Alone in the Dark looked amazing when Atari and Eden Games first unveiled it. Over two years later, some of its smarter ideas - physics puzzles, high levels of environmental interactivity, fancy lighting, a mixture of third- and first-person controllers - have been and gone in other games. With an additional delay until May 2008, there's a lot of scepticism about its quality, and suggestions that the game's in trouble. Not so, said Atari, when they rang us up yesterday. In fact, why don't you ask the developer yourself? So we did. Nour Polloni, the game's producer, gave us an update on development, and explained how the game will go about living up to its lofty billing.
And when you're done, why not check out our brand new Alone in the Dark trailer to see how Polloni's comments compare to the reality?
Eurogamer: Can you shed some light on why Alone in the Dark has been pushed back to May?
Nour Polloni: We're committed to releasing the game when it's ready, and that has meant more time to tune and polish it to the high standard that us and the players want to see. Any game with new applications of technology in the gameplay takes a lot of time to test and balance and it's vital to get that right so that innovation never comes at the expense of fun.
Eurogamer: What stage of development have you reached and what is left to do?
Nour Polloni: We're at the beta stage now where we've got the whole game running from end to end with all the assets in place. What we're doing now is focus testing and tuning all the elements, so lighting, post-production effects, character control and reactivity, animations, AI, plus we're also finalising the cinematics, music and audio mix.
Eurogamer: Tell us about the episodic format - did you plan to do that all along, and what challenges did you face integrating it with your storyline? Did you have to change events to achieve cliffhanger endings?
Nour Polloni: The episodic structure is something that was integral to the game design and we did it for two very specific reasons. Firstly, we wanted to shake things up a bit and approach the video gaming medium from a new direction in terms of how the game is presented. Secondly we wanted to adapt the game to the tastes of today's gaming audience, who consume lots of different popular media, not just games, and have a limited amount of time to do it.
The main inspiration for the episodic format was the recent crop of US TV dramas like 24, Lost, and Prison Break. While working on the early stages of the game design, we were all addicted to watching these shows each night, then dissecting them around the coffee machine the next day. We realised that this was exactly the effect we wanted our game to have for Alone. We analysed these shows and what makes them so great - the paced dynamic of each episode with action, character development, plot revelations and cliffhangers - then translated this into the dynamic of the game. By bringing this kind of style to the game we hope it will make the game interesting to the audiences who watch these kind of shows and not just the hardcore gamers. Playing one episode of Alone is like watching one episode of 24 in that it can be enjoyed on its own or as part of the whole game, and if you've got limited time to spare you can make a choice between watching an hour of a DVD or an hour of playing Alone, knowing you'll get a full experience from it.
Eurogamer: How many episodes are there, and will you consider releasing new ones - perhaps to fill in story blanks - as downloadable content?
Nour Polloni: The game is comprised of eight episodes with 10-15 hours of gameplay taking into account the free roaming you can do in Central Park. As for downloadable content, the format and the story do lend themselves very much to additional episodes delivered in this way and it's something we'll be looking at once the game is released.
Eurogamer: Things like physics puzzles and hot-wiring are less impressive in 2008 than they were in 2006 when you first showed them - what else will you use to "wow" players?
Nour Polloni: The physics puzzles we've demonstrated so far are really the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you can do in the game. Hot-wiring is one way to start a car or open a closed door, but there's always other ways to do things. Giving the players choices based on the 'real world rules' concept behind the gameplay was our goal. This makes situations intuitive in way that they aren't normally in games. Here, you don't have to think in usual game rules but you can be more free and investigate based on what you think you would be able to do in real life. The different ways you use and combine items in the environment to create completely new weapons is a really exciting feature which leads to emergent gameplay and a lot of fun where each player could potentially find a completely new way to do something that even we haven't thought of.
Eurogamer: What kind of role do puzzles play? Is it true that there are fewer than in, say, Resident Evil games?
Nour Polloni: Puzzles play a role in the game, and there's lots of situations that require a bit of thought to get through, but not too much. The most interesting puzzles are ones that are based on the real world rules concept, so you'll have to use and combine different items in your inventory to create the things you need to get through a situation, sometimes also relying on different applications of the realistic fire propagation to give you a solution. Later in the game the conundrums are on a very grand scale with some really nail-biting scenarios that walk a fine line between edge-of-the-seat action and problem solving under pressure. But it's important to point out that puzzles are only one of the things that compose Alone, and they are part of the variety of different gameplay situations, balanced with the TV-series style narration structure to create a well paced experience.
Eurogamer: Would you still say that the game offers an unprecedented level of interactivity, which was one of your original goals?
Nour Polloni: The level of interaction in the game cannot be seen anywhere else and we've achieved what we set out to do, which is that everything you see in the game world can be handled and manipulated as in the real world, with behaviour to match. Recently someone told us that playing the game gave him a similar feeling to playing Half-Life 2 for the first time, something which made us really excited as that game was really the starting point for what we wanted to do with the physics, although we've taken it much further.
Eurogamer: Centraldark.com talks about the strange history of Central Park - did you decide to base the game in Central Park because of these things or did you discover them later? Do they play a role in the game?
Nour Polloni: The way it happened was our lead designer Herve Sliwa visited New York a few years ago and took a fairly ill-advised stroll in Central Park one night which frankly scared the crap out of him. So when we were working on our initial ideas for the new Alone, Central Park was the place to set it. Once we started looking into the history of the park we found out all this crazy stuff about the place, some of which you can read about on the website, which convinced us we'd made the right decision using the park as the setting for the game. On top of that, the story is based on the universal theme of the afterlife and draws on lots of different philosophies and religions. This fits perfectly with Central Park, the beating heart of New York, a city which itself is probably the world's greatest melting pot of cultures and beliefs.
Eurogamer: In one of your earliest presentations, you said you wanted to use fear, rather than surprise, to scare the player. Can you give us an example of how this works?
Nour Polloni: To say we're not using surprise would be wrong - there are moments that will make you jump when events take unexpected turns. However, more powerful for us is the idea of suggested fear, that's to say the idea of what's hiding in a dark corner or through a door rather than just being leapt on by a monster. There's a lot of doors in Alone, every single one of which can be opened, so that means a lot of things waiting behind them. Our aim is to build tension in the player through a variety of different situations. In some parts you'll be corridor-crawling in nervous anticipation of what's round the next corner, hoping your torch batteries don't run out and that you've got what you need in your jacket to deal with whatever comes at you. In other sequences you'll be desperately trying to hang on with a 200ft drop beneath you and debris raining down. Both are tense and frightening situations but achieved in very different ways.
Eurogamer: From various preview events, it seems that AITD is mostly third-person, with first-person at times and the inventory on your body - what you can carry in your coat. What else can you say about how you actually play the game on PS3/360?
Nour Polloni: The player can switch between first- and third-person perspectives at any point in the gameplay after the opening sequence and except for a few specific situations where you need the camera to do a certain thing to make the gameplay efficient for the player. For example, when you're hanging on a rope the camera is automatically in third-person to give you the full context of what's going on, while on the other hand all shooting is done exclusively in FPS view. That means if you're hanging on a rope and you want to shoot it switches from third- to first-person view while you're shooting, then back to third-person. Overall, we wanted to give the player the camera most adapted to the situation and not be constrained by typically fixed cameras in given situations.
Eurogamer: How do the PS2 and Wii versions of AITD compare? What kind of features can Wii owners expect and how does control work?
Nour Polloni: The PS2 and Wii games are similar in their approach although they were developed based on the same initial design that we created rather than being made hand in hand with the Xbox 360, PC and PS3 versions so there are differences. I can't say much about how the game is in the end on PS2 and Wii, but logically on the Wii, the control system is perfectly adapted to the game concept, whether it be the control of the hero, or the way he interacts with the environment, like for example the manipulation of objects.
Eurogamer: Will there be a demo before release in May, or after?
Nour Polloni: There is an Xbox Live demo planned for around the launch of the game but no final date is set at this time.
Eurogamer: Now that the AITD series is back in people's minds, do you think we will see new games at regular intervals - i.e. less than seven years!
Nour Polloni: We certainly hope so! From our side, it's something we'd love to do and there's already plenty of ideas within the team of where we could take the series next.
Eurogamer: On the technical side, what resolutions do you support on PS3/360 and have you managed to eliminate typical problems like screen-tearing?
Nour Polloni: The game supports a maximum resolution of 720p on both PS3 and Xbox 360. Screen-tearing is linked mainly to frame rate issues and we encountered some problems with it earlier on in the development process, but we're now optimising the game and we don't expect to have this problem in the end.
Eurogamer: Patrick Leleu has called AITD "a major release" and says he hopes it sells "millions of copies". Do you feel under pressure? How many copies do you think you will sell?
Nour Polloni: The pressure we feel is more about delivering a game that lives up to the legacy of the very first Alone in the Dark, so that means it needs to innovate, and innovate successfully in a way that gives gamers a really exciting new experience. If we achieve that and the other pieces of the puzzle that Atari is working on fall into place, then I think it will sell a lot of copies. Our ambition is to create a new benchmark for action-adventure games.
Eurogamer: Finally, when AITD is released and people finish it and look back on it, what do you think they will remember most - the story, the action, the visuals, or something else?
Nour Polloni: If there's one thing, I think it will be the level of interaction with the objects and the environment. The player will have new ways to interact with the world that he has not experienced before, such as the ability to pick up anything they see and instinctively know how it's going to behave and respond. There is no one single use of an object; rather you can use it in different contexts and combine it with other objects to create new weapons. Or you can manipulate it to have a real feeling of control of the object itself, a feeling that lets you unravel situations in a new way or feel the impact on enemies during combat. Once you've tried it, you won't want to go back.
Alone in the Dark is due out on Xbox 360, PC, PS2 and Wii this May, with a PS3 version also planned.