Playing the Lame Vol. 16

So we’re still on schedule. I’m very pleased about this. I hope you are too.

I also hope you all like the new top image. Big thanks to J. Rose for cobbling the new image together for me at 2AM after the site design magically changed an hour after the column went live.

Sigh.

In all seriousness, though, I’m digging the new sign design. Leave us comments and let us all know what YOU think, yeah?

Don’t forget, you can recommend terrible games for me to mock in the comments or in the forums. Or you can E-mail them to me, if you don’t want anyone to know you’re actually reading this. I can understand if you don’t want to admit it.

Anyway, I’ve got nothing else of note to add here. Let’s get down to business.

PLAYING THE LAME, VOLUME 16.

Name of the offending title: Alone in the Dark
What system was this forced upon: The version we’re reviewing was released for the Xbox 360, though there are versions for most of the console systems available. The PS2 and Wii versions are supposedly worse than this version, while the PS3 version is supposedly better. We are, in short, essentially reviewing the median line of the crap pool here, version-wise.
Who was responsible for this crap: Atari and Eden Games, as publisher and developer, respectively.
Date this abomination was foisted upon us: June 24th of 2008, a day that will live in… mild discomfort, mostly.

I should probably mention that I’ve reviewed this thing previously, and time has not been kind to it.

A BRIEF LAYOUT OF ALONE IN THE DARK:

Your soundtrack for this write-up is Ra, specifically the album Black Sun. If you like rock music, it’s very good, and since most of it is fairly accusatory, it fits my mindset right about now.

I am old enough, at this point, that the feeling of nostalgia has begun to creep into the outer reaches of my perception. New music sucks, new movies are garbage, and I’m about five years and a pair of sandals over black socks away from yelling a bunch of kids for running across my lawn in The Sims. Having said that, however, I think it needs to be said that being nostalgic for certain things doesn’t specifically mean I actually WANT those things, and it DEFINITELY doesn’t mean that I want to see those things “reimagined” in some other fashion. I grew up with Spider-Man, GI Joe, He-Man the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I don’t specifically need to see those things re-released, especially not when their reimagining is meant to cater to me. Life might not be what I expected of it, as I imagine many people in my age group may lament, but that doesn’t mean I’m aching for a reminder of this thing by way of vicariously re-living my childhood, and catering said childhood artifacts towards me NOW is not going to endear me to your product. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I preferred He-Man when it didn’t have plot development, I preferred GI Joe when Warren Ellis wasn’t killing off two-thirds of the cast and writing bizarre love triangles between Duke, Snake Eyes and Scarlet, and I preferred Edward Carnby when he didn’t swear more than I do.

Alone in the Dark, then, is conceptually antithetical to what I would want to see from the series, which by itself is not very positive. Were that its only problem, it probably wouldn’t even deserve to be here, but alas, being poorly reimagined and over-the-top is the least of the game’s problems. Now, there are a great many people who defend the game, and rightly so, because it does do a lot of awesome stuff, and I can’t argue that it doesn’t. However, I CAN argue that it ALSO does a lot of horrible stuff to counter-balance that awesome stuff, and anyone who tells you that Alone in the Dark is, in fact, a GOOD game is either entirely too tolerant of lazy craftsmanship or is mentally broken on some fundamental level that has somehow ruined their judgment and given them bad taste in entertainment products.

So let’s get down to why.

WHY THIS GAME SUCKS:

Alone in the Dark sees you take on the role of Edward Carnby once again, this time in modern day New York. Edward is suffering from a case of amnesia, and as such, doesn’t quite know or understand why he isn’t decrepit or dead at this point, since he’s around one hundred years old and all. The reason for this, as it turns out, is that Edward has been possessed by Lucifer for the past few decades, but recently, Old Scratch has lost control of our protagonist, largely because of a man named Crowley, who wants the stone Lucifer has been living in all these years for… some reason. He wants to end the world or something, I don’t know. Anyway, Crowley uses an old priest named Theophile (who was also a student of Edward’s, go figure) to remove the stone from Edward, and as a result, he ends up releasing Lucifer into the world, which pretty much assures us the end of all things. Oops. So Edward, along with Sarah Flores, his charming love interest/useless sidekick, must now save the world by following the Path of Light, which ends up summoning Lucifer into existence, because no one ever told the protagonist that Lucifer is “The Lord of Lies” and thus would have more than likely lied about what the Path of Light would do as a way of convincing idealistic morons like Edward into letting him out. Again, oops. Needless to say, Edward either becomes Lucifer’s vessel and ends the world, or Sarah becomes Lucifer’s vessel and Edward bitches a bit, game over, roll credits.

Now, I object to the above for a whole lot of different reasons, but the biggest objection that comes to mind is that, if one follows the continuity of the series, the Cthulhu and the Christian mythologies/religions/whatever exist as real, tangible things in this universe. I, uh, I have a bit of a problem with that. It’s one thing that people BELIEVE in these things in one reality, as lots of people believe in lots of things, and it’s hard to get bent about that. On the other hand, when you show me Lovecraftian monstrosities in one instance, then tell me Lucifer is not only real, but is also running around the Earth trying to take it over, I start asking uncomfortable questions. Did God create the Old Ones, or are they on the same level here? If they’re on the same level, why is Cthulhu a gargantuan beast who lives under the ocean and burps every few hundred years while God is omnipotent and incorporeal? If God is the supreme power and created the Old Ones, why would he do that? No, really, why? Would you be able to believe in a just and merciful creator after realizing a tentacled horror that drives you insane just by being in your general proximity who cannot be defeated by conventional means is sleeping under the ocean? Would you be able to love the almighty knowing that he made a nigh-invulnerable giant green space squid that sleeps under our ocean and may one day wake up and end our shit? The problem, of course, is that this wasn’t what the game was going for. The writers simply picked Lucifer because they needed a villain that everyone would KNOW was bad, and they picked the most obvious one, because it never occurred to anyone how utterly ridiculous this was in context.

So, from the get go, we’re either expected to believe either that God’s a dick who makes giant space squids to terrify us, or we have to confront the question “Could God make a boulder so heavy Cthulhu couldn’t lift it?” Good job, guys.

Then we come to Edward himself. So as the game explains to us, Edward is of the age where Willard Scott should be giving him birthday wishes, but he’s only about thirty or forty years old physically. The game explains that this is because Lucifer has been inhabiting his body for the past few decades, though the game isn’t terribly explicit as to what Lucifer has been doing in Edward’s body all these years, except that it was very bad. This, by itself, is fine. What is not so fine is the part where Edward, despite not being in control of his own actions for the past few decades, has a full working knowledge of how the world works, even though he hasn’t been a part of it for longer than most of us have been alive. He can drive cars, operate computers and electronic locks, work a flashlight with ease, and isn’t even remotely mystified by cellular phones or neon. A guy like this should be like a more primitive version of Austin Powers, but that isn’t what happens here; instead, Edward adapts immediately to the modern world without missing a beat. Now, this isn’t TOO far-fetched, since Lucifer’s been running around in Edward’s body all these years, and it’s not hard to believe that Edward might retain memories of all of the things that went on in his life prior to his reawakening in New York. The game never seems interested in explaining this as such, mind you, so you’re left to assume this, but again, that isn’t horrible.

What DOES seem a bit far-fetched is the part where Edward, early on in the story, grabs himself a PDA/GPS/cell phone, which is used to maintain his notes and messages and provide him with a world map when needed. Fine, we say, this is a useful tool that will make life easier for all parties and such, but HOW does Edward know how to use this? What use would a PDA be to Lucifer? For that matter, what use would a GPS be? He’s LUCIFER! Why would he have bothered to learn how to use these sorts of devices in the first place? Of what use would they have been to him? Being trapped in the physical body of a mortal does limit his abilities somewhat, I understand, but he’s a powerful supernatural entity who’s been around since the dawn of human knowledge, and he’s more than likely capable of remembering a great deal more than a person would, so what does he need a computerized notepad and a map for?

The amusing part, of course, is the part where you realize that you could substitute in any one of a number of things into the question “What does Lucifer need to know X for?” and end up with a similar result. Why does he need to know how to hotwire a car? Why does he need to know CPR (Though in fairness, Edward COULD have known CPR before being possessed, as it DID exist before he was taken over, it just wasn’t standardized)? Why does he need to know how to re-wire electrical boxes? And so on, and so on, and so on. The game assumes that the player will fill in the missing information with their own assumptions, considering the character is over one hundred years old, but this is a slippery slope to tread upon. Yes, the player might assume that the protagonist simply “picked it up somewhere”, and that works well enough to get by if the events presented are simple and require little actual thought in and of themselves, but the longer the game goes on, the more likely one is to say “What the hell happened here?”, and when that happens, everything comes unraveled, and you go from being immersed in the plot to picking out every single inconsistency that exists from beginning to end.

Of course, Alone in the Dark is terrible at the whole “immersion” thing, too, as it has no clue what that is, let alone how to properly do it. Part of the problem with atmosphere creation in Alone in the Dark is that even the best writing won’t make your story convincing if the concept is putrid, and more often than not, that’s the case here. Make no mistake, the writing here is outstanding, mostly, but the concept is “Edward Carnby and his useless sidekick save the world from Lucifer”, and no amount of good writing is going to make that fresh and interesting, ESPECIALLY not the kind that’s in this product. The good writing in this case feels like it belongs somewhere, ANYWHERE else but here, because this game frankly has more in common with Cloverfield or the Uwe Boll Alone in the Dark film than any of the four games prior to it. I’m all for reinventing a character, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a point where you’re kind of expected to retain more of the original product than the NAME OF THE MAIN CHARACTER, and Alone in the Dark doesn’t seem to think this is necessary.

But, fine, let’s pretend for the sake of argument that we can tolerate the new direction for a minute. I know it’s a stretch, but we’re big boys and girls, let’s pretend, shall we?

The OTHER problem with atmosphere creation here is that it’s next to impossible to create atmosphere when the player can’t get lost in the experience, no matter how terrifying, and once again, Alone in the Dark is utterly incapable of getting THAT right, either. Look, I’m not saying “games have to be easy in order to keep their cinematic immersion”; I understand that this robs a product of a lot of its appeal and makes it only enjoyable to people who want to interact with a story rather than play a game. It’s not unreasonable to expect that the product itself might offer multiple difficulty settings to accommodate the needs of multiple different skill levels of players, but that’s not MANDATORY, just a good idea. I AM, however, saying that your product NEEDS to play at least reasonably okay, challenge or no, because if I’m fighting to survive against not JUST the enemies but ALSO the horrid mechanics, you have failed it (it is immersion). This isn’t even a hard subject to understand; if I have to repeat a section more than, let’s say, ten times, NOT because it’s challenging but because I hit a crack in the street and launched twenty feet into the air, YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. I mean, okay, the driving sections in general in Alone in the Dark expect you to be GOOD at driving, so much so that you can take tight turns without losing much speed and can keep up top speed without hitting anything in bob-and-weave street layouts, and sure, this could be somewhat objectionable to someone who, say, DOESN’T play driving games, but if this were the biggest problem the game faced, that would be acceptable, if not great. But when your driving mechanics are touchy and awkward, the actual layout of the traps that impede your driving are unfriendly and punishing at the BEST of times, and the collision detection is glitchy, that just makes an awkward experience into a bad one.

So, okay. Writing good, plot bad. Driving sections bite hard. You’d think this would be enough, on its own, to sink the product to the bottom of an ocean of turds, but hey, we here at Playing the Lame strive to give you the absolute worst experience for your dollar, so let’s move on to the inventory management. So, Alone in the Dark was one of the very first survival horror games to try and incorporate real-time inventory management into the experience, with the intention being that the player would feel the tension of shuffling around in their inventory while trying to avoid foes who are coming to kill you RIGHT NOW. In theory, this isn’t a horrible idea, and as Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 have shown, this can be done acceptably to a point, but Alone in the Dark has no ACTUAL idea how to make this work, instead choosing to make the effort “immersive” instead of “functional”. Now, you might be thinking “But if the mechanics aren’t FUNCTIONAL, they really can’t be IMMERSIVE”, and you’d be correct, but you’re assuming the goal was ACTUAL immersion, when in reality the goal was the ILLUSION of immersion. ACTUAL immersion is when a game sucks you in with good gameplay mechanics, solid storytelling, and strong presentation, while the ILLUSION of immersion is when developers strip the life meters, ammo indicators and such off of the screen, make you look through the character’s eyes as they screw around in their inventory, and try their hardest to fool you into thinking you’re watching a film, even though, y’know, you’re actually holding the controller. The former, of course, is a time-tested tactic that always works when done correctly, while the latter is an artistic statement that only ever works when combined with the former; as such, it’s a nice compliment to a great system of immersion, but it is not itself immersive. So, of course, the dipshits in charge of developing Alone in the Dark chose to make the latter the whole focal point of their immersion effort, and the end results work something like this:

1.) Put on a jacket that has a few pockets on the inside. Put some stuff inside your jacket that you can grab for, for scientific accuracy.
2.) Open your jacket and stare directly down, looking into the general area of your pockets.
3.) Start your right hand at your waist and move it all the way to your left-most pocket, crane game style, stopping at each pocket until you get there.
4.) Remove the item from that pocket.
5.) Following the same instructions from step 3, move your right hand all the way to the pocket on the opposite side of your jacket.
6.) Remove the item from that pocket.
7.) Rub both items together for about five seconds.
8.) Have someone punch you in the face.

Congratulations! You’ve simulated the Alone in the Dark inventory management system IN REAL LIFE.

So, yes, the actual inventory interface is not friendly even a little bit. You’ll have to flip back and forth between the left and right sides of your jacket to get to everything you need, and while outside of battle this isn’t so bad, IN battle this is hideous in most cases. You’ll HAVE to hide behind cover to make up concoctions at a moment’s notice, which is compounded by the fact that you’ll be doing this a whole lot to make up molotovs and flaming bullets (and hey, WHO KNEW pouring some gas on a clip made the bullets flaming? NOT ME!), since you will need these to survive. Now, you CAN hotkey certain combinations of usable items that you can pull out as needed, so yes, if you have everything set up in advance you’re in great shape, but again, this assumes you actually have these items made up in advance, as if you don’t, you’ll be spending time putting them together, which, yes, puts you back at square one. Now, it seems almost unfair to compare something like Dead Space or Resident Evil 5 to Alone in the Dark, as they came out later and thus were given the chance to study from the failure of THIS experiment, but this unfairness is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there really wasn’t a way this was EVER going to work in the way intended, and the fact that the developer had to pretty much know that before releasing this essentially cancels out the unfairness. So with that said, in Dead Space and Resident Evil 5 you can move around while negotiating your inventory, as the games actually just display your inventory on-screen for easy use, which essentially makes the product user-friendly while still keeping the tension high.

We can’t mention the inventory without also mentioning the meager amount of space one is given to carry things around relative to the amount of things one can actually find and use at any time. As you progress through the story you’ll find all sorts of items that you have to carry in spaces where other, more useful things would normally go BECAUSE THOU MUST, as if Edward doesn’t have pockets and has never heard of a backpack. Alone in the Dark, as noted previously, has this big fixation on “realism” and “immersion”, IE it tries to make the experience as “real” as possible to try and sell the concept as being “terrifying” instead of “broken”. So Edward has to carry everything in his coat pockets, because in the entirety of his time in New York he never finds a backpack, fanny pack, or use for his pants pockets, because that’s reasonable and totally believable. This, in essence, means you’ll have to decide at various points whether the most vital item to your continued existence is a pack of batteries, a pack of bullets, a roll of double-sided tape, or a pack of glow sticks, which is awesome because it happens ALL THE TIME. There’s no way to store items for later in any way, shape or form; you just get whatever you can carry and that’s it.

Look, there’s no easy way of saying this, so I’m just going to spell it out plainly: out of all of the survival horror products I’ve had the pleasure and displeasure of experiencing, from Disaster Report to Dead Space to every one of the main Resident Evil titles to Silent Hill to Dino Crisis to the original Alone in the Dark titles and beyond, and I can absolutely say without a doubt that THIS is the absolute WORST possible way ANYONE has EVER done inventory management in the genre. So congratulations, Eden! Your award will be available for pick-up as soon as I finish digesting my Fourthmeal.

There are so many other things I can devote time to destroying about the game that I could probably write another four pages of hate, to be completely honest. Swinging melee weapons with the right stick is awkward and there’s little reason for it, collision detection is spotty and leaves you hitting targets you missed and missing targets you should have hit, there are a whopping TWO GUNS in the entire game, clipping is frequent and horrible, and the much-celebrated (by Atari) “chapter-skip” feature is complete shit because it strips you of your inventory, leaving you with crap and whatever required items you possess, which is especially great when you find the upgraded gun around a third of the way through the game only to discover skipping ahead STRIPS YOU OF THIS GUN… really, I could go on all day. But I think the single biggest example of why this game not only deserves its place on the list, but almost seems to be BEGGING for such placement, can be taken from the final few hours of the game. In the last section of the game, you’re essentially given the ability to freely roam around Central Park as you see fit, but there’s a catch: you have to destroy a whole bunch of trees that apparently somehow contain the power of Lucifer. This particular project is quite challenging, and even if you know where everything is and how to destroy all of the trees, it can take around an hour to complete from start to finish. It’s a gigantic waste of time, to be certain, but by this point you’ll be so invested in the game you won’t have much of a choice. So, fine, you go and destroy them, and this opens up a puzzle involving an old stone building and a flashlight cover that the game has decreed is an important item. You’ll go and putz around with that a bit until you complete the puzzle, and just as you start to feel good about yourself the game decides you have to go do it AGAIN, like a gigantic middle finger in the face of the player, delivered straight from Eden Games to you.

No, FUCK YOU, Eden. YOU made Kya: Dark Lineage, okay? You don’t get to pretend you’re better than me.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

There are a lot of people who have risen up since the release of Alone in the Dark in an attempt to defend the game, and while these people are in no way directly affiliated with the product itself, their existence bears mentioning all the same. From the moment the game came out until the moment the PS3 version debuted, the arguments in favor of the game and why YOU should like it amounted to the following three arguments:

1.) it completely innovated and reinvented the Survival Horror genre,
2.) the presentation was fantastic, and
3.) “it’s a good game”,

so I think it’s only fair that I address this.

Nearly every terrible game that comes out will attract defenders in some form or fashion, because that’s how the internet works. Lots of people feel a specific way about something, and a smaller but more hardcore group of folks think the exact opposite. You’ve most likely seen these sorts of arguments and counter-arguments, and hell, you may well have seen them ON THIS SITE. It happens. This doesn’t just apply to good games, no matter how much we might try to pretend otherwise, and just because you’re “the voice of reason”, decrying an OBVIOUSLY TERRIBLE game everyone loves, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there defending a hideous pile of shit everyone hates.

The problem, however, is this: sooner or later, you have to understand that there’s a difference between something being “misunderstood” and something being “a fucking shitpile”, and that defending the former is far more fruitful than defending the latter.

And that’s the problem with Alone in the Dark. It is not a niche title. It is not Monster Hunter or Chulip or Onechanbara or Everblue 2. People are not crucifying it because they “don’t get it”. They are crucifying it because they have no tolerance for bad physics or poor gameplay mechanics or arbitrary time-wasting game padding bullshit, and for you to claim that they are somehow incorrect in their assessments because “they don’t get it”, that the “amazing gameplay innovations” and “awesome cinematic experience” make this “a good game” and that ten years from now “all of the cool kids will retroactively decide they really liked it” is at best disingenuous, and at worst a flat-out lie.

So, for the record: I will NEVER like this game. There are people who do, and they’re welcome to that opinion, but I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those people. I don’t care how amazing your artistic vision might be, I don’t care how dedicated you are to your presentation, your game, it is the shits. I know goddamn well that I can skip past some of the shittier parts of the game if I want to, but it is YOUR job as the developer to provide me with a good game, not my job as the player to decide that I want to skip the shitty parts. That is not how game development works. You can’t say that you made a good game because I can skip the crap parts, because THE CRAP PARTS ARE STILL THERE. Hell, I can’t even skip one of the worst parts in the game because of some arbitrary bullshit you built in where I HAVE to complete one of your bullshit fetch quests AND one of your horrid driving sequences just to complete the fucking game, and the fact that you have to play through two of the worst sequences ever put into a game just to complete it when the game makes it a point to advertise that you can skip the bad parts really just makes the whole thing worse.

That all said, Alone in the Dark really isn’t the worst game ever made, because no matter how uninteresting and unenjoyable it is (and it’s definitely uninteresting and unenjoyable unless you hate yourself), there are points in the game where some meager amounts of enjoyment can be extracted, if one has the patience and desire to do so, and sadly, that means it’s not bad enough.

It’s definitely up there, though.

So, in conclusion, Aquaman in two weeks. See you then.

Tags:

2 Comments
  1. Mark B.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *