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GDC 2012: Inside the making of  Alone in the Dark
GDC 2012: Inside the making of Alone in the Dark
March 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 9, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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1992's Alone in the Dark was a game whose technical and storytelling innovations in a primitive time made it unforgettable to gamers, and birthed a genre.

But before he joined Infogrames and led a small team in its creation, Frederick Raynal programmed small video games (like 1988’s PopCorn) – and when he wasn’t doing that, he repaired computers in his father’s shop. “My father’s shop was also a VHS movie tape rental shop, so I was working days and nights in this shop; when I was not programming, I watched movies.”

A twenty-something Raynal watched all the movies he could get his hands on, but was especially attracted to the horror films of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero. “Usually, you are one guy, or a group of guys, entering a special environment and [trying] to survive,” he says of his favorite kind of film.

He joined Infogrames in 1990, and ported Atari ST title The Cube to the PC; it took about six months. “I spent six months inside a rotating cube,” he jokes. “It obsessed me… It was something to do with the 3D. I didn’t know what exactly, but my imagination was very, very motivated.”

His early vision involved articulated and polygon skilled 3D characters like zombies and monsters. A fan of pen and paper roleplaying games, he envisioned an adventure or action theme that places the player all alone in the year 1920 – so that the world could have electricity, but no complicated computing. “It was perfect for the place,” he says. “You enter a house, and you just have to escape the house alive.”

He knew from the beginning he needed to add text. “To make something very scary… with just a few polygons [is] not very frightening, so I knew that I needed the text to put the situation into a very heavy background story for the game.”

The engine could only accommodate a relatively small number of polygons, at this time. “So I thought that I need some 3D backgrounds, but which are not made with polygons. SoI had the idea I could take pictures of a real mansion, an old one.”

He explained his vision to his friend, artist Didier Chanfray, who did a chiaroscuro concept art of a lone figure holding a lantern up at the end of an eerie mansion hallway. Raynal considers the image iconic to this day.

It was the first time in his games career that the scope of the game was intimidating, requiring some ideas that hadn’t yet been much in existence at that time. He knew he needed a professional 3D modeling tool, but such things, where they existed at all, were still primitive.

Still obsessed by The Cube’s rotating 3D object, he was inspired to make his own high-res EGA 3D editor based on grids. Further work involved importing scanned pictures to actualize his vision of 3D photo backgrounds– but the basic 3D projection wasn’t sophisticated enough.

So he ditched the idea of doing photo-based backgrounds, realizing they needed to be hand-drawn bitmaps. The game’s working proof of concept, with a working character model and a couple of mansion rooms, was done in September 1991 and approved by Infogrames; the project had a 3D artist in Chanfray, a 2D artist in Yael Barroz – whom Raynal later married – and a programmer in Franck de Girolami. The mansion's layout was the work of Franck Manzetti.

The wireframe lead character could be filed out and animated within the tool and computed in-between the animation’s four frames. The final game included the option of a female character, in what Raynal believes was a "naive" perception for the time that more women would play the game if they had that choice.

“You could, like an articulated puppet, put all the positions of the body… I wanted to have this, but in the early 90s, PCs were slow but were evolving very very quickly,” Raynal explains. The first monster designed for the game had a very fluid and plausible attack animation in only three frames.

At the turn of the decade, PC technology was advancing incredibly rapidly, and the result was that home computers varied wildly in speed. "So I decided to have this system to be able to adapt itself to the speed of the computer," says Raynal. "You can put all the time you want between the frames.”

Very soon, says Raynal, he understood he would need to make his own scripting language: “I understood that if you do, for a game -- and it’s still true nowadays -- dedicated tools, it’s very very efficient, because it helps keep the direction. Every artist working on the game you can give them maximum freedom inside the constraint you want.”

That allowed for fairly sophisticated fighting animations. But “Alone in the Dark is not an action game; it’s an adventure game with a few action [elements],” he enforces. So he asked for a writer for the in-game text.

At the time, Infogrames was talking to Chaosium, owner of the Call of Cthulu license, and proposed a Lovecraftian tone. “But please, not Call of Cthulu, because the character sheets were so awful,” he joked. Writer Hubert Chardot joined up, and the team, now up to six people, had meetings for three days to plot out the game’s story from start to finish, as well as the list of tasks players would need to perform to advance the game.

Additional team members included two more 2D artists and a music and sound designer, Philippe Vachey, who used Ad Lib FM chip music and Sound Blaster audio samples. “You could do real samples for the first time on the PC,” reflects Raynal. It meant much to him to have realistic stair creaks and door creaks – “that was something very important for the game.”

In the staging of survival horror, “I had a lot of ideas of how to scare the player… imagination is stronger than polygons,” says Raynal. “If you have this very heavy and dense, dark story, it helps… but I realized there was still something else. In an adventure game, you walk 80% of the time. So if you want to put big pressure on the player, just scare him with what he does all the time -- just walking.”

Unavoidable traps would pressure the player and keep him on his toes, afraid and careful, even with simple acts like opening doors or creeping down long hallway. “You need to read the books in the game, but some books, you just open it and you die.”

Limiting the inventory and the ammunition also creates a sense of helplessness – “you didn’t need, actually, a lot of munition. It would make people more confident to have a big gun and everything. But if you read all the books, you have all the clues to kill the monsters… I really wanted to force the player to find other solutions [besides] brutal force.”

By the time the game was final, though: “I have a confession: In October 1992, I hated this game,” says Raynal. The perfectionism and quest for real dynamics that had led him to innovate so much on technology for Alone in the Dark kept him dissatisfied with some of the shortcomings of elements he had to implement quickly, such as thrown objects not moving in a dynamic arc.

“Everyone was really tired, and I was really afraid,” he says. Of course, the rest is history: Alone in the Dark was and continues to be well-beloved, and is widely considered the founding entry in the survival-horror genre of games.

At the end of the game, when the player defeats the sorcerer that has captivated the house, the player has the opportunity to explore the mansion in a state of being empty and safe. “But generally, the testers just wanted to get out,” Raynal laughs.

"I would love an HD remake," he adds, answering an audience question. "I hope that happens."


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Comments


Emmanuel Cloutier
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I remember playing this game when it first came out in 1992. It used to scare the hell out of me and that's what kept me going. If ever a remake of this game is being made, it would have to be highly focused on that slow and creepy pace as well as the overall ambience that made this game a small masterpiece.

Jacek Wesolowski
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I remember playing through Alone in the Dark about a dozen times as a 13-year-old. It was definitely one of key experiences that formed my tastes as a gamer and game designer. Neither me nor my brother spoke sufficient English at the time, and we only beat the game thanks to a walkthrough. It was still quite scary to us.

The main reason for us to keep returning to it was the hope that we would find new secrets and ways to interact with the surroundings. There was something about this game that invited exploration and experimentation. In a way, it was the first sandbox game I played in my life.

Chuan Lim
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Hooray ., really nice to hear this classic post -mortem -- inspiring stuff ..!
As with Jordan Mechner & Eric Chahi ., Reynal seems to have dreamt big and backed it up w/ alot of work from first principles. That's really fantastic and probably helped "Alone in the Dark" give the kind of impression it did when it came out. I still think "Alone in the Dark" is one of the greatest games ever made though it doesn't make it into people's all -time lists.

Apart from better cameras most modern games such as "Resident Evil" still lean heavily on what these guys came up with almost 20 years ago in terms of cinematic presentation and contiguous space. Hearing the digitised creaks and footsteps come out of my Model-80 speaker was absolutely amazing as well. Had no idea that so many people were involved but the game was just head + shoulders above anything else in both an artistic and technical sense at the time.

The European [ possibly French? ] games developers were more creative during the late 80s and early 90s than anything that was coming out from USA or Japan. It's just a shame that the kind of weird experimental approach to development didn't really carry across to commercial game development, or even the way indies seem to be going about making games these days. That we should be more speculative and visionary because we have the freedom to do so.

-


That said would love to see either Yoot Saito on "Seaman" or Kenji Eno do a post -mortem on "Kaze no regret" some day. Or even people like Paul Woakes. Make it happen please.! I've mentioned this before but it's worth re -iterating that Christophe De Dinechin of "Alpha Waves" [ "The Cube" ] has his own blog entries on game development around this time too. If you liked this retrospective you might enjoy reading this as well.


Christophe De Dinechin Blog : "Dawn of 3D Games"
http://grenouille-bouillie.blogspot.com.au/2007/10/dawn-of-3d-gam
es.html


Cheers .,


-- Chuan

Abel Bascunana Pons
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Beside the gloomy atmosphere and amazing 3D showcase, there was a strong emotional driver i clearly recall when i played this game as a kid:

this is the camera perspective change once you moved forward to another scene.

This made one feel continually scared, as if you encountered an enemy and wanted to go back from where you came, it didn't mean you had press the same directional key you used in the previous room to move in the same direction... many times, doing so meant you would walk towards the enemy instead!

So the game forced the player to constantly update his 3D perception axis as the fixed camera kept shifting its angle. In my opinion this feature was key for the great success of the game.

Colm McAndrews
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OH yah. It was an adventure, you had to solve puzzles, read books and inspect things. I bet that's all it takes to get market experts, analysts and producers to shiver in fear and loath. Back then it was impossible to conceive a serious PC game without some sort of puzzle. Now it's blasphemy.

Brian Buchner
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Utterly fantastic game that really captured being in a Lovecraftian mansion.

Brian Buchner
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Utterly fantastic game that really captured being in a Lovecraftian mansion.

Brian Buchner
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Utterly fantastic game that really captured being in a Lovecraftian mansion.

Brian Buchner
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What the...?

Brian Buchner
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What the..?

Brian Buchner
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What the...?

Trevor Cuthbertson
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"'Everyone was really tired, and I was really afraid,' he says."

This would have been a much better story if Mr. Raynal had premonitions of being murdered at the completion of Alone in the Dark, only to find out his girlfriend dumps him after the last line of code is written.

Olivier Riedo
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What actually happened isn't all that better, since he got tricked by Infogrames into renouncing any claim to royalties for the game (which later motivated his leaving for Adeline Software to create LBA).

Josh Bycer
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That's a shame about the royalties. I attended the panel and talked to him for a few minutes afterwards. It was interesting to find out that he had no involvement in Alone in the Dark 2. And I remembered how the game was more combat focused then the first one, which is something that he didn't agree with. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I never finished the game as I played it when I was 10 years old and couldn't solve a puzzle.

Caleb Garner
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I am happy to know that because Alone 2 was an atrocity.. I played the first one on the 3DO and was thrilled to get the sequel.. but then as i played it, gangster ghosts? all of the lovecraftian stuff was missing.. i didn't get too far into the second one because from the start had none of the things the first one did.

I am sorry to hear he got screwed out of that success. Sounds like this could be grounds for a kickstarter ;)

Jake Shapiro
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I wonder what an HD remake would look like. AitD is a classic game, though, and it's a shame later versions (and film adaptations) have tarnished its legacy.


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