Paranoia and the birth of Survival Horror in "Alone in the Dark"
Birth of a Subgenre
In the modern lexicon of video gaming, the words "survival" and "horror" have become nigh inseparable. While action-oriented series like Dead Space or Dead Rising or Dead Island (lotta Dead going around these days) slap the "survival" label on the front end of their genre-specific entries, they have definitely lost touch with the "horror" part of the equation. Oh, there are lots of oogie-boogies creeping their way into your monitor, and you can definitely splatter them apart with your heavy ordinance (or at minimum a nice length of pipe), but the complete lack of suspense, pacing, and atmosphere in these modern titles suggests that they have forgotten their roots.
Regular viewers will have noted a steady progression in my entries from the birth of video gaming towards modern times. This is not accidental. Rest assured, I am not purely a retro gamer, and recent titles are soon to come, but I have good reason to examine the place the oogie-boogies originally creeped out from.
Most critics point to Resident Evil as the birth of "Survival Horror" as a genre, and for good reason: it was a term literally invented by the makers of the game. Or rather, the Marketing Team at Capcom. Of course, once the term took off in the video gaming vernacular, it has been retroactively applied to the titles which inspired Resident Evil. One title, in particular, stands out, and if you are a fan of gaming at all you likely have guessed what it is.
In the early 90s, 3D environments were just kicking off. I've talked a fair amount about the birth of first-person shooters and wireframe graphics in my post about Pathways Into Darkness, so I won't talk much more about the history here, but suffice it to say that while the first-person perspective was shaping up into something actually in-depth, so too was the third-person perspective. One man in particular recognized the potential for this new dimension for a horror setting: Frédérick Raynal, a designer and programmer working for Infogrames. Raynal had worked on Infogrames' 3D platformer Alpha Waves, and was a great admirer of the horror genre, particularly the Cthulu mythos. It just made sense to blend the two together.
During the development process, Raynal (long with his design team that included Artistic Director Didier Chanfray, Programmer Franck de Girolami and Designer Yaël Barroz, his future wife) put into place many of the concepts that would become staples of the Survival Horror genre. Some were done because of limitations of the time, some were done deliberately, but the result is inarguably one of the best and scariest games of all time.
And Now, the Game
The plot of Alone In the Dark starts out very simply and quickly spirals into a complex history of magic, mythos, and madness. You take on the role of either Emily Hartwood or Edward Carnby (at the time, the choice of a female protagonist was a fairly unique innovation, and was done to appeal to a larger audience). Your abilities are unaffected by your choice, and the storyline only changes in the introductory sequence. As Emily Hartwood, you are investigating the sudden suicide of your uncle, Jeremy Hartwood, an eccentric artist and owner of the lush Louisiana estate Derceto. Derceto, a large mansion with a long history, is reputed to be the home to evil spirits, because of course it is. As Edward Carnby, you are hired by a strange client to seek out a piano of great value within the mansion's attic, to be pawned off for a large profit.
I will confess the plot is a little bit confused, especially if you don't read the right books and pieces of parchment in the right order. Essentially, it boils down to this: an evil, immortal ghost pirate has been possessing the bodies of the Derseto estate owners for centuries, and sought to make Jeremy Hartwood his latest victim. When Hartwood committed suicide instead, the ghost pirate, named Ezechiel Prezgt, reached out his influence to try to possess the player character instead. There's a lot of mythology mixing that occurs here, mostly from the Cthulu mythos and Greek legend.
At any rate, as your character enters the mansion, everything seems quiet enough...
...and they ascend to the attic, the site of Jeremy's suicide (and the location of the piano) without any trouble. This choice was intentional on the part of the designers; they felt that it would be a good way to show the layout of the house on the way in, so players would know what they would be up against on the way out.
You gain control of your character once they have arrived in the attic. It's worth mentioning said controls here. Your character moves quite ponderously, and with each stride their footsteps creak on the floorboards and echo eerily throughout the house. You have a choice of actions you take with the spacebar: Fight, Open/Search, Shut, Push, and, in certain areas, Jump. Performing an action can take a few beats, depending on how close your character is to the item you are trying to perform the action on, and on the animation the action requires. The manual recommends holding the spacebar down until your action completes, and this can definitely be counterintuitive to a modern gaming audience used to "Press 'Y' to Win Game."
So, you begin exploring the attic. Checking the piano from the right angle yields a secret compartment containing Jeremy Hartwood's suicide note, and expands upon the plot of the game. There are also a few items around to snag, and if you're an adventure junky like me you'll rapidly fill your pockets to bursting with garbage. This is a mistake, as Alone in the Dark implements a size-based inventory limit. Too many large/heavy objects, and you won't be able to carry anything else, and this is especially vital later.
Of course, your exploration and kleptomania can quickly be interrupted in the attic by the arrival of the monster outside the window.
Yes, the first fight in this game is a timed event, with a second one spaced out soon after, and simply by hanging around in the first area of the game you will be forced into combat. This is incredibly effective in jolting the player out of their comfort zone from the get-go. You're expecting at least a few moments to get oriented and familiar with the game, and here the game is saying "NOPE. FIGHT OR DIE." Recent entries have attempted similar, adrenaline pumping sequences to get their game going, but they haven't been as effective. A good example is Dead Island, which features an early sequence where you must run from the Infected or be rapidly overrun. The difference is that with Dead Island, you have a voice literally telling you what to do, as well as on-screen instructions, and provided you simply do what they say there is no real danger.
OK, but is it Scary?
With Alone in the Dark, you are, as promised, alone (though not always in the dark). When these monsters attack you in the beginning, unless you paid close attention to the manual, you will die. What's more, you haven't actually done anything to TRIGGER these monsters. It's not a normal "jump-scare" where you open a door, or pick up an item, or enter a new area, and a oogie-boogie leaps out to give you a kiss. This just...happens.
That pattern of thinking extends to several moments in the game. Picking up the wrong item, stepping in the wrong place, and even just brushing against a piece of scenery can all result in a grisly, untimely death.
If all of that seems spectacularly unfair, in a way it's meant to be. Still, you have the ability to save at literally any moment in this game, so you have no one to blame but yourself if you find yourself having to start over from a much earlier point. The point, however, is to make you distrustful of everything and anything. And it works BEAUTIFULLY.
It's not just this heightened sense of awareness that makes Alone in the Dark function so well, though. As I mentioned, the sound of your own footsteps adds a layer of eeriness to the experience, as does the rest of the sound design. From time to time, you'll hear strange creaks and groans from the house, as if the whole thing were alive. Howls from outside suggest further monsters bursting in the windows as in the attic sequence (and the fact that they only SOMETIMES burst in will keep you guessing).
Then there's the music. The soundtrack to Alone in the Dark, especially on modern machines, is gorgeous. The battle music alone is memorable and pulse-racing, and blends back into the tracks for puzzle-solving and wandering the house.
Graphically, the game naturally is dated, but the polygonal enemies actually have a certain creepy charm to them that holds up today. There's something offputting about the way they move, far more rapidly than you do, with jerking, twisting limbs and lopsided cartoon faces.
Ultimately, Alone in the Dark is a classic and well-deserving of the title of one of the greatest video games of all time. To date, this is the game I have had the most fun replaying for my reviews. This is the game that epitomizes "Everything Is Scary" because literally everything cannot be trusted. You can't even rely on the weapons you are given. Some break, some run out of ammo, some fail to function when they get wet. What's worse, certain monsters can only be killed by certain weapons, and if you've failed to acquire that item or wasted it on a lesser beast, then you are just screwed.
Subsequent entries in the series would sadly place too much focus on the combat portions of the game (ironically, the major gripe I have with many self-styled "survival horror" entries today). Alone in the Dark 2 only has loose connections to horror and magic, and feels much more like a noir/gangster game. Alone in the Dark 3, with its Western aesthetic, also had ghosts and spirits that felt too tangible. Very likely these failures are the direct result of Raynal and the original design team departing Infogrames prior to the sequels.
Only the first game captured the perfect balance of otherworldly isolation and distrust that is communicated so perfectly by its title. Everything really is scary when you're Alone in the Dark.