HP Lovecast

As well as playing, collecting, discussing and writing about games in all of their guises (both retro and current), I also enjoy a good book. Granted, my most recent book purchases have been books about games: The History of Nintendo 1889-1980 by Florent Gorges and Masters of Doom by David Kushner, but I also enjoy reading the works of another author: HP Lovecraft. Lovecraft's most famous creation is arguably the whole Cthulu mythos, and the fear and dread that is encapsulated by that entire sub-genre hinges on the unnerving threat of inter-dimensional beings that possess ageless knowledge beyond human comprehension; and a running theme that being privy to this level of all-knowing consciousness would lead the frail human mind to total breakdown and madness. Personally, I much prefer Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Colour Out of Space to The Call of Cthulu, but that's just my personal preference.

There aren't many mainstream film adaptations of Lovecraft's work (although a Guillermo del Toro adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness is never too far from the rumour mill door), and even fewer console games based on his books. There was The Call of Cthulu: Dark Corners of the Earth for the original Xbox...but there are few other console titles I can think of that specifically reference Lovecraftian horror and the particular brand of ancient, eldritch terror associated with his novels. There is one game on the Dreamcast however, that whilst not being truly based on a Lovecraft tale, takes lots of cues and plot points from his canon. There are interdimensional monsters, ancient other-worldly horrors, tales of madness and an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates every location - a dread that cannot be pinned on one particular source. That game is Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare.
Developed by DarkWorks and published by Infogrammes in 2001, Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare (or Alone In The Dark 4, as some prefer to call it) is a 3rd person survival horror adventure in a similar vein to the first three Resident Evil games - you control a polygonal character who can move freely around in pre-rendered locations viewed through a static camera. In the case of AITD4, these locations are set on the mysterious Shadow Island, a small craggy enclave jutting from the sea off the coast of Massachusetts. The plot of the adventure is key to my love of The New Nightmare as it has the hallmarks of a great detective story with paranormal and Lovecraftian undertones: set in 2001, you play as either Edward Carnby or Aline Cedrac and travel to Shadow Island to investigate the death of Carnby's friend and partner Charles Fiske. At the time of his untimely and unexplained death, Fiske was investigating the existence of three ancient stone tablets said to be located on the island, and Carnby and Aline make it their mission to find out the significance of the tablets, and find Fiske's killer.

Of course, things get a little bit more complicated when the plane they are travelling in is sabotaged by creatures unknown and the protagonists are forced to bail out. Naturally, they are separated and this is where the game begins - you can choose to play as either Carnby or Aline, and they each start from a different location on Shadow Island, each with a different set of initial equipment items and with a different style of game. Their paths cross on multiple occasions throughout the game, and they do stay in contact throughout via two-way radio. Rather than simply represent 'easy' or 'hard' styles of play, as in the original Resident Evil, both characters games differ significantly in terms of gameplay - Carnby's game is more of a shooter, while Aline's adventure focuses more on puzzle solving. That's not to say there is no gunplay at all in Aline's game, but if you want all-out shooting, then Carnby's the best character to go for initially.

"The enigmas of the adventure are so incorporated with the story that if you reveal the story, you reveal the game."
- Antoine Villette, DarkWorks CEO speaking to EDGE Magazine, Feb 2000
The torch is your best friend
While I have mentioned Resident Evil and drawn comparisons several times, to compare the two is a little inaccurate. The survival horror genre in the style illustrated here was pretty much invented by Alone In the Dark, and all Resident Evil did was run with the original premise (and arguably Capcom's series improved it, too), but the two franchises cannot truly be correlated - in my opinion - because one game is more about blasting zombies to bits with ever more powerful weaponry and trying to stay alive, while the other is much more interested in the mystery of the plot; you aren't really told anything about what is going on, where the creatures that are stalking the island are coming from...what they are, even. It is only through reading manuscripts and diaries that you start to piece together the years of research and almost obsessive devotion to an ancient mystery that has lead to the summoning of Alone In The Dark's antagonists. While the same is true of Resident Evil to a point, there is less emphasis placed on the back story and more on the notion of finding more bullets because zombies are coming to eat your face.

It is true that Alone In The Dark features a mansion, but for me the comparisons to Resident Evil should really end there. There are other mechanics at play in DarkWorks' game that give it an individuality that should be recognised - the use of light and darkness is a massive part of the combat system and you are encouraged to use your torch to beat back the creatures stalking you from the shadows. Likewise, most of the weaponry employs ammunition that will create flashes of light (magnesium bullets, anyone?) as a means of lethality. This also bleeds into the control method which enables you to freely move and also shine your torch around simultaneously. It can be a little cumbersome on a Dreamcast joypad that simply didn't have dual analogue sticks, but it's a nice idea nonetheless. As you can appreciate with the style of game, you do encounter the usual stock puzzles such as locks that need to be opened with combinations that you'll find in old notebooks, and ornaments that need to be pushed around to open hidden doors, but there are also some nice scare tactics used - for instance when creatures flash in and out of existence in time with cracks of lightning and thunder, and the sound design is masterful - lots of howling wind and echoing footsteps on floorboards.

"There have always been movies in the horror genre and there will always be horror games. Fear is one of the most powerful emotions you can feel. There is love and fear - and what else is there?"
- Guillaume Gouraud, DarkWorks Art Director speaking to EDGE Magazine, Feb 2000 
Some of the locations are stunningly rendered
You can probably tell that I really hold Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare in fairly high regard, and yes - I do. There are better survival horror games on the Dreamcast sure, but there is no other game that captures the essence of Lovecraftian horror in the same way. Games like Shadowman, Code Veronica and Soul Reaver are all fine games, but none of them capture true eldritch terror in the same way as DarkWorks' effort does...and for all the flaws the game has, the storyline and the atmosphere are areas in which The New Nightmare does everything right.


Robert Jones said...

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

Tom Charnock said...

Haha! Now you're speaking my language!