Illustration by Sara Bardi
The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath Video Game Proposal
Text: Nathaniel Wallace Illustrations: Sara Bardi
Why make a game based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath?
The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath was written by the supernatural horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft sometime between 1926-27 and was not published during the author’s lifetime. Among Lovecraft’s many works, Dreamquest is one of the longer pieces of fiction the author wrote and it marks a transition between his fantastic fairy tale Dunsany phase, and the scientific realism that characterizes his later work. The novella is an excellent text to adapt for a video game because it contains so many characters, creatures and locations from Lovecraft’s larger body of work, such as Nyarlathotep, Night Gaunts, Randolph Carter, Azathoth, Shantaks, the Plateau of Leng and Celephais. There’s even a character called the High Priest Not to Be Described referred to in the story, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Robert Chamber’s King in Yellow, Hastur. Since the story encompasses so much within Lovecraft’s larger fictional universe, it offers an excellent opportunity to appropriate elements from his other stories, giving the game a much deeper mythology. Additionally Dreamquest is a suitable property for amateurs to base a game on considering that it is not under copyright, according to those who have researched the issue. With a story that has echoes of Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as well as Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Dreamquest would seem to be a property that could potentially be very popular with high fantasy fans, while offering players a departure from the tired fantasy trappings of elves and dwarfs.
This project began in earnest once Lovecraft scholar David Haden posted a short blurb on his popular blog, Tentaclii, about the lack of Dreamquest-related video games. Upon further research into the novella’s various adaptations, it was discovered that there was actually a Spanish first person puzzle game made for the ZX Spectrum 48K in 1988s, however, it was never translated into English and very little about it is referenced on the internet. Additionally, Jason Thompson created a well-regarded series of comic adaptations from 1997-1999 that were collected, published as a graphic novel and made into an animated film in 2003.
A DreamQuest video game would make for a good Kickstarter campaign since most Lovecraft related Kickstarter projects generally have a high rate of success. There have been some notable failures, such as the At the Mountains of Madness animated film project, largely due to overly optimistic goals, a lack of specifics, and ultimately an underdeveloped plan. Providing further momentum to the project, is the multitude of new visual adaptations based on DreamQuest, a development that will surely help spread awareness of the novella. With the recent publication of Pete Von Sholly’s illustrated adaptation of it in March, the graphic novel of the story by Ian Culbard that was recently released this fall and the successful Indiegogo Dreamlands film by Huan Vu which raised $62,905.78, it seems like there arises a confluence of circumstances favorable to the creation of a video game project based on the story. Indeed, the Lovecraft influenced indie game Cthulhu Saves the World (2011) sold more than 100,000 copies alone on Steam, not include Xbox and PlayStation units. Lovecraft’s fictional universe is deeply under-realized and appears poised to make substantial gains in overall awareness within popular culture, given the right circumstances.
Illustration by Sara Bardi, courtesy of http://www.cthulhuproject.com
Lovecraft’s The Dreamquest of Unknown Kadath would make an excellent video game adaptation, largely due to the structure of the novella. As user safarikate stated of the story’s seemingly connection to video games on the TOR review:
Re-reading it, I noticed that the action broke down much like a video game, progressing through 'levels' loosely tied together by the main quest. Carter gains knowledge and skills as the story progresses, until at the end he fights the 'boss,' Nyarlathotep, on Kadath, and (sort of) achieves his goal of finding the golden city of his dreams that the gods had hidden from him.
Each area of the Dreamlands has a central action or event, but due to the nature of the story and the fact that Lovecraft never went back and revised it, the loose structure of the plot allows potential game designers to fill in the blanks in regards to dialog, characters and setting. This allows for the borrowing of established characters from Lovecraft’s other stories but it also could lead to filling out the fictional world more, such as including more female characters. Additionally, objects from Lovecraft’s other work might be incorporated into DreamQuest, such as the Shining trapezohedron, the Jade Amulet from “The Hound,” The Pnakotic Manuscripts, and the Silver Key.
Concepts for Randolph Carter by Sara Bardi
The basic mechanics of DreamQuest would be centered on an overhead perspective that would allow for more interaction between Carter and the game world than what has been traditionally been permitted in games such as the 8-bit and 16-bit Final Fantasy games. Carter would conventionally be able to navigate around the game world, talk with NPCs, open chests, and dash to avoid obstacles, but would also be able to jump and sneak around certain powerful enemies, especially when alone, allowing a more stealth-based component of the game. Additionally, when Carter equips certain items, he may gain further world map abilities.
If one were to attribute a notable quality to the story, it would revolve around Randolph Carter’s skill at interacting and pairing up with a variety of creatures within the Dreamlands, including the ghouls, zoogs, cats and night gaunts. To this end, the game play should reflect this, especially the relative passiveness of the protagonist (Carter never really fights anyone directly, despite having a scimitar, beyond pushing the shady merchant down the Great Abyss). One major component of the game could be allowing the player to align with a certain faction of these creatures through the formation of a pact, granting them additional skills and advantages available via the use of passwords. In terms of the gameplay, it could be potentially based on the mechanics of Final Fantasy IV, and specifically the character of Rydia. With her ability to summon a vast bestiary of creatures, Rydia seems like a good model to base Carter on, especially with her numerous attempts to gather the support of various monsters in the underworld Cave of Summons. In Dreamquest, Randolph Carter forms relationships with various creatures such as the Zoogs, Cats of Ulthur, the Night Gaunts and the Ghouls, learning and using passwords to gain their allegiance. Dreamquest could have a system of allegiances whereby Carter can choose which faction he sides with, gaining him additional abilities within that particular creature group. Each member of the group could in turn level up and be customized by the user as Randolph Carter gains experience through vanquishing enemies.
Concepts for Randolph Carter’s Companions by Sara Bardi
Finally, in terms of gameplay, there is a substantial component of trading within Dylath-Leen and among the ruby merchants of the black galleys. As Carter gains experience in dealing with the economy of the Dreamlands, he is able to gain better deals at various shops, opens access to special quests, and can limit enemy factions’ access to strong weaponry, which has direct bearing on potential conflicts. Once Carter brings his companion, Madame Greenevsky from the Wake World into the Dreamlands, she is able to establish a store to attain and trade various rare items brought to Dylath-Leen from throughout the Dreamlands. As Carter progresses, Madame Greenevsky follows from town to town, setting up shop and allowing the player to find extremely rare items. The player’s dealings with particular merchants in each given city can be set up to form a type of puzzle, similar to the mechanics in Secret of Evermore. The tradable items present in each town adds another textual layer to the game that makes each city distinct from one another.
Concept art by Sara Bardi
The other major gameplay mechanic would involve the division between Boston, here termed the Wake World, and Carter’s dream world, the Dreamlands. Within the Wake World, everything is depressing and gray, while the Dreamlands are lively, colorful and much more dangerous. Carter is not a particularly strong character in either world, but at least in the Dreamlands he has more agency in summoning creatures to his aid. In the Wake World, this summoning ability is also present, however none of the creatures he has pacts with, with the exception of cats, are able to openly be present in his party. Rather they have to largely hide in the shadows and be summoned individually, taking up Carter’s turn with every summoning. Certain magic items also lose their powers in the Wake World, forcing the player to assume an active role in formulating strategy to get Carter through these perilous sections of the game.
Illustrations by Sara Bardi
When Carter encounters enemy characters and is accompanied by companions, the perspective switches over from a top down perspective to a side view that allows for active turn-based fighting. This system grants the player and enemies a certain number of actions within a set time. During these fights, Carter is physically vulnerable and it’s to the player’s advantage to recruit other playable characters to aid and protect him in battle. At the beginning of the game, Carter will be relatively helpless and will need to run from enemies, however, as he picks up allies and skills, his prowess and durability in battle increases. In particular, he will be able to use rare items during battle to launch attacks on his enemies. Additionally, certain enemies can be courted for alliances, such as the Zoogs and the player would do well to experiment with giving them items or striking up a dialogue with them in order to potentially bring them into the party.
Concept art by Sara Bardi
Additionally, there are large battles contained within the game where the stakes are raised, involving a mass number of enemies and controllable player characters. Such narrative moments as the conflict on the Moon between the Cats of Ulthur, Men of Leng and the Moonbeasts seems ideal to represent via a tactical role-playing system such as Fire Emblem franchise. During these sections, the game will shift to a top down environment that allows the player to position each of their characters in a larger battlefield during their turn. Before each of these sessions, the player will be told what specific goals they must achieve during the battle and if they successfully complete them, that section of the game will end in their favor. The player’s actions during this portion of the game can have wildly different consequences for Randolph Carter, sometimes resulting in additional bonus items, hidden skills or boosted stats.
Should the player press pause to bring up the menu screen, several options are available for them to configure the game, and equip and level up their characters. Each character can equip certain armor and weapons, depending on their stats, and the player has a wide latitude in assigning such objects. Additionally, in this screen, the player can choose to build upon their character’s relationships, potentially netting them additional skills and abilities in battle.
The project team’s vision for the game is to essentially go for a bright, colorful and playful vibe, especially considering the tone of the original story. To this end, it would be appropriate to utilize a rather heavy animated, abstract look that properly conveys this fantastical world. There might be some rather dark and tension filled portions of the game, such as on the Moon, the Kingdom of the Gugs, Quarry, the Plateau of Leng and the battle at the Rock, however, there will be plenty of opportunities for humor and meaningful interaction with the indigenous population of the Dreamlands. The original text has some incredible set pieces that could be well realized within the game, such as the trip to the moon, the discovery of Ngranek and merchant city of Dylath-Leen. Each individual city could have a very distinct look and culture. Some suitable influences for the project include Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), and the panning backgrounds in Filmation’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon and She-Ra: Princess of Power . Additionally, narrative-heavy or action-heavy scenes could have illustrations to help convey the events of the plot to the audience, especially in providing entertaining spectacles that help move the story forward, such as Carter’s encounter with the priests Nasht and Kaman-thah. These could be illustrated and incorporate limited moving elements.
DreamQuest is in the early stages, and since the team is rather new to this process, there are many challenges and components to this project that have likely not been thought of and accounted for. It’s difficult to tell what, if any money this project will make, but at least those who participate in its creation could potentially get the opportunity to make a game based on a much loved Lovecraft story. Also, contributors would gain experience in getting these Kickstarters going and could add a couple of lines to their CVs. However, if successful, this project could spawn a sequel utilizing the short stories “The Silver Key,” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”.