Alone In The Dark Series Retrospective Part 1: Alone In The Dark

Alone In The Dark PC
Alone In The Dark PC

Insert Disk collects Alone In The Dark for the PC. Today’s retro game review is Alone In The Dark for the PC. This retro gaming classic is the focus of part 1 of the 4 part Insert-Disk Alone In The Dark Mini Series Where we will take a look back at Alone In The Dark, Alone In The Dark 2, Alone In The Dark 3, Jack In The Dark, The New Nightmare, Alone In The Dark 2005 and Alone In The Dark Illumination. Perfect for Halloween.

Back in 1992 this original Alone in the Dark game broke new ground in the survival horror game genre and is generally considered the grandfather of the genre. The creepy mansion, the inventory system, tank controls and a narrative that extended past the game and on to the physical elements of packaging made Alone in the Dark a cult classic.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review. You join today at the start of the Alone In The Dark Mini series. Over the next few episodes we’ll be revisiting the original Alone in the Dark Trilogy as well as the spin off game Jack In the Dark, The New Nightmare and we’ll also take a shorter look at the more recent attempts to reboot the franchise. It goes without saying that Alone in the Dark is a franchise that threw away many conventions of horror gaming and introduced others that are now staples of the genre. What fascinates me about the series is its spectacular fall from grace over the years. The series went from an acclaimed masterpiece original of the early 90’s right through to an utter embarrassment of a release in 2015 with Illumination. The full history of the series would take many hours to cover so instead I’ve tried to distil this series down in to just the key points for each major entry in the series.

So, here’s how the Alone in the Dark franchise developed over time:
Alone in the Dark 1992
Jack In the Dark 1993
Alone in the Dark 2 1993
Alone in the Dark 3 1994
Alone in the Dark 4 (The New Nightmare) 2001
Alone in the Dark 2008

For this first episode we will be concentrating on the first pressing of Alone in the Dark for the PC. It was 1992, a year that saw horror gaming grow up. The industry had already had horror themed games such as Haunted House, Sweet Home, Splatterhouse and a whole host of text based horror games such as The Lurking Horror and House of Death. Alone in the Dark was something new though, something different. It was our first steps in to what gamers now refer to as modern “Survival Horror”. Alone in the Dark was not only ground-breaking because of its more adult take on horror gaming but it was the first mainstream horror game to utilise 3D polygons. The game was ambitious and mould breaking. Gaming in the 80’s had always been driven by a legacy of arcade style games. It was a generation that understood the push for a quick fix, the high score and the extra man. Alone in the Dark took a completely different approach and created a world that immersed you in its subject matter. The game makes no bones about its influences by great gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. The game is littered with their take on horror and this extends to the packaging and presentation of the physical game.

If you’re a regular to the channel I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m very much a collector of the physical product. I’m not against emulation as it does have its place in gaming, particularly when it comes to preserving older game formats. However, emulation only ever tells part of the story. When it comes to games like Alone in the Dark a physical copy is mandatory in my opinion in understanding why the game is a true collectable. North America, Japan and much of Europe will recognise this image as the iconic Alone in the Dark game cover. In fact, this is actually the second edition of the game which is something some collectors may not be aware of. Today I’d like to show you an Alone in the Dark first edition release. This edition of the game is a treasure trove of gaming history and hides the true history of the games origins. Firstly is the “Virtual Dreams” title at the top of the cover. This was removed in subsequent releases. A part of gaming history that very much got buried after the first edition. The Virtual Dreams heading referred to a planned series of releases of horror and mystery, this series was ultimately cancelled though as Alone in the Dark became its own entity.

The main Alone in the Dark title appears much simpler on the first edition, appearing very much like the Word art feature that we all loved in MS Publisher. On the front cover you’ll notice a rather basic image of a mansion rather than the more stylised version on the second edition. The concept is similar though with Edward Carnby holding his lantern to illuminate the mansion. However, Edward himself is a little different from the second edition. This disconnect in character design also flows through to the rear of the box. Take a look at the screenshots of the game. The eagle eyed of you will notice that the polygon model for Edward himself is not the model used in the final release. The real in game Edward sports brown hair, a moustache and a few smaller model changes. Interestingly if you hang around in the game menus long enough you’ll find more evidence of the model swap of Edward from the beta versions of the game. These are details that really bring collecting to life. It’s clear that the lack-lustre game title font and mismatched character models were all bound up in a time constraint between game production and the marketing and release team. Personally I still enjoy Gilles Francescano’s original front cover image. In some ways the simpler image has more of a gothic feel. However, side by side I can see why later editions went for a more grand approach and it’s certainly more marketable on a shelf. Either way, I’ll leave you to decide on your favourite.

Inside the box is where the real magic happens though. The game was originally released on either 5 5 1/4 sized floppy disks or this edition with 4 3.5inch diskettes. The edition featuring the 5 1/4 inch disks is arguably the more valuable to collect. These come up for trade so rarely in the UK though that I haven’t found a definitive collectors guide price for them. You will also receive the Infogrames registration card and the 1993 Infogrames collection manual. My edition is all still intact and gives marketing material for the games. Interestingly the screenshots are a mixture of beta and final release. What’s really interesting here though is the “see Page 19 for demo disk” message at the bottom. Sure enough the rear of the collectors guide allows you to cut out a coupon and send away for the Alone in the Dark demo disk. Now I wonder, does anyone out there have one of these? I’ve never even see a photo of one so please get in contact in the message section if you have one. Demo disks have become a collecting goal in themselves in recent years.

It’s also good to see the specs here. Nice, you’re going to need a 386 processor to play this one, 640kb ram and a vga display for 256 colours. Of course there’s also the optional ad-lib or sound blaster cards if you actually want to hear any sound (remember this is optional though). Looking at these specs it’s terrifying to think how far technology has advanced in subsequent years. Poignant as well though that we only ever really needed a 386 processor to create an immersive horror experience. Game developers decades later still often fail at creating this same experience.

As standard there’s also a decent manual included. It has a super glossy cover and covers all the basics from combat to tips and troubleshooting. Next is one of the iconic feelies of the gaming world, the Blue Book. Sometimes referred to as the weapons manual by collectors. It’s a tiny book of 256 pages, each with two illustrations on each page. These range from weapons to gramophones. The purpose of the book was to act as in game security protection. On a password screen you would be asked to consult the book and enter the correct symbols. It’s another nice touch to make you feel part of the game world. Although highly collectable there is one more extra in the box that takes my first spot for rare supplementary items. The Mystery Examiner.
Interestingly Mystery is spelt “Mistery” here with an “Mi” rather than the correct spelling of “My”. This would be corrected in later releases in the series. This special edition of The Mystery examiner from 1924 has been passed on from the deceased Mr Jeremy Hartwood, Derceto Mansion, Largo Bay, Louisiana. The paper covers his apparent suicide and story surrounding the events at the Derceto Mansion.

This additional paper takes the gaming experience to the next level. Throughout the publication you will find advertisements for oil lamps, gramophones and pistols, all of which weave their way in to the in games narrative. This blurring of what’s real and in-game is a really well thought out strategy to draw the player in to Edward Carnby’s world. The paper also features a eulogy, a biography of H.P. Lovecraft, a scientific editorial on mental disorders and an extract of a novel from the late Mr Hartwood. Throughout each of these articles you can find a deeper meaning and clues as to the happenings around the mansion. This is real world detective work blended with fantasy horror. For a publication that is almost all doom and gloom there’s an ironic “Happy Event” section celebrating a child’s birth. I’m not certain on the full significance of this but my guess is that this was an in joke by the developers. There’s so much content in here we could easily fill a whole episode on the clues and links found within the pages. Finally the rear of the publication features an illustration by Jeremy Hartwood called “Beyond Reality”. This is pure Lovecraftian imagery as some sort of indescribable monster towers over a human (presumed to be Jeremy himself). In all, the contents of the box show a side of Alone in the Dark that many gamers rarely see. As our dependence on downloads grows I think that many of us have lost touch with what the original releases of games were really like. They were a spectacle in themselves. I appreciate that I’ve dedicated quite a portion of this episode to the physical elements of the game but I hope that it will help the collectors out there know what to look out for when tracking down the harder to find items.

So, on to the game itself. As much as I defend playing games on their original hardware I will be booting this game up through DOS BOX. Trying to configure the game on my modern hardware just didn’t work out well and running the game on a 386 led to issues with screen capture. However, DOS Box provides a fair compromise between emulation and real hardware. The start of Alone in the Dark is arguably one of the most iconic in horror gaming history. The claw at the window, the frogs in the road and the mansion itself. Everything about this introduction was cinematic whilst introducing us to the environment. Life after Alone in the Dark would never be quite the same again for gamers. The game allows you to select between private investigator Edward Carnby or niece to deceased, Emily Hartwood. Edward is there under the pretence of finding an antique piano in the attic whilst Emily is at the same piano as she believes it contains a hidden letter regarding the true nature of Jeremy Hartwoods apparent suicide. It’s not exactly Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine but both character models serve their purpose. Things quickly take a turn for the worst in the mansion as creepy things begin to go bump in the night. Some of these events can be avoided. In this example you can block a window early on to prevent an invading monster from gaining entry. This eliminated the need to fight it. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that this creates different story paths but it does demonstrate early on how your actions within the mansion can change your play through.

This brings us on to the fighting mechanic. Each character can attack, it’s a sign now though that the game has aged somewhat. The response time is very slow as Edward awkwardly lashes out at enemies. Having not played this one for a while I was surprised just how many issues there were with the controls in general. Throughout the mansion you will uncover various notes that drive the narrative. In addition there’s also the now well tried and tested item gathering exercise. You’ll find oil lamps, weapons, medicine and puzzle specific items. One issue here is the inventory system, access to it is easy and using the items is also reasonably well thought out. The issue is that you can’t easily judge how much you can carry that can add frustration. Rather than just having a simple number of slots to fill the inventory limit is allegedly calculated by weight. This can leave the player with some difficult decisions on what to carry and where to drop items on a first play through. I’m not going to be too harsh on this though as this is the title that first made the now ever present link between survival horror and inventory space.
Alone in the Dark relies heavily on puzzle solving and is essentially a set of fetch quest puzzles with action sequences thrown in and all set to a disturbing backdrop of Lovecraftian horror.
Some of the sudden appearances of the monsters are clearly inspired by other media such as the Evil Dead movies, the journal system puts me in mind of Harker’s diary from Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Add in to this some excellent sound design and you have yourself a game that still manages to conjure a disturbing play through experience at times. The rather stiff controls only add to the tension and fear.

It’s important to remember, we’d never seen or played a game quite like this before so the fear of the unknown was very much alive. As the game progresses it gets very dark in tone. The jagged polygons just serve to emphasise this. The puzzles get more abstract, the combat more challenging and the platforming more precise. The game slowly drip feeds you in to a darker and darker place with one of horror game history’s most iconic game finales. As such this is one of the games that many horror gamers want in their collection. It really is the grandfather of modern survival horror.

For a complete near mint boxed copy expect to pay anywhere between £30-£40 or around $40-$60 in the US. A word of warning though, this is a title that is likely to only pick up in value over time. Alone in the Dark has already secured its place in gaming history and complete undamaged copies get rarer as time passes. Alone in the Dark did spark a line of sequel games and movies. In my opinion none of them ever really captured the same interest I had for the original title. The original Hartwood mansion and dark gothic novel roots somehow got watered down in subsequent releases in to a more generic action series. For my collecting tastes this is a must have game, the pedigree of the first edition, the 3D polygon innovation of the genre and the legacy of Alone in the Dark make it a truly important title in gaming history.

Undoubtedly Resident Evil and Silent Hill owe a lot to the jaunty camera angles, inventory system and mansion setting of this truly trend setting game. As much as I admire the game, Alone in the Dark did feel dated when I played through recently. The graphics, control system and overall feel haven’t all aged as well as I had hoped. Quite frankly though I don’t care because collecting Alone in the Dark is like owning the blueprints to the survival horror genre itself. The formula may have been improved on and refined over time but Alone in the Dark is, and always will be the tipping point that opened the floodgates of horror to a generation of gamers. With 1992 coming to an end and Alone in the Dark claiming overnight cult status a sequel was quickly approved. The game engine was written already as were many of the wireframe assets so a sequel was not really a question, it was inevitable. Join me in part 2 of this Alone in the Dark mini series as I take a look back at Alone in the Dark 2 to see where the horror went next.

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