Cosmic romance: A critical review of “Call of the Sea” (2020)

One interesting phenomena of the last few years has been the effort to reclaim H. P. Lovecraft from H. P. Lovecraft. As knowledge of the author’s influence has grown, so has the realization that he probably wasn’t someone you’d want to hang out with, unless you were a fairly WASP-y gentleman with a limited to-read list and certain opinions about neighborhood line… or just a nice Jewish lady with authorial aspirations. What can I say? Life is weird.

There have been multiple passes at Lovecraft pastiches that challenge our reading of the original texts, frequently from a political point of view. This blog has read and seen a few. Some are good, some are not, but that’s a discussion for a different post (I haven’t even started “Lovecraft Country”). For now, let’s talk about a different take on re-reading Lovecraft: the graphic adventure game “Call of the Sea.”

I think it’s important that one of us – us pulp thriller people, that is – review this game. Most reviewers have declared it not a horror game, but no one has bothered to examine why or what the implications of that are. But we ain’t most reviewers.

“Call of the Sea” is the story of Norah Everhart, a woman who’s looking for her husband because he went missing while looking for a cure for a mysterious illness that’s left Norah’s hands looking like last month’s bologna. Basically, there’s a lot of looking going on (what do you expect? It’s a graphic adventure game). Norah’s search takes her to an island in the South Pacific, long shunned by the locals due to rumors of dark gods or cannibal cults or something else that makes good neighbors. Norah discovers her husband was there, along with an entire scientific expedition, all of whom were searching for something. Coming to learn what it was will tie together the expedition’s fate, Norah’s illness and the true history of the island.

Since “Call” is a graphic adventure game, it seems fair to examine it as we have similar games in the past, considering it on the merit of atmosphere, story and puzzles. This is a good way to approach “Call,” because it starts with arguably the strongest element. To play only the first level is to see why so many reviewers left this thinking it was not a horror game. It is a marvel of color. Almost everything is vibrant: daylit beaches, sunset-soaked mountaintops, jagged shipwrecks, rain-flecked jungle camps, gloomy underwater coral reefs, cool blue and damp gray stone temples.

Even when the game leans closer to horror – there are serious suspense vibes in the second and third levels, as well as some nicely unsettling images during the game’s climax – it maintains an illuminated atmosphere, one that never feels inappropriate for the setting. Some quick research reminds me that French post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, known for his bold color choices, spent a lot of time in the South Seas. This blog can’t say for certain that developer Out of the Blue was influenced by Gauguin, but there are serious Gauguin vibes coming off the game.

Everything looks interesting as well. It’s not realistic at all – there’s a reason why there are no human models – but it’s pleasantly blocky in a comic book kind of way, with the still images on in-game documents perhaps evoking an EC Comics-style. The visuals are seriously assisted by a superb orchestral soundtrack, composed by Eduardo de la Iglesia, which is intelligent and eclectic, romantic and subtle in the right spots.

I wish I could say the same for the story. It’s predictable at best. There’s likely no Lovecraft fan in the gaming chair who won’t know what’s going on far in advance of Norah. There are a few cute shout-outs to the author that border on goofy, but whatever. They’re better than publisher Raw Fury sneaking their logo onto ancient island puzzle mechanism.

At worst, the story seems contrived. Norah’s illness is a particular standout. It’s described as debilitating in recollections, but it doesn’t seem to stop her from gallivanting around the globe and solo hiking up uncharted islands. It doesn’t help that I don’t like Norah. Some of her dialogue is smartly written (“I wasn’t sick; I was homesick”), and it’s delivered professionally enough, but a lot of it is just exposition. She also has a habit of commenting on the things I’m not interested in, and she’ll do it for a while.

The standard for Lovecraftian heroes in gaming for this blog is Jack Walters from “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.” Fans of that game will recall Jack commented on everything, even if it was just to say there was “nothing of interest [there].” You couldn’t get him to shut up, but it made sense. Norah spends most of her time filling in blanks I never asked to be filled. It’s not natural. Norah doesn’t want to know about the signs of violence or decay, but she’s willing to tell me three times over about a sacrificial knife. I already figured out it’s important for a puzzle, so tell me more about the world instead. I guess one could chalk it up to Norah being alone on an island, but she rarely seems nervous. It might be a bit unfair, but when there’s only one character in the game, everything she says is going to stand out whether you like it or not.

There are also the endings, for there are two, which this blog will now spend a couple of paragraphs discussing. Both endings are easy to achieve with save scumming, but even if they weren’t, they’d still feel sort of unearned. For them both to work, Norah has to realize something in a hurry, so she does. Again, it feels very convenient. One ending, the one I expected to be the most natural for this story, comes across as lackluster. It’s the bigger, splashier ending, so it requires the visuals to sell it, but the visuals in this game are never intensive. The ending accordingly comes across as shallow when it should be expansive. It’s showing us nothing the game hasn’t already revealed, bigger and better; here at the end, it’s displayed with less urgency and intrigue. It simply is for about 20 seconds, then credits.

The second ending is quieter and more bittersweet, and it ends up feeling far more organic. That’s interesting. Perhaps it makes the events of the game itself feel unnecessary, which is something that rubs some people the wrong way, but it’s a better fit than the “big” ending. I don’t mind. Perhaps my frustration with the other ending is because, like everyone kept telling me, “Call” really isn’t a horror story, and I should be thinking of it more like a romance.

Here’s a novel observation. A lot of Lovecraftian pastiches are packaged as detective fiction (the aforementioned “Dark Corners of the Earth” and “The Sinking City” to name a couple), but there are only two detectives this blog can think of in Lovecraft’s original work: Inspector Legrasse in “Call of Cthulhu” and Detective Malone in “Horror at Red Hook.” They’re both cops even. And yet, private detectives are the go-to for these kinds of stories.

On the contrary, there is more fantasy – low Gothic, high Gothic, even Romantic – found in some of Lovecraft’s original work. The Dream Cycle and much of his poetry fit that profile, but it’s far less frequently tapped by pastiche writers. To be fair, Lovecraft’s sense of mystery lends itself quite well to detective fiction, but for a purist, there is actually nothing wrong with a game like “Call of the Sea” relying on the fantastic rather than the horrific. So perhaps there’s more to “Call’s” story, if not its delivery, than I give it credit for.

I’m rambling about genre. Again. Where were we? The puzzles. They range from OK to not great. Most of them are harmless, pretty direct backtrack-and-put-the-thing-on-the-thing puzzles (at one point, Norah muses things are starting to feel like a scavenger hunt. She’s not wrong). Only a few stick in the head, like the lens aligner puzzle in chapter two (although that’s partly because it’s a shout-out). Then there are a couple that absolutely awful. The bongos? That wasn’t a puzzle. It was a glorified game of Bop It. I also gave up on the last one, the squiggly star chart thing. I knew what to do intellectually, but I just wasn’t interested in brute forcing the alignments, so I went with a walkthrough. I’ll hand in my graphic adventurer gamer card at the door.

Ultimately, I cannot really recommend “Call of the Sea” as a thriller fan. In fact, I’m a little iffy on recommending as an adventure gamer. The story is thin, and the puzzles are weak. However, I admit that if you’re already interested, there’s little reason for me to dissuade you. The game’s presentation is top notch, and its themes are not as much of a revision of Lovecraft as most reviewers seem to think. It’s not quite cosmic horror, but it is cosmic romance.

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