It is always interesting to see what route developers take when they intend to adapt Lovecraft. I would say that most merely take monsters or settings and plop them into an experience of their own design, which hardly ever works well. The savvy ones look to capture the tone that Lovecraft evoked, the mounting mystery that leads to overwhelming terror that no hope can repel. When a developer actually succeeds at doing this, as those behind Conarium did, the result is a truly singular experience. Not every part of Conarium works as well as the atmosphere, mind you, but it feels like an understatement to say they got the important part right.
You are Frank Gilman, and you awaken to a strange device flashing otherworldly signals into your face. That proves to be the least of your concerns, because the Antarctic base you find yourself in is entirely deserted. Disturbing notes detail the team’s strange experiments and discoveries, bizarre life forms lie dormant in the laboratories, and something ominous stirs deep beneath the base. Coping with terrible revelations about your own part in this expedition, you are urged through caverns and ruins lost to history by a voice on the other end of a radio. But no good can come of unbridled curiosity when eldritch forces are involved.
I’ll avoid spoiling as much about the story as the store page does (seriously, don’t read it), but this is very clearly a tale set alongside Lovecraft’s own At the Mountains of Madness. Frank’s journey will take you from the forlorn base through a tour of some quintessentially Lovecraftian locales, complete with references to the mythos and representations of the more famous creatures. Along the way you’ll find loads of notes, sketches, and maps that expand the scope of the story and help place Frank in his role for this drama. There are a few particularly impactful discoveries that are left entirely to the player to acknowledge, which is a refreshing change from revelations in most horror games being dropped with huge stingers and setpieces.
I mean, Conarium still has those moments, of course. That’s a hallmark of Lovecraft’s tales of horror, the slow build to the great DUN DUN DUNNN moment at the very end. They haven’t forgotten this, and Conarium has a truly excellent ending (well, one of the two at least) that fits perfectly with Lovecraft’s own flair for the dramatic. And the road to get there is lined with the very sort of quiet, dreadful exploration that filled his stories. The atmosphere is what makes this game work so incredibly well, the long stretches of wandering, investigating, and puzzling out meanings that lead to yet more terrible discoveries. This is not a game lousy with jumpscares or chase scenes, and when they do happen it’s to very effectively remind the player that they are trespassing in places never meant for humans.
As effective as it is, it won’t be what everyone is looking for in a horror game. Parts of the game are indeed quite slow, and getting tripped up on any of the puzzles can draw that out into moments of tedium. This is not a puzzle-heavy game and the puzzles that are present tend to be simple environmental affairs, but failing to notice an interaction prompt or an open door may lead to some needless wandering. There’s not much feedback on the actual game systems, and this carries over to moments where you are actually threatened. Without spoiling too much I will say that there is an achievement for completing the game without dying, and I have it, and I’m honestly not sure why given some of the things I think happened.
It’s really quite a minor quibble against a game focused so heavily on atmosphere and mystery, though. Conarium does exactly what it needs to do, which is capture the nigh-unfathomable dread that comes of exploring something entirely out of your depth. There are moments that blur the lines between past and present, memory and experience, and they’re far more effective than the illusory horrors you get in other indie titles. The graphics carry much of the game with moody, colorful environments rich in detail (though I’m not a fan of how your flashlight washes things out), and the soundtrack is muted or oppressive right when it works best. Games that channel the spirit of Lovecraft are rare, but Conarium succeeds in all the most important ways and makes a compelling adventure of it.