Alone in the Dark

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Alone in the Dark

Way back when the graphic adventure genre was relatively new and ruled by games such as the King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series, the concept of a survival horror game was an untouched subject area.  There were games using a haunted house motif, such as Poltergeist, released in 1982 for the Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer orUninvited, Infocom’s graphical text adventure released in 1986, but the game that set the gold bar standard and helped to inspire the flourishing of the entire subgenre was Infogrames’ 1992 classic PC game, Alone in the Dark.

alone in the dark box art
Box front for Alone in the Dark (1992)

Alone in the Dark was set in the late 1920′s, with gamers assuming the role of either private detective Edward Carnby or young heiress Emily Hartwood, who enter the sprawling Louisiana mansion, “Delcarto” in search of a piano supposedly stored in the attic.  The house is reputed to be haunted, and it’s last owner, Ms. Hartwood’s uncle Jeremy, committed suicide in highly unusual circumstances.  If that’s not creepy enough, after the player enters the mansion, the front doors slam shut without any help from mortal hands.  Like any good actor in a teenage slasher flick, Edward (or Emily, depending on who the player chose), heads up the stairs to find the attic.  And once they reach the attic, the game begins.

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Alone in the Dark for Panasonic 3D0

Alone in the Dark is a game that dabbles in the  Cthulhu mythos.  The horrific situations found within the game display their Cthulhulian influence, and even the mansion is discovered to be actually named after Shub-Niggurath, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.  However, the creatures that Edward and Emily encounter are more standard fare (and are a mixed bag when it comes to frightening appearance), and do not possess the mind and world-shattering power of Lovecraftian monsters.

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Cthulhu references in Alone in the Dark (1992)

The atmosphere is aided by both creepy sound effects and a well-thought out musical score.  For example floorboards creak as they’re walked on, and the character’s footsteps echo through the room as an eerie reminder that you’re the only human in the house.  The music switches to a more aggressive melody when creatures appear, and returns to a sombre melody when they’ve been dispatched.  I still have great gaming memories of hearing the strains of Strauss’ The Beautiful Blue Danube in the ballroom (you could put records in the phonograph there and see what happens).

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Exploring the attic in Alone in the Dark

Some people say that Alone in the Dark was the very first PC survival horror PC game using the Cthulhu Mythos as a theme, but most forget that there was another game published within the same time period that can also lay claim to that title.  MicroProse published Magnetic Scrolls’ The Legacy: Realm of Terror in 1992, a game that was set in a haunted mansion, with bizarre Cthulhulian creatures to overcome.  The two had similar concepts, but of the two, Alone in the Dark was the better game, so usually gets all the credit.

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Box front for The Legacy: Realm of Terror

The game used a different style of graphic engine than gamers were used to.  2-D polygons (colored, not textured) were used to render 3-D objects in real-time, with very quick responses to whatever action the player attempted.  These 3-D objects were then placed against standard pre-rendered backgrounds.  The result was an impressive illusion that the entire game world was being rendered in three-dimensions.  It also permitted unusual camera angles that could be quickly switched from one perspective to another on the fly, which is what Alone in the Dark is usually remembered for by those who played it.

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Under attack in Alone in the Dark

Alone in the Dark did very well for Infogrames, and was released on multiple platforms, including MS-DOS in 1992, the NEC -PC9801 system in 1993, and the Panasonic 3D0 and Apple Macintosh systems in 1994. (It was also scheduled to be ported over to the Atari Jaguar system, but, alas, that project was canceled.)  Its success resulted in a number of sequels, including Alone in the Dark 2 (released in 1993, and featuring another haunted mansion), and Alone in the Dark 3 (released in 1994 and sending the player to the Old West).  The franchise was rebooted in 2001 with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, where the player got to explore an entire island, and again in 2008, with Alone in the Dark, taking the series to the modern age.

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Inventory management in Alone in the Dark

The success of the original Alone in the Dark franchise gave the entire survival horror graphic adventure genre its birth. In fact, every time you start up a game of Left4 Dead 2, give thanks to the developers of the granddaddy of them all, Alone in the Dark!

The Commonplace Book Project

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H.P. Lovecraft with all his unspeakable horrors, indescribable oddities and non-euclidean angles never really helped any visual artists, uhh, visualize his stories and -apparently- that”s one of the reasons many -mostly Cthulhu– HPL inspired games failed to capture that distinctly Lovecraftian atmosphere and/or cosmic horror. The fact, mind you, that most of his protagonist were on the asthmatic academic side of humanity didn”t help with the necessary video game action bit either.

Interactive fiction (text-adventures) and HPL”s kind of horror, on the other hand, seem like a match made in a particularly tentacled heaven. Don”t believe me? Why, better try the excellent freeware and see what I mean. Good writing, vaguely described ominous things and interactivity, without the distraction of anavoidably underwhelming visuals, make for quite an experience. And atmospheric horror too of course. Problem is such games are rather rare and The Lurking Horror is almost ancient history.

Enter the Illuminated Lantern, interactive fiction publishers extraordinaire, creators of the award winning and driving force behind the Commonplace Book Project. The purpose of said project is both simple and frankly quite noble: create interactive adventures based on the unfinished story ideas that H.P. Lovecraft collected in his “Commonplace Book”. The first seven games (including Dead Cities, Ecdysis, The Cellar and the Handyman Wanted point-and-clicker) have already been made available and are ready to provide you with hours of relatively disturbing entertainment. For free. Hip, hip…

Oh, and Windows users will probably have to download the excellent and very freeware Gargoyle interactive fiction player. Possibly even have a look at a beginner”s guide to interactive fiction.