Alone in the Dark Retrospective

Identified by the Guinness World Records as the first 3D survival horror video game, few titles have contributed to the genre as much as Alone in the Dark. It pioneered the use of 3D models against pre-rendered backgrounds with fixed camera perspectives, paving the way for Resident Evil. It encourages you to avoid enemies or find clues to defeating them. Resources are limited, with weapons breaking from extended use and few health items to find. You even explore a haunted mansion filled with deadly traps. Alone in the Dark set the stage for future horror games to flourish.

On the Way to a Mansion

Before conceiving the game, Alone in the Dark’s designer, Frédérick Raynal, worked at his father’s computer and video rental shop. When he wasn’t programming, a hobby he picked up at 15, he was watching movies. In a 2012 Classic Games Postmortem presentation for the Game Developers Conference (GDC), Raynal remembers, 

“I was very very fond of all the horror movies. My heroes were George Romero, Dario Argento [. . .] Something that is very interesting [about] the structure of [. . .] all the seventies horror movies, is that usually you are one guy or group of guys entering a special environment and just trying to survive.”

Raynal joined Infogrames, now Atari, in 1990. His first extensive project involved the conversion of the first 3D platformer game, Alpha Waves, from Atari ST to PC. For the six months he worked on this game, his mind raced with possibilities. He knew 3D technology had more to offer.

One day, clearly and suddenly, he had his vision. An action adventure game with articulated and skinned polygonal characters and the first 3D zombies. The protagonist would be alone and the story told through text rather than multiple characters and dialogue. The year would be 1920, to include electricity and lights, but no complex electronics. The setting, inspired by horror films, would be a haunted manor atop a hill. The three word scenario was “Get out alive!”

Building the Foundation

Speaking at the GDC presentation, Raynal recalls, 

“It was the first time where the amount of work seems very huge [. . .] you think about the game with a few sprites [. . .] you do a quick prototype in two hours to see how the game works [. . .] I needed things that just didn’t exist at this time. 3d characters, articulation, it needs tools. So I started my first tool.”

The first tool that Raynal built for Alone in the Dark was 3Desk, a 3D modeling software used to create the characters, objects, and monsters for the game. It also provided the ability to edit real time animations with character joint articulation, just as Raynal had envisioned.

The second tool Raynal built was ScenEdit, a 3D environment modeling software. Raynal knew they couldn’t build the mansion from polygons, so his original plan was to scan photos to use for the backgrounds. With ScenEdit, they would map collisions to the imported pictures using wireframe cubes. While using scanned photos for the backgrounds ended up being unfeasible, and Raynal instead turned to hand drawn backgrounds. ScenEdit would map the rooms and layout of the manor.

In September 1991, with a 3D character walking about a 3D room, Alone in the Dark had its first demo. This proof of concept, with its fixed camera angles and tank controls, was an important learning opportunity for how to handle camera placement and perspectives.

During the GDC presentation, Raynal points out a bird bursting through the demo room’s window, and says, laughing,

“I don’t know from where this idea came from. Maybe it was a Hitchcock movie, [. . .] but I wanted to have monster[s] coming in from windows. So if in another game you see a dog coming in through the window, remember this twelve polygons bird wrecking the first 3D window in the game.”

This, of course, is a reference to one of the most iconic Resident Evil scares of all time. After the demo is shown to Infogrames, Alone in the Dark is officially approved, and for the first time, they gave Raynal a team.

Get Out Alive!

The game opens following the recent suicide of Jeremy Hartwood, the owner of the allegedly haunted Derceto mansion. You play as either Edward Carnby, a private investigator, or Emily Hartwood, Jeremy’s niece, beginning the game in the mansion’s attic. Almost immediately the rumors surrounding the property prove true, and the building comes alive with zombies and lovecraftian horrors.

Designed foremost as an adventure game with action elements, you spend much of your time exploring the mansion for clues and puzzles. In survival horror fashion, Raynal designed the game to discourage players from fighting every monster. Most encounters are meant to be avoided or made trivial if you follow the hints found in books.

Evading just the monsters didn’t guarantee your safety, however. Raynal understood how to apply stress. Speaking at the GDC presentation, he states, 

“In adventure game[s], you walk eighty percent of the time. [. . .] If you want to put big pressure on the player, just scare him with what he does all the time. Just walking. That’s why in the first corridor, the floor cracked under your feet and you just die [. . .] It just happened once in the game, but now you are afraid of walking. It was the same thing for opening doors. Open the door, you have a monster just behind. Okay, so now you’ll be afraid [of] opening every door. Then the books. You need to read the books in the game. Some books, you just open them, you die.”

Enemy avoidance and a hostile environment aren’t the only survival horror trappings Alone in the Dark employed. Ammo and healing items are limited. Weapons break with use. It sounds unfair, but it was effective. Alone in the Dark forces your investigation, requiring careful examination of the environment for clues while reminding you that every interaction could be your last.

Twice as Bright

Alone in the Dark released in 1992 to critical acclaim. Charles Ardai, in the 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World magazine, wrote, “I cannot begin to express fully the terror that gripped my heart as I directed the figure through the house. I could hear the man’s every footstep, whether on carpeted floor, on gravel, or on wooden stair.

The game won many awards, including the Tilt Golden Award 1992 for best animation, Generation 4 Gold Award 1993 for best adventure game, ECTS Award 1993 for best graphics, and ECTS Award 1993 for most original game. 

Infogrames followed up Alone in the Dark’s success with five sequel games. Raynal left Infogrames during development of the second following disagreements with the company. After the 1994 release of Alone in the Dark 3, Infogrames stepped away from development and the original game engine for the first time.

The fourth title, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, is built by Darkworks. Released in 2001, it was a faster, more action-oriented game that showed significant influence from Resident Evil. In 2008, Infogrames, now Atari Interactive, handed the series to yet another developer, Eden Games. The new game served as a reboot, titled Alone in the Dark, and takes place in a modern New York City. It received a lukewarm reception.

Finally, in 2015, development of a new Alone in the Dark is given to Pure FPS in 2015. In what appeared to be the final nail in the series coffin, Alone in the Dark: Illumination released as a cooperative action horror game that was disparaged by critics. What began in 1992 as a survival horror experience defined by isolation and enemy avoidance had become a multiplayer shooter. Johnathan Irwin, in a review for Hooked Gamers, left it a 1.5/10 score and proclaimed, “I was distraught. Alone in the Dark is dead, and now fans share the task of burying it away and trying to retain the good memories.”

After seven years, however, there is a spark of hope. As I write this article, it has been confirmed that Alone in the Dark’s IP owners, THQ, are rebooting the series. The developers, Pieces Interactive, are calling the new game, “a love letter to the 90’s cult classic horror game”. Players will return to Louisiana and Derceto Manor as Edward Canby and Emily Hartwood. Mikael Hedberg, known for his work on Soma and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is a story writer. Guy Davis, the artist known to frequently collaborate with Guillermo del Toro, contributed monster designs.

Will this Alone in the Dark reboot be what the series and fans need?

For the first time in many years, I’m excited about Alone in the Dark. Only time will tell if it’s wise to be optimistic.

A New Future for Survival Horror

Despite the decline of the series and the release of two universally reviled films, Alone in the Dark is well regarded for its contribution to horror gaming. In my previous Road to Resident Evil article, I called Sweet Home the first survival horror game. I believe this to be true, but Raynal crafted the classic survival horror blueprint that future titles would follow.

In the 2008 article The Evolution of the Survival Horror Genre for IGN, Clara Barraza writes, “[Alone in the Dark] gave us the staples that modern survival horror games can’t do without (with the exception of recent action/horror hybrids) — limited inventory, puzzle solving and the idea of emphasising survival over combat.”

Indeed, without Alone in the Dark pioneering the way, Resident Evil would have been a very different game. Resident Evil’s director, Shinji Mikami, envisioned his game as an entirely 3D experience from a first person perspective. However, because of Capcom’s inexperience with 3D technology and the limitations of the PS1 hardware, a fully polygonal game wasn’t attainable. In an interview with Scott Butterworth for GameSpot, Shinji Mikami recalls,“That was when we took a look at Alone in the Dark. The environments were pre-rendered, and the characters and such were in real time 3D. It seemed like that approach would allow us to create the game that we wanted.”

This new direction forced the Resident Evil team to pivot to 3rd person, fixed camera perspectives and tank-controls for character movement. Mikami was never happy with this direction, believing it reduced immersion. In fact, it appeared to have the opposite effect. In an interview with Archipel, Mikami says, “In the end, many players told me that they thought that view is what made the game scarier.”

Resident Evil takes what Alone in the Dark built and improves every aspect. If not for Raynal’s innovations, however, we may not have got Mikami’s genre defining masterpiece.

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