As I've grown as a gamer, I rarely get disappointed anymore by a game not meeting expectations upon release. It's an important lesson we all have to learn at some point. As a personal historical note, that’s what Alone in the Dark (’08) left me with – to responsibly anticipate instead of put my undying faith in a game’s quality before proving itself. As a part of public gaming history, Alone in the Dark has taken on legendary status of bad game singularity – broken in the most fundamental ways that would prevent the game from being playable in the most rudimentary sense to the point that Eden Games inserted a failsafe that allows you to skip sections you get stuck on. I certainly felt that it was a disaster taking it home the midnight of its release, starting it up with a head full of hopes only to find out that Alone in the Dark was a shoddy, poorly implemented, poorly written shite storm. And then… the driving section… St. Peter, Mighty Cthulhu, Flying Sea Serpent of the Seventh Moon of Neptune, the driving section. I wasn’t sad to let that copy go, and many others shared my sentiment.
Alone in the Dark is easily my greatest disappointment of the seventh console generation. For all that seemed to be going right from the outside, there was so much wrong that its failure was inevitable. This disappointment has been a heavy cloud that has hung on my experience as a gamer for six years. I’ve grown a lot as a gaming enthusiast since then, so when I started thinking about this project, Alone in the Dark seemed like the perfect candidate for a retrial, even if the thought of dealing with the game’s car physics shook me to my soul’s anus. Soul-anus shaking aside, the two important questions to pose is what of Alone in the Dark’s disastrous package make it such a historically derided game, and can anything of value be taken from it outside of what not do ? In this analysis, there be spoilers, but trust me, it's no big deal. It should also be noted that the version I am analyzing is the Xbox 360 version, so the gameplay updates from Inferno are not being considered. I wanted my experience to be the closest it could be back in 2008 when I first picked up the game.
Interview w/ Nour Pollini, E3, 2006.
Yet another franchise doing the reboot approach, Alone in the Dark opens with Edward Carnby – consistent protagonist of the series – waking up with… urgh… amnesia, embroiled in some cult shenanigans that threaten to unleash ultimate evil. Edward, accompanied by his shoe-horned love interest Sarah, must regain his memory and unravel an ancient conspiracy underneath Central Park. While the set-up is pretty standard, Alone in the Dark does have the advantage of treating itself as more of a horror adventure than a straight-up survival horror game. It can be scary, but its strategy is to shoot more for atmosphere and thrills, so this sort of story can be an effective way to include supernatural horror elements in an adventure story of secrets and mystery, not unlike Indiana Jones and its ilk.
But Alone in the Dark is a complete failure as a story, told with such broad strokes and, to borrow a phrase, “cinematic shorthand,” that it registers about as deep as a bead of sweat in a gnat’s taint. In reference to an Indiana Jones movie, I’d say Alone in the Dark ranks below Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in storytelling prowess. And you may say that a comparison between game and movie is void on its own merits, but the game invites the comparison, right down to the DVD inspired menu, not to mention Pollini's interview where she discusses "movie structure" and using the "season format to maintain the interest of the story throughout the game." (1:34) Interestingly enough, the script for the game is credited to Lorenzo Carcaterra, writer of the controversial book Sleepers, best known for its 1996 film adaptation. Having never read any of his other works, I can't really comment on whether Alone in the Dark is representational of his work at large, but what I can say is that he either must not cared about writing for a video game, or thinks that relationships between men and women hinge upon embarrassing, irritating dialogue.
The greatest failing of Alone in the Dark’s story is that much of its emotional weight is put upon the relationship budding between Edward and Sarah as opposed to the cult conspiracy, and what’s supposed to be this adult romance is insultingly lacking and pretty much derails the entire narrative experience. The two meet soon after Edward wakes up in the crumbling hotel, escaping together to Central Park where Sarah seems oddly compelled to assist Edward in his quest to save the world. Admittedly, it’s not impossible that a person when confronted with the end of the world would step up and do what had to be done, but you learn nothing about her that helps contextualize anything about her actions or her behavior. It’s never made clear why she loves Edwards outside of his rugged manly awesomeness and ability to throw bottles in slow motion, nor is it made clear why Edward loves her. We learn nothing about her as a character that’s worth loving. She enjoys complaining about people who save her and utilizing bitchy banter Carcaterra mistook for charming. Seriously, the woman tells an ancient self-mutilated man with his eyes sewn shut that she’s going to kick him in the balls. Just... just no, Alone in the Dark.
*HURK* Sorry, threw up on my goatee a little.
I don’t mean to imply that Sarah is the only one at fault here; the game doesn’t really give you a whole lot of insight into who Edward Carnby is either or why she should love him. As you learn about Edward’s past, you find out that he was a paranormal detective from the early 20th century who disappeared, marginally tying his roots to previous Alone in the Dark games. A man you meet named Theophile Paddington, who appears much older than Edward, turns out to be a former student of Edward who became caught up in seeking the Philosopher’s Stone which Edward had taken into possession, unintentionally becoming immortal as a result. That’s all fine and well - magic and demons and immortality and all that - but there’s nothing consistent with Edward’s backstory and his behavior.
The way Edward is written demonstrates nothing of a detective, a teacher, not even a gym instructor. The guy is essentially a hard-boiled cop who shoots first and then shoots again because questions are for girls and girls are gross, ew. Just listen to this witty retort Carnby has ready for this demonic entity!
Nothing about the guy screams particularly intelligent – the pieces of his past are essentially spoon fed to him rather than intellectually acquired. Sarah is the one playing detective, off-screen, as she texts you plot updates. In this interpretation, Carnby is just another tough guy action hero who owns a Glock and can jump out of moving cars. And as bad as Sarah’s romantic repartee can be, Edward’s is even worse, ranging from vaguely misogynistic – like telling her she’s “beautiful when she’s quiet” – to directly physically threatening. In the beginning of Episode 3 when the two are parting ways, Edward threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t stay with Dr. Hartford. Truly this budding romance shall rival the likes of Wuthering Heights! I totally appreciate that antagonistic relationships can sprout into love (see 1970’s Love Story), but Carnby is no one to love with his growly veneer and shallow tough guy mannerisms.
Funny enough, I found myself thinking how much this interpretation of Edward Carnby made me think of Max Payne, right down to the voice acting. I researched the voice actor for Edward, only to find out that it really is James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne. Upon discovering that, the similarities between the way McCaffrey talks in Alone in the Dark and Max Payne 3 are intensely similar. Payne is certainly an archetype of noir bad ass, and Eden Games truly wants Carnby to be this sort of character just looking at the way the character’s dialogue is written. So how could you not cast McCaffrey since his voice is from the archetype of video game manly toughness? The main difference between the two is that Payne – for being a singularity of the tough guy image – feels much more complex and tragic. Carnby is… not complex. He only has the aesthetics of noir complexity: aggressive comebacks, shooting in slow motion, McCaffrey’s voice, etc. It almost feels like Alone in the Dark is an unintentional sequel to The Fall of Max Payne where Max Payne gets amnesia and discovers he’s on a mission to defeat Satan.
*Side note: I love how all of the promotional artwork of Edward Carnby is way better than how Carnby looks in the game. What the hell?
Oh, yes, there’s a spoiler for you. Satan’s the bad guy. That’s who the cult wants to summon. Satan. Why? To what end? What person would assume that Satan would give them power as opposed to having their inner-being sodomized by a maypole? The villains aren’t a part of a doom cult or anything. They’re your stereotypical adventure story bad guys who want ultimate power. So the motivation for summoning Satan seems to be because… well, what’s more generically evil than the Devil? Again, this ties back into the broad strokes of the story, so desperate to feel big that it just puts the most cliché bigness it can think of – random passionate love! Angry detectives! SATAN!
But worse than all these clichés is the game’s endings, a good one and a bad one, both which are bad. In the bad ending, Edward becomes the vehicle for Satan to salt the Earth. In the good ending, Satan possesses Sarah instead, which stops him... somehow... Carnby leaving her standing at the gate to hell, talking about how he’s “used to being alone.” IN THE DARK! So what’s the message here? That it’s okay for Sarah to be possessed by the universe’s most evil entity because she did it for love? Love for Edward Carnby, a guy who she met in an elevator just hours ago and even fewer hours ago threatened to shoot her? She would’ve been better off just dying in the hotel at the beginning of the game! Even if this ending was set up for a sequel, it’s an incredibly unsatisfying ending that in no way reflects the tone of the narrative, other than it being bad like the rest of the story. I realize I’ve belabored the point, but Alone in the Dark’s story is so poorly realized that it boggles the mind with its fantastic, epic awfulness.
Interview wTodd Seplian, NA Re-publishing producer, 2008. (Posted by GGLWire)
I haven’t even touched on the gameplay, which in itself is a Master’s thesis in terrible execution and disastrous design decisions. And forgive me as I explain, because there are so many problems that it may start getting unnecessarily complex. Playing in both first and third-person, the game demands that you not just pick which style you like the most, but be able to successfully navigate either mode. You can only shoot your gun freely in first-person, and you can only melee or throw things in third-person (which then allows you to shoot in third). Being in first-person for many encounters is pointless due to the fact that the only way many enemies die is by being set on fire; you can make fire bullets to kill smaller creatures, but they must be fired into Humanz (HumanZ??? Really, Carcaterra?) body “fissures” which just isn’t a viable option unless desperate or lucky. So why not just stay in third-person through most of the game? Because navigating in third is crippled due to Eden Games assigning melee attacks to the right analog stick, meaning that the left analog controls both Carnby’s movements and the camera. In first-person, the game controls like a normal and clunky FPS, so sometimes it’s either more convenient or absolutely necessary to move like this when a fixed camera makes it impossible for you to get a bearing on how exactly you’re supposed to be guiding Edward.
Not pictured above: you pulling your hair out.
Then there is the inventory system and combining items. The idea seems straight-forward enough; a la Resident Evil 4 cache case, Edward looks down into his jacket to reveal his inventory, allowing the player to directly choose items and experiment with combinations. Though I don’t totally get why this was such an important gameplay feature that the cover of the freaking game shows Carnby taking shit out of his jacket, this could have all been immersive enough and functional in theory. In practice, Eden Games jacks the whole thing up by giving the player an aggressively limited inventory. You have a gun and a flashlight, two essentials that always take up space in the center of your inventory. In the left side are your clerical items – batteries, bandages, tape, and cloth rags – while the right is for bottles and cans of spray, medical or otherwise, up to four. This set up is fine at first, but as the game goes, two other items become mandatory for the left side of your jacket, not to mention that you’re going to want another of those slots for your ammo box, so the time spent managing what your immediate and long-term needs are begins to become overwhelming. I suppose this is why it’s on the box – inventory management is one of the most time consuming parts of the experience.
Inventory management, intentional or not, is also one of the greatest threats of Alone in the Dark, due mostly to its real-time occurrence which leaves Carnby open for attack. Combat is made challenging enough for a multitude of reasons: the fact that the enemies can only die from fire, and the fact that you’re dealing with crippled movement from a control scheme utilizing a single analog stick for camera and movement because they wanted you to hit things with the other. But being prepared for combat is the most vital element. If you get ambushed by a group of Humanz and you don’t have a decent amount of explosive bottles, bug spray to light, or fire bullets in your gun, the chance of you getting that together is going to be contingent on whether the A.I. can figure out that it’s supposed to be advancing on you to ragdoll your dopey ass, which is a pretty good likelihood. Hot-keying your combat combinations is essential, but that’s a mess too, because you access your hotkeys with the d-pad, just as you do with looking into your inventory, and on instinct there will be times you go for the d-pad and hit down to look into your jacket.
But worse of all, the driving sections. Yes, there is lots of driving in Alone in the Dark, and though getting around Central Park in a car isn’t too bad, the driving sections themselves are insufferable in their trial-and-error execution. Every car has the same physics, which is fine enough just for the sake of consistency I suppose, but every car feels lighter than air. The first time I played, I ran over a bump in the road that rocketed my car into the stratosphere! It was after beating the first car section in 2008 that I decided there was no way I would subject myself to more of that. Sure enough, there are two more driving sections in the game, one timed, and one with enemiez pulling your car around and fucking with the broken physics even more. If Alone in the Dark were a body that had fallen off of a cliff, its car physics would be an arm that snapped off so hard it jettisoned back up the mountain.
So, yes, Alone in the Dark is a mess. Sloppy – hammy – irritating. These are all fine words for the game, and critical opinion certainly captured these elements when the game released. Alone in the Dark deserved it. But you know what it also deserves? It deserves a second chance.
Alone in the Dark is a special game not seen often in AAA gaming development today. Honestly, I can’t help but admire it, kind of like the way you admire something like Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance. It’s a game that dreams of being big and emotional and intense, but it tries so spectacularly poorly that its cultural face-plant demonstrates the scope of its own intent. In Seplian's interview, he discusses the immersive qualities the developers intended, and it is clear through their choices of gameplay that the intent and will was there. Alone in the Dark wanted it all – to be that game that redefines a genre, much like Resident Evil 4 did three years earlier. But Eden Games just couldn’t make it work. And instead of doing what Two Worlds did and embarrassingly wink to the audience every once and awhile, Alone in the Dark plays the cheese with desperate straightness, making its narrative even more delightful.
And though the controls can be quite a handle to get ahold of, they do eventually yield to a certain degree of understanding, and you get used to what James Rolfe would refer to as their “crap factor.” Once you understand the fundamentals of the controls’ quirks, there are moments of gratification, like throwing an explosive bottle into a pack of Humanz and detonating it with a well-timed bullet, sending those poorly-named assholes packing with a mid-air explosion. The free-roaming sections in Central Park can also prove tense. Hunting for supplies and cars to hotwire becomes nerve-wracking when you know that you just don’t have the tools for taking on enemies.
The driving physics notwithstanding, some of the game’s other physics can be fun. As many have stated before, Alone in the Dark’s fire physics are very well-executed, and usually solutions to something like a locked door will have logical solutions like blasting it open with explosives. While it annoyed me a lot when I initially played Alone in the Dark, this time around I felt myself more receptive to certain cues the game would give to make me realize that I could manipulate something physically in the environment to figure out how to progress. The final section of the game has some interesting puzzles as well and, though not perfectly executed, were still a nice touch. But don’t expect a final boss. I mean, what do you want? It was either spending the budget on a final boss or making the scene where you have to give Sarah CPR. (Yugh.)
Ultimately, Alone in the Dark is such an impressively, delightfully bad game that it deserves a solid place in gaming history, right there with games like Deadly Premonition, Two Worlds II, and Earth Defense Force. It’s a game for those who are adventurous, willing to swallow down the harsh pill of awful narrative and gameplay design for the good vibes of cheap laughter and even cheaper gaming experience, as you can usually pick up the game for pretty cheap, not to mention the aforementioned Inferno edition for PS3. Alone in the Dark becomes a classic in its own right – a classic so-bad-it's-good game for the seventh generation, as well as an important lesson for gamers, developers, and the expectations we put on our favorite pastime.