Monday, June 18, 2012

Game Translation: Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

In this first-person game, you play Jack Walters, a police detective with fantastic insight into the more disturbing cases. You begin the game with a call out by the Boston Police Department when a resident cult called the Brotherhood of Yith demands to speak to you rather than the police while taking cover in their manor. Soon enough, Jack encounters something that causes him to have amnesia for the next few years, after which he tries to make a living as a private investigator, actually investigating what he did himself during his period of amnesia between cases for other clients. His latest job is to find a missing grocer in the town of Innsmouth.

There is no HUD at all in this game. No icons or bullets or health meters on the screen. Walters' health, and sanity, can be measured by more immersive factors such as limping, shallow breathing, blurry vision, blood on the eyelids, and the sounds of whispering in the background. You can, of course, bring up the inventory and take a look at your injuries on a visual representation of your body (complete with broken bones protruding through your skin) but you can't watch your life counter tick down to death.

This can easily be brought about in a roleplaying game and works fantastically well in Changeling: the Lost and the BRP Call of Cthulhu systems, though the advice I'm about to give can be used in other games as well.

In Changeling, each character has a Clarity meter and the lower that becomes, the weaker their grip on reality. A low Clarity Changeling will soon begin hallucinating, and that's not even considering any derangements they pick up as they go along. Rather than telling them their Clarity, you could simply make the Clarity check and only tell them if they've picked up a derangement (as they often need to be roleplayed and picked by the player). You can then simply describe what they see and hear and leave it up to the character to discern if it's real or not. In a dark fantasy game, the mundane could be lies and the strange could be real.

In Call of Cthulhu BRP, most of the sanity mechanics revolve around roleplayed issues such as paranoia or hysteria. However, should they have hallucinations you could do much the same as what I've suggested for Changeling. It's hiding the hit points and the remaining sanity points that will really wreak havoc on the players here. If they don't know how far they are from permanent insanity or death, they're going to be even more cautious.

In all games, you can easily describe their injuries in terms of pain not just when they gain the injury but later on. Remind them of their fall from the balcony by describing their action as 'When you limp over to the statue, you see....' or 'Your head throbs as you get in the car and head home'. The more often you weave it in, the more realistic it becomes, and the more worried the players become. Be aware that this does decrease their willingness to get into combat, regardless of whether you hide their hit point tallies or not.

In the videogame, injuries have to be treated on an individual basis. Rather than simply applying a first aid kit to yourself, you have to apply certain items to certain injuries to regain full use of that body part. Sure, you can wait to heal over time but it's quite slow and inadvisible in combat.

You could do this in a roleplaying game though it's a more time-consuming mechanic to involve and should be kept for those hyper-realistic low-combat games. You'd need some sort of diagram of each character so that you can draw the injuries onto them and then let them figure out realistic ways to treat each injury. In a way, it'd function as a sort of a mini-game. I'd suggest steering clear of requiring X for Y and instead let them be inventive so that they can rip clean bed sheets for bandages rather than requiring that they find gauze.

If I had a wad of cash, I'd be staring at it too.

Be aware that the injuries themselves can be incredibly inventive - from ruptured disks to crushed larynxes - and that certain injuries can't realistically be treated by anything other than surgery, bed rest, and months of physiotherapy. You'd be better off dealing with dislocations, lacerations, blood noses, and bruising, rather than punctured lungs and broken pelvises. If you draw up a chart and make random rolls you'll sate the needs of player fairness and consistency, but you'll also create a bunch more work for yourself and some very clunky rules. It's probably best to leave this to the immensely story-driven games where rules take a back seat to story and where the players actually want to explore the horror of leaving someone behind because they took an injury that can't be easily treated.

The game involves several stealth sequences, a few chase sequences (involving locking doors desperately behind you), and some points where you have to strike out at overwhelming forces. Still, the main vibe it gives is one of investigation with you taking a look around at clues and exploring certain buildings for more information. There's also a few points where you have to resolve other people's issues - such as giving them alcohol - before moving on, which is reminiscent of adventure games.

This game includes a monster that you cannot kill. A shoggoth that attacks wildly with tentacles that you have to dodge. It's a good way to reinforce that guns aren't always the answer and it certainly added a lot of extra tension to the scene.

In a roleplaying game, you could do much the same by treating a monster as an environmental hazard until the players find some other method of killing it (i.e. dump a truck load of liquid nitrogen onto it). Just make the characters dodge around it or think creatively about their tactics, and have them take damage when they fail. If they attack the creature, either ignore the damage they roll or, if you want to be exceptionally cruel, have the creature react to it or bleed a little but don't ever let it die. Be aware that the latter option will encourage players to keep chipping away at it and they may die before realising that it was futile to try to kill it that way.

The sanity mechanic in Dark Corners of the Earth adds a nice touch to discourage people from staring too hard at all the gore and horror. It also reinforces real world reactions to incredible phenomena. There are several roleplaying games that have a sanity mechanic so I encourage you to take a look at them with a Google search if you want to introduce it in a game that doesn't already have it.

A campaign based around Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, or including elements of it, would certainly appeal to Investigators due to its focus on clues and mysterious cases. Tacticians will enjoy the mixture of combat, clever escape routes, investigations, and overwhelming enemy numbers that encourage stealth. Explorers would enjoy the occult aspects as well as some of the strange and mysterious places they would end up in. Action Heroes are likely to get frustrated when their attempts to gain control of the situation are foiled time and again. Communicators won't get much out of the tight-lipped inhabitants of the town.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about it, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Fahrenheit, The Sims 3, Half Life 2, Prototype series, Silent Hill, Walking Dead, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Deus Ex, L.A. Noire, The Last Express, The Thing, Realms of the Haunting, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Deus Ex. If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.

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