Alone in the Dark
Genre: Survival Horror
Back in the 1990s, horror aficionado and computer programmer Frederick Reynal was given the privilege of sitting at the helm of a horror project for Infogrames. As a fan of George Romero and Dario Argento, he and his team wanted to create a game that placed a character into a foreign environment and required them to puzzle out a way to survive. At the time, it was a concept that hadn’t been done in this particular manner. It would use 3D graphics and strive to create the fear that even a small gesture like opening a door or reading a book could end up with your character’s untimely demise.
Alone in the Dark was the product of that effort. Billed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first 3D survival horror game, its influence can be found throughout the genre to this day in games like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and various other games that has since leaned into action-horror; a move that this series would take itself much later in its lifespan. To say that Alone in the Dark is responsible for the majority of the mechanics and efforts in the horror genre as we know it would be an apt, if not understated, conclusion to make.
Time has done a number of a variety of the trailblazers in video game history, however, and given how Alone in the Dark looks based on screenshots alone, it might be worth it to wonder how it holds up now and which influences- innovative or not- are just as novel now or may have needed some improvement from the get-go.
Opening in Louisiana in 1924, Alone in the Dark follows the events that unfold after Jeremy Hartwood, an artist living in the mysterious Derceto Estate, commits suicide. While the community at large is not surprised due to the tales surrounding Derceto, the sudden death of Master Hartwood drudges up suspicions in a couple of intrepid souls who the player gets to choose as their protagonist. Stepping into the Derceto can either be Emily Hartwood, Jeremy’s niece who is looking into why her uncle would commit such a heinous act, or Edward Carnby, a private investigator hired to find an antique piano for a dealer.
Whichever character is chosen, they arrive at the estate and make their way to the attic where the piano- a central clue to Jeremy’s intentions- sits. Despite the door slamming shut behind them on the way in and the strange stillness of the manor situated in the isolated countryside, the character reaches their destination. Only moments later, it is clear that something unnatural is occurring at Derceto, as they are beset upon by inhuman creatures. This sets off a fight for survival and exploration to figure out what really happened to cause Jeremy’s Hartwood’s death- and to escape the Derceto alive.
Much like the early Resident Evil games handled, this game has the player controlling the character by pointing them in a direction and pressing ‘up’ to go forward in that direction (affectionately nicknamed ‘tank controls’). You can interact with items that tend to stick out just a bit from the background, which includes texts that flesh out the backstory. More importantly, the texts can explain how to defeat some of the otherwise undefeatable beings roaming the halls of Derceto.
In interviews, the creators stated that the game was meant to be a narrative with moments of action in it. This shows vividly in the combat mechanics of the game. With a weapon equipped, you have to hold a key to drop into a combat stance. From there, pressing one of the directional buttons will perform a particular attack for the weapon. For guns, this is obviously just a shot but with melee weapons like sabers, this differentiates between overhead and horizontal swings. Between aiming difficulties and most combat being affected negatively by camera angles and congested environments, combat is brilliant and aggravating. Combat is always meant to be a last resort, but there are a small handful of moments that require it. Most of these moments become exercises in frustration while trying to find the attack that works for the area and the enemy that won’t result in your character finding a swift death.
While there aren’t a large number of menus to navigate, changing items and weapons can only be done through the main menu, and you can only hold one item actively in your hands at a time. This usually means a bit of juggling, especially when your lantern is required to see in a room that you need to do combat in, requiring you to ‘put’ your lantern on the ground, jump back into the menu, and equip your weapon to defend yourself. The method doesn’t sound as intrusive as it truly is, but as with the combat, it is inconvenient and a sign of the designs at the time.
The most important mechanic is that you can save your game anywhere at any time. Death is at every turn- which is almost a literal statement. After the first few instant deaths, it becomes a habit quickly. I met the Grim Reaper after reading the wrong book, walking into the next hallway, and getting trapped in beatings from a number of deadly creatures. The ability to save your game isn’t a novel concept, but given how a number of PC adventure games are enhanced by saving consistently, it felt like it was worth mentioning that the save mechanic is a big part of making the game palatable.
The Good, The Bad and…
First and foremost, this game has not aged well mechanically. The controls are slippery and combat, what little there is, is hard to navigate. There are also instances where using the ‘Put’ command to finish an important puzzle will miss the mark and wind up with you slowly placing the item at your character’s feet and leaving yourself wide open for attack. Most of these are issues that I covered in the Mechanics section of this write-up. It’s really important, though, as those who have played recent games that look and act similar to Alone in the Dark might find that it takes a while to get used to just how slow and complicated each process can become.
The biggest issue is still related to the mechanics of the game and its combat, and it’s probably the biggest issue I had with the game in general. Striking an enemy doesn’t always result in a recoil on their part and in later areas of the manor, the enemies strike too fast for you to be able to back up or evade their strike, resulting in some infuriating deaths. While I stand behind the idea that brute force shouldn’t be the way to push through this game, what you are forced into is tough to deal with due to the way they are programmed.
As a narrative, Alone in the Dark is a strong Lovecraftian tale and that is probably the biggest draw of the game while playing it today. Exploring the documents and the secrets of the Derceto is a slow burn into just the kind of insanity old H.P. was fond of, and it helps that the majority of the documents have voice acting attached to instill an element of investment into them. Creatures are sparse enough throughout most of the game to make each encounter induce a bit of panic while you try to figure out how to proceed. Even when the story delves into the more fantastic plot pieces, it sticks to its convictions and tone, relying more on player response to the events unfolding than the character’s reactions.
The game also isn’t terribly long, as it can easily be finished in a sitting or two, and that works in its favor. The pacing is even with each sequence feeling like it plays out for a sufficient amount of time. The Derceto and its environs are small enough, too, to make backtracking easy and never feel like too much of a task. Given how many of the games influenced by Alone in the Dark had these kinds of issues, it’s nice to see that the forefather had the right idea to keep things going at a solid pace.
Plot Discussion, and Therefore Spoilers
Once the credits to Alone in the Dark roll, there isn’t much to discuss. What begins as a simple investigation into an unexpected suicide becomes a supernatural dive that bends the limits of reality and comprehension. While investigating the grounds, certain documents unveil what is really happening at Derceto: rumor has it that the manor was built by a pirate-turned-occultist named Ezechiel Pregtz who used the house to obscure the catacombs beneath. The revelation that these catacombs were used for rituals to extend Pregzt’s life is only rivaled by the connection to Jeremy Hartwood’s end.
When Pregtz was shot during the Civil War and died, his spirit was transferred into a tree growing in the middle of the caverns under Derceto by some of his followers. Given that stories have kept all but Hartwood away from the estate since it burned down- and somehow was reconstructed which certainly can’t have anything to do with Pregtz’ otherworldly influence- the secrets of what would happen to someone entering the grounds, let alone residing there. Through one of the letters left behind by Jeremy, you find out that his concern in his final moments was that Ezechiel’s followers have been trying to transfer his spirit into a human body again- and Jeremy was the target since he was living on the grounds. What’s the best way to stop your living vessel from being taken over by a malevolent spirit, you might ask?
Stop it from being alive, obviously.
One note that I sort of missed while playing is that when you fall to the forces of the house, there is a scene where your character is dragged into a cavern and placed onto a sacrificial table. The next scene you are given before you get the chance to start over from your last save point is a picture of evil forces surrounding the house, now loose in the world. While all of the pieces are there, the conclusion to really be drawn here is with all of the information at your fingertips is that your character’s body was made a host for Ezechiel Pregtz to return to a suitable form to perform more rituals to bring these beings to life and overrun the world with eldritch creatures.
There isn’t a lot to dig into so far as the plot is concerned beyond that. The game spells out just about everything else and does a tidy job of tying up loose ends, especially once you realize that your character being dragged away means that they didn’t die; they were simply incapacitated. As an editorial note, while the plot doesn’t differ much between the two characters, Emily’s story set-up makes the entire tale much better than Edward’s, given her relation to Hartwood. Sadly, Edward Carnby goes on to be the main protagonist of the series and while I have yet to play through the other games from the original bunch, I very much doubt she has much impact on the rest of the series given she was added with the sole intention of attracting female gamers.
My one qualm with the plot- and I stress that this was a personal issue but that I understand how the horror and video game business both work- was the ending. Once all is said and done, your character emerges from the front doors of Derceto. The sun is shining brightly, and they raise their arms triumphantly shortly before striding to a car waiting for them on the road. Sliding into the back seat to be escorted to safety from the horrors that they have endured, you get a POV shot from your avatar at the back of the chauffeur’s head. A moment later, the head turns, revealing a ghoulish facade that cackles maniacally before driving off and out of sight. It sets up for a sequel, and that’s all well and good. It feels absolutely goofy, though, and there are one thousand ways the developers could have left Alone in the Dark open for more games without veering in that direction since within the narrative rules, destroying Pregtz also obliterates his followers so- what is this thing? Where did it come from? Why is it driving us away from Derceto?
Maybe playing the Alone in the Dark 2 will answer some of these questions, I guess.
For the first 3D horror adventure game, Alone in the Dark brings some power with its visuals. Most of the models have aged terribly, but it’s easy to see how impressive they could have been at the time. Environments have withstood the test of time well, though, as the interior of Derceto is impressive along with most of the other environments and items you interact with. Rarely does something seem too far off from what it is trying to depict, and if you’ve ever played an early era Playstation game, the graphics shouldn’t offend. They are definitely more history lesson than modern art at this point, though.
The game’s sound is all over the place. Musically, the soundtrack is serviceable, though not impressive. Most of it also sets the mood very well, though the song that accompanies the death sequence kind of clashes- and given how often you’ll probably see it, that can be a little off-putting. It does boast a decent amount of tracks throughout the game, however. The sound bites used for monsters and attacks are pretty spot on, though the game shines with its voice acted moments. They add a level of gravitas to the game in the sincerity with which they’re performed. They may not win any awards- and I can’t track down any names for the life of me as of this writing to attribute them to- but they do well to set the game’s tone and make it feel more like a short horror story.
If you’re a horror fan and you can deal with how archaic Alone in the Dark is in its conventions and mechanics, it unravels a darn good story and has a lot of points to admire. If there is any question as to the influence of the game, the ability to block off the entrances for creatures in the first room is reminiscent of the first scenario in Resident Evil: Outbreak and there are camera angles that look like they were torn straight out of this title from the original Resident Evil, among other survival horror games. If you don’t find it worth the struggle, though, there are plenty of playthroughs to watch that are palatable thanks to the game’s length.
Alone in the Dark is also still easy to get, given its availability on GOG.com and Steam along with its sequels. I recommend it to diehard horror fans who have a thick skin for dying over and over (and over… and over…). This is definitely the grandparent of the horror genre. Much like many grandparents, it may have some ancient ideas that you want to disavow yourself from, but Alone in the Dark has left its mark and imparted a lot of wisdom on its progeny.