What’s a nice shoggoth like you doing in a game like Carrion?

, | Game reviews

I remember Donald Pleasence screaming.  He’s trapped.  A white blood cell is bearing down on him.  He’s been shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a human body.  It’s the movie Fantastic Voyage, from 1966, and the white blood cell is descending slowly and inexorably toward Donald Pleasence.  It oozes over his head and he’s screaming and he dies a terrible death.  The special effects at the time, all very practical and weirdly theatrical, presented a white blood cell as basically bubbles from bubble bath.  Donald Pleasence screams as a stagehand pours bubble bath bubbles over his head.  I mean, that’s how it looks to me now.  But at the time, it was utterly horrific.  Donald Pleasence screaming as it consumed his head.

Of course, there’s also The Blob.  The 1988 one, not the one with that doofus from Great Escape.  There’s a graphic scene — graphic to me, at the time — in which someone gets blobbed and you can see him inside there getting digested.  Horrific.  The sentient oil slick from the second Creepshow movie.  Horrific.  You might include green slime from Green Slime, a 1968 movie in which green slime overruns a space station.  Unfortunately, it evolves into men in silly rubber costumes because, it turns out, Green Slime is a Japanese kaiju movie.  It’s interesting only for how it’s a precursor to Alien.  I would also cite the mass of wet latex and the whipping cords and yawning maws rising up out of dogflesh and manflesh in John Carpenter’s The Thing, distorting its animal and human elements as it assimilates them.  Horrific.

My favorite recent movie example is Life, from 2017, in which Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Rebecca Ferguson accidentally cultivate and then — oops! — release a sentient space blob.  Since it’s 2017, CG special effects create a mass of malevolent protoplasm and the horrific things it will do.  No one has to pour bubble bath bubbles on anyone’s head.  Life has the R-rating to let the protoplasm’s malevolence run free.  It has the star power and therefore budget to afford a talented CG studio.  Unfortunately, the creature eventually decides to become more bat than blob, but it was horrific while it lasted.

These monsters predate movies, of course.  HP Lovecraft introduced the shoggoth in 1931 when he wrote At the Mountains of Madness.  The shoggoths were “multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs.”  

They were normally shapeless entities composed of a viscous jelly which looked like an agglutination of bubbles; and each averaged about fifteen feet in diameter when a sphere. They had, however, a constantly shifting shape and volume; throwing out temporary developments or forming apparent organs of sight, hearing, and speech…

Shoggoths were engineered by star-faring aliens to be used as labor in the construction of colonies on other planets.  But the shoggoths developed intelligence and rebelled, fighting wars against their masters.  They had a predilection for tearing the heads off their battered victims.  “Mauled, compressed, twisted, and ruptured as they were, their chief common injury was total decapitation.” To add insult to injury, shoggoths leave slime on everything: “freshly glistening and reflectively iridescent black slime which clung thickly to those headless bodies and stank obscenely.”  If there’s one thing worse than slime, it’s stinky slime.

…that hideous slime-coating found on certain incomplete and prostrate [victims]—those whom the frightful shoggoths had characteristically slain and sucked to a ghastly headlessness in the great war of re-subjugation. They were infamous, nightmare sculptures even when telling of age-old, bygone things; for shoggoths and their work ought not to be seen by human beings or portrayed by any beings. The mad author of the Necronomicon had nervously tried to swear that none had been bred on this planet, and that only drugged dreamers had ever conceived them. 

Formless protoplasm able to mock and reflect all forms and organs and processes—viscous agglutinations of bubbling cells—rubbery fifteen-foot spheroids infinitely plastic and ductile—slaves of suggestion, builders of cities—more and more sullen, more and more intelligent, more and more amphibious, more and more imitative—Great God! What madness made even those blasphemous Old Ones willing to use and to carve such things?

Of course, our protagonists will meet a shoggoth before At the Mountains of Madness is done.  The meeting takes place in tunnels, a setting that lends itself to metaphors for subways and sinuses.   As inexorable as a train, as gross as snot.

…the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be’; and its nearest comprehensible analogue is a vast, onrushing subway train as one sees it from a station platform—the great black front looming colossally out of infinite subterraneous distance, constellated with strangely coloured lights and filling the prodigious burrow as a piston fills a cylinder…

…the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us.

John Langham’s short story, The Shallows, features a shoggoth encounter.  It’s only a fleeting glimpse and it doesn’t have much bearing on the story, but it’s willing to get graphic.  The protagonist, Ransom, watches through an interdimensional portal as three men run across a plaza, fleeing from something.

From either side of the plaza…what might have been torrents of black water rushed onto and over the concrete.  There was no way for the streams to have been water: each would have required a hose the width of a train, pumps the size of houses, a score of workers to operate it, but the way they surged toward the trio…suggested a river set loose from its banks and given free rein to speed across the land.  The color of spent motor oil, they moved so fast that the objects studding their lengths were almost impossible to distinguish; Ransom…realized that they were eyes, that each black tumult was the setting for a host of eyes, eyes of all sizes, shapes, and colors, eyes defining strange constellations.  He had no similar trouble identifying the mouths into which the streams opened, tunnels gated by great cracked and jagged teeth.

Ransom didn’t have to watch as the…dark torrents converged on the trio of men.  He didn’t have to see the man who had not risen from his hands and knees scooped into a mouth that did not close so much as constrict.  He didn’t have to see the man with the pistol empty it into the teeth that bit him in half.  And he did not have to watch…as the third figure — he should have called him a man; he had earned it — sidestepped the bite aimed at him and slashed a groove in the rubbery skin that caused the behemoth to veer away from him.  He did not have to see the hatchet, raised for a second stroke, spin off into the air, along with the hand that gripped it and most of the accompanying arm, as the mouth that had taken the man with the pistol sliced away the rest of the third man.

This is the history of “blob” monsters, and if H.P. Lovecraft hadn’t taken so long to get mainstream, we would probably call all of them shoggoths.  They are as inhuman a monster as you could possibly imagine.  Every other monster has some basis in human beings or the animal kingdom. But the shoggoth is something subcellular, roiling about at a level where it shouldn’t exist.  Intelligent and malevolent protoplasm, larger than life and ready to consume it.

This is what you get in Carrion, a videogame with a canny appreciation for the shoggoth.  In terms of artwork, animation, and control, it realizes the oozing intelligent malevolence better than any other videogame.  Not that there are many videogames trying.  Boss fights in Resident Evil games barely count, because no self-respecting shoggoth would have glowing orange weak points.  Locoroco is too cheerful, Katamari Damacy too nonsensical, and Kirby too Nintendo (although I’m convinced there’s a darker side to Kirby).  But Carrion is an all-in horror game, dripping with slime and gore.  Pixelated, to be fair.  But still dripping.

It’s one of the best horror movies I’ve played, told from the perspective of the shoggoth as it escapes from a laboratory and then proceeds to infiltrate various scientific and military installations, pursuing some insidious agenda that involves nuclear reactors.  Along the way, it eats people to keep up its strength, ripping them into convenient bite-sized halves.  It’s smart enough to infiltrate computers, which shifts the scene to provide glimpses of how humans are responding to the havoc.  It’s also smart enough to absorb DNA upgrades that give it new powers, which it will need to infiltrate new installations.

The monster looks awesome, all angry eyeballs, toothy mouths, and writhing tendrils.  You lead this mass of prehensile goo with your mouse cursor, which gives it a sense of flow instead of direct control.  But when it comes time to manipulate something — pull a lever, break open a canister, drag a screaming person into a hungry mouth — the mouse provides exactly the precision a shoggoth needs.  Stuff in the world breaks to give the monster a sense of bulk, and slime coats the floor and walls to give the monster a sense of ooze.  The music sets the mood.  The screaming victims are pitch perfect.

(By the way, Carrion is a terrible title, since it implies eating dead meat.  But this is a game about eating people, who are alive, while they’re screaming and trying to get away.  That’s not carrion.  As near as I can tell, the title is just a set-up for an achievement you get to the end: “Carry on, my wayward son,” it says, now that the game has nothing left to show you.  If the shoggoth had been onscreen at that point, all twenty of his eyes would have rolled.  I’m reminded of a bad horror movie I just watched called Carrion because the main character is named Carrie Ann.)

As I mentioned, Carrion is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever played, but not one of the best horror games I’ve played.  As a game, it’s stultifyingly linear.  It’s open, but for no reason other than to stress-test your navigational skills by sending you into places that look like all the other places.  Everywhere you go will be more or less the same dark tunnels and hallways, with an occasional open room, with the same basic architecture.  Carrion feels like it used all its creative juice on monster building, with none left over to build a world for its monster to terrorize.  There’s no sense of progression as you work your way toward escaping into the wider world.  There is only another dark hallway, another door, another tunnel.

And for a game about chaos busting loose, there’s not much busting loose.  Carrion is too linear and guided.  I never felt like the upgrades were unlocking new areas or opening new paths.  I never felt like they expanded the map, which is what happens in a well-made Metroidvania.  Instead, I felt like they were simply unlocking the door directly in front of me.  The upgrades were imaginative for how they integrated with the level design, but they were only ever gates lifted rather than new possibilities introduced.

The upgrades also fit into an awkward progression system.  As the shoggoth gets new powers, each power is limited to one of three size thresholds.  A small shoggoth, a medium shoggoth, and a large shoggoth all have different abilities, so you have to watch your weight based on what you’re trying to do and where you’re trying to go.  This leads to contrived puzzles based on finding a place to change sizes.  For instance, some barriers can only be pulled open, which takes a large shoggoth.  But from the other side, the same barrier has to be pushed, which takes a medium shoggoth.  So you’re trapped until you find a place to drop off your extra bulk.  You can’t do this just anywhere.  You need a special pool of red water.  So now you’re managing biomass storage instead of chaos.  Weight management.  Frankly, it’s beneath a shoggoth’s dignity.  

This is what Carrion has in store after its promising early moments.  All the blood and gore and screaming and gnashing of teeth turn into an aggravating set of puzzles.  The chaos grinds to a halt, waiting for you to parse some this-then-that-next puzzle logic.  Do you even know where to go next?  This tunnel looks like every other tunnel.  There’s nothing left to eat.  The roiling protoplasm is restless and impatient.  It’s tempted to grow a foot just so it can tap it peevishly, but that would be too cheeky.  It’s beneath a shoggoth’s dignity.  So it waits while you lead it around and try to figure out how to open that door.  Such an amazing monster, trapped in such a middling game.

  • Carrion

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • At last the shoggoth videogames demand! Sadly, he's trapped in a contrived puzzle maze.