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In Retrospect: The Original Alone in the Dark

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Alone in the Dark 1992

The period in the run-up to Halloween seems as good a time as any to revisit the forefather of the modern survival horror game. Released in 1992 for the PC, Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark is noteworthy for being the first 3D title in the genre. It even went on to inspire the similar yet more action-oriented Resident Evil series, not to mention the ever more distant Silent Hill.

A cross between an old school point and click adventure and the more nonlinear titles of today, Alone in the Dark charts a day in the life of private investigator Edward Carnby as he goes about investigating an old piano within a mansion out in the gloomy wetlands of Louisiana, only to discover that the mystery goes way deeper than a mere antique (miles, in fact). Formerly the property of one Jeremy Hartwood, an artist who took his own life (there’s a first), Derceto Manor is chock-full of labyrinthine puzzles which the player must navigate by rummaging through drawers and searching for clues, and of course, there’s the usual secret passage or two waiting to be discovered.

In a nutshell, it’s your basic haunted house. Hardly an original premise, but the execution is superb. With only a few flimsy 1920s-era weapons at his disposal, Carnby’s progress is characterized by that tight survivalism which is the hallmark of this kind of game, but it’s more horror mystery than action. Yes, there are enemies to fight and, yes, it is immensely satisfying dispatching them in whatever way possible, but it’s the environment and atmosphere that make this game what it is. Tense and at times genuinely unsettling, Alone in the Dark is a captivating descent into the netherworld of Lovecraft-inspired terror.

There’s no dressing it up. This game is hard, so any determination to finish it better be too. Deemed too wretched to have their handheld, the player is left to their own devices and if they don’t know what they’re doing right from the get-go, they can expect to die within the first two minutes of playing. And again. And again. That’s because Derceto is filled with hazards more dangerous and outlandish than your average ghosts, from the standard run-of-the-mill ghouls to suits of armour, rats, a zombie chicken, and even the smoke from a resting cigar, not to mention a shapeless ghost-thing entity (‘The Great Old One’) which will relentlessly pursue the player should they attempt to exit the mansion prematurely – possibly one of Infogrames’ (or Lovecraft’s) finer creations.

Alone in the Dark 1992 magazine ad
Image: Power Play (Germany), Issue 04/1993

Carnby’s death count will only continue to rack up the further he goes, possibly by way of a painting which spits arrows down a hallway, or the sharp bites of spiders descending from the sky, or the blade of a mysterious pirate brandishing a sword – not necessarily in that exact order. Alone in the Dark is great at finding new ways to kill the protagonist. It’s worth it, if only for the amusing post-death sequence consisting of Carnby’s corpse being shamefully dragged to a dungeon by the same undead jailer (it stops getting funny the ninth time). On top of that, several enemies can only be vanquished through more esoteric means, such as by casting a spell. Yet, for all its ghouls and dark undertones, Alone in the Dark is not without the odd bits of humour, among them a zombie tea party and a monster chilling in a bathtub.

A minor complaint is the trial-and-error nature of some of the obstacles, such as a collapsing floor which the player has no way of knowing about until they step right on it and fall to an unsuspecting death. However, the majority of the dangers are obvious enough to be avoided, or allow enough time to flee. Luckily, the game can be saved at any point, though this option can be spammed to the point where it detracts somewhat from the overall challenge.

As for the puzzles, these require time, patience and experimentation to decipher, which may prove frustrating to many of the instant gratification streamer gamers of today. Some are borderline cryptic, and it boggles the mind how anyone could have solved them in 1992 without the luxury of looking up a guide. In spite of that, the thrilling gameplay, along with the enticing prospect of getting to the bottom of Derceto’s terrible secret, keeps the player going and more than makes up for the steep difficulty.

Alone in the Dark 1992
Very first concept art by Didier Chanfray

Perhaps unusually, Alone in the Dark makes good use of the various bookcases scattered around by filling them with books that can actually be read. They’re full of lore on Cthulhu and other unspeakable creatures and are absolutely dripping with dark, Lovecraftian descriptions on the occult, as well as the haunted dreams and thoughts of Jeremy Hartwood, the deceased owner of the house. It’s not exactly bedtime reading, and while it’s entirely possible to just skip this material and get on with the practical side of the adventure, it does provide some welcome backstory on the forces terrorizing the manor. Although playing a less central role here, this idea of piecing together a story through written fragments or clues left behind by another character or characters is something which crops up time and time again in future survival horror games, Amnesia: The Dark Descent being one ‘notable’ example. And should anyone be unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s stuff, this is a great place to learn.

The controls are horrendous by modern standards, involving an unfamiliar attack scheme that utilises the spacebar, but that’s something that has to be tolerated in order to enjoy this masterpiece. The various changes in camera angle, often from an enemy’s point of view, are a staple of the series and can be great at setting the mood, but also mildly irritating when they suddenly switch in the middle of a fight. The jumping, necessary in a few select sections, also leaves a lot to be desired, making the original Crash Bandicoot feel like a parkour simulator. There is a knack to the controls though, but there’s certainly no pride lost in looking up the basic gameplay mechanics beforehand because it’s unlikely many players will be able to figure them out by themselves, which makes this not the most immediately accessible of titles.

The soundtrack is reasonably spooky and does the job, and there is the option to turn it off for an altogether more eerie experience. And should anyone choose to read the books scattered about the rooms, they’ll even get an old-fashioned narrator. The physical sound effects are good but can be buggy at times; for example, in continuing to hear the dripping water effect from the cellar when on the upper floors. The house design feels organic and the obstacles are well integrated into the layout. The design team clearly did their homework here, because Derceto feels like a real place (minus the dark creatures of the night, of course).

Images via Infogrames

For all its promise, this first entry in the series was as good as it got. Alone in the Dark 2 steered the franchise in a strange direction. It’s similar on the face of it, featuring a ‘haunted house’ called Hell’s Kitchen (no, not the Gordon Ramsay version), the secrets of which must be meticulously unravelled, except it’s neither as dark nor as scary as Derceto. The fear factor is softened down and the comical elements increased, most so in providing the player with a Santa costume. It’s still decent and met with positive reviews, but there’s the feeling that the developers ran out of ideas or simply wanted to milk the proverbial cow. 2001’s Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare offered a welcome return to the series’ darker roots, but it wasn’t excellent, being overshadowed by the unstoppable rise of the popular Resident Evil games, new instalments of which were released either side of it. Next up was a 2008 reimagining, simply titled Alone in the Dark, which gained plaudits for its originality but whose style differed markedly from the originals. As for Alone in the Dark: Illumination (2015), the less said the better. The only thing it illuminated was how far the series had fallen – the lowest ebb of a long decline.

The inaugural Alone in the Dark was originally intended to be the first entry in Infogrames’ planned Call of Cthulhu series, but ended up spawning its own franchise. You almost wish that it didn’t. And although predating and inspiring Resident Evil, that series did what Alone in the Dark couldn’t do by continually evolving and staying relevant right up to the present day. And so, like Lovecraft’s monsters, perhaps, the franchise lies dormant in an uneasy sleep, waiting for that next spark to bring it back to life, hopefully in a better state.

Written by Michael McKean

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A plucky wordsmith and all-around pop-culture enthusiast, Michael believes that games and films are more than just a casual pastime and deserve to be thought and written about. Most of them, at least! When he’s not working, writing, or out hiking in nature, he also enjoys old black-and-white horror films, matching his dark sense of humour.

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