"PREVIOUSLY, IN ALONE IN THE DARK..." The deep movie trailer voice booms across the small, darkened cinema room, tucked away mere seconds from Hampstead tube station, North London. I hear laughter, the laughter of people who would have spat out their tea if they had been sipping some at the time. I feel slightly embarrassed. I came here knowing that the fifth Alone in the Dark game and the first in the multimillion-selling horror video game series since 2001's Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, would show itself to be heavily influenced by modern day TV programmes - 24, Heroes, Lost and the like - but this? This just feels awkward.
But why should it? Video games have been borrowing from films for years. So why not television, too? Perhaps the crowd's reaction, and indeed my awkwardness to Alone in the Dark's episodic gameplay has more to do with developer Eden doing something different, something we're not used to seeing in a video game, than it being a mere gimmick.
Nour Polloni, the game's French producer, continues her on-stage presentation either blissfully unaware of the sniggering or with nary a care. We have just skipped straight to episode two of what Nour calls "season one" of Alone in the Dark, and, as a result, the game is filling us in. Snapshots of the first episode flash across the massive cinema screen. We see how in the first episode private detective Edward Carnby, who fans of the very first Alone in the Dark game from waaaay back in 1992 will remember well, woke up in a modern day apartment block with no idea of what's happened to him. We learn that Ed had somehow managed to travel forward in time from the 30s, the setting of the first game, and saw a number of shady characters declare him their light bringer, a role they demand an older, fellow captive facilitates.
We see how horrible monsters tore through the walls of the apartment block, tearing Ed's captors, and anyone else in their way, apart. We see the moment Ed looked into a mirror and saw his heavily scarred face for the first time. We see how Ed rappelled down an elevator shaft, swung from left to right, grabbed onto live electric power cables and moved from one intense action scene to another.
'We see Alone in the Dark's fire, perhaps the greatest, most technically impressive virtual real-time simulation of fire ever seen in a video game, at play.'
We see Alone in the Dark's fire, perhaps the greatest, most technically impressive virtual real-time simulation of fire ever seen in a video game, at play. Eden has applied flammability to the various materials in the game world. Fire propagates - it spreads, it breaks down wood, it reduces objects, eventually, to cinders, it casts real-time lighting. It harms but it also helps - a chair leg dipped in flame is both a torch and a fearsome weapon - Alone in the Dark's supernatural enemies - humans possessed by an unknown evil - disintegrate when attacked with fire. When the object is completely overwhelmed Ed will automatically cast the thing aside for fear of having his fingers singed. This is fire like we've never seen fire before.
We see how Ed opened his jacket to reveal his inventory - how he combined items to form more useful objects, like Molotov cocktails, and sprayed a first aid canister on an open wound in his arm. We see how Ed was blown out of the side of the art deco apartment block, revealing New York's Central Park in all its glory below. We see how he sidestepped along a tiny ledge to escape the horrifying monsters, how the environment constantly changed to present a new danger, a new thrill.
All this you, the player, can do, but don't have to do. In Alone in the Dark you'll be able to skip almost the entire game and see what you missed via "PREVIOUSLY, IN ALONE IN THE DARK" segments that proceed each new episode. That's right. The game has no difficulty levels and you don't have to play through the game to get to the end.
That's not entirely true. The very last episode stays locked until the player has completed an appropriate amount of the game, but, for all intents and purposes, you'll be able to skip through what troubles you, as if fast forwarding a DVD. Wrap your head around that video game fans.
The burning question is, of course, why? "We want everyone to be able to complete the game," says Nour. How novel.