After four years of development, the first next-gen instalment in the Alone in the Dark series is almost here. Atari held a press event in London last week to reveal more of the game, and newly installed Infogrames president Phil Harrison was on hand to have a chat to us about it.
The artist formerly known as the head of Sony Worldwide Studios made it clear he was there to discuss Alone in the Dark alone, politely declining to answer questions about what he describes as his "previous life". But he was happy to talk about plenty of other topics - so read on to find out where Atari's headed next, how Harrison thinks the industry is changing and why he believes AITD could be one of the last games of its kind.
Eurogamer: Alone in the Dark has been in development for four years now. Has it been worth the wait?
Phil Harrison: I think so. The first time I was exposed to the game I was blown away with what Eden created, the level of attention to detail and the passion they have for the integrity of the story. I hope they feel proud of it; they should do.
Eurogamer: In the presentation earlier, there was talk about how innovative Alone in the Dark is. But everyone says that about their game - what really makes this one stand out?
Phil Harrison: Good question. I think there are a couple of things which are really innovative. The contemporary setting of modern-day New York, done with a twist, makes it very accessible and appealing to a mass market. It's not very fantasy-driven, although there is clearly a fantastic twist to it.
There are some really compelling elements to the story that will keep you gripped. The ending is fantastic; it's a great videogaming ending which will keep you guessing a little bit.
Technically they've done a few things which are really excellent. The characters, the facial animation and the characterisation, that's really good. Fire as a weapon and fire as a friend or foe is quite clever. The way that's linked to physics, so the particles can set fire to an entire room and it will fall down around you, it's really nicely done, and I've never seen that before. The use of some other graphical effects - lighting, smoke, water - are really first class. Some of the best I've ever seen.
The inventory system's quite clever. The way you combine objects to build new objects is nicely done, and it's quite sophisticated. There's the episodic structure, which works really well. So there are a lot of things which I think are very innovative.
Eurogamer: Can you explain a bit more about the episodic structure?
Phil Harrison: Each episode has a start, a middle and an end. Each episode has plot development, twists, a cliffhanger, gameplay innovation - all the way through the game. There's also a 'previously on Alone in the Dark' mechanism, which is really useful. If you come back to the game after a week and you can't quite remember where you were, that mechanic gets you reimmersed.
Eurogamer: I understand the episodic system lets you pick scenes in the game from a menu, just as you can pick scenes on movie DVDs. But how important is the storyline to the experience of playing the game if you can just skip bits of it?
Phil Harrison: You don't have to skip anything. If you've gotten stuck and you want to move forward and play a bit more of the game, you can always come back. But if you want to play the game start to finish, you'll be rewarded with unique Achievements. So, the more committed gamer who wants to prove their skill without skipping around will get Achievements unique to them.
Eurogamer: What about fans of traditional survival-horror and the first Alone in the Dark games? Are there treats in store for them?
Phil Harrison: Totally. There are a lot of self-referential elements which people who played the original game will recognise.
But it's not really fair to call it a survival-horror game. It's an action-horror game. They've really cranked up the impact ratio and the suspense ratio. It's not just about crawling down dark corridors getting scared; it's a much more visceral experience than the original adventure games were. That, I think, is a reflection of modern tastes in videogaming, and also what you can do technically with hardware these days. So it's not a survival-horror game in the traditional sense; it's reinvented for the 21st century.
Eurogamer: You've recently been quoted as suggesting this could be one of Atari's last big budget, single-player games for hardcore gamers - the implication being you're moving towards titles on the more casual side...
Phil Harrison: I haven't read the quote, but I can tell you the context in which I gave that quote. It was not uniquely about Atari; it was more about the industry as a whole.
Alone in the Dark is a beautifully crafted single-player adventure game. I don't think the industry is going to make many more of those. I just don't think consumers want to be playing games that don't have some kind of network connectivity to them, or some kind of community embedded in them, or some kind of extension available through downloadable content.
Now, that's not to criticise Alone in the Dark - it's just to recognise the industry is changing, and the role we play as creators and publishers has to reflect those changes. I don't think I'm alone in having those views, either.
Eurogamer: So how do you see Atari's portfolio in the future? What will the balance between hardcore and more casual titles be?
Phil Harrison: Today, Atari's portfolio of products comes from a wide variety of sources. Some are internally developed like Alone in the Dark and Test Drive Unlimited. Others are published by us but developed externally, and some are purely distributed by us and created and marketed by other companies. We want to redress the balance to be more games that we create and publish ourselves - either with our own developers or with external developers.
Those games are the ones I'm going to be driving the agenda on. I want to make a more strongly connected portfolio of games, meaning connected to the consumer directly - not necessarily bypassing retail, because I think retail is still an important part of it, but having additional downloadable content, having communities built into the game... All the fun stuff I was doing in my previous life, I want to continue to explore here. It's not a particularly pioneering thought, it's just that's the way the world is moving.
Eurogamer: In your previous life, as you put it, you were head of Sony Worldwide Studios. Now you're promoting a game that'll be released on a rival console before it's released on PS3. Have you had to rethink your attitude to the Xbox 360?
Phil Harrison: I've always recognised its capabilities, so it's not like I've woken up and gone, 'Ooh, I'm a real 360 fan now.' I'm in a different part of the industry so I have a different role to play. It's been a good experience learning about other formats, not just 360 but Wii and DS, and understanding what it's like to publish games on those platforms and create for those audiences. I'm finding it very intellectually and creatively challenging.
Eurogamer: Is Atari committed to all three platforms equally? As a third-party publisher, don't you have to look at the sheer number of Wii consoles that have been sold compared to PS3 and Xbox 360 and take that into consideration?
Phil Harrison: There's a really interesting challenge right now. On a macro basis you've got more consoles being sold all around the world than ever in the history of the industry. You've more software being bought than ever. You've got a more diverse range of consumers playing games than ever before, the demographic's gotten wider.
So on the face of it that produces lots of opportunity for everybody - but you've got to avoid being like kids in the playground, everyone chasing the same ball. We want to see if we can create a strategic opportunity for our company that differentiates us from everybody else.
Eurogamer: Where does Alone in the Dark fit into that strategy?
Phil Harrison: Alone in the Dark is a triple-A, brilliantly executed game that is going to be extremely appealing to audiences of today's videogame systems. And that's great. It's going to sell well, and it gives us a platform to build our year on.
Alone in the Dark will be released on PC, PS2, Xbox 360 and Wii on June 20th, with a PS3 version to follow in the autumn.