One of the first PS5 exclusives revealed was the game Quantum Error. It’s being billed as a cosmic horror game. Even from what little we’ve seen so far; I’m getting vibes of inspiration from things like H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond and At the Mountains of Madness. That’s just one of the most immediate things that I’ve noticed. However, while bringing up Lovecraft clues you into the topic of the article, just what is cosmic horror and how has it been used in gaming in the past.
The entire idea for cosmic horror, at least as we know it now, goes back to the times of authors like H.P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries. It is based in the idea of cosmicism, which is a rather pessimistic philosophy. It is all about the insignificance and powerlessness of humanity in the greater scheme of things. While “cosmic” might imply space, it doesn’t necessarily mean that cosmic horror stories will take place in space. Quite a few cosmic horror stories and games have taken place before any country on Earth has even put a satellite into orbit, but I’ll get into that with the examples. Sometimes cosmic horror deals with madness and mutation, hybrid beings, dimensional rifts, timeslips, alien gods and ancient evils, and encroaching supernatural borders like “The Veil” in The Last Door or “The Shimmer” in Annihilation among other components. All this stuff has shown up in one medium or another for the past century to varying levels of success.
In terms of games, there have been some original spins on cosmic horror, but there also have been quite a few adaptations. In terms of adaptations, there are Lovecraft-based games, though they pull from very few stories. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Call of Cthulhu, The Sinking City, and Shadow of the Comet all borrow from Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth. SotC also draws from The Dunwich Horror. Conarium and Prisoners of Ice both take different levels of inspiration from At the Mountains of Madness. The set up for the Lovecraft-based games is simple. A problem (missing person, a murder, a theft, etc.) or an event (comet soon to be visible, research, etc.) brings an outsider into an isolated community or area. They start to notice weird things, including dreams, and things get progressively weird potentially breaking both the mind and the body of the victim. In terms of adaptations, there are also the games based on Alien franchise. While the alien franchise has cosmic horror in its bones, quite a few of the games play up the heavier action elements from Aliens. The game that comes closest to fully realizing the powerlessness in cosmic horror as well as the fullest extent of sacrifice that must be made to try to prevent the spread of such horrors like the xenomorph. To a certain extent, anything based on the Alien franchise is also based on how we bring on our own doom through curiosity or greed.
Then there are the original spins. Naturally, there’s something of the cosmic horror with the Flood and Graveminds in Halo. Then there are the Red and Black markers as well as the necromorphs in Dead Space are straight out of cosmic horror. The Daedric forces of Elder Scrolls or the forces of chaos from either Warhammer line are otherworldly forces that can bless or ruin anyone’s day. Even Bloodborne draws heavily from the cosmic and Lovecraftian traditions of horror, though it doesn’t show that off quite so readily. While the opening is more of a typical gothic affair, it isn’t long before the story and enemies become something straight out of the Lovecraft Circle. Silent Hill itself, being a madness-inspired shifting landscape playing on the fears, desires, sins, and traumas of its victims, operates within the realms of how cosmic horror operates.
This is just a glimpse at a larger picture for the subgenre, as there is so much more explore. If you’re interested in hearing more, comment and we’ll write up more. As it stands, I’ve got a couple articles worth of ideas regarding this, including story ideas that developers could run with.