Alone In The Dark was made at the point in gaming history in which 3D truly came alive, flat-shaded polys giving way to textures, and requiring the efforts of increasing team sizes to become real. Production staff numbers grew from one or two people to almost ten, each with their own competencies. Structure became key, especially with real businessmen as managers: people who wanted to make money, people able to provide the creators with a relevant working framework. Not too strict a framework, however, as the story of Alone In The Dark reveals.
As the ’80s drew to a close, Frédérick Raynal, an extremely gifted, game-obsessed, young programmer, was hired by Infogrames upon their discovery of Popcorn, a game he coded early in his career. Joining a studio with a workforce of only 20, Raynal juggled various responsibilities including the creation of ports and graphic libraries, none of which happened to suit his aspirations. A childhood inventor, the only constraints he accepted were those of the machines he worked with. Fortuitously, the company’s management of human resources would allow him the time to pursue more personal research, his bosses looking on with both kindness and contempt. They may not have empathised with his activities, but so long as the official boxes were being ticked, they’d abide.
In 1989, Raynal was asked to port Christophe de Dinechin’s ST game Alpha Waves (aka Continuum) to the PC. While becoming versed with its 3D technology, his imagination sparked at its possibilities in terms of immersion. “This was the time,” he reflects, “when I started thinking about animated characters that could move in scenes that would look like something.”
In 1990, he began programming a tool for the creation and animation of 3D characters. At the same time, with the help of trainee Frank De Girolami, he devised a tool by which he could place a camera inside a scene, generate that scene in wireframe and acquire from it a bitmap image. From there, a graphic designer would have to ‘colour by hand’ the wireframe to simulate a 3D environment. A year later, Infogrames’ CEO Bruno Bonnell proposed the idea of an inexpensive game where the player could employ three matches to gain a snapshot of their otherwise dark environment. In this, Raynal saw a potential vehicle for some prototypical ideas of his own.
Dubbed In The Dark, the game’s conceptual foundation was the deprivation of light, the player advancing throughout with the aid of burning matches. Raynal, having dreamed of a fear-based game for a long time, jumped at the idea. “In the ’80s,” he reveals, “my dad had a video club and I would watch many movies. I loved horror movies, especially Dawn Of The Dead by George Romero, where the heroes are trapped in a supermarket attacked by zombies. Since then, I knew I would create a zombie game: some day, when technology would allow it.”
Raynal interpreted the project somewhat differently to its originators, but was nonetheless granted his wish to lead it. Infogrames’ artistic director Didier Chanfray immediately understood the vision he was pursuing. His first sketches – white chalk on black Canson paper – were so good that they inspired an internal contest organised among the company’s graphic artists, whereby the 2D artwork had to be extrapolated into a pseudo-3D environment.
Didier Chanfrey’s sketches articulated a concept based on darkness and light
A winner emerged in the guise of Ya’l Barroz who, as set decorator, would duly join Raynal (director and coder) and Chanfray (modeller and character animator) as part of Alone In The Dark’s core team. The room Barroz modelled became the first technical demo seen by the Infogrames directors, and they were stunned.
The official green light from Infogrames came in the autumn of 1991. A first-time writer would help Raynal build the house in accordance with the experience he wanted players to endure. Again, his eye was fixed on exactly what he wanted. “A 1920s manor,” he recalls. “I wanted a big enough house, where you would start in the attic so that you could completely explore it before finding the way out. The turn of the century allowed for weapons while avoiding the modern commodities that were too difficult to properly handle: electricity, for instance, would have caused atmosphere and consistency problems.” By Christmas, the team had created the opening of Raynal’s grim endeavour – a ‘first playable’ iteration of the experience that gave an early indication of the quality of the finished game.
As production began the following year, the team grew to six with the arrival of composer Philippe Vachey, writer Hubert Chardot and De Girolami (who would later become project lead on Alone In The Dark 2). During three consecutive afternoons, Raynal outlined to his team the game’s roadmap, defining the assets to be created: 170 images for 170 different cameras along with the monsters, objects, triggered events, player actions, background story and narrative text they’d convey. By the meeting’s conclusion, everyone would know their precise itinerary for the following six months.
Raynal, at this juncture, was 100 per cent sure of his design choices, but unsure as to the reasons behind them, designing the whole game by instinct. In retrospect, he explains: “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.”
Months later, the game obtained the Call Of Cthulhu licence Bonnell had bought from Chaosium Games. HP Lovecraft’s bestiary replaced every zombie but for the few that Raynal insisted on keeping for sentimental reasons. Ultimately, the game wouldn’t be released under the Cthulhu banner, Chaosium deeming it too simple to honour the complex rules of the pen-and-paper game. But during the first half of 1992, this consideration became increasingly minor, soon to be left behind. The team knew they were creating something special and a sense of euphoria filled their office. They returned from the spring ECTS and the Las Vegas CES full of energy, galvanized by the enthusiasm of both journalists and buyers.
Come the summer, however, times became decidedly harder. Raynal and Barroz had fallen in love, Barroz becoming pregnant and now being close to giving birth. Raynal recalls the month of August when tension would accompany the telephone’s every ring: “It was either a bug,” he says, “or the hospital.” In September, after a year of complete freedom, an Infogrames manager visited with the intent of seeing the game’s credits. After ‘Game created by’, he asked that ‘Frédérick Raynal’ be replaced by ‘Infogrames’. Raynal did as he was asked, the intense bug-testing of the previous couple of months having damaged his confidence. All he saw in the game at this point in time were flaws that he was convinced would be noticed by gamers, and what happened next didn’t help. Infogrames issued instructions for Alone In The Dark 2: a sequel that was bound to sell. ‘Keep the same engine’, went the directive, ‘and just come up with a new story’.
Raynal says that he felt like a prisoner. For the sequel, he wanted 3D sets and lights and a raft of other improvements, but there was no arguing with instructions. In November 1992, Alone In The Dark was released for PC, meeting with huge success. Infogrames was no doubt delighted with its commercial achievements, but Raynal was left feeling that the company had denied him the recognition – both formal and financial – which he deserved for creating the game which founded the series. As a consequence, he, along with the rest of his team, left the company almost immediately.
The end of Alone In The Dark, he reveals, remains “the trauma of my life.” He elaborates: “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.”
Following Infogrames, Raynal founded Adeline Software and created Relentless, known in the UK as Little Big Adventure. Recognition was not far off.