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Alone in the Dark – Long but not forgotten

Doors that slowly open, death traps, zombies, a cumbersome inventory and beasts leaping through windows – no, this isn’t Resident Evil – this is Alone in the Dark.

I’ll often hear people talking about the impact of Resident Evil and everything it brought to video games. But there was a title before that, a game that influenced Resident Evil itself and without it could have meant a missing chapter in Japanese video game design, a design that would result in Resident Evil 4, a title in turn that would have a huge impact on Epic Games’ Gears of War series.

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Looking at the above, the line of influence Alone in the Dark has had is incredible. A game that its own director thought would be a flop – expecting gamers to hate it for all its faults – it became an overnight success, selling by the abyss load as everybody wanted to experience a game that was not only unforgiving and eerie, but rewarding in every turn.

Alone in the Dark is a title that brings back memories from nearly twenty years ago. At the time I was a little too young to fully grasp what the game expected, including the patience each and every room required. I did, however, get great enjoyment from sitting next to my Dad and watching him play it. I distinctly remember the moment your body levitates into the air, the sound of snapping bones ringing out as an invisible force twists and contorts the player into a crumpled, levitating heap. It was horrific, and an early taste of H. P. Lovecraft long before I’d read any of his books.

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This wasn’t the only memory I have from that time; the opening scene is an incredible piece of design, placing fear and uncertainty into your heart from the get-go. Every situation has a way out of it but it’ll take a lot of quick thinking to survive. There’s plenty of instant death traps awaiting those of you who wish to run through the mansion with disregard for their own safety. Think you can just open the front door and escape? Well tough luck, because something born from sheer terror itself awaits on the other side for anyone foolish enough to try and escape.

From this feature to Planescape and Fallout, it’s clear that these games were designed with a great reward for patience. Nothing was handed on a silver platter and you got what you put into these titles. Alone in the Dark is primarily a story based game. There is a small amount of combat, with some of the creatures being invincible or only brought down with certain weapons. So for the most part it was about survival and the unravelling of the mysterious events prior to your arrival.

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As one of two characters, you receive a letter that leads you to this old mansion. Dropped off by a driver, you venture along the dirty path to the front door, slowly opening the huge wooden doors and entering this empty vessel of a building. During an in-game cutscene, your character walks around the mansion, finding no evidence of life. Eventually reaching the attic, you hear something outside and the game begins – and you’d better start planning your escape because things are on their way to get you.

A clever idea was that the main characters were both in their forties, and definitely feeling old. This allowed the slow pacing and movement to feel appropriate to the characters. Capcom also took influence from the game’s negative elements. The inventory is a nightmare (pun not intended) to navigate and use. It’s bulky, requiring that you scroll through, slowly dropping items that you no longer need. But wait, you can’t drop the item because there isn’t enough space in front of you. So you leave the menu and go back in-game, turning slightly to face an empty panel of floor, returning to the menu, to go to the inventory, to scroll down and find the item, to…etc.

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Combat, when it happens, is also slow and difficult. Interestingly, you can’t move and shoot; something still used by Capcom and other survival horror titles many years later. Some things don’t even appear to be puzzles that need solving – including a hair-pulling end section that will test the patience of even the most pure-hearted of saints. Frustration is the step before creation though, and with the solution in-hand (it actually was in this case) everything becomes clear, and the puzzle is solved.

Considering the entire game takes place within one building, the game is both long and short. For newcomers it’ll take a while to navigate each room and learn how to deal with whatever otherworldly creation awaits. For experienced players, you can make your way to key areas and clear the game in a short amount of time. There are some beings that reside within the mansion that wish you no harm, unless you follow the typical video game expectation and open fire first. If you do, that previously calm being will quickly end your life in return. It also takes little damage to die and healing potions are hard to find. You’re not a SWAT team member or gymnast but an ageing person with no Hollywood heroic qualities.

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What Alone in the Dark does have is atmosphere, and it has it by the bucket loads. To get around technical limitations, and give it a horror film vibe, the developers opted for set camera positions. This allowed the team to dictate exactly how the player would view each room, often used to limit the view of some hideous beast that could be heard slithering forward off-screen. Pieces of string music played to warn you that something unseen is approaching, and you panic, loading the last few shells into your shotgun, backed up against the wall and ready to fight for your life…but nothing appears, and you realise the music has been used to fool you.

With only one human character within the game it could’ve been difficult to tell the story of what had happened in the mansion. To tackle this, there are notes and leather bound books to be found. Upon opening them (from your lovely inventory, of course) the writer’s voice will read the text in front of you. While often a little too theatrical, they do help to provide an interesting back story that you’ll only discover if you pay attention. It doesn’t all conveniently come together at the end, nor is it shown via flashbacks, and once again, it’s a title where you get what you put in.

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Infogrames created a brilliant game that is completely contained within a single mansion, one that holds a sinister past. So next time someone tells you about how Resident Evil was the first do to it, remember this article, and most importantly remember Alone in the Dark, a game that had a huge impact on video games and future developers.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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