Zoetrope Interactive’s Conarium takes its inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft, an author who has been survived by his gothic horror writing 80 years after his death.
Lovecraft once wrote in an essay about horror literature: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
That quote embodies Lovecraft’s approach to his own fiction, and it helps explain two things: first, why his work has remained such an ingrained part of pop culture even now, nearly a century since he started writing; and second, why his work has been so remarkably difficult to translate to more visual narrative mediums like film and video games. Lovecraft’s best stories are about things so horrible they are undefinable, indescribable, maddening to even gaze upon. How do you interpret that to a screen, to a form where people inevitably will see it for themselves?
That hasn’t stopped creators from trying to capture the essence of Lovecraft in other mediums, however. Conarium is explicitly based on the events and setting of At the Mountains of Madness. And while this effort inevitably shares many of the weaknesses of other Lovecraft adaptations, it does an admirable job with its limited tools.
In Conarium, you play as Frank Gilman, a member of an Antarctic expedition who has woken up to find his group’s base of operations deserted and his memory wiped clean. As you begin searching the base for clues about the fate of your colleagues – and about the truth of what happened to you – you’ll uncover massive caverns, ancient ruins and more, slowly piecing together a deeply unsettling plot.
As you explore Upuaut base and the depths beneath it, you’ll occasionally stumble across letters, diary entries, audio recordings or even flashbacks in the form of strange visions. These may seem like pretty cliché storytelling methods for a video game at this point, but I enjoyed the story being told. Moreover, they feel in line with Lovecraft’s style; many of his tales are told in the epistolary form, via pieced together fictional historical records.
Though a few other characters show up throughout, most of the voicework is carried by Gilman, as he comments on the things you’ve seen, the revelations you’ve had or the growing pain in his skull. Conarium’s writing successfully mimics the stilted, bombastic style of Lovecraft, but its voice acting less effective. Gilman’s lines are delivered awkwardly and with a bizarre, not-quite-identifiable accent. It doesn’t ruin the plot, but it makes some moments of high drama funnier than the game seemingly intended.
If you’re noticing that I haven’t said much about Conarium’s gameplay, well, there’s not too much to say. You could slot this game comfortably into the “walking simulator” category, though there are a handful of puzzles to solve, some light adventure game-style inventory management and a couple of sequences where you’re actually at risk of dying.
Of these more interactive bits, the puzzles are the most interesting and satisfying. Conarium’s mind-benders often rely on strange, alien symbols, on trying to understand runes or star charts. It’s all suitably otherworldly and adds to the overall vibe of the game. It builds on the sense that you’re in an extraordinary place with a bizarre logic all its own. A few of the puzzles even stumped me for a while, making it all the more rewarding to finally solve them.
The action segments are much sloppier and less fun to figure out, though they’re kept blessedly short and rare. At a few moments throughout Conarium, I found myself up against a supernatural force that would kill me if I touched it. These bits essentially play out as chase sequences, where you need to bolt through the labyrinthine passageways, dodging dogged pursuers. Gilman can’t run for long, however, and I often had to die and retry these segments multiple times just working out the perfect path.
These faster-paced moments are also where Conarium is arguably the most out-of-step with Lovecraft proper, if only in one respect: You get to see the horrific creatures for yourselves. I won’t spoil the exact nature of this game’s interpretation of the beasts living in this cavern, but if you’ve read At the Mountains of Madness, you probably have a good idea. Seeing those creatures ripped from your imagination and put into a virtual world is almost invariably a letdown, however. No matter how horrifying the developer’s visualization might be, it could never quite match up to my imagination. And, to be frank, this game’s interpretation felt goofy rather than terrifying.
At least these frustrating moments were over quickly. In fact, the same could be said of Conarium as a whole. I blazed through the full game in about four hours, and it ended just as it felt like events were starting to pick up. It’s not that the game ends suddenly or ambiguously – though both of those things are true – but more that I was really starting to enjoy it and was ready to play at least a few hours more.