Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss the history of noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be kicking off a month of horror game coverage with the property that carved out a space for the survival horror sub-genre: Alone in the Dark. I referred to the following sources and unreservedly recommend them for more information:
- IGN – Alone in the Dark Retrospective [Text]
- Gamesutra – GDC 2012: Inside the making of Alone in the Dark [Text]
- Pushing Up Roses – Survival Horror Retrospective: Alone in the Dark [Video]
Video game development studio Infogrames was founded in Lyon, France, in 1983. Bruno Bonnell, Christophe Sapet and Thomas Schmider used a computer program to combine words in pursuit of a memorable name, ending up with a portmanteau of informatique and programme; shifting the letters around a bit for ease of pronunciation, the young developers opted to name their software development company Infogrames. By the late 1980s, the studio had established a reputation for experimental titles that remained accessible to the average consumer.
Frederick Reynal joined the team in 1990. He had grown up as an avid fan of horror cinema, devouring the films of Dario Argento and George Romero. Reynal also had experience repairing computers at his father’s store and programming limited-release indie titles. His first job at Infogrames was the port of Cube, a rudimentary 3D game, from the Atari ST console to PC hardware. This sparked Reynal’s interest in the application of 3D visuals to video game design. By the following year, he was hard at work on the world’s first survival horror game.
Alone in the Dark (1992)
Alone in the Dark tells the story of Derceto Manor, a haunted American bayou house four years after the 1920 suicide of its troubled owner. Players choose between controlling private detective Edward Carnby or the deceased owner’s niece, Emily Hartwood, though the mechanics remain identical. In either case, the protagonist investigates the mansion, completes environmental puzzles, works out its history by acquiring and reading documents scattered about, and confronts undead enemies roaming the mansion’s halls.
Characters are rendered as flat-shaded polygonal models navigating pre-rendered two-dimensional backgrounds. The perspective varies from room to room, and is fixed at cinematic angles designed to highlight or hide enemies or environmental features. The pre-rendered backgrounds were originally intended to be photographs taken at a real-world mansion, and some relevant concept art was developed by artist Didier Chanfray, but this method of rendering was eventually scrapped in favor of bit-mapped computer-generated imagery.
Keeping the backgrounds static allowed the development team to focus efforts on the character models. Polygonal design was very hardware-intensive in 1992, so maintaining steady action with even two on-screen 3D figures was challenging. Consequently, the models were rudimentary. They lack detailed textures, instead consisting of combined colored shapes, and this has the effect of making some characters look downright silly in retrospect. Enemy designs were still fairly creepy at this early stage of 3D game development, however, and the visual limitations forced Reynal and his team to focus on scaring the player through other means.
The lighting and mansion design, along with its narrative, is heavily inspired by a combination of H.R. Giger’s work and Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Jump scares occur, but are de-emphasized in favor of creeping dread. From the opening moments of exploration, when the player character approaches the ostensibly abandoned Derceto Manor from the perspective of an observer watching from within the house, isolation and voyeurism are heightened. The cinematic perspectives could easily serve to set the player at a distance from in-game action, but careful consideration by the developers makes the camera itself feel like a participant in the player’s struggle.
At the same time, limited weaponry and health keeps the player character at the edge of death. Monsters must often be avoided, rather than directly fought, so the player is forced to use his or her wits in the midst of thrilling confrontations. The central trope of the survival horror sub-genre was clearly established here: the player is always dis-empowered relative to enemies.
Another core trope that would inform later genre juggernauts Resident Evil and Silent Hill would debut in this 1992 classic. Due to the difficulty in animating characters and depicting complex events in the proprietary 3D engine, Reynal opted to fill the mansion with notes sketching in the plot. These depict past events while also offering insight into how puzzles and foes can be overcome in the present. They also serve to create a sense of history, reminding the player that the events he or she is experiencing are more significant than the relatively straightforward arc of the contemporary narrative.
In contrast to later survival horror games, the denouement of Alone in the Dark is a lengthy egress from the mansion. After defeating a sinister witch at the heart of the game’s spooky haunting, Edward or Emily must depart through the same hallways they battled through earlier. The monsters are now gone, replaced by a quiet, reflective atmosphere. Most players are inclined to pass as rapidly as possible through this section, but it serves to emphasize the strength of environmental design and atmosphere; even the empty mansion remains unnerving.
Surprisingly, given its importance, Alone in the Dark has very rarely been re-released. A contemporary port was produced for the 3DO console featuring slightly different visual effects. Aside from that, it remains confined to PC architecture. Luckily for modern players, a release on CDProjectRed’s GOG digital distribution platform ensures its accessibility for the foreseeable future.
Alone in the Dark 2 (1993)
After a successful launch of the project he’d been working towards for the better part of a decade, Frederick Reynal left Infogrames. This seems to have resulted from a perceived lack of appreciation by Infogrames’ executives for Reynal’s work. Unfortunately for the studio, the horror visionary took much of Alone in the Dark’s art and sound staff with him when he departed. Infogrames was forced to re-staff the sequel, choosing programmer Franck De Girolami to lead development.
This upheaval in the planning process is reflected in the rather jarring discontinuity between the series’ first and second titles. Edward Carnby returns and the game is again set in 1924, but the setting and tone are radically different from the original Alone in the Dark. Gunplay is emphasized instead of being discouraged and enemies now consist of undead firearm-wielding pirates and mobsters. These constitute a noticeable departure from the previous entry’s slow-moving monsters.
The narrative again follows Edward as he investigates a spooky facility, but Infogrames applied a few major changes in its approach to plot. The inciting incident is the kidnapping of a young girl named Grace, and Edward’s appearance at the central mansion setting is directly kicked off by the disappearance of his detective partner. An interstitial floppy disk was published between releases filling in Grace’s backstory; in it, the player takes on the role of Grace as she explores a haunted toy store in an attempt to save Santa Clause from a murderous Jack-in-the-box on Christmas Eve.
Structurally, Alone in the Dark 2 is less ambitious than its predecessor. Only one character is playable, aside from a sequence in which the player briefly takes on the role of defenseless Grace. Level progression is similarly limited: the mansion in the first game could be explored largely out of sequence while the world of Alone in the Dark 2, which begins in a mansion before eventually moving on to a pirate ship embedded in a cliffside, is entirely linear. This may be a function of the game having a greater emphasis on action over creeping dread and puzzles, or it may be a result of Fredrick Reynal taking much of the institutional knowledge concerning the series’ proprietary development tools when he departed. Whatever the cause, it results in a less beguiling experience overall.
Initially published on MS-DOS PCs, Alone in the Dark 2 was ported to numerous platforms over the following three years. It was first sold on floppy disks before a CD-ROM version was released (with improved audio). 3DO was once again the first home console to receive a port of the game, but the most exciting version was the one released on SEGA Saturn and Sony PlayStation in 1996. This release upgraded the models from flat-shaded to fully textured polygons, bringing the series’ visual palette in line with the standards established by other 3D games in the mid-1990s. In spite of this technological improvement, the PlayStation and Saturn port was panned by critics for falling short of that year’s Resident Evil. Capcom’s new franchise would pick up the survival horror mantle from Alone in the Dark upon its release in March 1996, and Alone in the Dark would remain forever in its successor’s shadow.
Alone in the Dark 3 (1994)
By the end of 1993, the team behind Alone in the Dark was again in disarray. Franck De Girolami left Infogrames and the studio would need to assemble a new team led by director Christiane Sgorlon. Happily, the tools developed by Fredrick Reynal and his team during development of the first series entry still remained viable two years hence.
Alone in the Dark 2 had been heavily criticized for its departure from Alone in the Dark‘s sense of dread. Consequently, Sgorlon opted to return to a style more focused on horror than action. Even Emily Hartwood, who had been missing since the conclusion of the first game, returns for Alone in the Dark 3. While she is not playable, she plays a significant role in the narrative.
The setting is the most unique element of the series’ third entry. Previous iterations had taken place in classic horror locations – gothic mansions of the American South and New England. Alone in the Dark 3 abandons these perhaps cliched settings for the Wild West. At the game’s start, a film crew disappears from its set in the Mojave Desert; among the missing is Emily Hartwood, who became a movie star in the years since the events of Alone in the Dark. Edward Carnby investigates and quickly discovers that a sinister cowboy named Jed Stone is the source of the disappearances. By the final third of the game, 1950s science fiction conspiracies and radioactive monsters are in play. It’s a testament to Infogrames’ willingness to learn from its errors in Alone in the Dark 2 that this escalation avoids compromising the horror atmosphere.
Systems remain in place from the preceding games. Perspectives are fixed cinematic angles, the player controls a relatively weak character as he avoids supernatural foes while solving puzzles, and much of the narrative is filled in through documents scattered around the environment. The engine is unchanged, so textured polygons have yet to replace the increasingly antiquated flat-shaded art design. Static pre-rendered backgrounds continue to do the heavy lifting on establishing an eerie atmosphere.
One delightfully peculiar gameplay twist takes place late in the narrative, as Edward Carnby is actually slain in an unavoidable plot event and his spirit is transferred to the body of a cougar. This brief interlude results in Carnby’s spirit returning to his original form, of course, but features slightly different gameplay from anything which had gone before. As enemies are not aggressive towards the cougar avatar, the player has an opportunity to explore and inspect the lovely environments without a looming sense of danger.
Sadly, Alone in the Dark 3 was never released on home consoles. It was regarded by many critics as the best of the original Alone in the Dark trilogy, but the circumstances of its release resulted in limited commercial exposure. By 1994, the PlayStation had debuted on the home console market and textured polygons were in rapid ascent as a viable graphics option. The flat-shaded polygons of Fredrick Reynal’s 1992 engine had become passe in only two years. The Saturn/PlayStation port of Alone in the Dark 2 was still two years off, but that time period would only magnify the need for future Alone in the Dark entries to go through a significant overhaul if the series was to remain relevant.
Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare (2001)
The back half of the 1990s featured no trace of Alone in the Dark, aside from a Saturn/PlayStation port of the second entry. The development team dissolved and the game engine was abandoned, as it had become quaint when juxtaposed alongside its successors. Resident Evil and its three sequels had been released between 1996 and 2000, while the first two Silent Hill titles were published in 1999 and 2001. The newest Alone in the Dark would be heavily informed by these survival horror games, which had themselves been highly influenced by Alone in the Dark.
Perhaps due to a lack of fresh internal ideas, Infogrames contracted an outside studio to develop the series’ next entry. Darkworks, another Parisian game studio which would later create the excellent Cold Fear (2013), would work up versions of Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare for the Sony PlayStation and SEGA Dreamcast in 2000 and 2001. Both were roughly equivalent, and were soon released on the Windows and PlayStation 2 as well.
The game is heavily inspired by Resident Evil 2. Players choose between a reincarnated Edward Carnby and newly introduced professor Aline Cedrac as they investigate the mysterious Shadow Island. Carnby’s friend Charles Fiske had been discovered dead nearby, kicking off the plot. Cedrac and Carnby are on a flight to the isolated island when their plane crashes, depositing them each in separate area and forcing them to survive supernatural enemies as they seek to solve the mystery of how Fiske died and recover three tablets that hold the key to harnessing some mystical force.
Unlike earlier series entries, the two characters have distinct routes through the world with unique narratives. At the same time, they interact with a variety of non-player characters in a style reminiscent of Silent Hill. Alone in the Dark had adapted to the tropes of a new generation of survival horror. The series had also updated its setting, fully abandoning the early and mid-20th Century world of its predecessors.
Environmental design and combat are the two areas where The New Nightmare distinguishes itself from its contemporaries. Lighting plays a major role in the level design, thanks to Darkworks making skillful use of next-generation console technology; it is enhanced still further on the Windows port. Rather than focusing on polygonal environments, Darkworks maintained the series’ reliance on pre-rendered backgrounds but emphasized real-time lighting effects.
These improve the tense atmosphere, but are also a key gameplay element. Enemies called Creatures of Darkness, eventually revealed to be reptilian creatures from the Earth’s core, are susceptible to damage from light sources. The player character must make use of the environment and a flashlight, given the scarcity of typical weaponry. The player eventually gains access to light-infused bullets, reducing the relevance of this unique mechanic but reinforcing the sub-genre’s core theme of resource management.
Bizarrely, a Game Boy Color port was developed by Pocket Studios. This was a direct conversion rather than an entirely new game. The experience is impressively similar to its home console and PC version, but features reasonable concessions to the portable format. Full motion videos are replaced by text-based dialogues or monologues, while visuals have generally been reduced in resolution (though not scale). A few environments have been trimmed or fully excised. As the player explores apparently empty spaces, combat sequences occur at intervals similar to those in 1990s Japanese role-playing games. Once a foe is “encountered,” battle takes place in a new self-contained space viewed from an isometric perspective rather than in the exploratory environments. The player character fights monsters in real-time using weapons acquired throughout the environment.
It’s hard not to see an echo of Capcom’s contemporary attempt to develop a GBC port of Resident Evil, though Pocket Studios succeeded where Capcom failed. The developers made use of an intriguing hardware quirk known as high-color mode, which permits the use of 2000 colors on-screen simultaneously, to translate the PC version’s rich backgrounds to a portable environment; this ensured that little action could occur during the exploratory scenes, but they got around this by integrating the aforementioned battle mode. Sadly, the game itself was poorly received. There was simply no way to adequately capture the scares of a current-generation horror game on the highly restrictive GBC hardware, and technical mastery would never be an adequate substitute for fear.
Alone in the Dark (2008)
Infogrames acquired a number of competitors in the late 1990s and early 2000s before rebranding itself Atari in 2003. Following this, it went through a challenging period in the mid to late 2000s in which it sold off or closed a number of its subsidiaries. As a result of this tumult, Infogrames’ founder departed the company in 2007. Seeking to reinvigorate its flagging reputation by connecting modern audiences to one of its flagship properties, Atari green-lit development of a new Alone in the Dark game.
The sub-genre of survival horror, however, was all but a memory by this point. The Silent Hill series had been largely dormant since its fourth entry in 2004; Konami had fully disbanded the franchise’s internal creative staff (Team Silent) and would rely on outside teams for later games. Clock Tower had fully disappeared following 2003’s Clock Tower 3. Even Resident Evil, the dominant survival horror IP since its debut in 1996, had dramatically altered course to reflect action game mechanics beginning with Resident Evil 4 (2005).
Like many other series, horror or otherwise, Alone in the Dark’s next release was highly influenced by the latest entry in Capcom’s Resident Evil saga. Pre-rendered backgrounds were abandoned alongside fixed camera angles; the perspective is instead situated slightly behind the player character with a view over his shoulder. Character choice, having being reintroduced in The New Nightmare after having been absent since the original Alone in the Dark, is similarly jettisoned in favor of a well-defined single protagonist exploring a semi-open world.
That protagonist is Edward Carnby, redesigned as a vulgarity-spouting amnesiac. Elements of the 2008 game suggest a reboot, but the player eventually discovers that this continuity is a direct sequel to the events of the first three games. The Legend of Zelda-esque conceit of The New Nightmare, in which a new Edward Carnby is born in each generation to battle supernatural forces, is unceremoniously dropped. The game is still set in the modern era, however.
Again opting for a setting foreign to its gothic roots, Alone in the Dark’s 2008 revival takes place in and around New York’s Central Park. The city is in the midst of an apocalyptic event, streets crumbling and hellish monsters stalking its alleys. Only Carnby, along with an art dealer ally named Sarah Flores, can stop the destruction of the city by demons.
Defeating these otherworldly foes (humorously called Humanz!) requires ingenuity, which stands in as a replacement for the survival elements of the game’s predecessors. Humanz can only be killed with fire, so Carnby must make use of the environment and tools to light enemies ablaze. Bullets and melee weapons are available, but only slow attackers down. Implementation of a robust proprietary physics engine ensures that a destructible environment is often offering new components for the player to make use of.
Unfortunately, the game is brutally hamstrung by its controls. The studio which made it, Eden Games, was formerly responsible for developing the successful V-Rally racing franchise. This may account for the inconsistent, sluggish handling of the main character but it renders the game’s nigh-unplayable driving sequences utterly inexplicable. A first person mode is the easiest way to interact with surrounding environmental details and enemies, but it is almost only used for firearm combat.
Serious structural issues are also present. The game is divided into chapters with interstitial narrative sequences adopting the style of a serialized television show; like Alan Wake (2010) and Resident Evil: Revelations (2011), these include recaps of the preceding chapter. These breaks only serve to undermine momentum, and are especially baffling given the lack of an episodic release model; players would presumably be playing through a lengthy portion of the game in a single sitting, so the recaps often summarize events experienced only minutes earlier.
Between the muddy plot, the unlikeable characters, an ill-fitting narrative structure, the poor mechanics and Atari’s abandonment of the series’ identity, it’s no surprise that Alone in the Dark was poorly reviewed upon release for Xbox 360 and PC in 2008. The port developed for the Wii and PlayStation 2 by Hydravision, which crammed the game mechanics into a previous-generation physics engine, were still more disastrous. The game had numerous bugs and glitches in its standard version, so a port to under-powered hardware was destined to result in major playability issues. A PlayStation 3 version developed by Eden Games, called Alone in the Dark: Inferno, was comparatively successful. Updates to the narrative and controls significantly improved the player experience, though damage to the series’ could not be so easily undone. With the exception of a 2015 spinoff, Alone in the Dark: Inferno seems to have been the franchise’s last gasp.
For the sake of an interesting story, we will be defining spinoff rather broadly. In essence, if it connects to the Alone in the Dark property but lacks the core gameplay or narrative features – namely Edward Carnby’s struggle against undead monsters – it can be considered here.
The first spinoff of note is Infogrames’ own Time Gate: Knight’s Chase (1996). This PC and MS-DOS game was heavily inspired by the gameplay and visual design of the original Alone in the Dark trilogy. It was originally intended to be released as Alone in the Dark 4 before the development team opted to craft an entirely new IP. The protagonist is William, an American student studying in Paris with his girlfriend, who is sent to the past after a mysterious black knight attempts to murder him. The narrative eventually expands to involve a conspiracy centered on the Knights Templar. Though many elements are similar to its spiritual predecessor, the game engine is updated to make use of Gouraud-shaded polygons rather than the flat-shaded polygons of Alone in the Dark 1–3; this is an update, but still falls short of the textured polygons becoming common in other games by 1996. Reception was cool and no other Time Gate titles were produced.
The second Alone in the Dark spinoff is only tangentially related and was never published. Fredrick Reynal, the visionary behind the establishment of the franchise, departed Infogrames shortly after the release of the first Alone in the Dark. With much of that game’s art team, he founded a studio called No Cliche and began work on a survival horror game set in an isolated, snowy locale. Agartha would have focused on a character descending from a disaster-stricken Romanian village to a mysterious subterranean world in 1929, battling an ancient evil in the process. Development began in 2000, but the console for which the game was planned, the Dreamcast, went out of production shortly thereafter. No Cliche was disbanded by 2001.
Finally a 2015 game called Alone in the Dark: Illumination could be considered either a sad final entry in the core series or a poorly conceived spinoff; I prefer the latter, given the strange discontinuity with its predecessors. In this online multiplayer game, four players have unique tools and must work together to solve puzzles and defeat enemies. Of the four player characters, two are descended from the original game’s protagonists and two are entirely new. The perspective is a third-person over-the-shoulder view, in line with other modern action-adventure games, and Illumination does nothing to set itself apart from competitors. It fully lacks the isolation which defined the series it is ostensibly a part of.
A new Alone in the Dark game seems increasingly likely thanks to the IP’s acquisition by THQ Nordic in September 2018. It is hard to see how the franchise might be adapted to the modern environment without compromising its essential identity, however. The series was a critical piece of 1990s game development, all but single-handedly establishing the language of the survival horror genre. With the release of Resident Evil in 1996 and Silent Hill in 1999, though, game enthusiasts discovered that others could accomplish similar goals with higher production values. Horror is often improved by increasingly lifelike visual design, so the original Alone in the Dark quickly faded into obscurity when compared to more recent entries in a rapidly evolving medium. Still, fans of a historical outlook remain grateful to Frederick Raynal and the staff of Infogrames for establishing the genre of horror within the video game medium in 1992.
What is your opinion of Alone in the Dark? Do you have a favorite entry in the series? Do you think it went off the rails or meaningfully evolved? What do you think THQ Nordic will do with the series? Let’s discuss in the comments below!
Next week, we will cover Resident Evil. Join the conversation at 9:00 AM EST on October 12, 2018.