If all you know about Alone in the Dark is the execrable 2005 Uwe Boll film, I know this will be difficult given what a toxic atrocity that movie is, but trust me: 1992s Alone in the Dark is a wonderful, scary, atmospheric classic that shares nothing with the film other the title and character names. If you’ve never seen the film, let me just stop you here: don’t, but definitely play the game.
I first played Alone in the Dark on my Amiga 500. Having read a number of Lovecraft stories, I was thrilled to find a game that sought to emulate the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu Mythos. As crude as it all may seem now, the 3D models against the beautiful pixel art backgrounds and the fixed camera angle cinematic stylings blew my mind. I suppose that just as it’s hard to believe that audiences were truly scared by (the wonderful) Browning’s Dracula and Whale’s Frankenstein, playing Alone in the Dark on release was scary – there was a very real sense of playing a horror film. The surprise early monster encounter was a legitimate jump-scare, and the first zombie, arms outstretched, slowly creeping into the room, genuinely frightened me. Certainly, technological progress and games that built upon Alone in the Dark‘s foundation have blunted these experiences considerably, but this is where 3D survival horror started, and it still has a dark power about it that makes it worth playing even today.
I never finished it back in 1992. I found it tremendously difficult, and much of that is the limited resources and adventure game puzzles combined with a clunky-even-for-92 interface. Any Resident Evil vet will recognize the tank controls, but that’s not the only challenge. In order do anything, one must navigate a sub-menu of commands and inventory items, and then, press the action button. Aiming is pure guesswork for the most part, and combat is a fumbling mess. Like adventure games of old, there’s places you can just outright die merely by exploring, and you can find yourself in a situation where you can’t finish the game due to expended resources. This is an old game, so one must expect a certain archaic essence.
So, yes: sometimes, this game can be a real pain to play. But as I said above, it’s very much worth playing today. It’s still a wonderful evocation of horror and of Lovecraft in particular. There’s a sense of urgency and tension, aided by the early game surprises that can end in death if you don’t act fast. The very first room can result in a death in a minute or less from a toothy, avian nightmare if you don’t take certain actions. Obnoxious to be sure, but also, surprising, scary, a sense that anything can happen, and a subversion of expectations – this is what horror is all about. The music is effectively chilling, and the primitive sound effects are still eerie – I’ll never forget the footstep noises, or the smash of the upstairs window. There’s a number of in-game texts that are pretty darn cool Lovecraftian tales that are still worth reading. Once you come to grips with the game and the interface and as long as you save often, it’s really not that difficult, and if you get stuck, there’s many a walkthrough on the internet to help you out. While Alone in the Dark was certainly surpassed technologically, it’s still a wonderful experience I highly recommend. It’s available on GOG for purchase for a cheap price along with it’s sequels, so if you’re looking for a trip to Lovecraft country, give it a go. It’s one of the best adventure games ever made, one of the best horror games ever made, and it’s also a fascinating stepping stone in the development of survival horror – if you want to see where it all started to come together, this is it.