Who Needs Graphics: A Review of "The Lurking Horror"
A History of Imagination
Horror and video games have been intertwined for almost the entirety of the latter's history. If you can believe it, the first horror video game (insofar as you identify “horror” by standard tropes of ghosts, ghouls, etc.) was on the Magnavox Odyssey, the first widely available commercial gaming system. The game in question, Haunted House (1972), relied on an “overlay” – translucent sheets that were placed overtop of your television screen to serve as environments, backgrounds, game boards and more – that put players in, as you might have guessed...a Haunted House. One player, the “detective,” would navigate through the house, trying to obtain items, while the second player, the “ghost,” would use a button on his controller to become invisible, then try to startle the detective while hiding the items.
I did not own a Magnavox Odyssey, and thus did not play Haunted House. I mention it because I think it illustrates an important point about horror in video games, and by extension horror in general. Limitations of technology in the early days of video games meant we needed to use our imagination. And the greatest fear of all lies in our imagination.
None of this is to say that Haunted House was actually scary, or for that matter that other, early “horror” games like, say, Atari's 1982 Haunted House (which was also an item collection game with monsters to avoid... go figure) were actually scary. No, in my opinion, it wasn't until the advent of storylines in video games that horror became actually scary.
Infocom, at the height of its popularity, was a software company that was critically and commercially acclaimed through its long list of “interactive fiction” titles. Interactive fiction was exactly what it sounds like: fictional stories you interacted with...entirely through text. If that sounds boring, it actually wasn't. Infocom had the idea to include detailed story background in the manuals they shipped with their games, and they also included “feelies;” little bits and bobs from the actual game universe that made it feel that much more real for the player. For instance, with their adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Infocom included: 1) a pair of peril-sensitive glasses (actually a glasses-shaped piece of black card) 2) a “microscopic space fleet” (an empty plastic bag), 3) a “Don't Panic” button 4) pocket fluff (yep) and 5) a pair of demolition notices, one for your house, and one for your planet. They had some truly fantastic writers working for them, and they came onto the scene with a tremendous hit: Zork.
Zork, if you have never heard of it, is a series of adventure games that take place in the Great Underground Empire, and were known for their wry sense of humour, their in-depth and fully realized shared universe, and – at the time – their highly sophisticated text parser. The parser understand commands from the player that contained more advanced prepositions than the usual run of text-based adventure games (like “punch orphan”). For me, though, the most famous part of Zork has to be the Grue. What is the Grue? Well...
A company that popularized a monster that lives in literally every dark space seemed destined to create a horror game at some point. And, in 1987, in their twilight years following their acquisition by Activision, they did: The Lurking Horror.
Becoming Acquainted with The Lurking Horror
I have never owned The Lurking Horror. This probably raises a couple of questions right away. Firstly, how can I have played it if I never owned it? Well, the easy answer is that it's now free, online, and you should definitely play it if you like old video games. Secondly, how could I have owned it? As someone born in 1986...I would have been all of 1 year old when this game came out.
You see, I'm the youngest in my family, and growing up, I played the games that my father and brother bought. We had an Apple IIc that one of my uncles bought for us, and we spent many happy hours on that thing playing classics like Spy Hunter, Bubble Bobble, and Lode Runner. We also had a large collection of Infocom games, including Planetfall, Stationfall, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and, yes indeed, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. We did not, sadly, have The Lurking Horror. No, it was only in the last few years that I found out that Infocom had even made a horror game...but once I did, I had to play it.
The plot for The Lurking Horror starts off straightforward, and quickly descends into Lovecraftian madness. You are a student at G.U.E. Tech (a not-so-subtle nod to Zork's Great Underground Empire), and you have gone to campus late at night to complete a term paper. You travel to the school's computer lab through a brutal snowstorm, and commit to an all-nighter with only a lone hacker to keep you company. Creepy events soon diverge you from your original task, and you must delve into the dark secrets of the university to stop a terrible evil from emerging far beneath the earth.
I was also keen to find out what “feelies” the original game had come with. Luckily, this was actually easily done. Thanks to a couple of dedicated fans, there is a website that showcases all of the Infocom library, with detailed information and pictures of the feelies that came with the games. You can find that site here. I highly recommend it for all fans of Infocom's work. You'll also notice that it was last updated in 2004, and at the time Activision actually exercised their right to block uploaded copies of the games, removing them from the web. Thankfully, it's ten years later, and most of the rights have reverted or expired (such as Hitchhiker's Guide, which went back to Adams and in turn to the BBC, and is free to play on their site).
Getting back to The Lurking Horror, here's what came in the box:
A student I.D. Card
A freshmen's guide to the university
Maps of the campus (these proved immensely useful for the gameplay, as navigating the university is key to success)
The best part about the Centipede was that it wasn't mentioned on the box art or description, which meant finding it could result in a nasty scare from the get-go.
And were there further scares to be found once I began to play The Lurking Horror? Well...
OK, but is it Scary?
If you find horror novels scary, you will find The Lurking Horror Scary. As I mentioned earlier, since The Lurking Horror is a text-based adventure game, you're naturally forced to use your imagination to construct the scenario and environment based on the descriptions you're given. Those descriptions are where this game shines. Very close to the beginning of the game, when you first try to get to work on your paper by turning on a PC (which also serves as the game's rudimentary copy protection; thankfully if you play it online the person who ported it thought to give that information right on the web page), the screen rapidly devolves into a nightmare vision that becomes all too real. Next thing you know you're being sacrificed on an otherworldly altar to a beast from beyond our dimension.
From there, you're forced to navigate the school's subterranean network of tunnels, access hatches, and elevators, all of which are dimly lit at best. This leads to a fantastic encounter with a plague of rats, further run-ins with other netherbeasts, and a maniacal professor who attempts to bargain your soul for power. My personal favourite moment, though, has to be when you uncover the terrible fate of the urchins that prowl the school grounds. You'll run into one such urchin quite often, and he serves as a cryptic and distrustful source of information. He mentions, among other things, that a number of his pals have gone missing (as have many students), and he freaks right out when you mention the University's mysterious department of Alchemy. Below ground, though, is where things become downright terrifying.
It's fun to think of these urchin-creatures as progenitors of some of the monsters of the Silent Hill franchise. I have no idea if those designers ever played The Lurking Horror. But if not, they should.
Heavily Lovecraft inspired (the writer is even mentioned explicitly by name several times), atmospheric, The Lurking Horror gave me a chance to live out the nostalgia of my family's Infocom collection while experiencing an all new adventure. Like any book, the lack of graphics or illustration require you to use your imagination, but with a proper story you quickly realize you don't need anything else. The story bends and twists and, like many Infocom titles, can be a bit difficult, but is quite rewarding. And, in spite of the at-times grim and frightening scenes you encounter, they never forget to give you moments of their trademark sense of humour.