What kind of power does a name hold? The name of a house, the name of a man, the name of profane ideas and beings that twist and distort over time… A name acts as both a face and a cover. It simplifies and obscures. It encompasses.
Alone in the Dark, released in 1992, predates the term “survival horror” as a genre name. That would come later, with Resident Evil, and only because it both sounded cool and was accurate. But nobody would argue that Alone in the Dark doesn’t qualify as survival horror. Along with Sweet Home, it laid down the tropes and customs that would inform the most popular examples of survival horror games later in the 90s.
Although you can play as two different characters, Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood, Alone in the Dark is really the story of its setting: the mansion named Derceto. Please forgive me for indulging in that cliché, but it’s apt. Derceto, which gets its name from an ancient Syrian goddess, is a Louisiana plantation house with a sordid past. Carnby, a down-on-his-luck private eye, calls it “a place even ghosts would run away from”. That’s not really true… there are plenty of ghosts for the taking.
Your motivation for going to Derceto changes depending on the character you choose. For Carnby, it’s a job. An antique dealer named Gloria Allen contracts him to investigate an antique piano in Derceto’s attic… a rare piece with hidden compartments.
Things are a little more personal for Emily. She hears the terrible news that the current owner of Derceto (who’s also her uncle) Jeremy Hartwood hung himself in the attic, under mysterious circumstances.
And it’s in this attic where things get weird.
We’re introduced to Derceto at the same time we’re introduced to Alone in the Dark’s defining features, and its biggest contributions to the genre. A polygonal car winds down a road, set against a pre-rendered bitmap background. Infogrames pioneered this technique, crafting a whole new presentation around the limitations of PCs at the time, and building it around the kind of scares they wanted to instill in the player. Full 3D wouldn’t work, so they took a half measure and it paid off.
The introduction is a slow-moving tour of the mansion, as either Carnby or Emily walk in the front door and ascend to the attic. We see the environment from fixed angles, designed and chosen more for cinematic flair than for clarity of information. We’ll see this again in games like Resident Evil, where it’s used to similar effect: the simple act of walking through a room takes on a tense air, because you never know when the frame will shift and show that you’ve walked into the jaws of oblivion.
We’ll also recognize the tank controls. I can’t say for sure where tank controls began (Combat, maybe?) but it’s fair to say that Alone in the Dark is notable for using them in the context of exploration. For as clunky as they are, they’re simple and mostly predictable: Pressing Up moves you forward, and Left and Right rotate your character around. Once you’re used to these controls, it’s easy to make sweeping runs through hallways… But they are definitely archaic, and I don’t think anyone would be down with using them in a modern game.
Things get a little hairier when you mix tank controls with combat, but Alone in the Dark varies things up in an unexpected way. Ranged combat is a simple rotate-and-shoot affair, but melee combat (whether with Roaring Twenties Fisticuffs or with a weapon) gives you a few options. Holding down Space, the different directional buttons afford you different attacks. Up and down are slower overhead attacks with slightly longer range, while left and right are faster side-swipes. Mixed, matched, and used at the appropriate range, this scheme gives you more control than you’d expect… but not enough to make combat anything but a chore. At the best of times, you’re trading blows in a slow and floaty fashion.
If you stripped away the combat and the exploration, what you’d have left is a text adventure game. All the way down to picking a verb and using it on objects in the environment, you’re an Adventure Game Roomba all throughout. This comes with all of the downsides of that design… choices that are deliberately player-hostile, so customers feel like they got their money’s worth. “Gotcha” inventory puzzles, an invisible weight limit, and puzzles or challenges that result in instant death are frustratingly common. This makes Alone in the Dark a real game of its time, and it fits in very well with Waxworks or any contemporary Sierra title.
The Shadow in the Attic
Alone in the Dark is cannily structured. It starts out narrow and linear, opens up for the majority of the middle portion, and then funnels back down for the climax.
You don’t play too much Piano Inspector before the danger of Derceto makes itself apparent… A Ghoul breaks in through a trap door, while a Zombie Chicken (you read that right) crashes in through the window. You don’t struggle against them for too long before you realize that it’s a better plan to push furniture around to block their entrance in the first place.
Descending to the third floor, Alone in the Dark presents you with a linear sequence of rooms meant to teach you that danger lies around every corner. A Gamasutra interview with the developers reveals that a goal in the design of the game was to make you feel like things could go wrong at any time. Even the most mundane actions could result in death. So as you try to get the fuck out of the house, a section of hallway collapses below your character, killing them instantly.
Your descent is blocked by Nightgaunts, one of many creatures, names, and concepts lifted straight from the works of H.P. Lovecraft (specifically, in this case, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). These creatures are immortal, and they must be banished with mirrors you find by carefully inspecting the contents of the third floor. This involves some unintuitive actions, like throwing a vase to break it and get the key inside. Without an “Inspect” function, so many of the items you find are frustrating mysteries.
If you die at any point, you’re treated to a short scene of a Ghoul dragging your character’s corpse to a root-covered underground altar. When the whole world of the game is some plantation mansion, this peek of the eldritch and bizarre infuses the whole game with a sense of mystery and dread. Whatever’s here doesn’t just want me dead, it wants me.
The Thing on the Doorstep
Once the Nightgaunts are dealt with, it’s a straight shot to the front door… And one of the more freaky instant deaths. Flung open, the front door reveals a giant green anus monster that knocks Carnby/Emily down, then devours them whole. Clearly, we’ve been whisked away into a pocket dimension, or the house is covered in malignant foliage.
This begins the open-ended middle portion of the game, where you are forced to solve puzzles within the rooms on the first two floors. Failing to meet these puzzles on their terms often results in instant death, an irritation that’s offset by combat encounters becoming more scarce.
These puzzles are often macabre… You placate a dining room full of zombies by serving them a soup made with human flesh. You move ballroom ghosts away from a key by playing the Danse Macabre on a gramophone. You render a hallway safe by covering a painting with a blanket, so it doesn’t fling hatchets at you.
Other puzzles involve finding the right way to kill otherwise immortal monsters. We got a taste of this with the Nightgaunts, but there’s also a haunted suit of armor that can only be destroyed with a heavy figurine, and a hilariously-rendered purple ghost called the Prowler that won’t fall to anything but a specific ceremonial dagger.
These puzzles often rely on trial and error, or clues found in very oblique notes and texts. This is where Alone in the Dark’s Lovecraft really shines through. Early in development, it held the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying license, before Chaosium revoked it, saying the game couldn’t properly convey the systems of that tabletop RPG. Approval be damned, they strew the phrase “that is not dead which can eternal lie” all over the place. Monk’s transcriptions speak of the Deep Ones and Cthulhu. You find copies of The Necronomicon and De Vermis Mysteriis, and true to form, reading them will either damage your health or kill you outright.
The overarching plot and backstory of Derceto reads like an homage to (and straight-up appropriation of) Lovecraft and Poe. Letters and texts reveal that Jeremy Hartwood, Derceto’s last owner, thought himself to be under the spell of someone he called “The Master”, and he saw fit to kill himself rather than become the Master’s pawn.
We learn that the Master’s name was Pickford… and before that, his name was Ezechiel Pregzt. He has had many names, and apparently lived a long and sordid life before dying in a Union attack during the Civil War. Pregzt was a pirate who used profane knowledge gathered in the far seas to enrich himself, and extend his life. He built Derceto on a tribe’s holy spot, where all of the stars in the night sky could be seen clearly. On the day of his death, his servants carried his body deep below the earth and placed it in an evil tree, which preserved him in undeath.
Hartwood, in exploring Derceto, unearthed Pregzt, and started to fall under his influence. Ghouls flooded the house as Pregzt sought to hijack Hartwood’s body. Denied his first target, Pregzt has waited patiently for whoever would discover him next. This is what happens when we die: The Ghouls drag us to the altar, where Pregzt will be reborn.
After defeating ghostly avatar of Pregzt in swashbuckling combat, it’s up to Emily or Carnby to descend into the basement, where Alone in the Dark runs off the rails.
The Fall of the House of Usher
Horrible things dwell beneath Derceto, in ancient caverns carved by the horrific Chthun and crawled by the vile Deep Ones. This is where the familiar walls of a mansion give way to capital-W Weird locales, and where Alone in the Dark attempts to stake its climax in misguided action sequences.
Navigating the tunnels and platforming segments (you read that right) is a baffling ordeal, and a game whose controls are barely fit for a leisurely stroll through a museum is asking you do raid tombs, often under threat of attack from Deep Ones or bats.
This gives way to a darkened maze that, thankfully, is relatively brief. Beyond that is the final encounter with the Pregzt Tree. Guarded by Deep Ones and covered by Pregzt’s own deadly fireballs, the tree is where we perform our final actions… Placing the banishing talisman (bearing the Elder Sign) from a secret room on the altar to stop his reanimation, then throwing our lantern at the tree to set it — and Pregzt — on fire.
Without its load bearing profane deity, the cavern starts to crumble as Carnby or Emily escape, rising back through the basement and heading to the front door… Which no longer opens on certain death, but rather the sun rising over a Derceto that is freed from the evil influence of its master.
As our hero steps back out to the road, the car that brought him here wheels back up. They get inside, and take a closer look at the driver… Oh no, it’s a laughing zombie! The car speeds off over the horizon, showing that it’s possible to bridge The Call of Cthulhu and Goosebumps. It can’t be overstated how bizarre this ending is.
It’s shocking just how straightforward of a Lovecraft story Alone in the Dark is. The series will go to some strange places… a pirate cove, the wild west, and even Central Park… but to see it start here in legally-actionable territory put me off balance.
However, as a game, it’s strange enough to be a real surprising experience. It’s not a slave to any real convention, aside from the trappings of its narrative. The crude models of characters and enemies give the whole thing an otherworldly feel, especially because so much of it looks like The Muppets Take Innsmouth. The set pieces and instant-death gimmicks of the middle portion of the game come fast and frequent… and in a game where a purple tentacle monster attacks from the tub, you can never know exactly what lies around the corner.
The only unforgivable portion of the game is the tail end. It raises the stakes further than the house can cover, attempting to take advantage of the 3D world to mimic more action-heavy cinematic works.
All that said, Alone in the Dark is a worthy predecessor to the franchises we know and revere today. As a core idea and technical expression, it’s hard to imagine what would have come afterwards if Infogrames didn’t pave the way.