Alone in the Dark. (I * Motion's three-dimensional action game) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Olafson
You'll want to sleep with a night-light on after playing this scary action-adventure game.
I sense that some line has been crossed; I can't leave now--even if I wish to. Even the most innocent volume on the bookshelf fills me with disquiet. A rocking horse seems to move on its own, and I don't like the look of that trapdoor.
I finally spot the piano in a distant, shadowed corner of the attic and am on my way toward it when I notice a suggestion of movement outside the window: something tattered and ungainly fluttering in the air. A wrecked flag, perhaps, I imagine, though I recall no flagpole. I look more closely. It's not a flag. The fluttering form looks back at me. It has teeth--many teeth. It's almost at the window. Help! The stairs! The stairs!
I wish a thousand blessings upon anyone trapped in the wonderful, terrifying place that is Alone in the Dark. This three-dimensional adventure game from the French company I * Motion is the first computer game I've seen that has fear running through it like an electric current. Raw emotion is a rare enough quality in real life, and its appearance in this virtual world definitely defines Alone as a breakthrough product.
A line has indeed been crossed: Alone is the first of a raft of fright bytes that were to hit the market in the first half of 1993. But it isn't the first of the breed, of course. We have Accolade's now-niter-encrusted role-playing game Don't Go Alone, and Horror-soft's two Elviras and the quasi Elvira, Waxworks. But there's a delicate line between horror and terror: One is as easy as turning your eyelids inside out; the other is the art of setting you on pins and needles. The Elvira games may make you recoil at their carnage, but they aren't genuinely scary.
Alone is genuinely frightening without ever being grisly. When you run from its horrible creatures, you'll do so in shuddering terror. The first time you open a door and find something unspeakable waiting for you on the other side, something which proceeds to advance on you with arms outstretched, you'll feel a genuine shock.
The game blurs the line between actually being there and being at home, safely in front of a computer. Play it in the dark for maximum effect. Even writing about it two weeks after playing gives me the creeps. It's that good.
The adventure is based on the works of the author H. P. Lovecraft, who penned wonderful horror and fantasy stories back in the early part of the century. They aren't the best stories ever written, but they are responsible for creating the foundation for a wonderful cosmology called Cthulhu Mythos, which postulates an ancient monstrous race of creatures lying in wait, creatures who can be gated into this world, invariably with disastrous consequences for the gate opener.
As Alone opens, the gate is wide open and swinging. You're cast as either Edward Carnby, who is a private detective, or Emily Hartwood, who is the niece of the last tenant--who killed himself. You'll quickly find that the vague agendas found in the documentation have little bearing on the task at hand. In no time you'll be exploring, fighting for your life, solving puzzles, reading books, and enjoying a good deal of stimulating action-adventuring.
You get to explore the three-story house and its underpinnings, and they are delightful hybrid of filled polygons and bitmaps. They're as solid and real a place as we've visited this side of Ultima Underworld. Actually, it is not all that dark in this world, and you're hardly alone. The house comes fully equipped with a staff of splendid terrors ranging from the mundane (like spiders and rats) to the completely outrageous (such as a rabbit with a ferocious Tyrannosaurus rex head).
When you begin your adventure, you're armed with nothing more than your wits and a passing knowledge of karate. But if you're nosy enough, you'll eventually come across more conventional weapons. Combat is fun even when your weapon of choice doesn't quite do what you had hoped. The aiming is fun, and the enemy's recoil and the fine mist of blood are nice rewards when you do make contact. And your opponent's collpase and disintegration into a hail of polygon circles--to the distant crackle of thunder--are truly satisfying. (I prefer to play the game with the theme music turned off, but the sound effects and spot musical effects are quite superb.)
Quite different from that of any other game, the perspective in Alone is as if you're watching your character from a trapdoor just above and to the side. What's especially nice is that the view shifts, sometimes a number of times, depending on where you're standing. Finding the different views is fun and lends a sense of the house as an environment rather than as a series of snapshots. This haunted house really seems to occupy space, inside and out: Fights started in one room can spill through a doorway into another, and the program takes up over 5.5MB of hard disk space.
Alone is very easy to control. The keyboard interface is almost as transparent as the game's ethereal critters. Characters move around smoothly and realistically on a 33-MHz 80486. You simply hold the space bar to invoke your current mode (Fight, Open/Search, Close, or Push), and hit Enter to change it or inspect your inventory. The commands available are keyed to the designated object, and it's easy to change gears on the fly.
You'll quickly acquire a thorough sense of being a real character inhabiting a real place. It's a quality that seeps into the opening copy protection (picking the game's 3-D objects from a book) and is sustained into the save-game mechanism (each save is accompanied by miniature screen captures).
Alone is very much of a piece; it even possesses a properly apocalyptic, roof-coming-down Lovecraftian ending. And when the game's over, delightfully, it's not quite over. You'll still need to make your way back up to more civilized surroundings and out the front door. Since all the unearthly critters have been pacified, this is a perfect opportunity for unbridled exploration. As you play, you'll discover lots of books and documents that are useful but not exactly essential in the solution. It's easy to overlook them when you're running for your life. (Save your game anyway; a couple of books have decidedly nasty properties.) Now's your time to enjoy them.
At the same time, Alone's very consistency of tone makes doubly disconcerting the occasional hiccup in the program engine. For instance, while your character may be standing immediately in front of a cabinet, both of his arms extend to the left of it when you move to open it. Likewise, toward the end of the adventure, when you have to explore a decent-sized maze, the game suddenly abandons its multiple camera angles and adopts an overhead perspective similar to that used in games like LucasArts' Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It's a bit jarring, and it's unnecessary; the designers at I * Motion might have had a bit more respect for the purity of their otherwise impeccable creation. But these complaints are a small exception rather than the rule.
I truly had a fantastic time playing this game--so fantastic, in fact, that I not only finished the adventure but also went back a second time to see if I had missed anything. And the morning after I finished playing it, after a restless night of dark and unremembered dreams, I thought twice every time I had to open a door.
Alone in the Dark has been described as "a poor man's 7th Guest." We should all be so poor! This game is a triumph of the spirit--in more ways than one.