Alone in the Dark is widely acknowledged as the game that gave birth to the Survival Horror genre. The four titles in the series to date have sold 1.7 million units worldwide, and had a profound influence on the efforts of developers worldwide. Still, despite the tons of Survival Horror titles that have come out of Japan since Alone in the Dark originally hit, Alone in the Dark's developers boldly allege that only Resident Evil 4 brought anything new to the genre at all. We'll let the fans decide whether or not that's really true, but it says a lot when a developer can even make a straight-faced claim like that in regard to such a saturated genre. Alone in the Dark is really a series of towering importance to bringing horror into gaming, and just like any good horror franchise, it's getting ready to return again on the PC and XBox 360.
The new title, called simply Alone in the Dark, intends to take the franchise into a new direction in terms of format and gameplay. This was probably a necessary decision after the last entry in the franchise, 2001's Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, received an incredibly muted response from all but hardcore fans. The new direction hopes to blaze some fresh new gameplay trails, while reinventing the basics of Alone in the Dark's survival horror premise. That's some very challenging hype for any game to live up to.
The setting for the new Alone in the Dark is New York City's Central Park. The game is going to make much of the question 'Why is such a large park in such a crowded city?' Since this is a survival horror game, the answer is probably going to involve some combination of evil forces, ghosts, and violence, which is always a potent combination when applied to some highly recognizable landmark. The Central Park setting also has the virtue of bringing huge variety to the game's environments, with castles, a zoo, and even an abandoned armory all present within the Park's confines. This lets players explore a rich diversity of environments plausibly while staying in a manageably small area.
Storywise, the overriding theme of the new Alone in the Dark is 'What is the afterlife?' Every major school of religious and philosophical thought has its own answers to offer, as do reports of near-death experiences and other paranormal happenings throughout history. Alone in the Dark hopes to address the many remarkable similarities and differences in these myths and urban legends to not only tell a coherent story about life and death, but provoke thought in the player. Alone in the Dark is an enormously ambitious game in many respects, but this is perhaps the most difficult goal it's set for itself.
Building toward that goal, the hero of the new Alone in the Dark is Edward Carnby, the protagonist of the original game in the franchise. Edward died in 1926, yet finds himself apparently alive and whole in modern-day Central Park as the game begins. Edward obviously wants to know how he got there, and finding out what's going on is ultimately the player's task.
While most games choose to pattern their storytelling format after movies, Alone in the Dark is explicitly patterning its storytelling format after hit TV dramas like Lost, CSI, and 24. Each segment of the story the player goes through is called an episode, and comes complete with a particular episode title, "previously on" segment, and "next episode" preview. Episodes will take roughly 30-40 minutes to play through, and be designed to be completed basically in one sitting. After completing the episodes that are part of the original game, Atari intends to support the player community but making additional episodes of content available for download.
The gameplay style for Alone in the Dark emphasizes exploration, encouraging players to invest in the mysteries the world offers as much as possible. Developers also promise more action than in previous Alone in the Dark titles, as well as multiple survival challenges. These challenges will be in the "spirit of entertainment", which we take to mean "sort of realistic but not so much that you die instantly". Players will constantly face situations that try to force them to answer the question 'What would you do to survive?' Players can answer however they like, but Atari's developers seem to be interested in forbidding Nintendo-logical answers as strictly as possible. The goal appears to be a game that can deliver a different realistic, dramatic experience in interactive serialized storytelling to every player who sits down with the game.
Alone in the Dark is going to be geared around using high-poly next gen graphics to help deliver this wholly immersive experience to players. Snippets of gameplay footage shown during the demo involved very dramatic, Hollywood-style lighting effects that were still rendered in realtime, and could be paused or explored from different camera angles. Developers promised that the game would have no true cut-scenes, with story instead conveyed in interactive real-time sequences that would still have the full drama and emotional impact associated with scripted cut-scenes. Visual techniques like their dynamic lighting model would focus on using graphics to create setting and mood rather than simply increasing the realism of the image.
The new Alone in the Dark has set itself some incredibly ambitious goals, but even approaching those goals would result in a truly extraordinary game. The real question will be whether it can use its episodic and exploratory approach toward gameplay while still delivering on the demand for action and immersion that most hardcore gamers demand. Atari clearly things that the possibility of creating another hit on par with the original Alone in the Dark is worth all the risk and effort it takes to produce a truly outstanding title. At the current rate of progress, Atari indicated to us that it could be as much as two years before the title is fully complete and ready to hit store shelves. That's a long wait, but it might just be worth it.
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