A concept beloved of H.P. Lovecraft – one of the games industry’s most enduring influences – is impossible geometry. His tales of cosmic entities meddling in human affairs are strewn with rooms, temples and cities that unnerve not (just) because they’re works of palpable malevolence, but because they are inherently wrong, curving and connecting in ways the narrator struggles to follow. In one tale, an attic’s odd contours give rise to dreams of a repulsively angled void. In another, an unfortunate sailor is swallowed by a knot of unreal architecture. In practice, much of this proves camouflage for the author’s racism – “arabesques” and “Hindoo idols” crop up frequently in descriptions of these supposedly “alien” artefacts. But the essential idea is a fascinating one, and it has inspired generations of artists in every medium – amongst them Thunder Lotus Games, the creators of wonderful new 2D action-platformer Sundered.
A hybrid of Metroidvania exploration, Devil May Cry’s gravity-defying combat and Dark Souls’ grinding, Sundered is absolutely rank with Lovecraft. Its sumptuous, hand-drawn bosses are Cthulhoid paroxysms of bones, tumours and tentacles, so vast that the camera is obliged to pull all the way out to fit them on-screen. Its plot is a vaguely Randolph Carter-esque tale of bartering with occult beings for power at the risk of losing one’s sanity and humanity: it casts you as Eshe, a wanderer who is drawn into the ruins of an underground civilisation by a crystalline entity known as the Shining Trapezohedron, which offers to enhance her abilities in exchange for “shards” obtained by slaying the abominations that roam the depths. Its backstory pays both implicit and explicit homage to Lovecraft’s eldritch universe. But above all, its geometry is perilously elusive, shifting when not in view.
The overall shape of each region you’ll traverse is fixed, as are key landmarks like boss chambers, exits or the shrines that confer new abilities, but the intervening rooms and their contents are reshuffled when you die (whereupon you’ll respawn at the world’s hub sanctuary, there to spend any shards you’ve earned). What was once a stairway made up of dinosaur vertebrae might become a cramped chimney where you’ll dance around clumps of wiry thorns and shafts of purple fire. Much of this, of course, won’t strike the seasoned enthusiast as eerie. Games have always dealt in nonsensical landscapes, from Mario’s moving platforms to the bizarre geology of Spelunky, and Sundered owes as much to such experiences as stories like Beyond the Wall of Sleep. But the twist of the knife is that Sundered’s premise is an invitation to read all those influences through the lens of the Cthulhu mythos. The game doesn’t merely pay homage to Lovecraft’s idea of an unearthly space, in other words, but suggests that all video game spaces are inherently Lovecraftian – that what lures us to them isn’t their consistency and fidelity, but precisely the ways in which they don’t add up.