1992's Alone in the Dark was a game whose technical and storytelling innovations in a primitive time made it unforgettable to gamers, and birthed a genre.
But before he joined Infogrames and led a small team in its creation, Frederick Raynal programmed small video games (like 1988's PopCorn) - and when he wasn't doing that, he repaired computers in his father's shop. "My father's shop was also a VHS movie tape rental shop, so I was working days and nights in this shop; when I was not programming, I watched movies."
A twenty-something Raynal watched all the movies he could get his hands on, but was especially attracted to the horror films of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero. "Usually, you are one guy, or a group of guys, entering a special environment and [trying] to survive," he says of his favorite kind of film.
He joined Infogrames in 1990, and ported Atari ST title The Cube to the PC; it took about six months. "I spent six months inside a rotating cube," he jokes. "It obsessed me... It was something to do with the 3D. I didn't know what exactly, but my imagination was very, very motivated."
His early vision involved articulated and polygon skilled 3D characters like zombies and monsters. A fan of pen and paper roleplaying games, he envisioned an adventure or action theme that places the player all alone in the year 1920 - so that the world could have electricity, but no complicated computing. "It was perfect for the place," he says. "You enter a house, and you just have to escape the house alive."
He knew from the beginning he needed to add text. "To make something very scary... with just a few polygons [is] not very frightening, so I knew that I needed the text to put the situation into a very heavy background story for the game."
The engine could only accommodate a relatively small number of polygons, at this time. "So I thought that I need some 3D backgrounds, but which are not made with polygons. SoI had the idea I could take pictures of a real mansion, an old one."
He explained his vision to his friend, artist Didier Chanfray, who did a chiaroscuro concept art of a lone figure holding a lantern up at the end of an eerie mansion hallway. Raynal considers the image iconic to this day.
It was the first time in his games career that the scope of the game was intimidating, requiring some ideas that hadn't yet been much in existence at that time. He knew he needed a professional 3D modeling tool, but such things, where they existed at all, were still primitive.
Still obsessed by The Cube's rotating 3D object, he was inspired to make his own high-res EGA 3D editor based on grids. Further work involved importing scanned pictures to actualize his vision of 3D photo backgrounds- but the basic 3D projection wasn't sophisticated enough.
So he ditched the idea of doing photo-based backgrounds, realizing they needed to be hand-drawn bitmaps. The game's working proof of concept, with a working character model and a couple of mansion rooms, was done in September 1991 and approved by Infogrames; the project had a 3D artist in Chanfray, a 2D artist in Yael Barroz - whom Raynal later married - and a programmer in Franck de Girolami. The mansion's layout was the work of Franck Manzetti.
The wireframe lead character could be filed out and animated within the tool and computed in-between the animation's four frames. The final game included the option of a female character, in what Raynal believes was a "naive" perception for the time that more women would play the game if they had that choice.
"You could, like an articulated puppet, put all the positions of the body... I wanted to have this, but in the early 90s, PCs were slow but were evolving very very quickly," Raynal explains. The first monster designed for the game had a very fluid and plausible attack animation in only three frames.
At the turn of the decade, PC technology was advancing incredibly rapidly, and the result was that home computers varied wildly in speed. "So I decided to have this system to be able to adapt itself to the speed of the computer," says Raynal. "You can put all the time you want between the frames."
Very soon, says Raynal, he understood he would need to make his own scripting language: "I understood that if you do, for a game -- and it's still true nowadays -- dedicated tools, it's very very efficient, because it helps keep the direction. Every artist working on the game you can give them maximum freedom inside the constraint you want."
That allowed for fairly sophisticated fighting animations. But "Alone in the Dark is not an action game; it's an adventure game with a few action [elements]," he enforces. So he asked for a writer for the in-game text.
At the time, Infogrames was talking to Chaosium, owner of the Call of Cthulu license, and proposed a Lovecraftian tone. "But please, not Call of Cthulu, because the character sheets were so awful," he joked. Writer Hubert Chardot joined up, and the team, now up to six people, had meetings for three days to plot out the game's story from start to finish, as well as the list of tasks players would need to perform to advance the game.
Additional team members included two more 2D artists and a music and sound designer, Philippe Vachey, who used Ad Lib FM chip music and Sound Blaster audio samples. "You could do real samples for the first time on the PC," reflects Raynal. It meant much to him to have realistic stair creaks and door creaks - "that was something very important for the game."
In the staging of survival horror, "I had a lot of ideas of how to scare the player... imagination is stronger than polygons," says Raynal. "If you have this very heavy and dense, dark story, it helps... but I realized there was still something else. In an adventure game, you walk 80% of the time. So if you want to put big pressure on the player, just scare him with what he does all the time -- just walking."
Unavoidable traps would pressure the player and keep him on his toes, afraid and careful, even with simple acts like opening doors or creeping down long hallway. "You need to read the books in the game, but some books, you just open it and you die."
Limiting the inventory and the ammunition also creates a sense of helplessness - "you didn't need, actually, a lot of munition. It would make people more confident to have a big gun and everything. But if you read all the books, you have all the clues to kill the monsters... I really wanted to force the player to find other solutions [besides] brutal force."
By the time the game was final, though: "I have a confession: In October 1992, I hated this game," says Raynal. The perfectionism and quest for real dynamics that had led him to innovate so much on technology for Alone in the Dark kept him dissatisfied with some of the shortcomings of elements he had to implement quickly, such as thrown objects not moving in a dynamic arc.
"Everyone was really tired, and I was really afraid," he says. Of course, the rest is history: Alone in the Dark was and continues to be well-beloved, and is widely considered the founding entry in the survival-horror genre of games.
At the end of the game, when the player defeats the sorcerer that has captivated the house, the player has the opportunity to explore the mansion in a state of being empty and safe. "But generally, the testers just wanted to get out," Raynal laughs.
"I would love an HD remake," he adds, answering an audience question. "I hope that happens."