GOG’s presentation at CDP Days brought a lot of exciting news. So much, in fact, that some of it might slip your notice, except this one: the original Alone in the Dark trilogy is again available to every PC gaming fan. To celebrate the arrival of those great titles, Cook decided to write up a retrospective article on how the first part in this cult series was created with a short interview with Frederick Raynal - the person who stood behind the creation process of the first part.
Alone in the Dark Retrospective
Infogrames, it’s where it all started
The end of the 1980’s brought Infogrames two new people that were going to give birth to something completely new, although no one—including those two—was aware of that just yet. First one was an game designer Christophe de Dinechin, who was looking for an internship. To make his point he would be a valuable addition to the company for the summer months, he prepared a portfolio with some programs he made. One of those programs was the “Cube” demo representing a 3D engine inspired by Starglider 2. The end result of this meeting at Infogrames was a royalties contract for Christophe and most probably the first 3D platform game for a home computer: “Alpha Waves”, known in the USA as “Continuum”1. The game was released on Atari ST in 1990.
Frederick Raynal, before joining Infogrames had already had some successes as a programmer. His first commercial game was Robix 500 and sold around 80 copies2. But it was thanks to his next game Popcorn (1988), that he was discovered by Infogrames and joined the not-yet-famous company. After doing all sorts of things, he took on porting Alpha Waves to PC platform. According to Christophe "he actually did more than port it. The PC version included, for example, a very nice tutorial showing how to use the game which did not exist in my original version. The only thing he failed to do was account for different CPU speeds, and so Alpha Waves is practically unplayable on today’s machines without slowing it down quite a bit." Frederick also commented that it was the "last time he made this mistake"3.
What was that? A new genre is born
Working on a 3D game made Frederick’s creative mind work at 110%. The new possibilities that opened up with the discovery of the third dimension in video games were almost limitless. The young programmer, a huge fan of George Romero’s works, raised on horror movies, started to form a concept of a new type of game. “While I was working on the adaptation of Alpha Waves from Atari ST to PC I had the feeling I can do more, especially with articulated and skinned characters” he recalls when asked how it all started. “My father had a video club (a VHS movies rental store) in the 80’s, I was very fond of horror movies, Romero with its zombies and haunted houses. The scheme was almost always the same. A guy or a group of people were trapped in a bad situation, and the goal was just to survive. That is the beginning of Alone in the Dark. I wanted to do animated 3D zombies, an old manor that can be considered as a character of the story, no princess to save, you just have to survive and exit alive this house”4.
So Frederick, despite Infogrames’ mixed feelings about it, started working on the programming tool that would allow him to create 3D animated human characters. The technical limits of the era didn’t allow him to make a fully 3D environment, so Frederick thought about using photos as a background. But thanks to Infogrames’ artistic director Didier Chanfray’s black and white concept sketches, an internal contest among company’s graphic artists was held at the office. Yael Barroz hand-drawn backgrounds were picked as the best solution for the game. The combination of 3D models, hand-drawn backgrounds and a still camera placed inside a scene convinced Infogrames’ CEO Bruno Bonnell that the route taken by Frederick might actually be right, so he decided to put him in charge of the project. That was in 1991, and the survival-horror genre was born.
What’s that hiding in the dark
Frederick and his team were finally set out to create what Raynal always wanted - a game inspired by Romero’s and Lovecraft’s output. “The real inspiration was Romero and 80’s movies. But I wanted to have books in the game to add a deeper feeling of horror that we couldn’t show with our polygons engine, imagination is always stronger than pictures and also use them to give clues to player”5.
Again, technical limitations made the team to work with what was available to give goose bumps to the player. Said Frederick, “A game is 80 per cent movement. This is where you want the player to be scared, when doing these simple things. In Alone, when he opens his first door, there’s a monster right behind it and he immediately dies. When he walks down his first corridor, the floorboards collapse and he kills himself. From that moment, he will be scared all the time. The music also helps. I wanted a dynamic score, with a specific theme for the arrival of each monster. Philippe had the idea to play it a few more times than were necessary. In the end, when playing Alone, you were often scared without reason”6.
The team was there, the concept was ready, and all the tools needed to create this genre-defining game were in place. All that remained now was to execute on the vision. The progress on the game was very fast and Raynal was able to show one of the early builds of Alone in the Dark during the spring ECTS. Media’s reactions were very positive from the very beginning and ensured everyone on the team that they are making something special. The next few months brought Raynal many mixed feelings, from euphoria to disappointment and from elation to resignation. As a real professional and perfectionist, Raynal focused on intense bug-testing and was convinced that the game is full of errors which will be noticed by gamers. The great reception of the game, when it was released in November 1992, showed he was just too hard on himself.
The huge success of Alone in the Dark meant the sequel was guaranteed. Raynal started working on the second part of the game and wanted to add even more advanced effects to the 3D engine he used in the first part. Unfortunately Infogrames wanted the sequel to be made on the same engine, just with a new story. This and the lack of recognition for the team that created the game pushed him to leave Infogrames. “This game sold two-and-a-half million copies. It made Infogrames tens of millions of pounds and they couldn’t show us some recognition for it? Only the support of the press and the gamers allowed me to get over it,” said Raynal7. After that, Frederick and most of the team left Infogrames to found Adeline Software and create another hugely successful franchise: Relentless (also known as Little Big Adventure).
Face to face with an industry legend
When we knew that Alone in the Dark is coming to GOG.com, we wanted to get some insight about how this great series was created. We managed to get in touch with Frederick Raynal and he was kind enough to answer our questions. We’d like to thank him very much for his time to answer those. Here’s the short Q&A with Frederick Raynal.
1. In what circumstances the revolutionary idea of the first Alone in the Dark was born? How did you come up with a game that had such a great movie-like feeling and basically created a new gaming genre - survival-horror?
While I was working on the adaptation of Alpha Waves from Atari ST to PC (it was a 3D platformer with geometrical shapes) I had the feeling I can do more, especially articulated and skinned characters. My father had a video club (VHS movies rental) in the 80’s, I was very fond of horror movies, Romero with its zombies, haunted houses, etc. The scheme was almost always the same. A guy or a group of people were trapped in a bad situation, and the goal was just to survive. That is the beginning of AitD, I wanted to do animated 3D zombies, an old manor that can be considered as a character of the story, no princess to save, you just have to survive and exit alive this house.
2. Why did you decide to use 3D graphics in Alone in the Dark while 2D was still very popular and enjoyed great successes?
I was a young programmer and this still was the time where technology drove innovation. New techniques led to new gameplay. But 2D was used for the background because I knew I couldn’t have nice and impressive scenes with 3D because of the limited computers power (and though the limited number of polygons). 3D modelers didn’t really exist at this time, so I invented a tool, that allow to build a house in 3D wireframe, by moving a camera in real time in it, we choose the best views, then “shoot” those cameras. The rendering was then done all by hand, drawing on wireframe pictures with Deluxe Paint. The goal was first to ensure good gameplay, by having a full coverage of all floors of the house, then we sometimes add more dramatic angles.
3. Why have you decided to put an ageing detective as the main character of the game instead of a young, brave, strong, clever and handsome guy?
Moving in 3D was uneasy, the interface was only the keyboard, so the moves have to be quite slow. I also wanted this game more an adventure game than a shooter, so to avoid frustration from the slow moves and not so very fast action, I decided that an old investigator would better fit for the slow pace.
4. Why did you decide to leave Infogrames after starting work on Alone in the Dark 2?
The game was starting to receive a lot of congratulation from the video game world, and the sales were more than amazing. I started working on the sequel, adding lights to the 3D to be able to give more frightening immersion, 3DStudio started to show out, and I wanted 3D rendered backgrounds to go further. But Bruno Bonnel came and told me what’s the company’s direction: “don’t change anything, just modify a little bit the story and it will sell, because it’s a sequel.” I was so shocked. I always had a big respect for players and I really didn’t like this. Then Delphine Software made us a great offer with a white card, so the core team of AITD left Infogrames.
5. The first part of the game allowed players to control two characters, do you have any idea why the next parts gave up on this idea?
I don’t know. When incorporating two characters in the first part, what I wanted was more differences in the gameplay with the male or female character. A kind of more action oriented gameplay for man, and more adventure driven for woman. Unfortunately the limited time for development didn’t allow us to go as deep as I wanted in that direction.
6. The first part of the series was highly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's output - why do you think next parts changed the setting and atmosphere to pirates and western?
The real inspiration was Romero and 80’s horror movies. But I wanted to have books in the game to add a deeper feeling of horror that we couldn’t show with our polygons engine - imagination is always stronger than pictures, and also use them to give clues to player. Infogrames had a Chtulu license hanging somewhere and ask me to try to make the game fit with it. But I didn’t want to add role playing elements in the game (I was a roleplay gamer and I always hate character sheet), but I took a lot of monsters from Lovecraft, and the text’s writer knew his books very well, and I wanted to have this kind of madness in the texts. Chaosium who held the Cthulhu License, refused to give the Cthulhu name to the game, because it was too far from the role playing game genre. That’s the power of the main programmer of a game, you can’t make him add something he doesn’t want in his game : )
7. The real survival-horror genre doesn't exist anymore, as even Resident Evil became more of a shooter. Why do you think it's happening this way?
The gamers decide what they want to play, so what they buy, and editors publish games that people will buy. Games that try to mix different kinds of gameplay are nowadays very risky. If you want to play a shooter, than the game has to be only a shooter: “Uncharted” is a good example, it gives a feeling of adventure, but there is no puzzle, you just follow the path and shoot, but you have a good adventure mood. “Alan Wake” was more in the Alone in the Dark ambiance and kind of gameplay. I loved this game even if it’s far from perfect, unfortunately it wasn’t very successfull. If you want to play a puzzle or reflexion game, buy a reflexion game.
Thank you for your time.
4. GOG.com’s interview with Frederick Raynal
5. GOG.com’s interview with Frederick Raynal