All posts by Mel S.

Bottom of the Bargain Bin: Alone in the Dark

Bottom of the Bargain Bin shines the spotlight on the forgotten gems, horrifying failures and “how did this get made?” oddities which line the bottom of every bargain bin.

Alone in the Dark (2008)

As the father of the fixed-angle survival horror games which flooded every console in the 90s and early 00s, the original Alone in the Dark released in 1992 was a landmark which felt its influence in classic series like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and Silent Hill. Its blocky graphics and clunky controls might render it close to unplayable today but simply from a design point of view, it’s not hard to see how important a part it played in the progression of video games in the early 90s.

The first attempt at rebooting the series came in 2001 with The New Nightmare, a by-the-numbers survival horror game which failed to do anything new with a genre that been milked dry by waves of increasingly inferior knockoffs. It was the last gasp of a dying breed of game which was finally ushered out the door when Resident Evil 4 once again reshaped what it meant to be dubbed survival horror.

After a particularly disastrous Uwe Boll film adaptation in 2005 wiped clean what remaining relevance was left for the series to a modern audience, it seemed safe to assume that the shambling corpse the Alone in the Dark series had become would be put out of its misery before more damage could be done to its legacy.

Enter Eden Games, a development team comprised of a bunch of nutty Frenchman with no notion of restraint who were given the go-ahead by Atari to breathe new life into the Alone in the Dark franchise. First announced in 2006, the game faced some delays (but not enough) before finally shuffling out onto shelves in 2008.

Fast forward six years later and their attempt to redefine a genre now sits in the bottom of bargain bins around the world for less than $5.

Most remarkable about this take on Alone in the Dark is its production values; this is a game that clearly had millions and millions of dollars pumped into it and on a purely superficial level, it feels like money well spent. The game still looks impressive years after its release and the soundtrack — a mix of weird sing-chanting, grandiose strings and tons of jingling Christmas bells — is absolutely ridiculous in the best way possible and sounds like some gothic take on the Home Alone soundtrack.

Nearly as remarkable as the amount of money dumped into this thing is how instantly unplayable the game reveals itself to be after picking up the controller. The game’s opening set piece is stunning, your character rappelling down the side of a crumbling skyscraper, an epic choir chanting goofy nonsense in the background, flames shooting out everywhere and the streets of New York erupting into chaos below you. You land on your first ledge, anxious to continue your way down the side of this towering inferno, take two steps forward and then instantly realize that you’re in for one of the most arduous experiences of your life.

There is no gradual reveal of how terrible the controls are- it’s apparent the very first moment the game asks you to step forward on that burning ledge. There’s no thought that maybe there’s a learning curve, or that you’ll just have to get used to them because they handle a little differently than other games like this, it’s very clear very fast that the game is broken beyond repair because you can never move your character with any degree of confidence. 16 years had passed between the original Alone in the Dark and this remake and yet the controls feel no less antiquated.

It boggles the mind trying to understand the gap between the amount of money and effort put into this game and its lack of playability. Was no one assuring quality? Were the moneymen not actually checking to see what their money was being used for? You’d assume that there are systems and checks in place to ensure a project could not go as far off the rails as Alone in the Dark did and yet a simple push forward on the analog stick instantly reveals a game which feels like it is nowhere near releasable quality.

We may never know how Eden Games continually managed to get the funding and resources to move forward for years on such an obviously broken game but you get the feeling that even if they had another ten years and a hundred million dollars to work on it, they’d have never been able to pull all of their disparate ideas together to make a cohesive game. It may have an innumerable amount of problems but a lack of ambition isn’t one of them.

The game’s bizarre hook is that it’s being presented as a season of television split up into episodes complete with cliffhangers and “previously on Alone in the Dark” recaps at their start. It’s a neat idea — one done better in the infinitely superior Alan Wake — but the game’s writing is so horrendously bad that any attempt to treat it as if it’s worthy of such serialization is laughable.

An example of a typical dialogue exchange:

“I taste your fear. So many questions.”

“And I suppose you’re the answer man, shithead?”

Protagonist Edward Carnby might be the most unlikable character a video game has ever seen. He is supposed to be a charming rogue ala Han Solo but instead comes off like a crass, bitter sociopath who reacts to the characters and events around him with the attitude of a petulant 16-year old. Early on in the game he yells “fuck you!” into the face of a woman recently possessed by a demon and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the game’s obnoxious narrative.

Battling those aforementioned demons is what makes up the majority of the game and you soon realize that that is where all creativity in this game went to die. Fire is your main weapon against the monsters and so this leads to the game going absolutely gonzo with its use of flame physics and weapons. You pick up wooden and chairs and sticks from around the levels to fight back, holding them over flames so they catch on fire and then be used to burn the demons into ash. There are gas cans which you can use to pour trails of gasoline onto the ground and then set off with a lighter (an idea later STOLEN for GTA5 by those treacherous thieves at Rockstar). You can throw flammable canned products and shoot them in midair to make an explosion or coat your ammo in lighter fluid to somehow make flame bullets. All of your various tools and supplies are carried in Edward’s jacket which acts as the cool inventory system. Whenever you need something, you open up your jacket and scroll through the various pockets, finding bandages to apply to your wounds or tape which you can use to work up bigger bombs.

There are such great and unique ideas at work here but the simple fact is none of them work properly. The inventory system is great in theory but navigating Edward’s jacket requires all of these elaborate manoeuvrings of the analog sticks which makes it a constant frustration. Simply getting a wooden chair into flames to catch fire is nearly an impossible task on its own so then having to swing it around with the awful controls to actually hit a monster drives you up the wall. Every single encounter with a monster is a battle against a series of broken mechanics so you spend the entire game dreading the game next it actually makes you try to do something.

To be fair though, even when you’re not fighting monsters, the game is an absolute chore. There are a series of driving sections — which of course are overcooked to the point that you actually have to slide in behind the steering wheel and hotwire the car yourself — and they are as abysmal to play through as you’d expect. There aren’t any checkpoints in them either so you can be sure to expect to drive through the same exploding street 30 times before you finally memorize the correct sequence of turns and jumps.

Adding insult to injury, everything about this game was so clearly broken that when it was finally released on PS3, it was as a slightly modified version dubbed Alone in the Dark: Inferno. That incarnation of the game claimed to address many of the control and frustration problems of the original release, problems which the developers probably should’ve noticed a few years before during production and not after it was released to scathing reviews and general disinterest. I haven’t played Inferno but I have a hunch I know whether or not it actually makes this into a good game. Hint: no.

The Alone in the Dark franchise has seen many highs and lows but the 2008 remake seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, an ambitious mess which really tried to do something grand with the brand yet still fell victim to many of the problems that has plagued the series since the start. Its earned its spot in the hallowed plastic grating of bargain bins where it can finally be appreciated by its true audience: connoisseurs of garbage.

Mel’s Best of 2013

10. Outlast

When Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs revealed itself to be nothing but an overwrought short story devoid of any actual scares (not that surprising in retrospect considering it came from a studio known only for previously making an overwrought interactive short story), the gap for a great horror game in 2013 was left wide open. Enter Outlast, an interactive carnival ride through a spooky asylum full of jump scares, cackling mad inmates and tons of uncomfortable full-frontal nudity. What more could you possibly want?

9. Gunpoint

Elevator Action was once proven to be the greatest game ever made by a group of scientists in Reykjavik so someone’s gotta have a lot of guts if they think they have what it takes to step up to the 2D spy platformer throne and reach for the crown. Gunpoint may not impress Icelandic scholars the same way E-Action did back in the day but it was a unique platformer all the same, one which managed to properly convey a real sense of old school espionage even with its simple 2D style.

8. The Last of Us

It was pretty good.

7. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

No one thought it could be done. There was no way Platinum Games could ever craft a Metal Gear subtitle as brilliantly stupid as “Peace Walker”, a title so dumb that it sounds like it could be the title of the book Vin Diesel eventually writes about his relationship with Paul Walker. Kojima had hinted at greatness before with the incredibly stupid subtitle “Snake Eater” but “Peace Walker” made us rethink what we thought we knew about goofy-as-hell subtitles. It’s a testament to Platinum’s expert handling of the Metal Gear brand then that the bar was raised once again with “Revengeance”, a nonsensical joke of a title which is made infinitely better knowing that absolutely no one who worked on the game thought it was humorous.

Also, the game was great. You could slice up watermelons with a sword.

6. Papers, Please

Papers Please might’ve tried to disturb players with the bureaucratic horror that comes with running a dystopian society but it’s never been so much fun to be a cog in a horrible humanity-crushing machine.

5. Super Mario 3D World

In a bitter twist of fate, the year of Luigi was proven to be meaningless as Mario stole the spotlight from his older brother yet again with another classic platformer. Coincidentally, not long after its release Luigi was found naked hanging from the rafters of one of his many haunted manors with the hose of his magic vacuum cleaner wrapped around his neck in a clear case of autoerotic asphyxiation. R.I.P. Luigi.

4. Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Like all of Tom Clancy’s escapism-for-patriotic-middle-aged-men projects, the purpose of the Splinter Cell games from day one has been to empower players into feeling like the ultimate badass American who can defeat terrorism just by doing the splits between two walls a lot. Its plot and characters are boilerplate Clancy hogwash but Blacklist was one of the most mechanically sound action games of the year and made it effortless to become the gruff overpowered kill-three-bad-guys-at-once hero you want to be in a silly blockbuster like this.

3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf

I love Simpsons: Tapped Out as much as the next person but it seems to be part of a disturbing trend of games devolving into nothing but a routine of mindless time-consuming tapping in exchange for the false sense of creation. New Leaf felt like the antidote to games like that, one which appealed to our need for routine and progress but managed to do it in a way which was always engaging, charming and fun.

2. Gone Home

There’s nothing that new about Gone Home — since Adventure in 1975, adventure games have been using mundane exploration as their main means of storytelling. The measured search of the boarded cabin at the start of Zork is no different than the measured search of the house in Gone Home, it’s the same kind of atmospheric world being built up simply by the details and textures of the environment around you. The brilliance of Gone Home was in how dedicated it was to even the smallest of those details, creating a world so well-crafted that even the most insignificant piece of trash you might’ve found lying around still managed to tell you something about either a character or this universe they existed in.

1. Grand Theft Auto V  

GTAV showed more artistry in its announcement trailer two years ago than some games from 2013 did in their entirety. Gorgeous cutscenes with actual thought put into shot composition, great naturalistic voiceover from a good actor, brilliant use of the title track from the Small Faces’ eternally underrated classic 60s album “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”. In less than two minutes they managed to make something that was more cultured, nuanced and cinematic than whatever David Cage has been attempting to do his entire career.

The full game replicated that same kind of craft on a scale so immense that it almost defied believability. How thousands of people and multiple studios could make such a sprawling, multi-protagonist epic feel so singular in vision and voice was a stunning achievement. The game created a world as rich and defined as the one in Gone Home, just one that happened to be a few billion times its size.

Most impressive was how Rockstar ended the console cycle with a game which acted as a perfect summation of the leaps and bounds they grew throughout the generation. GTAIV supplied the engine which would act as the blueprint for all of the following games; Red Dead Redemption improved the narrative structure and better used the hardware to create a more ambitious world ; L.A. Noire saw them focus on the importance of acting and motion capture; Max Payne 3 addressed the problems they were having with combat. In a five-year span they managed to create five great games which built upon each other until they had polished their ideas and mechanics into near-perfection with GTAV. Now just imagine what they’re gonna do with the new consoles.