Way back when the graphic adventure genre was relatively new and ruled by games such as the King’s Quest and Leisure Suit Larry series, the concept of a survival horror game was an untouched subject area. There were games using a haunted house motif, such as Poltergeist, released in 1982 for the Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer or Uninvited, Infocom’s graphical text adventure released in 1986, but the game that set the gold bar standard and helped to inspire the flourishing of the entire subgenre was Infogrames’ 1992 classic PC game, Alone in the Dark.
Alone in the Dark was set in the late 1920’s, with gamers assuming the role of either private detective Edward Carnby or young heiress Emily Hartwood, who enter the sprawling Louisiana mansion, “Delcarto” in search of a piano supposedly stored in the attic. The house is reputed to be haunted, and it’s last owner, Ms. Hartwood’s uncle Jeremy, committed suicide in highly unusual circumstances. If that’s not creepy enough, after the player enters the mansion, the front doors slam shut without any help from mortal hands. Like any good actor in a teenage slasher flick, Edward (or Emily, depending on who the player chose), heads up the stairs to find the attic. And once they reach the attic, the game begins.
Alone in the Dark is a game that dabbles in the Cthulhu mythos. The horrific situations found within the game display their Cthulhulian influence, and even the mansion is discovered to be actually named after Shub-Niggurath, H.P. Lovecraft’s The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young. However, the creatures that Edward and Emily encounter are more standard fare (and are a mixed bag when it comes to frightening appearance), and do not possess the mind and world-shattering power of Lovecraftian monsters.
The atmosphere is aided by both creepy sound effects and a well-thought out musical score. For example floorboards creak as they’re walked on, and the character’s footsteps echo through the room as an eerie reminder that you’re the only human in the house. The music switches to a more aggressive melody when creatures appear, and returns to a sombre melody when they’ve been dispatched. I still have great gaming memories of hearing the strains of Strauss’ The Beautiful Blue Danube in the ballroom (you could put records in the phonograph there and see what happens).
Some people say that Alone in the Dark was the very first PC survival horror PC game using the Cthulhu Mythos as a theme, but most forget that there was another game published within the same time period that can also lay claim to that title. MicroProse published Magnetic Scrolls’ The Legacy: Realm of Terror in 1992, a game that was set in a haunted mansion, with bizarre Cthulhulian creatures to overcome. The two had similar concepts, but of the two, Alone in the Dark was the better game, so usually gets all the credit.
The game used a different style of graphic engine than gamers were used to. 2-D polygons (colored, not textured) were used to render 3-D objects in real-time, with very quick responses to whatever action the player attempted. These 3-D objects were then placed against standard pre-rendered backgrounds. The result was an impressive illusion that the entire game world was being rendered in three-dimensions. It also permitted unusual camera angles that could be quickly switched from one perspective to another on the fly, which is what Alone in the Dark is usually remembered for by those who played it.
Alone in the Dark did very well for Infogrames, and was released on multiple platforms, including MS-DOS in 1992, the NEC -PC9801 system in 1993, and the Panasonic 3D0 and Apple Macintosh systems in 1994. (It was also scheduled to be ported over to the Atari Jaguar system, but, alas, that project was canceled.) Its success resulted in a number of sequels, including Alone in the Dark 2 (released in 1993, and featuring another haunted mansion), and Alone in the Dark 3 (released in 1994 and sending the player to the Old West). The franchise was rebooted in 2001 with Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, where the player got to explore an entire island, and again in 2008, with Alone in the Dark, taking the series to the modern age.
The success of the original Alone in the Dark franchise gave the entire survival horror graphic adventure genre its birth. In fact, every time you start up a game of Left4 Dead 2, give thanks to the developers of the granddaddy of them all, Alone in the Dark!