By Ronald Gordon
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an influential author who spawned some of the most nightmare-inducing story ideas known to man. Some of my favorites are “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “Cool Air.” And it just so happens that I had the pleasure of playing Conarium, a game inspired by one of Lovecraft’s stories known as “At The Mountains Of Madness.” Needless to say, it was creepy.
Zoetrope Interactive’s Conarium is a horror story in which you explore an arctic research base to try and find any trace of your comrades, who have recently gone missing. Doing so won’t be easy, though, as there are dangers and terrors that lie between you and the truth.
On Xbox One, I played as Frank Gilman, a scientist who works with his team at a station somewhere in Antarctica. You awake to find that all of your fellow scientists have suddenly vanished, leaving you alone. As you search, you encounter more and more clues about what happened to them, mainly through your character’s monologues and several blood stained notes you find throughout your journey. You see, your team isn’t researching human history or the cure for a disease, you’re researching something that humans haven’t created at all. In fact, what you and your team have uncovered is far beyond the capabilities of mankind. Deep underwater lie traces of a long-dead civilization of creatures that built shrines and altars worshipping beings with higher powers. These are “The Elder Things.” You and your team believe that there is some way to expand the human mind in order to understand these Elder Things and grasp what this underwater civilization was truly capable of.
However, as you soon find out more, you also discover that civilization is far from long dead. There are certain structures, like giant boulder-shaped doors and complex light refracting machines, that still work. Weirdly, statues in new condition, despite the whole area being kept deep underwater for centuries. Plus, there are living creatures, who hail from the time that these ancient temples were built. They lurk in the shadows or slumber within the walls of the forgotten structures. You find this out the hard way when your submarine is attacked by some sort of tentacled beast.
Conarium, in my opinion, is reminiscent of Visceral Games’ Dead Space series. Aside from the similar story – trying to escape from a dangerous alien race – the game has a way of sustaining a sense of unease, as Dead Space does. As soon as you start playing, you find that the power is out and that you have to fix the base’s generator. However, even after you do, the game remains darker than you’d expect, forcing you to rely on your flashlight to see certain things, even when the lights are on. The hallways are narrow, making the base feel small – and making you feel a bit trapped, claustrophobic. On top of that, most of the game is quiet, with barely any music or sounds except for your own footsteps, the fizzing of lights, and some dripping sounds from the caves below the base.
This air of dread sent a bit of a shiver up my spine that lingered throughout my playthrough. To make things even more nerve-wracking, I also encountered bodies that resemble those of the scientists I was searching for, instilling in me the idea that whatever I uncovered would also be a deadly threat.
Conarium is a great game for people who favor eerie feelings and dark tones when they play games. The game fits the Lovecraftian horror formula of mixing ancient creatures, tentacles, psychoactive drugs, and other things you should avoid at all costs and wrapping it all up in a nice neat bow made of gruesome nightmares. And, down, down, down I went, a nervous college intern who made the fatal mistake of playing in the dead of night only to cringe, jump and die in more than one way over and over again. I would strongly suggest Conarium to fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, like myself, as Conarium definitely does justice to the tentacle-headed figure and his horrifying family members. As I learned quickly, Lovecraftian stories are much more unnerving to play than they are to read.
Ronald Gordon is creating the City Tech College chapter of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.