Screenshot: Edward Carnby looking down the hall wondering what other horrors await him
Written by: Elijah Moon Blackwell
The further back you go, the more intense gaming becomes. There was a time when tutorials didn’t exist. Objective markers were extremely rare. Controls were not standardized. Losing a manual meant losing crucial information needed to play the game. Knowing what an item’s use was, if it even had a use, required trial and error. The world of DOS was a brutal time in gaming history.
This brings me to the 1992 release Alone in the Dark.
Get ready to save and reload often. You are going to die!
Welcome to Derceto
It’s 1924 and there’s a mystery that needs solving. Derceto is the name of a mansion owned by artist Jeremy Hartwood. Tragically, Jeremy commits suicide. The police do not conduct an investigation.
This is where the character selection comes in. Emily Hartwood, Jeremy’s niece, believes that there is more to the story. Why would Jeremy end his own life? Emily believes the piano, found in the attic where Jeremy died, has a secret compartment with a note. The note supposedly details the reason behind Jeremy’s demise.
Edward Carnby is a private investigator. He is hired by an antique dealer to find the same piano.
Who you chose to play as doesn’t change a thing. They do not have differing stats or attributes. It just depends on what you want your character to look like. Typically I play as Edward because he became the only playable protagonist in the sequels.
After choosing a character, you get some background information. It’s pretty much the same info I already introduced. If you play the original floppy disk version, it’s just a wall of text. If you play the 1993 CD-ROM version (which is the version GOG uses) voice acting is added. Any letter or book found throughout the game will have voice acting if you’re using the CD-ROM version.
If you want some more background with added immersion, check out the pseudo-newspaper that came with the original release (and is available in PDF format if bought on GOG).
I love this fantastic addition. It adds extra lore and puts you in the middle of 1920s America.
Finally satisfied with background overload, it’s time to finally start the game. A cutscene plays that shows a car driving through the rural Louisiana. This cutscene includes one of the earliest video game jump scares.
Behold the frog.
Once the car arrives, the main character gets out and begins to approach the mansion. The car drives itself away. A monster watches from the attic window. Seeing only the hands creates a terrifying mystery. If the hands are that ominous, what does the rest of the creature look like?
The protagonist enters the mansion. Behind them the door slams on it’s own. Slowly the character proceeds to walk to the attic. Then the player assumes control. It’s time to explore Derceto.
Outdated Controls Galore
Before it’s time to poke about Derceto, there’s one obstacle in your way. The awful prehistoric controls. It’s impossible to mention Alone in the Dark without exploring the horrid controls.
It’s tank controls. Alpha Waves used the same method of movement in 1991. In fact, Alpha Waves was the direct inspiration for Alone in the Dark’s 3D mechanics.
Tank controls mean one button moves you forward while two others turn you. Usually there is a dedicated backwards button as well. You don’t use the mouse.
To move around a corner you need to be holding forward while pressing the corresponding turn key. Get it? I hope so because I’m not done.
Now “forward” means whatever direction the character is facing. In Alone in the Dark all the camera angles are fixed. When moving from screen to screen, the angle shifts to a different perspective. So “forward” is relative to the direction the character is facing after the camera shifts. I’m so glad these days are over.
After getting the controls, there are two more elements to learn: combat and inventory. I’ll spare any additional boring controls talk, but you are going to need to learn both of them rather quickly because Alone in the Dark does not wait. The first enemy will be biting at you in exactly 1 minute.
The Horror is Intense and Will Keep You Anxious
If you don’t act quickly, a weird bird monster will crash through the window. If you don’t understand the combat yet, this thing will kill you.
However, there is an alternative. If you move quickly, you can rush to a nearby wardrobe and push it in front of the window.
Don’t wait around much longer because a zombie will burst through a trap door. You have to push a chest over it.
This becomes the theme for the entire game. Walking down a hallway? Oh no! The floor broke beneath you and you fell to your death. Reading a book? Wrong book and now you’re dead. In a bedroom? Watch out, a zombie is entering! Run to the next room! Think you are safe? You definitely are not. A bird monster is going to crash through the window. Better yet, you are going to watch it happen.
The game doesn’t play fair. It’s smart to save before you enter a room. Dying comes easy. Living is privilege.
It may be the only complaint I have for this game. The unfair nature of the deaths can become very infuriating. I wasn’t kidding about the book thing. There’s a book that’ll kill you after reading. You’ll never know what items you need unless you are really good at interpreting clues. Items have weight so you can’t carry everything as you won’t be able to move fast. Believe it or not there are useless items. I have no idea how gamers back then figured all this out on their own.
Thankfully we live in the internet age so walkthroughs exist. No shame in using one if you are stuck.
There’s an argument to be made that the unpredictable deaths and lack of item understanding are the main reasons the game is spooky. However, the graphics scare me the most.
Bright, Colorful and Cosmic
Usually a horror game sports the dark spooky palette. Alone in the Dark is different. The scenery and creatures are all brightly lit with vibrant colors.
The graphics are also crude. Sometimes it’s hard to fully see the horror before you. Your imagination will run wild (if you let it). Like can you imagine what all these creatures look like through the character’s eyes?
It’s all very cosmic. It invokes a fear of the unknown and of creatures beyond our comprehension. It kind of reminds me of “The Colour Out of Space,” a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. A meteorite hits earth and color beams start flying out of the crater. What colors? Colors we cannot even begin to understand because they fall outside of our visible spectrum. Alone in the Dark is kind of like that. Spectral beings that we will never understand. The fear of seeing something like this in real life is what occupies my nightmares.
It’s no coincidence that I think about “The Colour Out of Space” when playing the game. Alone in the Dark draws it’s inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft. The antagonist is a cultist pirate. If that isn’t enough proof look at this particular section of the aforementioned newspaper.
Alone in the Dark was supposed to be a video game version of the Call of Cthulhu pen and paper RPG.
Choasium, the publisher of Call of Cthulhu, eventually deemed Alone in the Dark to be too simple to sport the brand. Even though the name is gone, traces of Cthulhu can still be seen.
I won’t spoil the final boss fight. Let’s just say it is very Lovecraftian. In fact if you want no spoilers about the ending at all stop here.
Alone in the Dark is a fantastic game that unfortunately suffers from age. If you can look beyond the terrible controls, let your imagination take control and put up with the needless deaths, this game will give you the best horror experience DOS can possibly provide. The GOG version works on Windows 10 (it also comes with 2 and 3). I highly recommend exploring Derceto.
The Ending is Perfect
DOS games are typically short. Now that I know what to do, Alone in the Dark takes me at most 4 hours to complete. I started a playthrough for this article spontaneously. I started around 1 am.
I was instantly hooked. Even though I know what’s going to happen, I still jumped at the occasional attack. The ghosts still chilled me to the bone. I couldn’t stop till I finished it.
After defeating the final boss, Derceto begins to crumble. The main character can now escape. As said before I play as Edward. I had been playing in a dark room with my computer monitor being the only light (I guess you could say I was Alone in the Dark).
Once I reach the door and reach the outside Edward jumps for joy.
I also exclaimed “YES” as I jumped in my chair. The sun is shining as Edward runs towards his car. It’s the first time you see the sun since the beginning of the game. At the same time it was around 7 am in real life. The sun started to peer between my game room blinds. Me and Edward at the same time experienced seeing the sun after a long night of horror. Even I had to step outside and take a breath of fresh air.
Okay maybe I got a little too immersed…but man was it fun.
Alone in the Dark is one of the best horror games I have ever played. I implore all my readers to check it out. Maybe one day I will talk about the sequels.
Play the game, tell your friends and keep this game alive. With horror games like Resident Evil continuing to dominate the minds of horror fans, Alone in the Dark is consistently left by the wayside. It doesn’t help that the latest game in the franchise is absolutely garbage.
Go, Derceto is calling. Find out why Jeremy killed himself and why the cultist pirate occupies the ancient mansion.