Released in 1992, Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark took PC gamers by surprise right before swallowing them whole from the front door.
The ad above, from 1994, was for the CD-ROM version following a popular trend at the time in making use of the medium to re-release recent games with enhancements like spoken text, better music, and even improved cinematics. CD-ROMs provided a second breath of life for many games that were polished up this way as PC game designers transitioned away from disk-based constraints.
But when Alone in the Dark first came out, it was cutting edge stuff that no one had ever experienced before – a horror adventure crafted with 3D graphics and enough creepy thrills to make you wonder whether you would be safe entering the next room. Though crude in some respects even in its day — the blocky protagonists didn’t have a whole lot of detail to boast about — it delivered plenty of paranoid moments when being left alone in a room was probably not the best idea.
The story takes place in Louisiana, 1924, at Derceto mansion. The massive house was the home of one Jeremy Hartwood, an artist whose taste with the macabre and the occult had been the talk of the town until his apparent suicide. As either Edward Carnby, who is sent to locate a piano said to be at the mansion by an antiques dealer, or Hartwood’s niece, Emily, who is interested in the same piano because of a note she believes is hidden within it relating to Jeremy’s suicide, the player is drawn to investigate the mansion and the dark evil dwelling within its wood and brick bones.
For Lovecraft fans, this is the first of Infogrames’ games “inspired” by his work and one of the earliest to play with elements from his Cthulhu mythos. The included “newspaper,” reporting on Hartwood’s suicide, even contains a short biography on Lovecraft with list of suggested short stories. The designers made great use of the kind of subtle strangeness that defined his stories by ambushing the player with unexpected things throughout Derceto.
I learned this the hard way several times in this game as Derceto wasn’t shy about killing me off in any number of ways. I wanted to see what leaving by the front door would do — only to be staring down the throat of some “thing” that made it its mouth instead. Reading a mystical book from Hartwood’s library without the necessary protections proved to be another deadly mistake. And then there were the undead.
Alone in the Dark set the tone for survival horror. There were weapons in the game, but combat wasn’t so much of a focus as it was in trying to avoid what wanted to kill you. Ammo was scarce and neither Jeremy or Emily were hardened fighters.
Players were also free to explore the mansion and get into trouble on their own making the save function a valuable friend. Scrounging about in the attic, my hairs stood on end when the music suddenly rose up as a zombie came through trapdoor — a damn dead thing that I didn’t expect at all and me with nothing to fight it with. If I only pushed a chest over to block the door first, I might have lived a bit longer which is what I did the next time I reloaded.
The game pioneered a number of elements that Sony’s Resident Evil in 1996 would use to great effect — the fixed camera angles, use of 3D graphics and polygon-based actors, scarce ammo, and a haunted house filled with dangers that are better to flee from than to simply kill like so many kobolds in an RPG. It also had chunky controls, something I wish Resident Evil — or Tomb Raider — didn’t take after.
Despite its flaws, it was a pioneering title and proved to be an amazingly popular game. The ad boasts 200k in sales — paltry by today’s standards, the kiss of death to new IP. But back then, that was considered pretty damn good.
It would also be the first in a trilogy of titles, the last of which was released in 1994 and which you can snag for a pittance over at a digital distribution service like Good Old Games. An attempt to reboot the series would be attempted in 2001 with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, and then again with the critically panned, and plainly named, Alone in the Dark in 2008.
It’s sad to see the series fail to make as much an impression as it did back then, though the subsequent titles in the original trilogy seemed to lose some of the same thirst for scares that the series set out with. But the lessons that the first game had passed along live on in many of the horror titles to come after it since. Alone in the Dark set the stage for games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and even Amnesia in proving that a game can string your nerves along its fingers with every scene…all while drawing you in even deeper into its personal darkness where things that should not be await.