Grotesque tapestries of chitin and tentacles masquerading as bipeds. Warlike cultists in shining armour and crimson robes. Organic mass squirming somewhere between insect egg sacs and diseased organs. The few scraps of concept art that exist for InSane – the Guillermo Del Toro-helmed, H. P. Lovecraft-inspired horror game that was cancelled in 2012 – look, today, like sketches from the beyond (ones given all the corporeal gnarliness and sci-fi edges necessary to sell a major video game in the early 2010s.)
There’s a tenderness to Del Toro’s movie oeuvre, but if anything can trade out nuance for a nu-metal, sledgehammer-subtle aesthetic it’s a blockbuster teaser trailer. In an interview with Game Informer, creative director Jacques Hennequet recalls lamenting the brash, obvious tone of the teaser. Even the name InSane was a placeholder that publisher THQ decided to run with for the marketing materials.
Guillermo Del Toro first began pitching game ideas in 2006, one of which was Sundown, a project the Pan’s Labyrinth director describes as being “eerily similar” to Left 4 Dead, the co-op zombie shooter he was, by his own admission, addicted to. Sundown was intended to be part of a franchise with both a movie and a TV show in discussion. But, for unclear reasons, the game never moved past concept and was later cancelled in favour of other projects.
Around this time, Del Toro was approached by Konami. The publisher (who Del Toro would, years later, tweet a resounding “fuck you” at) wanted a game based on his Hellboy movie franchise. Del Toro acquiesced and brought with him pointers on lighting, set and level design, as well as the voice-acting talents of the film’s original cast: Selma Blair, Ron Perlman and Doug Jones.
Hellboy: The Science of Evil was released in June 2008. As is typical with rushed movie tie-ins, reception was generally negative. In a making-of video, Del Toro says that he was involved in the “crucial stages”, though not as involved as he would have liked. Whether this is Del Toro lamenting the game’s direction or his own schedule preventing him from being more hands-on is unclear.
There’s a trope in cosmic horror fiction where a fatally cursed object – a book, say, or a painting – draws the attention of a scholar, hungry for the secret knowledge promised. Perhaps in foreshadowing of what was to come, Del Toro’s first meeting with prospective InSane developer Volition saw him present them with a piece of paper filled to the margins with mandelas and other mystical insignia.
Del Toro – who wears a Miskatonic University alumni ring after Lovecraft’s fictional institution, who’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water is effectively a love story starring a Lovecraftian Deep One, who snuck an elder creature from At the Mountains of Madness into Hellboy II, and whose own directorial take on The Mountains of Madness was shuttered after, among other things, the box-office failure of Ridley Scott’s similarly themed Prometheus – is, it’s safe to say, a bit of a Lovecraft nerd. Whether or not he ended up appreciating the irony in the Eldritch curses that seem to haunt his own Lovecraft-themed projects, a touch of forbidden knowledge, unstable and perpetually out of reach, seemed to surround InSane from the get go.
InSane was intended to open with a detective searching for his lost family after a solar eclipse and end with a train full of explosives being driven into the mouth of a cosmic monstrosity the size of a mountain. Intimate, creeping terror punctuated by expansive action set pieces. Although creative director Hennequet admitted that Del Toro’s tendency to think in director-dictated “scenes and shots” resulted in some creative miscommunication, the general consensus is that Del Toro was a joy to work with. It was, ultimately, THQ’s struggling finances that ended the project.
“The beauty of crashing and burning,” laughed Hennequet in the Gametrailers interview, “is that you’re dead, so you don’t know.”
After the cancellation of Silent Hill – another proposed project, this time a collaboration between Del Toro and Hideo Kojima in 2015 – its playable teaser (known as P.T.) became perhaps the closest thing we’ll have to a video game with Del Toro’s unadulterated creative input. In a panel with Kojima at the 2016 D.I.C.E summit in Las Vegas, Del Toro likened the Metal Gear Solid creator to his own work, saying that he felt the both of them were drawn to “melancholic ideas in big action genres”. It’s this marriage of difficult themes and expensive execution, perhaps, that has resulted in so many of the director’s projects being written off as untenable by “the bastards with the money”, to quote Del Toro from the same event.
It’s at once a tribute to Kojima and Del Toro’s friendship, a nod to P.T, and a melancholy, almost macabre epilogue to almost 15 years of unfinished projects that Del Toro’s involvement with Kojima’s upcoming Death Stranding is that of a motion-captured likeness. A skinsuit. Or, as the director himself puts it “just a puppet”. It’s simulacra of the director’s former passions and ambitions. Hopefully, we’ll see the day where he crafts his own masterpiece too.