A lot is often made about the juggernauts of survival horror. Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and newer franchises like Amnesia and Outlast – all of which are more than worthy of the praise they get, but a series that seems to escape being mentioned a lot lately is Alone in the Dark. This is interesting because Alone in the Dark precedes almost every other game that we would call survival horror. The original game’s art style of polygonal foregrounds and more detailed pre-rendered backgrounds is one that might ring a bell for fans of the original few Resident Evil games, but again, Alone in the Dark preceded Resident Evil by several years. With that level of innovation for the horror genre, which was barely even its own genre at that point, you would expect that the game would receive several sequels and live on as a timeless classic survival horror franchise. Well, you’d be right about that but also wrong at the same time. The last game to release in the series was in 2015. Not exactly an eternity from now, but six years is still six years. You rarely see successful franchises go more than 3 or 4 years without a new entry, let alone six. So what happened? Why would a series that set the bar for its genre, and possibly deserves most of the credit for inventing its genre, go so long without a new game and sink into obscurity as much as this series has? What the hell happened to Alone in the Dark?
To quickly recap, in 1992 Alone in the Dark was released on MS-DOS and a couple other popular PCs of that time. The plot consisted of an old mansion, the mysterious apparent suicide of its previous owner, and an old piano that exists in the house, which is the initial object of interest in the story as it is wanted by several parties and it supposedly quite valuable in a number of ways. Of course, the plot takes plenty of turns from there once the monsters and mysteries of the mansion reveal themselves though, and it was in every way a precursor to what we know now as the survival horror genre. Frederick Raynal directed the project after being inspired from his work on a port of a different game, and the inspiration definitely shows.
The static backgrounds with 3D characters and objects on top of them was a great way to set a cinematic tone as well as work within the very tight technical limitations of the time. Its story was also a huge step up from most games of the time that had little to no story – but instead were focused on fast-paced arcade action. Alone in the Dark certainly had some of that but it was also a deliberately slow burn that took it’s time with its players and relied on atmosphere and context to drive the experience. This was perhaps the game’s most misunderstood yet strongest quality. Despite the game releasing with a fair amount of clunky animations and a handful of bugs that the team simply ran out of time to deal with, Alone in the Dark would receive almost universal acclaim from all major review outlets. Some complaints about the slow movement and tedious combat certainly cropped up, but overall, the game was a hit with critics and gamers alike, and would get two more sequels to complete the trilogy.
The second game certainly had a lot to live up to, but within a year it would hit the market and Alone in the Dark 2 kept much of the gameplay intact, although with much more of an emphasis on combat this time around. It seems that Infrogrames had taken some of the few criticisms of the last game to heart, and were very focused on delivering a better combat system this time around. It didn’t leave the story and atmosphere behind though, with P.I. Edward Carnby returning as well as plenty of nods to Lovecraftian storytelling with plenty of pirate ghosts and mysterious deaths. While the 3DO and Saturn ports struggled to keep up, the PC and PS1 versions were pretty decent with more texture detail on the polygonal surfaces and a noticeably higher frame-rate than the previous game. Alone in the Dark 3 would leave the floppy disks behind and release on CD-ROM for PCs.
This opened the door for more storage space, and with that, higher quality art and sound. This potential wasn’t used by very much, but it was still the best looking and sounding game in the series. Also, having voiced characters was nice. The story, however, would take place in the wild west and put Edward Carnby up against cowboy ghosts and all-in-all it was a bit lame compared to the previous two. It was certainly a functional mystery game with the best gameplay the series had seen, but the scare factor unfortunately didn’t follow suit with the upgrades the technical aspects of the game saw. Perhaps that is why the series immediately went on ice after the third game, perhaps not, but After part 3, it would be a very lonely seven years for the series before the 4th game would show up in an entirely new generation of gaming.
The PS2/GameCube/Xbox era was and still is known for lots of fantastic horror games. Everything from the Silent Hill series, to Fatal Frame, to Resident Evil and more were all hitting their strides during this time, and now that Infogrames had become a publisher, they wanted in. So, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare would release in May of 2001 on multiple platforms. The PS2, Dreamcast, Windows PCs, and even the PS1 would all see the game on their platforms… eventually… (we’ll get to that) but it was actually pretty good despite having a new development team behind the wheel. Carnby and his revolver both return, as well as the choice of protagonists that the series was known for by then. It also had the somewhat slower, more deliberate gameplay it was known for as well, which was certainly more in style now than it was back in the early 90’s, but even still, compared to a game like Silent Hill 2, Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare looked pretty average and forgettable as those games came out over the next couple of years. The fact that the PS2 version of the game didn’t even see an official release in the US also didn’t help things. Putting this game on PS2 and in the US was probably the exact best place to put it, yet that release was cancelled. It didn’t even see a PS2 version in Japan. This undoubtedly hurt the game in what was already going to be a very competitive space.
The trend of slightly underwhelming gameplay and scattered launches would continue with the full-on reboot of the series in the next generation of consoles, although not nearly as bad. While different regions all had different launch dates, it would eventually end up on everything, everywhere. The game, simply named “Alone in the Dark”, would change up the gameplay quite a bit with a more action/adventure-style of camera control and more real-time abilities like being able to break down barriers or set things on fire. Neat ideas, but they didn’t add up to much given that the game was pretty boring outside of that. It certainly wasn’t a bad game, but it just didn’t do enough with its ideas to make enough of a splash to stay noticed in a world that had almost entirely forgotten about the series. Now that the game had changed hands again, and ended up with Atari publishing it, it’s conceivable that it was just too far from the minds that created the original to really hold on to that spirit – or evolve it in a meaningful way.
The final nail in the coffin however would be 2015’s Alone in the Dark: Illumination. With yet another new team behind the wheel, this game would feature Ted Carnby, a direct descendent of Edward and 3 other characters in an up-to-four-player online shooter game. This again, wasn’t a terrible idea on paper but it failed to live up to anything established by the series or even the new genre of which it so desperately wanted to be a part – the cooperative shooter. That’s not to say there aren’t some bright spots though. The gunplay is nice and snappy and the graphics and presentation are serviceable. It just fell short of really competing with other similar games that were out at the time. Given the other games that you could buy in 2015, there just wasn’t a very compelling case to be made for Illumination, and with that, there likely isn’t much of a case to be made for a new game in the series.
Outside of going completely back to basics, to the spirit of the original and making an authentic, cerebral horror game with that special Lovecraftian twist, it’s hard to say what a new game could or should be. It’s certainly still an IP that many people recognize, but brand awareness is only half the battle, you have to also make a compelling game that gives people a reason to play it instead of something else, and that is what the series has been missing for arguably 20 years now. Once they can figure that part out, then I’d love to see a new one, but as it stands, this series belongs in the dark for now.
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