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It's beginning to look a lot like fish-men..., December 6, 2020
When I was on an airplane many years ago, I had the idea of writing a Lovecraft pastiche in a noir voice suddenly pop into my head. After I landed and got home, I fired up my computer and had enormous fun writing a page and a half of my hard-boiled private dick sharing how he usually deals with ghoul infestations and musing that if youíve seen one Hound of Tindalos, you havenít seen a Hound of Tindalos Ė but then the juice suddenly ran out because I couldnít figure out where the story would go. If I kept up the world-weary noir thing throughout, the Cthulhu elements wouldnít land because the cosmic horror doesnít find a purchase in the protagonist's psyche. And if you lean into the Cthulhu bits and have even the noir hero shaken by the burden of things man was not meant to know, well, youíve just written a Lovecraft pastiche with some weird similes, clipped phrasing, and hopefully less racism. Itís a mashup that ultimately needs to collapse into just being one thing or the other, and therefore canít be fully satisfying (this is also why every attempt Iíve seen to do a pomo detective story doesnít work Ė yes, Iím calling you out, Paul Auster) (and before I wrap up this ridiculously self-indulgent introduction, let me shout out the one completely effective Lovecraft genre remix, which is the Cthulhu-meets-Wodehouse of A Scream For Jeeves).
Anyway, given this tediously-explained context, I was interested to see how Call of Innsmouth followed through on its blurb, which seemed to presage going hard on the noir tropes, and avoided this dilemma. The answer is that mostly it sidesteps the tension by presenting a completely straight-ahead take, with prose that doesnít commit hard either way Ė the smoky, jazzy tones of noir and the adjective-mad enthusiasm of Lovecraft get a few hat-tips, but the style is overall quite normcore. The same is true for the plot, which mirrors the plot of the mid-aughts Call of Cthulhu video game remarkably closely Ė and even if you, like the author, havenít played it, proceedings will still feel pretty familiar so long as you've read the Shadow Over Innsmouth. I think the biggest story-related surprise I experienced was that at one point, after I made a bad decision, I was expecting to get eaten by Dagon, but instead I got eaten by a shoggoth.
None of this is necessarily bad Ė if you are in the mood for a Lovecraft game, Call of Innsmouth has you covered in spades! Itís big, with lots to do that gives you that old Cthulhu charge Ė you prep for the investigation by visiting an Arkham boarding house and consulting Miskatonicís Professor Armitage, and you get to raid Devilís Reef and meet Zadok Allen (though oddly, his name is misspelled and heís given a weird dialect different from what heís got in the book, maybe coding him as Native American? Zadok is a biblical name so I always assumed heís a Quaker or something like that). There are a number of action sequences, and while itís (appropriately) easy to die, the correct choices arenít too obfuscated, and unlimited rewinds are offered if your guts do wind up decorating a Deep Oneís claws.
Writing-wise, as mentioned the style is pretty straightforward and there are some typos, but also a few nice bits of characterization Ė when the player characterís client breaks down in worry over her missing son, he just shifts uncomfortably rather than comforting her, for example. And while you appropriately freak out at some of the revelations, and start out a bit skeptical about this whole dark-god-and-fish-men business, it isnít overly belabored so thereís no tedious tension between the genre-savvy player and the notionally new-to-all-this player character. Call of Innsmouth delivers what it sets out to, and if itís not the most novel take on these tropes, and the prose plays it down the middle, you still get a meaty adventure to satisfy any Mythos cravings (like for a game I mean, not forbidden knowledge or human flesh or anything gross like that).