Reviewing a game like Alone in the Dark is tough in modern times. Do you factor in its influence, and account for how groundbreaking it was when it was originally released? Or do you review it with a more contemporary eye and base your opinion on how well the game has held up? I played AITD shortly after its 1992 release, and at the time I was blown away, but going back and playing it in 2016 has exposed each and every flaw in its design. Even for someone who usually views everything through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgic affection, Alone in the Dark is tough to recommend to anyone who didn’t experience it when it was first released. The objective and subjective sides of my personality are at war on how I should profess my love for the game that essentially invented the survival-horror genre (and doesn’t get the credit it deserves), while simultaneously highlighting how poorly it has aged.
I suppose a combination of the two schools of thought is the answer. It’s important to recognize Alone in the Dark as the historical artifact it is. At the time of its release, there was nothing like it. It was one of, if not the first games to feature 3D polygonal characters in pre-rendered (or in this case, hand-drawn and painted) backgrounds. As such, many of its flaws can be chalked up to the fact that there was simply no bar. No standard had been set when it came to even the simplest things like movement controls, or more complex systems like combat in a 3D space. When you’re blazing the trail, it’s not always going to be pretty. In the same way the early Resident Evil games are now cumbersome and unintuitive by modern standards, so too is the game that was the blueprint for the genre it created. It’s difficult to explain to someone who didn’t play it twenty years ago just how influential and original it was, especially when simpler games that came out years before such as Pac-Man and other arcade classics still have such mass appeal and addictive gameplay.
It’s best to start with the positives, and right from the onset, Alone in the Dark sets a tone and a mood that is still chilling. As either Edward Carnby, the canonical protagonist, or Emily Hartwood it’s the player’s job to investigate the cursed Derceto mansion and find out what drove its previous owner and Emily’s uncle, Jeremy Hartwood, to suicide. As you slowly approach, an iconic shot of a clawed monster watching you from an upstairs window fills you with dread. Within a minute (quite literally) of gameplay, you’re beset by two monsters in Derceto’s attic, unless you can find a way to block their entrance. The game wastes no time in informing the player that they are in mortal danger, and death comes swiftly to the unprepared. Even the game’s box art is unsettling and evocative, not to mention stunning.
Alone in the Dark is a love letter to H.P. Lovecraft. It’s arguably the best representation of his seminal horror fiction than any game that has actually bore his name on the box. The game is rife with references to Lovecraftian inventions such as the Necronomicon, the “New England fishing village of I…” (clearly Innsmouth), the Deep Ones, Dagon, Miskatonic University, Arkham, and of course, the great Cthulhu and Shub Niggurath. There’s talk of space and comets, the Occult and unspeakable horrors, and it all takes place in a Lovecraftian setting of a haunted mansion. The story is told through journals, books, and loose papers you’ll find throughout the rooms and halls of Derceto, and given the limits of the technology at the time, it’s expertly told. Like Lovecraft’s fiction, it leaves much to the imagination and is both fascinating and repulsive. Sparse though it is, the story is still Alone in the Dark’s strongest asset. It somehow manages to effectively creep the player out, even with its dated graphics.
It’s true that AITD has not aged well in many ways. The visuals are the most obvious and glaring example. While the hand-drawn backgrounds still look generally marvelous, the characters themselves are comically ugly. They’re little more than simple geometric shapes pasted together. In a way, you could argue all 3D character models are the same thing, but it shows here. Carnby’s moustache, for example, is literally two triangles. Everything looks jagged, and in a way there’s a charm in that, but it was clearly symptomatic of technological limitations rather than an artistic statement. It almost looks like a papercraft world with its triangles, circles, and squares jumbled together, except it’s not intentional.
On the flip side, the sound design is still pretty excellent. There are lots of little details, like the way the floor in the attic creaks under your feet and your footsteps are muffled when stepping on padded surfaces, that were fairly uncommon for games of that area. There are some minor voice samples, and several weird, unexplained noises designed to make you spin around expecting a confrontation. The later CD-ROM version of the game adds full voice acting and MIDI orchestrated music in place of the original SoundBlaster support, both of which significantly alter the mood of the experience. The orchestrated soundtrack is still great, but like a lot of fans, I prefer the soundtrack of the original floppy disk release. Music is limited, but what’s there is pretty memorable.
Anyone can see that Alone in the Dark looks outdated, but the worst victim of time’s cruel passage is the controls. The game uses tank-style controls which would go on to become the standard. In and of itself, this isn’t so bad, but there is a terrible, noticeable delay for every action attempted. Coaxing Carnby to run, in theory accomplished by double-tapping up, more often than not results in a stutter-step that leaves you vulnerable to the thing you’re trying to run from. In fairness, this is a mostly puzzle-based affair, and to its credit, most of the puzzles have very logical, clever solutions. Combat is a joyless, bothersome chore. Thankfully, there’s precious little of it. You can fight using a variety of weapons or bare-handed, but it’s difficult to gauge how close the enemies are to you most of the time and you’ll end up getting caught in an inescapable barrage of attacks until you’re faced with a game over screen. Guns can dispatch enemies faster, but aiming is even harder than melee attacking. It may look like you’ve got a bead on a monster, but your shots end up in the wall far to the left or right.
The camera only compounds these problems. Alone in the Dark uses the same static camera system similar games like Resident Evil would adopt which switches on the fly based on your position on-screen. The problem is that the angles aren’t always conducive to fighting enemies or judging distance or angles. Even when you’re just exploring, the camera will sometimes refuse to shift positions, leaving your character fumbling around unseen beyond the boundaries of the screen.
Alone in the Dark can be beaten in around two hours if you’re familiar with it, but it will likely last two or three times as long for first-timers. Inventory space is limited, and not every item you come across is useful. Discovering which items are necessities and which aren’t, and how and when to utilize them to solve the game’s puzzles is part of the fun. There’s no compelling reason to go back for subsequent playthroughs unless you just want to play through it again. Between some tough enemy encounters and some trial and error puzzles, you’ll likely die numerous times. Saving frequently is encouraged. You’re limited to six save slots, but you can save anywhere, anytime.
Yet despite the myriad of problems - the unresponsive controls, the bewildering camera, the clunky combat, and the hideous character models - I still love Alone in the Dark. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that it’s a bad game; it’s just a product of the time it was made. For those of us that played it in 1992, it was absolutely revolutionary. Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and every other survival-horror game owe a debt of gratitude to AITD. It’s a relic of gaming history, worthy of preservation. The way the story slowly unravels as you discover each clue and the clever puzzles make it worth playing as long as you know what you’re getting into. Younger games who cut their teeth on the PlayStation 2 (or later) likely won’t appreciate it, but it’s an experience that stuck with me in my youth and into my adulthood. Ultimately, it's still an experience I would recommend for its historical value.
Alone in the Dark was completed on a PC via DOSbox with no cheats.