Behind Superficial Mutability

On Saturday, I played through Bit Golem’s Dagon game. As some of you will know, I am a casual player of computer games rather than one who seeks to speed run them or plays into the early hours of the morning; so my having completed the game the same day I started (in fact within half-an-hour) will immediately suggest this game is not a long experience. However, like one of the strange stranded creatures of Lovecraft’s story, it did thrust forth above the morass of so-called Lovecraftian games.

The developers describe it as a “narrative experience” and in this they are correct: the controls allow for looking from side to side and up and down (although only within limited arcs), and a sparse amount of point-and-click selecting for both inspecting and moving, but there are no fights or complex decisions; apart from sometimes needing to spot a significant item to access additional (optional) snippets of information, the mechanic of the game might seem like watching a video that automatically pauses at key points.

Or that, if (like me) you were ancient when the first fragment of biological waste surviving expulsion from an Elder Thing lab cracked its sibling’s head with a rock, might bring to mind the menus of the first DVDs with their animated menus and “secret” key combinations to access extra content.

While the gameplay is more basic than even the “find the winding handle” style puzzles of many walking simulators, I found the visuals rather immersive—particularly the evocation of the deep sea creatures beached by the sudden rising of the island; although the art does not (one assumes) capture the real experience of the cosmically horrible, the showing of the strange rather than Lovecraft’s (somewhat affected in places) telling created enough of an emotional effect that I felt it even though I had read the story and seen adaptations many times. Indeed, the mechanic supported this immersion: finding clickable things not immediately obvious to the eye required a more active perceiving of what was there that echoed the panicked curiosity of a Lovecraftian protagonist, while the high limitations on movement and viewpoint added a sense that events were outside my control.

Continuing with the feeling of a DVD, the extra content is a mixture of comments on Lovecraft’s life, work, and impact; and background information on the time in which the story is set. As an avid Lovecraftian, this presented nothing new to me; however, each piece is also short and accessibly written, so neither did it detract from the experience.

On the classic gaming measures of replayability and challenge, it almost certainly fails. Arguably any game that truly captures the unthinkingly hostile and incomprehensible universe that defines cosmic horror might. And so, perhaps we need a new measure, drawn from Lovecraft himself:

“Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.”

By that measure, I think Dagon succeeds.

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