What is "next-generation gameplay"? Nobody seems to know. Asked about it just prior to the Tokyo Game Show in September, one prominent next-generation game developer narrowed his eyes slightly and responded with a shrug. "Meh!"
With the exception of Revolution, surely nobody really expects it to be any different? Better visuals, yes, more audio channels, yes, and more programming power behind the game-logic - but any fundamental shift in what's happening on-screen is bound to owe more to the creative people pulling the levers, not the levers themselves.
In other words, when a developer says that we can expect "deep interaction with our environment" and a game that's rarely out of our control, and then shows off a trailer featuring the now-expected onslaught of high-poly models, impossible acrobatics and dramatic camera cuts, we've just as much right to be sceptical as we have ever been.
It makes a pleasant change, then, when you push the issue, pointing at the screen and asking, "What about that bit where the frame of a house drops out of the air and you only survive because the doorway's landed around you? And that bit where you're sliding out of a toppling building with its side ripped off and you save yourself by grabbing hold of a statue as you plummet to the ground? Do you actually do anything there?" and the chap behind the microphone blushes and then tells you precisely which bits you're actually controlling.
In the case of Alone in the Dark, a game that the Eden Studios devs began by admitting they couldn't really talk about specifically, it's more or less all of it. You won't grab the statue, but you'll direct the sliding, for example. A survival-horror game where we can expect lots of interaction and all-round control, done up like all those glorious trailers we've been watching since E3? Colour us intrigued.
Of course it might not be like that in any traditional skills-based way. But giving us direct control is always nicer than letting us put down the pad - who didn't enjoy donning Snake's night-vision goggles or binoculars during the odd cut-scene in Metal Gear Solid 3, for example?
Whether or not Alone in the Dark does what Eden suggests to our benefit, it's clear that the developer harbours lofty ambitions. Arguing that only Resident Evil 4 "significantly" improved the survival-horror genre, the developer went on to describe AitD as an action-survival-thriller hybrid. Set in a semi-destroyed New York's Central Park, curiously described as present-day, it'll see returning hero Edward Carnby freely exploring the environment to unravel whatever mystery's in store. There wasn't much chat about specifics at all during Eden's presentation - the theme is death and what comes after it, and the story (put together by an outside script-writer) is described as linear, but the way it evolves is apparently not - but we were told to expect third-person control most of the time and, as the A-S-T amalgam implies, a greater focus on action than anything else. Puzzle-solving, for example, isn't as big a deal here as it has been elsewhere in the genre AitD claims to be leaving behind.
Eden definitely plans to keep the player on edge, however, and argues that scaring people is about the fear in your head. A monster popping out of a shadow is surprise, not fear, Eden's reps enthuse, and AitD will be about what you think is behind the door and not necessarily what's actually lurking there.
To achieve this effect the game will take full advantage of the untold graphical power of, in this case, the Xbox 360 (although Sony has spoken of a PlayStation 3 version too). During a brief technical demonstration, which the devs insisted was something they hoped to better in the final game, we saw the range of lighting effects and high-detail models we've come to expect from next-gen demos - shifts in focus, soft light broken by a spinning fan, depth of field variation, ragdoll animations, unprecedented facial detail and grim, high resolution texturing - and Eden said the use of lighting in particular would play a large part in the game itself. Music, from one of the musicians who worked on Ubisoft's Obscure, will also play a big role.
Oh, and since we're on a bit of a Uwe Boll tip at the moment, Eden Studios denies having seen his film, or the game drawing any influence from it. Probably just as well.
That said, we can't claim to have seen much of its game, either. The trailer - in-game footage, we were told throughout - looked as handsome and manicured as anything else we've seen in Xbox 360 promotional videos, but with the game still some way off revelations were thin on the ground. Good intentions abounds, then, but when it comes to specifics we're all still a bit in the dark.
Alone in the Dark is due out on Xbox 360 and (Sony says) PlayStation 3 during 2006.