I may be generalising here, but I would argue that most gamers incorrectly consider Capcom’s Resident Evil to be the pioneer of the 3D survival horror genre. FOOLS ONE AND ALL! This accolade officially belongs to Alone in the Dark released in 1992 by the now defunct Infogrames, a full 4 years before Resident Evil.
Officially awarded “First Ever 3D Survival Horror Game” by the Guinness World Records Gamer Edition, AITD was likely the first title ever to have players shitting their pants whilst frantically trying to aim their very last shotgun shell at whatever the hell was dragging its limp slimy body towards them.
Based on the dark and unsettling themes of horror genius H.P Lovecraft, AITD pits players as either Emily or Edward as they seek to uncover the mystery of the haunted Derceto mansion in 1920s Lousiana. The game is light on story and heavy on atmosphere with the narrative only really unfolding through notes and diaries found as you explore.
The characters are essentially the same with the only difference being in their models. Owing to Edward’s bowtie and ridiculous moustache, and Emily’s formal businesswoman-like look, I must add that it was a bold move by Infogrames to make main characters so “uncool” even by 1990s standards.
As Emily or Edward you must fight and sleuth your way through the mansion’s various denizens and puzzles, utilising the limited weapons, ammo, and resources available. The enemies vary from zombies, to spiders, to a back-flipping pirate (no bullshit), to cthulu-esque death worms, all of which require different tactics to either kill or avoid.
While the enemies are at first pretty difficult, it’s mostly attributed to the clunky control scheme and staccato animations which are about as seamless as a discount tent. Luckily, anyone with an evolved simian brain should be able to easily figure the enemies’ attack patterns and essentially break the challenge. Though the graphics have not aged well, the game is still genuinely creepy and some parts will get your heart pounding as you fumble to fight or escape.
The puzzles are incredibly dynamic for such an old game and some require some out-the-box thinking that will have you face-palming over not having figured it out sooner. Clever thinking might allow you to avoid some of the game’s battles completely, and some enemies cannot be beaten by straightforward fighting alone, requiring a mixture of puzzle solving and button mashing to defeat. An example that springs to mind is an early encounter with gargoyles requiring the clever placement of mirrors. I almost applauded had the fact that I was sitting alone not made that a defunct and absurd action.
AITD is a great game that arguably laid the groundwork for a whole genre later to be perfected by Silent Hill and Resident Evil. It hasn’t aged well but you can see the vision of the game unfolding as you play it, the way the mechanics fit together, basic and chunky as they are. It’s interesting to note that Infogrames ran out of time during production and felt their finished product wasn’t quite to the standard they were hoping.
AITD is a game made with passion and innovation, from a time before corporate involvement when developers weren’t scared to take risks. I think modern games have a lot to learn from this attention to innovation. Hopefully AITD will someday see a resurgence to greatness not enjoyed but the various sequels to the original.