When it comes to games that are “almost great,” the one I keep coming back to is Alone in the Dark, the 2008 addition to the long-standing horror adventure series. That’s odd, because at first glance I found it extremely hard to describe as “almost good” – in fact, that statement would make the world’s least sensitive lie detector hurl itself out the nearest window. Alone in the Dark is one of the few games I can think of that fails at every turn. It’s like Sideshow Bob in that one episode of The Simpsons, getting pounded in the face by a rake every time he takes a step in a new direction.

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So why do I have this strange affection for a game that did nothing but shoot itself in the foot with gasoline-soaked bullets? Well, it was certainly innovative. Rabidly innovative, even. Almost all of its gameplay mechanics tried something new and experimental. Every single one of them is broken in some horrendous way, but each one had the potential to succeed. And that’s why it embodies “almost great” in my mind. It’s a gigantic mess, because it’s a bunch of almost great ideas strung together. Allow me to explain …

The Story

Alone in the Dark has a very effective opening. You wake up groggy and bleary-eyed, and you have to blink with the R3 button in order to make out your surroundings, which I still think is one of the most interesting uses of that button in gaming. Meanwhile, a bunch of strange men threaten you with guns and talk about stuff you don’t understand before some mysterious demonic force starts tearing the building apart. Your escort is apparently eaten by the plastering, and you’re left to stumble, disoriented and blind, through the building’s maintenance tunnels until you come across a mirror and see … a stranger. With a big fat seam in his face.

“Wow,” I thought after the intro. “That was cool. I wonder why so many people hate this game.”

Unfortunately: It didn’t take long to answer that question. A story is only as good as its pacing, and when you’re getting a rake in the face at every turn from physics glitches, stupid grind quests and good-old-fashioned cheap deaths, it’s hard to keep caring about the fate of Mr. Seamy Face, especially when the plot turns out to be about Lucifer rising to destroy the world. Why can’t Lucifer ever rise for some other reason, like to check on his stock portfolio?

The Puzzles

The main problem with point-and-click adventure games like Monkey Island is that the puzzles only ever follow one particular thread of logic; a cooking pot could be used as a crash helmet, for example, but not to hammer in a nail. The only way to bring inventory puzzles up to date would be to create a game where you can pick up and use every single loose object and tool, and any solution that would conceivably work in the real world is allowed for. Obviously, this is a bit beyond the reach of human technology short of inventing the fucking Holodeck, but Alone in the Dark attempts it in a smaller, more manageable way wherein all the puzzles just require you to light stuff on fire.

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Thankfully, the fire mechanics are seriously amazing. Virtually anything made of wood, cloth or any real-world flammable material can be lit up, at which point the fire gradually spreads across the surface, eventually reducing it to brittle charcoal – an effective way to remove wooden doors and blockades. You can also transfer fire from any flammable thing to any other flammable thing. And then there’s the inventory management: You can root through every dumpster in the game to find bits of paper, petrol, aerosol cans, duct tape and glass bottles to combine into improvised Molotov cocktails, sticky bombs and flamethrowers. You can also use petrol on your gun to make incendiary bullets, but if you tried that in real life you’d probably end up with shredded red cabbage where your hand used to be.

Unfortunately: Every single enemy can only be killed by fire. Bombs are single-use and aerosol flamethrowers last about one second (which may explain why the aerosols were in the trash bin in the first place), so if you run out of stuff to make fire, you get to rummage through the bins again while the baddies stand around and take turns kicking you in the nuts. Also, the game doesn’t pause while your inventory is open, so the baddies get to continue kicking you in the nuts while you figure out which bottle the hanky goes in.

The Characters

It was nice to see that Alone in the Dark was a true sequel to the original games in the series (Edward “Seamy Face” Carnby apparently having lived for the 80-odd years since the first game by supernatural means) rather than a cop-out modern-day reboot with the same character names and little else in common. The old-man mentor character was pretty intriguing, too, especially when he sets up a future meeting with Edward shortly before unflinchingly shooting himself in the head.

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Unfortunately: Whenever I’m annoyed by crowbarred-in love interests in games and Hollywood movies, I ask myself one thing: Are they really as bad as the one from Alone in the Dark? Little Miss Whatever-Her-Name-Was is shrieky, irritating, virtually needless to the plot and constantly nagging you to pull your socks up and get to the objective du jour. At one point, the game forces you to save her life before you can continue. That’s like making me drive a car that only works while I’m banging my head against the steering column. Speaking of which …

The Driving

What I like about the cars in Alone in the Dark is their versatility. You usually just drive them, granted, but if they outlive their usefulness, you then can siphon out the petrol to make molotovs, or just leave a trail of fuel as a fuse for a makeshift carbomb. On top of that, you can sit in any seat, check the glove compartment, honk the horn and turn the lights on and off. An average developer might say to themselves, “We don’t need to put all that in because there’s no reason to do it.” A better developer would say, “Let’s put it in anyway and let the players come up with reasons.”

Unfortunately: The game’s physics would make Isaac Newton pull his own teeth out, and that’s never more obvious than when driving. The entire chassis once flew off my car because I drove up a curb too fast. On another occasion I sped over a mild dip in the road and watched as my entire vehicle was catapulted into the skybox. Exhilarating, but unhelpful.

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Given more time and play testing, Alone in the Dark could have been great. Of course, that’s not saying a lot. Given more time, a piss-stained bathroom floor could become the Garden of Eden. But here’s a statement that will need some defending: I think that being a colossal failure is far closer to greatness than being simply mediocre. Is E.T. for the Atari 2600 not one of the most well-remembered games of its time, after all its functional-but-not-amazing contemporaries vanished from general memory? History remembers only the truly great and the truly awful. With that in mind, there could still be time to become the next Hitler if you start murdering people now.

Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is a writer and game critic best known for Zero Punctuation, a video review series on The Escapist. The site you are currently reading, conveniently enough.

Question of the Day, March 9, 2010

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