Say what you will about Lovecraft’s great ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ but you would be hard pressed to claim that it has a striking narrative. The story is, in essence, a travel narrative. Scientists A and B explore the ruins of a city and learn its history. There’s no complex psychological portraits, no clever character work, just a series of pieces of exposition. What the story does well is present an alternate history of the Earth, one that downplays humanity and suggests that we are but a cosmic accident; unimportant, unwanted and unlikely to survive.
Which is why it is such a good story and one I could read and re-read again and again.
A little like my fascination with the first ‘Tomb Raider’ game.
In ‘Tomb Raider’ the story is fairly minimal; evil Atlantean scientist is imprisoned for her inhuman experiments. Said scientist is woken by a nuclear explosion in the Neveda Desert and sends you, as Lara Croft, unwittingly on a journey to find a device that will allow the scientist to resume her experimentation. Hardly novel. What makes the game work is that the exploration required to get from cutscence to cutscene is not only fun but beautiful. Even now the first ‘Tomb Raider’ is a triumph of level design, with seemingly plausible Mesoamerica tomb complexes stretching for miles and disused Roman sewer systems located in amphitheatres built deep underground. It is a joy to traverse the depthes and find the next marvel. You think you’ve seen it all when you drop onto a Sphinx, but the flooded room beneath it is even more spectacular.
(It’s a pity the last few levels aren’t more interesting; it does rather spoil the last act.)
Now, I’m not comparing the majesty of ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ to ‘Tomb Raider,’ at least, not directly. Whilst I do think that the first Lara Croft game will go down in game history as a classic it certainly won’t be mentioned in such tones as that of Lovecraft’s longest story. Yet both of them share the same magic; the story itself is irrelevant because the thing that draws your attention is the travel. For ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ the travel is historical whilst in ‘Tomb Raider’ it is the spectacle of antiquity that never was (which, really, is the point of Lovecraft’s story).
Which is why I am somewhat excited to see that the first ‘Tomb Raider’ game is getting a remake. And somewhat less excited to know that ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ is being made into a film.