Alone in the Dark (Mac) review
"I'm in a mansion surrounded by killer statues, twangy polygonal dogs and inscrutable instant-kill figures who sit in armchairs. There's a note stuck behind the piano if I'd only remember to look there, but that's no great comfort when even the paintings can kill me, everything in sight is cursed or boobytrapped, and the gaping maw of hell is in fact down in the basement. "
I'm in a mansion surrounded by killer statues, twangy polygonal dogs and inscrutable instant-kill figures who sit in armchairs. There's a note stuck behind the piano if I'd only remember to look there, but that's no great comfort when even the paintings can kill me, everything in sight is cursed or boobytrapped, and the gaping maw of hell is in fact down in the basement.
Since I'm not in high school anymore, I must be describing the experience of playing the original Alone In The Dark. (AITD)
I can be cruel to AITD, but it was cruel to me first. Survival Horror is now an enormous and heavily-codified genre, yet still a niche genre of sorts as horror of any kind will always be. The average survival horror enthusiast these days, as he or she is getting into the whole 'thing', looks around and logically starts off thinking it all began with Resident Evil. Then the cry is inevitably heard; 'What about Alone In The Dark?' and another gamer is a little more respectful of the past in an industry where history is made to race by with artificial haste.
But what about Alone In The Dark? Many horror gamers still swear by it and place it amongst the hallowed few they consider uncannily creepy (E.G. My friend Natalia, who has played even more horror than myself) and I have to say that the original in the series still has some undeniable impact on me when I start it up, more than a decade down the track from its arrival in 1992. AITD pioneered the very specific concoction of horror subject matter, pre-rendered backdrops, clues and awkward puzzles and armed combat with scary monsters, to become the blueprint for survival horror in particular, and for many an action-adventure in general.
The game's horror moves are mostly the broad primal ones that will never lose their clout because they are hardwired into the flight-or-fight response of all humans. Fear of darkness, of the unknown. Feeling vulnerable in a particular space. The sudden appearance of a threatening figure where previously there was none. Or untethering visual and audio elements from one another to the effect of suspense: 'The floor is creaking. Something's sneaking up on me!'
No matter how important all of this is, I can never bring myself to approach the game with much fondness, as I still feel it is a fairly brutal mess and just becomes too arduous to play. If I loved AITD, I would probably mount an argument that its tendency to kill the player with such alarming frequency - and by means so baffling you often can't even tell why you should have just died - is actually hardheaded conceptual loyalty to its main inspirational cue, the work of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft's massively influential horror tales of humans early in the twentieth century being flattened by terrifying mysteries beyond rational understanding will certainly ring some bells as one corpses one's way through AITD. (I read a book and my spine broke. Why?) People have used this argument in the past to also explain the punishing nature of Lovecraft-based tabletop RPG 'Call of Cthulhu'.
But I don't love AITD so I won't mount that argument. Unfortunately some concessions must be made to what I call 'game logic' when you're making a game that is to be played by others. It's easy for me to say this in retrospect, as this genre was new and essentially had no design history back when AITD came out, but the game just hits you with one arbitrary punishment after another, making it exceptionally difficult to learn from your mistakes or see the causality between deadly events. The game's sequels did not improve on this design. In fact they embraced it further and so became hated by myself. The original game is the only one I can stomach, and with mixed and contrary feelings.
The opening is very promising. Having a choice of two characters and of two viewpoints into the same story is a favourite ploy for me in any game. As either character you're to be pitched into the seriously spooky Derceto mansion, and physically the pair play the same, but Edward Carnby is a hard-boiled detective who's going in on a case, while Emily Hartwood is investigating the shock suicide of her uncle who hanged himself in the mansion.
To reiterate the slow-burning influence of AITD, flash your mind forward to the opening of Resident Evil 2 (a game years post-AITD) and consider the similarities. An initial choice of two protagonists: The male, Leon Kennedy, is a cop just doing his job. The female, Claire Redfield, is investigating the disappearance of a family member. Both are then drawn into the same horror situation. If you comb the AITD series obsessively enough, you will find many more of its ideas echoing throughout all survival horror. Whether this is all down to AITD, or to a broader symptom of archetypes and 'things that have been shown to work' in horror, AITD is owed its dues.
It remains amusing to me that many people still baulk loudly at survival horror style controls, which are really 'Asteroids' style controls. Left to turn left, right to turn right, and forward to move in the direction your character is facing, as opposed to screen-forward. AITD brought this relative scheme back into strangely unpopular fashion, and like many an AITD idea, it stuck like glue. Edward and Emily prove weirdly beautiful to watch as you spin them around on the creaky wooden floors, or make them wander into Derceto's furniture with the trio of arrow keys. The characters' eyes might be blank, but like the game's jagged architecture, their polygonal forms are hyperstylised to great effect. The shape of Carnby's knife-sharp suit and moustache, or the prickly geometric spider-web that defines Emily's figure are both pretty raw polygonal constructs, but that is also the source of their strength. A very memorable effect has been produced out of minimal material by necessity.
AITD throws you straight into peril. Unless you're quick to haul furniture into place as a barricade in the first scene, you will be subjected to two attacks before you've even left the mansion's attic, one from a zombie hidden under a trapdoor and another from the horrible/laughable dog-thing which smashes through the window. This hectic opening, set to the strains of one of the last fine MOD soundtracks in gaming (MOD: A portable sample and pattern-based musical format which thrived on the Commodore Amiga in particular. Now obsolete in mainstream terms) is a great set-piece, but once you go downstairs into the mansion proper, you enter the long-term of AITD, a world where a core set of grating gameplay issues come out to hound you permanently.
The game 'boasts' a fighting engine and a range of weapons, but to say this engine was never a well-tuned element of any AITD outing is an understatement. Hold down Space Bar to enter fighting mode and you'll find the four arrow keys now produce a small variety of well-animated swipes and stabs. You can try to draw on your own range and timing skills to exploit different weapons and physiques of foes, but these skills are very cheaply thrown out of kilter by the way the heroes lurch and slip about when injured, or when they bounce off the decor. It's easy to be corner-trapped by anything in AITD, especially if it's as fast as the dog-thing. So you'd best corner-trap Them first. And corner-trapping with your fist turns out to be as effective as corner-trapping with a sword. What really galls me is that it's so obvious that nobody ever worked at making this ridiculous element better in any of the sequels.
Many of these enemies are intended to be unkillable (at least by regular means) though AITD does little to help you discern who's unkillable and who isn't, so you waste an awful lot of time replaying from a saved game position and learning by the painful incredulity method: 'I can't believe I'm such a bad player. Maybe I'm just not meant to be able to kill this.' And this is the way in which the game can nullify its own scary impact all too often. For instance, it's genuinely hair-raising to dodge through a maze of library shelves chased by a floating demon. But die during this exercise one too many times as you fiddle at books and props in the room, wondering what to do or if there is even anything you can do, and the thrill of being scared is bumped aside by querulousness. Tedium sets in. Too many killer set-pieces have little to do with major progress in the game, but will drive you too far into distraction for you to be able to forgive them by the time you realise what's going on.
Props which will help you prevent an attack in the first place rarely speak to logic. 'Putting' the soup in the dining room is a little too mundane an idea to prematurely stave off a bunch of bored zombies. The game also offers too many dead-ends for misuse of props for the jokes to be very funny, such as the ability to play Chopin's Posthumous Opus on a gramophone to a group of phantom dancers.
There is a cumulative effect to all of these hiccups and misinterpretations. The effect of great pain. You inevitably get sick of the corner traps, the bizarre instant deaths (The painting shot me in the back. Why?), wondering what made what happen, or did not, and stumbling from one oblique puzzle to the next. The game's itself drives you to become more careless if you persist, as if you're just ploughing through a lock by tediously trying every combination until you succeed. I feel that somewhere there's a case to be made for a great horror game of extreme nihilism, where pain feels like it has merit and purpose and you marvel at your own deaths on some conceptual level at odds with whatever is torturous about the gameplay... and this isn't it. AITD devolves quickly into plain old annoying, with little fun to be had in any dimension. I still think it's weird that a game with so many laborious qualities could turn out to be so seminal, but horror is curious like that.
Thus, the original AITD retains the impact of coming first, and is definitely worth a visit if you've not seen it, not to mention that it's better than any of its maddening sequels. But I'd advise nobody to exert themselves on its silly difficulties. Either break out a walkthrough at the first hint of trouble, or just break off, secure in the knowledge that you have tasted your horror history and that the experience would not have improved or changed had you continued.
In gaming culture these days, AITD is sometimes held up like some old-school gun against the increasingly developed head of survival horror. Whether over the very valid issue of establishing more credit for AITD, or the not-so-valid like begrudging the success of a Resident Evil (which is popular for very good reasons), this seems pointless. A cursory play of most of AITD's ancestors reveals how much better they are in any design capacity generally. I respect AITD and it's a title any horror fan should know about, but unlike some genre firsts, this game doesn't hold up spectacularly in its own right. The overall atmosphere is powerful, but the fighting is shoddy, the puzzles too obscure, the deaths too numerous and the leaps of illogic too broad. When the solution to a hard problem is easily executed once it's divined, you need at least decent extra-curricular action (like combat) to keep you entertained or supply something for a replay, and AITD does not have that. How could anything this arbitrary and unenjoyable be truly great?
Still, I agree with Natalia that AITD does have its share of really good scares.
-- Alone in the Dark -- 5/10 --
Community review by bloomer (February 06, 2004)
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