Last year for Retro Halloweekend, I played Sweet Home, a Famicom title that was one of the first Survival Horror games and would become a big inspiration for Resident Evil as well as the genre as a whole. This year I continued my look into the history of Survival Horror with the 1992 PC game, Alone in the Dark
. While Sweet Home basically had all the elements of the genre right there from the get-go, it was still on a Famicom and so the visuals were left to sprites and the combat was left to a weird turn-based RPG battle system. Alone in the Dark rocketed the genre forward in a lot of ways, most notably with full 3D polygonal characters, fixed camera angles, and a big open-ended mansion to explore.
Despite it treading new ground, Alone in the Dark was similar to many games of the era in one particular way: it doesn’t hold your hand. In fact, it usually goes out of its way to tear off your hand and laugh at your suffering. Okay, maybe it’s not that brutal but it certainly pushes players in the deep end and your left to sink or swim. When the game begins, your character is in the attic of a Lousiana mansion called Derceto. In this attic the owner of the mansion, Jeremy Hartford committed suicide and it’s up to your character to figure out what in the world happened. Well, no more than you begin exploring the attic, hellbeasts blast throw the window and erupt from the floor ready to feast on your flesh. I had no idea how to fight them. I died. Not even 5 minutes into Alone in the Dark and I was already restarting. That’s the kind of game this is. Luckily, you can save anywhere you want!
I’ll get more into my deaths later, but I want to highlight some things about Alone in the Dark that stood out to me. Not only did it innovate with very few previous horror projects to build on, but it set the groundwork for a lot of 3D games going forward. Even the way you unfold the plot can still be seen in many recent releases. For how powerful this series began, it’s actually sad to know how downhill things went.
So I actually played one of the versions of Alone in the Dark that included voice acting and I was blown away by how well it matched the mood of the game. Not only was the dialogue delivered in a way that reflected classic horror and mystery movies, but the actors actually use varying tones and diction to convey what they want to say. For someone like me, who always thinks one of the first games that had voice acting was Resident Evil and thinking about how amazingly abysmal it was, I’m completely shocked to see Alone in the Dark use voice acting in a way that works so well.
This in turn plays into how the plot is unfolded. Or not unfolded if that’s how you play. In yet another case of firsts, Alone in the Dark has to be one of the first games that leaves the plot left to be found by the player. You could absolutely run through the game without figuring out anything about Jeremy Hartford or the insane mansion you’re trapped in. Instead, you have to find and pick up notes, books, and other items found throughout the mansion that will piece together what’s happening in the game. The same mechanic is still used today and you don’t have to look any further than favorites like Bioshock or Gone Home who use the same “find-the-story” idea. Thankfully, there’s just the right amount of notes out there. Every time you find one you feel a sense of accomplishment but you never go such long stretches where you’ll forget what’s going on. That is, as long as you’re looking.
Finally, Alone in the Dark uses one of my absolute favorite things about Survival Horror games: fixed camera angles. And boy, do they do a good job on their first try. Probably no other genre can really pull off the idea of fixed camera angles but it just works perfectly for horror games. By limiting the view of what players can see, developers are always in control of what the player will see, or not see coming. There’s plenty of areas in Alone in the Dark that just feel eerie and automatically put you on edge. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t want to go around a corner because I had no idea what would be there. Sometimes, enemies will even appear on-screen creeping out from just the right area to really make you shiver.
But now let’s get to the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Let me highlight some of the ABSOLUTELY RIDICULOUS AND STUPID ways that Alone in the Dark will kill you. Don’t get me wrong, the game isn’t incredibly frustrating thanks to a save system that lets you save anywhere you want, as much as you want, but that doesn’t stop it from being aggravating, especially compared to today’s standards. Like I said earlier, it’s like the game sets things up just so it can laugh at your death.
Alone in the Floor
No more than you walk down from the attic, you’re greeted with a long corridor with a few different rooms. You may notice that the floor looks a little strange there. Might as well go inspect it, right? It’s not like it’s going to kill you. That was my last thought as my character fell through the floorboards to his death and I had to restart the game over again because I didn’t save. They could have told me it would kill me!
Alone with the Ghost
Not far after the dreaded floor and exploring some more of the mansion, I came across a ghost sitting in front of a fireplace. It looked like a little old lady to me. Again, I assumed I could maybe talk to it, or maybe it would drop something for me. I can’t fight a ghost after all! Well they can fight me apparently because no more than I walked in front of her she stood up, turned into a group of ghost balls and tore through me like tornado. DEAD.
Alone in the Book
To be honest, I didn’t find this, but it totally makes sense that it would happen in the game. Remember when I told you the game is told through notes found throughout the game? So in order to figure out the whole story, it would be best to pick up everything and read it right? Well apparently there’s one book in the game that unless you read it in a certain location you will die. That’s right. No warning, no nothing, if you pick up this book and think “Oh! New story stuff!” You will DIE! This is why I don’t read books mom.
And there’s plenty more instance where the game can feel really unfair at times but hey, it’s a product of the times. It may not really be that scary by today’s standards but I think the core of the game is still very enjoyable and Alone in the Dark absolutely deserves some credit for getting the horror genre moving in the video game world.
Thanks for reading and see you next week on Retro Halloweekend, every Friday, this October!