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Q&A: Alone In The Dark's Polloni On Emergent Gameplay

Atari and Eden Games' Alone In The Dark is a key re-imagining of the original survival horror franchise - and Gamasutra talks in-depth to producer Nour Polloni on her team's attempts to create a myriad of gameplay possibilities in the episodic 'sur

Chris Remo, Blogger

June 10, 2008

9 Min Read

Infogrames' Alone in the Dark series left a heavy mark on video game history, having largely defined the survival horror gameplay that would become much more prolifically exploited by Capcom's Resident Evil. Ending a seven-year gap since new series releases (Darkworks' Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare shipped in 2001), internal studio Eden Games is mere weeks away from shipping its own reinvention of the series, dubbed simply Alone in the Dark, under the Atari brand. A blend of inventory-driven dynamic puzzles, straight-up action, and television-inspired episodic pacing, this Alone in the Dark hopes to break out of strongly-defined genre labels - its developers do not even necessarily consider it "survival horror," but rather a "survival experience." During a recent Atari event, during which new Infogrames president Phil Harrison indicated Alone may represent the end of Atari's investment in "one-player, narrative-driven, start-middle-end games," Gamasutra also sat down with Eden producer Nour Polloni to discuss her studio's vision for the title. The Franchise This game is part of a series that has been around a long time - some people know it and some people don't. How did you approach that and end up with the gameplay style you have now, which in some ways departs from previous entries? Nour Polloni: Well, actually, it started off a long time ago. We started this project over four years now, and what you see today is really the core vision of what we had on Alone in the Dark. This is something that we always wanted to do for Alone in the Dark. There were some core elements, like for example, we wanted to break the clichés of what you knew of Alone in the Dark that progressively became the clichés of what you know of video games today. So one of those clichés, for example, was that you played Alone in the Dark in corridors, and we didn't want that anymore. We wanted to tear that idea apart and say, “You're going to play in this huge, open environment, which is Central Park.” One of the other ideas is that we didn't want you to search for the golden key to open the door. We wanted to use the principles of real world rules, and use your environment to be able to react to a situation. So for example, for a door, you can break it with your gun. Or you can, for example, take an extinguisher and smash through it. So, progressively, the vision of the game we've had, and we've developed it progressively all throughout these years. And it was a challenge from several perspectives. A challenge in terms of technology because we knew straight away that we didn't want to do the first generation of next generation games, but it's already next generation games. And also we wanted to create a lot of innovative features. Innovative features meaning that, well, we needed to do some prototype work, do a lot of iterations before we get it right - and these features have to work with the other features of the game. So, getting all those different elements together - it was a lot of work to make sure that one feature reacted correctly with the other. And that, in some sense, created a sort of emergent game play. So, in the end this vision is something that we've maintained from the beginning until now. We feel that - for those who know Alone in the Dark - they would be able to find that spirit of innovation in something different. The Gameplay Balance You're trying to push emergent gameplay with combining items, and interacting with the environment, but then you also have these high-action - almost quick time event - set-pieces. Those are fairly disparate elements, then you have driving, and exploring, and hanging off cliffs - that's a lot of different types of game play. Was that a challenge from a development standpoint, and does it run a risk of being diluted? NP: Yeah, it was a challenge because in some sense we wanted this type of gameplay because we didn't want the player to ask himself, “What can I throw? What can't I do in this situation?” So, to do that, we had to develop an engine which can support that type of game play - that broad mix of gameplay in the game. And from there we said, “Okay, what are the fundamentals that we wanted to develop?” And have the freedom, in that sense. One of the fundamentals is the way you can interact with your environment, combine the objects, etcetera. So that we've developed, and we've managed to really propagate to a huge extent. So the idea is that, your environment - if you think you can interact with it, you can. And some other situations - like one you've explained, like you can hang on the cliffs - we've adapted it so that you go straight to the point. You can experience naturally, instinctively, the situation, without asking yourself with tons of combinations of buttons, “How can I live through that situation?” Do you worry that players might feel overwhelmed? The ideal situation is everything to be intuitive, but do you worry that with the amount of things you can combine, or the amount of interactions there are in the environment, people might start to pull back and second-guess themselves a lot? NP: Well, the idea is that they are these possibilities. You're not obliged to use them. It actually the possibility to really live a different experience, depending on what you want to do. So, for example, let's say you're a hardcore gamer, and you want to try everything. So you have that possibility. Or you're a casual gamer, and you say, “Okay, great. I found a super trick to get rid of my enemies, and I want to use it over and over again.” Great. That's the liberty we're offering, and that's the experience that we want the players to live. Live your own experience in how you want to play the game. So you're not discouraging that kind of gameplay? If someone figures out, “Okay, so this is just what I have to do here. I'll just do that every time.” NP: Yeah. It's up to the gamer how he wants to play the game. You said you wanted to break some clichés with this game, and it's interesting that Alone in the Dark as a series created a lot of those clichés. Most people point to it as the progenitor of the survival horror genre. Do you still consider this game survival horror? Because it looks like you have a lot more big, high-tension action, and that kind of thing. NP: Well, I think today we don't want it to really define it as a genre. But if we had to define its genre, it's more of a survival experience. And even in a 'survival experience'... you can be scared to death. But you can also be in high-tension moments, in action moments. You can be in atmospheric moods. You can do lots of things. Survival, and the concept of “use your environment to survive at all costs” means you have a variety of possibilities to achieve that. So we're more moving the Alone brand in that direction, than just branding it a horror game in some sense. Is that something you'd like to see the medium move forward towards? One of the things I loved about Beyond Good & Evil is that it incorporated bits of many gameplay genres depending on the situation. Not too many games do that really, though, and I'm wondering if you think that is where people will eventually take these kind of core gaming experiences. NP: Well I hope that, in the end, after playing Alone in the Dark, that the players would expect that for the next set of games they play. The idea is that we're offering a liberty to the players, to not ask himself, “Okay, can I drive a car?” He can drive a car. “Can I fight against my enemies?” Yes, you can fight against your enemies. “Can I pick this up?” Yes, I can pick it up. That's the freedom that we hope in the future players will be able to have, and no longer ask themselves, “What can I do in the game?” The Logistics How big is the studio and the team? Because you guys also did Test Drive Unlimited during this development, right? NP: Yes. We're... Alone in the Dark, specifically, we got up to 130 people. It's a mix of the team - internal, and some contractors who came on board to finish the product. Do you work much with Hydravision on the Wii and PS2 versions? NP: We initially gave them the ideas - the concept of the game. We gave them the assets, and at one point we had to go on our separate ways, in some sense. So we did a lot of iterations, and modifications, and they developed for their specific platforms. So it was really at the beginning that we exchanged a lot. But afterwards they made the version their own. How did Eden end up with this franchise? You said it's been in the works for four years. NP: At that time, we'd finished Kya: Dark Lineage, and we wanted to do Alone in the Dark for a long time. I mean, there were a lot of team members who loved the first Alone in the Dark, and it was something on their minds, to do this project. And at that time the license was available. [Atari] was saying, “Well, propose us some projects,” and we came over and we said, “This is what we want to do. And this is the vision that we have for Alone in the Dark.” And we presented that to Atari, and they loved the concept, and they said, “Okay, guys, go ahead and develop the pre-production phase and all that.” And it was something that was driven by our passion. And it was funny, because at one time, while we were progressing throughout the pre-production phase, they said, “Well, guys, maybe this is a bit too ambitious. Let's just stop this.” And we said, “No, no, no. We want to do this game. We're going to prove to you that this can be done.” And so they said, “Okay, guys. Well, you have this amount of time to prove what you want to prove in terms of the different innovation elements.” And we worked like crazy to really get that proof that we could do it. And we did it. And now we're here today with the product. So we're really happy to have achieved that.

About the Author(s)

Chris Remo


Chris Remo is Gamasutra's Editor at Large. He was a founding editor of gaming culture site Idle Thumbs, and prior to joining the Gamasutra team he served as Editor in Chief of hardcore-oriented consumer gaming site Shacknews.

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