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The Backseat Game Designer: Alone In The Dark

This is the addendum to my Alone In The Dark Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing Alone In The Dark yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot. These Backseat Game Designers pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game so much better. Hey, who knows, maybe some game designers'll be Googling around and find it inspiring. Or maybe it'll amuse my friends, anyway. Here's all the news about Alone In The Dark that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

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Personal Reactions

Alone In The Dark was a game that was really fun and novel at the time it came out. I don't believe I had ever played a computer game that scared me before, and so when the first flying monster came unexpectedly crashing through the window at me as I peacefully explored the attic, that was something new. The tension evoked by giving the main character limited ammunition and health points, thus pushing players to find other ways to escape or avoid some of the foes, was groundbreaking-- I can still remember how proud of myself I was for avoiding one early fight by shutting a door on a zombie in time to save myself a couple of bullets. The 3D movement interface was pioneering at the time too, although I wasn't too impressed by that even then (I remember being frustrated trying to get my character to run.)

When I played the game again in 2010, though, I didn't really get anything out of it other than a few nostalgic head-rushes. Partially that's because the game is riddled with so many archaic flaws that it's hard to deal with anymore-- besides the problem with the running mechanism (which is just as frustrating as it was 18 years ago), there are Infocom-style inventory management aggravations, awkwardly shifting camera angles, and harshly unforgiving gameplay. (Unless you're using a walkthrough, it's impossible to avoid frequent dying and reloading, for example. Instant-deathtraps are scattered without warning in random places in the mansion, and the only way to know that one hallway is safe and another one will kill you, or that one book is necessary to read and another will kill you, is to try it and reload. More seriously, if you don't conserve your lamp oil carefully during the early game, it is possible to run out during the end sequence and die, meaning you have to go back to the beginning and replay nearly the entire game. That was considered acceptable game design at the time, believe it or not.)

But there's another reason that Alone In The Dark isn't too interesting anymore, and it's a good one: more recent computer games have learned from it. A classic game like Myst is still special today because other puzzle-adventure games have basically failed to replicate its magic. But tons of games produced since 1992 have successfully delivered the same kind of suspenseful mood and moments of unexpected fright that Alone In The Dark was the first to engage me with. The game's emphasis on avoiding or escaping from enemies rather than gaining levels and slaying them all spawned a new "survival-horror" subgenre, and there have been dozens of games like this since. And since 3D movement and creepy monster animations have come a long, long way in the past 18 years, Alone In The Dark's innovations on those fronts have fallen by the wayside.

So in short, Alone In The Dark was an important and extremely successful game; it pushed the envelope of computer gaming and had a profound influence on games to follow. Going back to it now, though, is a difficult exercise to appreciate-- a little like watching "Steamboat Willie" and keeping in mind the historical fact that synchronized soundtracks were a new thing in the 1920's. If you're interested in the history of computer/video games or you have nostalgic memories of Alone In The Dark, then by all means boot up DOSBox and go for it (10,000 cycles seems to be ideal.) Plenty of people do own copies of "Steamboat Willie," after all!

Best Puzzle: In truth, there really were not many interesting puzzles in this game. I kind of liked distracting the zombies with the pot of soup.
Lamest Puzzle: Struggling not to run out of inventory space at a critical moment was kind of a drag... felt like an Infocom game from the early '80's.
Best Plot Twist: There weren't any plot twists in this game, exactly; but I'll give honorable mention to the creepy cutscene after you die, where you see a zombie sacrificing your character's body on the altar. Brrr!
Lamest Plot Twist: None really.
High Point: Walking into the bathroom and having the snot scared out of me by the purple jellyfish in the bathtub. That qualifies as one of those gaming moments I will probably remember forever. :-)
Low Point: Trying to run up to the altar in the final sequence before being killed. I lost track of how many times I had to reload that stupid sequence before the "run" mode happened to work well enough for me to accomplish it.

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