David Harbour and Jodie Comer are the stars in a reboot of survival horror classic Alone In The Dark, as GameCentral talks to its director.
Everyone knows the game that defined the concept of modern survival horror. It featured a decrepit mansion filled with zombies (and much worse), with the action portrayed via fixed camera angles, as you tried to solve obscure puzzles and defend yourself with only a very limited supply of ammunition. We are, of course, talking about 1992’s Alone In The Dark, a French-made game which was released four years before the first Resident Evil.
Although it’s had more than six entries over the course of the last 31 years, the franchise is not well known nowadays. Maybe that’s because the original was PC only, or perhaps it’s simply because the original director, the sadly underappreciated Frédérick Raynal, wasn’t involved in any of the subsequent games – which saw a steady decline in quality at a time when Resident Evil was going from strength to strength.
The series has already been rebooted twice already but never very successfully. This latest attempt is immediately more promising though, as it involves the writer of Amnesia: The Dark Descent and SOMA, two of the best horror games of the modern era. We haven’t played the new game ourselves, so we can’t tell you anything about it first hand, but there should be a free playable prologue out as you read this, so you can have a look for yourself.
All we’ve seen of the game is the video below, which makes it clear that while this is not a remake it does follow the basic plot of the original, as you play as either detective Edward Carnby or Emily Hartwood, whose family believe they are suffering under a terrible curse. You can play as either character, with subtle differences in the story and gameplay for each (so, yes, that’s where Resident Evil 2 got that idea from).
Edward is played by Stranger Things’ David Harbour and Emily by Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer. As before, the game’s set in 1920s Louisiana but while the original’s story and setting was heavily influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft it’s currently hard to tell how much that is true of the new game.
That is one of the key differences with Resident Evil though, in that while its monsters are science based the ones in Alone In The Dark are supernatural, with a lot of talk about the Dark Man in the trailer.
The scale of the game seems much larger than the original, with brief shots of city streets and outdoor locations that definitely weren’t there before. There’s also what seem to be relatively complex puzzles, with a promise that you can ask for as little or as much help as you want solving them.
We’re somewhat worried that the combat seems rather generic, and more reminiscent of the modern reboots, but not only have we not played it but the Prologue (a nod to Alone In The Dark 2 prologue Jack In The Dark, which stars the same child character) apparently doesn’t feature any combat.
That prologue should be available to download on consoles and PC as you read this, but last week we got a chance to speak at length with THQ Nordic executive producer Michael Paeck and writer and director Mikael Hedberg. The game itself will be out on October 25, so relatively soon, at which point hopefully it will become impossible for Alone In The Dark to be forgotten again.
Formats: Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and PC
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Developer: Pieces Interactive
Release Date: 25th October 2023
GC: I think the first obvious question is how do you work around the fact that most people are going to assume that Alone In The Dark is riffing off of Resident Evil, when in fact it’s actually the other way around?
MH: I’ve never personally worried that much about that. Maybe you guys at THQ did. But for me, I feel like it’s almost a strength in that it is something very familiar. It is something that everyone knows, like, ‘Oh, it’s a haunted house type of experience!’ It’s so easily to buy into that thing, that it’s something so familiar. Always, when it comes to tropes and archetypes, it’s always about execution. There might be some people who think, ‘Oh, I’ve already had this experience, I don’t need to have it again.’ But I doubt it. If you’re a real fan of this kind of stuff [laughs] I feel like you would be happy to go again.
GC: I’m curious how close it is to the original, because that was a really weird game. Resident Evil is essentially sci-fi but Alone In The Dark was this eclectic mix of Lovecraftian horror and everything from zombies to poltergeists. You went from one room to another and you really had no idea what to expect.
MH: [laughs] You’re really hitting on something that… I hadn’t thought about this for a while, but it is interesting. I remember having these sort of thoughts very early on. We were talking about, ‘Are we doing just a pure remake?’ And I remember really diving in deep into the original game, and I came to the conclusion… I don’t wanna say that it wouldn’t work. I’m saying that I couldn’t do it, at least. I felt like I can’t bring this into high def, if you want to look at it in that way, and make it work, because it is such a strange piece. I don’t think it would translate that well as just a pure remake. That’s why you shouldn’t go in thinking this is gonna be the original all over again.
This is a very different beast. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a post-modern take on it, but it is flirting with the sort of, ‘Hey, have you played the old games? You’re gonna recognise a whole lot of cool stuff.’ But, of course, anyone can go into this game and play it. It’s a new experience. Early on we described it as a love letter to the original, because I like the idea that it’s more like looking at the original and picking up all the stuff that we liked and bringing it in.
It almost becomes like a game for me, in a sense of how can I bring this part into the game and still make it work? It is hard to talk about all this without making it sound almost derogatory, but the original is kind of a hodgepodge.
GC: Oh, it totally was.
MP: It’s also short. [laughs] If we just remade the original one it would’ve been just three hours of a very lonely person in the house. [laughs] So that’s not a game you can release in 2023. This is why we knew we had to bring new characters in, because the original really was just that one guy, or woman, in the mansion. And we knew, okay, we can’t do that. And we had to create a lot of new characters. And so, what Mikael did, what fascinated me personally, was there were a lot of written things in the game, just to add some lore in the original, and what Mikael did was to take all the names and people from all these little things. For example, there’s a Dr Gray mentioned in a letter and he took that out and made them the main doctor of Derceto Manor.
Or like Grace Saunders [the child character you play as in the prologue – GC], she was from Alone In The Dark 2, but now she’s a patient in Derceto. So all the little bits and pieces come from the original, but they were just put together in a new way.
GC: I’m pretty sure the Dark Man stuff was brand new, though?
MH: No, it is mentioned in the original.
GC: Oh, is it? Well, I imagine you’ve played it more recently than I have.
MH: [laughs] It is interesting, because there is also a difference between the actual gameplay and what the narrative is. This is interesting when talking to Frédérick Raynal, it was such a cool experience to try to pick up on what he remembered and what he thought about the story. Because he is much more like a techie guy. He is creating this experience, which is super cool, but when it comes to the actual story and the narrative he had these two guys, [Franck] Manzetti and [Hubert] Chardot and I assume that if I would have had a conversation with any of those two guys it would’ve been very different.
So a lot of it, like the Dark Man, it’s just sort of a name drop in one of the texts. And I felt like it’s just fun when you’re mentioning another doctor or servant or whatever, to say, ‘Here you go: a fully-fledged character. One way that I think about it is… I don’t know, this might become too sort of nerdy…
GC: [laughs] We’re talking about video games; I think we can suffer that.
MH: It’s just, you know when you go into museums and you read about how something was dug up and it’s this bit of pottery or whatever. And then they extrapolate a whole narrative around, ‘Oh, this must have been a cult about this and that. And that’s why they used this.’ That’s kind of how I imagine this. Like, the old games were just this old broken pottery and I came in and started saying, ‘This must mean that this was super important to them!’ I’ve tried to be very respectful, but I very purposely go bananas, you know? It’s like, this must mean something. So, I will make it mean something!
GC: So, as I understand, you were the writer on two of the greatest survival horror games of all time, with The Dark Descent and SOMA?
MH: [embarrassed] Thank you, yes.
GC: Because one of my concerns here is I’ve never heard of Pieces Interactive. But if they’ve brought you on board I find that very reassuring. What’s being your experience of working with them?
MH: It’s been a ride, for sure, because they come from more of a top-down RPG type of game [they did Magicka 2 and expansions for Titan Quest – GC]. And they just sort of called me up and said, ‘Hey, we want to pitch Alone In The Dark to our publisher and we think we should have a creative director that could push it through. And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a go!’
MP: We said, ‘Okay, let’s see what you guys come up with.’ They already had some technical stuff they could show and so, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Let’s work a couple of months together and let’s see what comes out of it. It is an IP that a lot of developers tried to pitch and in the end this was the most convincing.
GC: I’m a big survival horror fan but there’s a big difference between the shlock of Resident Evil and something like Silent Hill. I remember feeling almost physically ill playing that, the atmosphere was so strange and disturbing. The Dark Descent too, within the first 10 minutes I just couldn’t look at the monsters, it was so scary.
GC: SOMA as well, I didn’t think was going to be that scary but it was. The first bit when you see the robots and they start moving, there’s a real sort of tangible fear for your… sanity, if not life. You’ve managed that trick twice now, so how do you do it and are you even aiming for the same sort of thing with Alone in The Dark?
MH: Yeah, this is really difficult, even as developers, to tell people why something works and doesn’t work. It’s almost like trying to describe how to write music to someone who doesn’t know music theory. So there’s, of course, different parts to this. The way we can look at it is the narrative. That contextualises the situation that you’re in but it’s rarely scary to read something that’s happening. Often what’s scary is something that’s happening to you or something that you anticipate is about to happen, but never does. So yeah, there’s definitely things that we’re struggling with or where we’re trying to figure out what works best and what is scary or not.
And often when you’re making a scary game, you are never afraid yourself. It’s awful in that sense because it’s like, ‘Oh s***, this doesn’t work. Not at all.’ And then you put it in front of someone else and they’re freaking the F out! And you’re like, ‘Oh, okay. I guess it works then.’ [laughs]
So I personally like to focus a lot on just mood and just have the player kind of stew in something. This is something that I also find difficult to talk about and I rarely hear people talk about. I call it the lull [laughs]. It’s basically the experience that you have between events and sort of the gameplay loop itself. It’s just sort of being there.
GC: So after Dark Descent and SOMA had you got this down to more of a science? Was it more clear to you how and why people get scared while playing a game?
MH: I was the writer for Amnesia and SOMA but the creative director was not me. But when we hit SOMA, it became really interesting because the story suddenly had more space. He seemed to be very interested in just letting the story be a bigger piece of the experience. And it’s interesting because we noticed when we released SOMA, that when people talked about it, the fans, they said things like, ‘Oh, it’s not a horror game, it’s just an adventure game.’
GC: No, that’s nonsense. It wasn’t scary all the time but there are certain bits that are terrifying and there’s a constant feeling of dread and helplessness.
MP: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s more the fact that the story had more space, so you were having these two parts more equally, right? The sort of frightening experience of being in the game, but also sort of the context and the narrative. So it has been an evolution but this is a very different beast, because with Alone In The Dark we’re going back into this kind of survival horror type thing and suddenly we have combat that we didn’t have in SOMA or Amnesia.
It sounds so derogatory when you say, but it’s more formulaic. It’s a very sort of genre-distilled product and intentionally so.
Whenever fans reach out to me, they always say something like, ‘I couldn’t sleep for three days thinking about what it meant to be alive, and I will never play the game again. 10 out of 10!’ Which is sort of sweet and kind of funny but this… you don’t have to worry about that here. This is much more of a fun romp.
GC: Well, that’s why I asked about the Lovecraft stuff because if you were to take that seriously you’d be getting into existential angst and cosmic horror. But it sounds like you’re not.
MH: I know the type of Lovecraftian media out there, that is very sort of gun-ho, we shoot monsters things. And I wouldn’t say that we’re fully in that space. I would hope that people think that we treat it a little bit more seriously than that, especially when it comes to the Dark Man and things like that. I think we have a nice balance between the seriousness and the kind of adventure-ry easy-going-ness.
MP: That’s also what a lot of the original Alone In The Dark was about. This is always the hard thing when you either remake a game, or reimagine a game, that you have to try to find the things in the old one, then you have to keep them, because otherwise, if you don’t keep them, if you come up with something completely new, people will go, ‘Yeah, nice game, but it’s not Along In The Dark.’
The old one, it had monsters, it had combat, it had some story through the lore. So we had to bring all of that together. And so some choices were made for us and then the question was, ‘Okay, what can we do with this wild mix?’ And that’s the nice new mix we have.
GC: It’s a difficult balance to get right. But I know when I saw the combat footage the first thing I thought of was New Nightmare, which is not necessarily my favourite game….
GC: It’s difficult to know what to do with combat in a survival horror, because it’s almost never the point. It is to a degree in the newer Resident Evils but in Silent Hill it’s just something to do to stop it from being a walking simulator. It’s not supposed to be challenging or even necessarily fun.
MH: Yeah, I mean, it’s difficult. There’s been a lot of discussion about that, how we go back and forth between difficulties, but one thing that I’m happy that we kept is that you’re not supposed to feel empowered. It’s not a power fantasy. We definitely want to lean towards the survival part.
But it was even more hardcore at one point, where it felt you weren’t really able to fight back in a very competent way. You had to sort of struggle more, but we didn’t really like it. It kept the player busy in a way that didn’t really feel fun.
It is interesting to think about fighting in the sense of something that you have to have in order to not be a walking simulator. [laughs] But this becomes almost like a philosophical thing, because it’s like, ‘What is a game?’ You could say hitting a ball with a stick across the landscape is just the thing that avoids you from picking a ball up and putting it into a cup on the other side of the landscape. And that’s golf, right? [laughs] Of course we want the fighting to be fun, but it’s not like a Dark Souls thing.
MP: But we went in all these directions! [laughs] This was super hard. And also you have a lot of different people playing with different tastes and for one this combat is not engaging enough or this combat is too easy. And other people say, ‘No, combat interrupts my horror experience!’ And you have to find something that fits as many people as possible. But one thing that we will now have for the final game, compared to a version like two months ago, is that we will remove a lot of monsters.
Because we had a lot of monsters in there, but then suddenly I think you just switch from your left brain to your right brain, or the other way around, and then suddenly you realise you have to be good at the combat and the whole mood is gone. So, this is a very, a very thin line that we’re walking here. But it was clear from the beginning, because of the monsters in Alone In The Dark 1, that we’re gonna need some combat. Although walking around, finding the clues, solving the puzzles, enjoying the atmosphere, that is much, much higher in the priority than the actual combat.
GC: I noticed in the video that there was a dig about you not giving away the answers to puzzles as soon as they’re posed. But what are your puzzles like? Are they difficult? Are they physics based or logic based or… how do they work?
MH: This has also been through a whole range of different versions.
MP: Yes! [laughs]
MH: We did have one take where it was more conventional and then at one point it was just sort of very… it had a lot to do with just perspectives and observation and it was just way too difficult. And now we’ve landed on something that is a more sort of… I don’t know how to put it, conventional sounds boring but it’s a little bit more straightforward. But it’s still quite difficult.
MP: It’s also very much driven by the narrative as well, by a lot of the clues. So we also want the player to read stuff. This is more on the old school side of things. But as we mentioned in the video, we will have two modes. So one of the modes is the one where you can really be the detective, where you read stuff, you find things, you don’t know where they belong. So you have to figure out yourself where everything needs to be and what’s going on.
And then there’s gonna be a bit more straightforward mode where you’re a bit more guided through the whole thing. Because we found out in our tests that we really had two big groups and whatever way we went we always upset one side or the other. And so we decided, okay, let’s make two modes. Because in the end, it’s the player who needs to enjoy the whole thing.
GC: Why do you think the Alone In The Dark franchise never stuck after the first game? It has quite a clear identity but was it just because Resident Evil took over?
MP: No, Frédérickk left!
GC: He’s a lovely man, I met him at Gamescom once.
MP: That is the main reason. I think the other games, they didn’t get so much love as the first one did. And that was then the reason why everything became a little bit more… all over the place, with the pirates and all that stuff.
MH: I think that’s the real answer, that it’s sort of a business thing, but if we look at the games themselves it is interesting how different they are, you know? So, the first game is, of course, what we know and love. The first survival horror. Already on the second game, you start out with this sort of big explosion and almost like a SWAT team you go in. It’s really different. It has basically the same gameplay but it strays from the genre.
And then with the third one, they do return to a little bit more of a sort of mystery. But almost from the get-go, it starts to go all over the place and then you get to New Nightmare, which tries to recapture a little bit from the original and then immediately after that one it goes haywire again. There’s the one in New York and then the multiplayer one… it’s all over the place. So, in that sense I think it just had a hard time becoming a trustworthy product, if that makes sense.
GC: I think it’s also what you said earlier, about the first game basically just being a collection of fairly disparate ideas and not a very cohesive whole. But the benefit of that is that it meant you never knew what was going to happen next, which I think is very important for horror.
MH: This actually leads into another thing because, as we mentioned, it felt impossible to make a straight remake for the original because it was so sort of anything goes. That is very useful in the sense of – like you said – of I don’t know what to expect. Anything can happen, that’s very cool if you have a short experience. But if you have a longer game you need to try to understand a longer sequence of events and build a narrative. Then that anything goes concept just becomes super annoying, because you begin to feel that nothing matters.
However, when doing our game, we kind of knew this, because doing the narrative I do apply a little bit more of a Lynchian method of storytelling. But what we do as well is, as you might have noticed, we don’t only have the scenes from the house. We also let the player visit these other places. And that’s kind of where we want the player to go, ‘Oh, I did not expect this to happen. I didn’t expect to be here.’ So we try to recapture some of what you were talking about, that of sense of ‘What’s going on now?’ So even though we can’t apply it in the same way that Raynal did it back in ‘92, we can try to do it in our way.
GC: What difference has modern technology made to your approach, considering how different things are now to the early ‘90s?
MH: So the technology is, of course, amazing but it’s also the worst thing. [laughs]. Because we can fully render monster, to such a high degree that you could see the pores on it, in a way that becomes a little bit difficult to make them truly scary. And if you read Lovecraft, for instance, the fact that it becomes really scary is that he’s just using words and you need to try to piece that into something inside your head. And nothing is as scary as the thing that is inside your own head. And I think in a way the stone age 3D of the original really helps it. When you see one of the ghouls, it’s kind of…
GC: You’re right, there’s a kind of abstractness to the visuals that’s quite disturbing but also lets your imagination go wild with it.
MH: So yeah, of course, it’s amazing that we can render it completely and amazingly, and in a way it looks cooler than it could ever have done back in 1992. But it is a double-edged sword. It’s also something that’s sort of makes it difficult for us.
GC: Well, it’s the problem with modern horror movies. In the old days the good ones knew not to show their monsters too much but now it’s just obvious CGI that’s on screen for far too long.
MH: Exactly, exactly! And when it comes to our monsters we did come to a point where it’s like this would be a better game if we removed some monsters, because it lets the players anticipate and worry more. So you remove some monsters but you try to make them count, be more difficult or more impactful. So we have these instances of violence and then we can go back to having quite extended periods of sort of calm and peace. Calm might be a bit too much, but still peace. [laughs]
GC: I think that illusion of safety is always very important. But if I can wrap this up with a final big question about the genre as a whole. Horror movies are commonplace because they can be made on a small budget and that means they can afford to experiment, but video games are the opposite: you need a lot of money to make convincing visuals and that means, quite literally, you can’t afford to scare people off with a game that’s too disturbing. Which creates a very obvious, perhaps intractable, problem.
MP: Well, I can answer the business side of things. I think this is one of the reasons why we didn’t want to have that horror that jumps out at you all the time. Because, this is something where a lot of people… they just came home from work. Do they really want to be screamed at and jumped at all the time?
GC: I’ll relax by being terrified for three hours!
MP: Yes, exactly. [laughs] And this is where Alone In The Dark is much closer to Silent Hill than the Resident Evils and Dead Spaces and Callisto Protocols of this world. So it is much more of this noir story. That’s also why we call it a survival horror adventure. It is much more about atmosphere. It’s much more about you being a detective or you being the niece uncovering the secret in scary situations, in this spooky world.
And I think this is much more about getting pulled into this world, instead of just being frightened. And I think that there is more people interested in that kind of experience and that being screamed at is much more something for younger people. I think that this Alone In The Dark is really something for a much larger age range. And this is also where we need to be different, we can’t just copy others.
GC: So you’re more mainstream friendly?
MP: Not mainstream friendly. It is still very weird [laughs]. But it is easier to digest for maybe a larger group of people. That was also the reason why we got Hollywood talent on board. To show, this could be something for people that don’t usually play horror games.
GC: I understand David Harbour is quite a keen gamer, I have seen him talk about games before. Did he have any suggestions for the game?
MH: No, no, he didn’t. He was very kind. He was just sort of excited about it. And it is interesting because it is helpful to have people who are sort of game literate in that sense. Game dialogue, you don’t think about it much if you’re a gamer. But, for instance, the whole concept of dialogue where the character is talking to themselves but they’re actually telling the player something. That can seem quite odd to someone that’s not a gamer. It’s not realistic but it’s necessary for the game.
GC: Okay, well thank you both, thanks for your time.
MP: Thank you so much.
MH: Good evening. Bye.
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