufology.