I clearly remember the first time I was introduced to Alone in the Dark. I was visiting a family friend who owned far more games than most kids my age dreamed of collecting, where I’d spend hours watching him play or taking turns myself. At one point, he decided to show me something new – a horror game set in the 1920s with an especially creepy flair. It never crossed my mind at the time that I hadn’t seen a horror game before. As it turns out, Alone of the Dark was the first of its kind, with a first impression which was incredibly memorable.
My friend selected the male protagonist, Edward Carnby, and skipped the cutscene to arrive in an empty attic. Using the keyboard, he guided Carnby around the room, picking up items which would no doubt be useful later. Eventually he grabbed a shotgun from a nearby chest. “I’m going to need this soon for the monster,” my friend added.
He wasn’t kidding. Literally seconds later, the camera angle shifted as a vicious beast leapt through the window and rushed to attack Carnby. A few shotgun blasts put the monster down, but we weren’t done yet. Moments later, a trapdoor opened in the floor, revealing a zombie who lurched forward with a new attack. My friend ran out of bullets this point and was eventually struck down. But upon reloading, we realized he could push the shotgun’s chest over the trapdoor, blocking its path.
Alone in the Dark was a completely new experience to me, and not just as a horror game. Until that point, players were always agents of change, boldly stepping forward to leave an impact on the world. This was my first game where events unfolded regardless of what the player was doing or ready for. While the rest of Alone in the Dark proved more forgiving in terms of roaming monsters, this intro perfectly set the tone for how much danger the player faced at every moment. The only way you could feel in control was by knowing exactly what was going to happen – which usually meant you reacted poorly to every new encounter. As it turns out, that’s a great way to present horror in video games.
Alone in the Dark takes place in Derceto mansion, a Louisiana residence whose owner – Jeremy Hartwood – committed suicide following a prolonged bout of mental instability. You play as Edward Carnby, the private investigator hired by Hartwood’s niece to retrieve personal effects from a piano in the attic. But what seems like a straightforward job takes a bleak turn after sunset, as monsters and supernatural creatures emerge from the darkness. Trapped inside the mansion with only your wits and limited weaponry, you’ll need to piece together Derceto’s mysteries before they claim your life.
At least that’s the canonical introduction. Alternatively, you could play as Emily Hartwood – Jeremy’s niece – if she decided to visit Derceto mansion personally. Carnby eventually became the franchise’s supernatural investigator, but I’d say Emily is a better fit for this particular story. She has a family connection to Derceto mansion, even reacting to her own photo in a study. In the context of Alone in the Dark‘s lore, her experience can be viewed as a quest to redeem the family name. Plus Emily visiting Derceto just makes more sense – why hire some gumshoe to walk up a flight of stairs to investigate a piano? It doesn’t impact gameplay at all, outside of choosing which dated character model you control. But if you’re the kind of player who gets immersed in backstory, Emily’s feels a little more interesting.
In terms of gameplay, Alone in the Dark operates more like an adventure game than what we’d consider survival horror. After clearing the attic and upper floor, you’re free to explore most of Derceto, collecting objects which unlock rooms and events in other sections of the manor. Several monsters can even be treated as puzzles in that they don’t always require combat to defeat. Of course, that means Alone in the Dark has all the downsides of classic adventure games too – specifically, you’re forced to wander the halls testing item combinations until a unique solution emerges.
The key difference from adventure games is an emphasis on resource management – your lamp can run out of oil, bullets are limited, and only a few medical supplies exist across the entire game. Later survival horror games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil refined these mechanics, but they’re still nerve-wracking here. Monsters will absorb all your ammo if you’re not careful, and overusing the lamp can leave you in complete darkness. If you don’t have another oil can handy, finding the way back to a light source is almost impossible – even moreso, if it went out after you put it down while investigating nearby items.
As you’ve probably gathered, Alone in the Dark still has a top-notch horror atmosphere, which is impressive given its horribly dated graphics and controls. Almost every room contains unique dangers, some of which can kill you before you fully realize what’s happening. You’ll probably feel your own breath quicken every time the music informs you a monster is approaching, even if you know where it’s coming from.
While there are no sanity mechanics, Alone in the Dark does borrow themes, lore, and monsters from HP Lovecraft. Deep Ones and other-dimensional beings are in-game monsters, and the final boss name-drops Cthulhu as a personal ally. On a design level, exploring certain locations or attempting the wrong actions might lead to a grisly end. My personal favorites? Reading forbidden lore (a major Lovecraftian no-no) has horrific consequences, but there’s no way to know which book is dangerous until you start reading. Then you have the creature within Alone in the Dark‘s Game Over screen. See that giant green shape blocking the front door? That’s not game art, it’s a warning. Open it at your own peril.
As unique and varied as Alone in the Dark‘s deaths can be, they do undercut the atmosphere after a while. Stumbling your way through a house full of Lovecraftian horrors is unsettling at first, but after a dozen deaths it loses meaning. You’ll run afoul of monsters, the floor will collapse, ghost paintings throw axes at you, and a giant worm will crush you with its tail. But there’s no tension when you experience death in every single room. Yet sometimes it can be frustrating when you die too slowly – some monsters stagger you each time they strike, creating a cycle where it’s impossible to run away or fight back. You’re just forced to watch for several agonizing moments as your health wears down and you’re helpless to do anything.
At its most extreme, these constant deaths turns Alone in the Dark into a kind of meta-game. Unless you’re willing to use a hint guide, the only way to win is save-scumming until you know exactly which actions will get you killed. But since several resources are expendable – especially oil – you could be left without the resources needed to beat the game if you overwrite the wrong save file. Thankfully, Derceto manor has a fairly small game world, so it’s easy to replay if you completely botch your progress.
When Alone in the Dark first launched, there was nothing quite like it. The horror mechanics were so groundbreaking they actually inspired fear in players, kicking off the entire survival horror genre. Today, those terrifying system are out of date, but still satisfying in their own right. In fact, Alone in the Dark puts many of its present-day sequels to shame. Why go with reboots and co-op shooting when Infogrames gave us a solid horror foundation?
Derceto seems like a perfect way for Alone in the Dark to return to its roots. Why not take a page from Black Mesa and create a remastered edition, one that recreates the manor using modern design principles? Keep the 1920s time period, Lovecraftian overtones, and other-dimensional strangeness. Add procedurally-generated monsters, so you can never guess which room will house a threat. Tweak puzzles so they’re more intuitive. And drop sillier elements – like an out-of-place pirate swordfight – unless there’s a way to make them feel scarier.
That’s an Alone in the Dark game I’d love to play. Wouldn’t you?