Friday, 18 January 2013
In which Shim is inconvenienced by Lovecraftian horrors, tormented by game designers, and impressed by early technical accomplishments in Alone in the Dark.
This is a GOGathon of Alone in the Dark, which will be as spoilertastic as a lengthy review slash critical analysis of a game based substantially around puzzles can easily be. If you just want a final spoiler-free verdict, skip right to the last section.
Alone in the Dark is sometimes talked about as the first survival horror game, and was at least an early influence on that genre. It has continuous 3D modelling, albeit with fixed camera angles, rather than faux-3D where you skip from square to square, or 2D adventure-game-style graphics. It has a somewhat unwieldy protagonist, under constant threat from things you can’t necessarily kill. It has inventory management, and limited health, and puzzles to solve.
Personally, I’m not convinced about the survival horror business. The clumsy control scheme feels to me (in my decrepitude) like a practical issue of early games, particularly 3D ones – I can remember being incredulous that they might ever be an improvement on 2D. There are many threatening entities, but you’re actually surprisingly badass for a survival protagonist, able to kick entire roomfuls of zombies back to death and blow away mole-things – the real problems are death-traps and a couple of immortal threats. Moreover, you can’t rely on running, hiding or puzzling to get you through the game – there is a ton of compulsory combat, most of which isn’t that challenging. Finally, survival horror is very much about not quite killing the PC, but Alone in the Dark enjoys killing you. What we have here, in my view, is a horror adventure game; and it has many of the weaknesses of adventure games.
Now obviously this was a pretty darned early adventure game, from 1992, and I can’t expect too much, so I’m going to try and ease off on the criticism. At the same time, I think it’s worth noting how well it stands up nowadays, what’s changed since this came out, and some of the specific issues I ran into. For full disclosure, I’ll mention that I played this game fairly soon after it came out – or rather, I played the first section repeatedly but none of us could get past the staircase.
You’re one of two characters, who are mechanically identical, but I think it’s worth pointing out that they gave you the option to be male or female, with separate backstories. In 1992. Emily’s fully-dressed and everything. She's also the default character, and the one with the best connection to events.
I picked the private eye, who had a cool moustache – also, that’s who I remember playing all those years ago. Looking at the two characters now for reference, I notice that Emily’s backstory offers several hints for playing the game: a secret drawer in the piano, a secret door in the library, the special clock... Carnby the PI gets nothing like that, and suffers for it. I’m not sure whether the disparity was deliberate – Emily is the default character, so maybe it helps new players get a headstart? – but it’s fairly significant and would probably have influenced my own playthrough.
You learn that the owner committed suicide, mentally disturbed, odd ancient manuscripts, rumours of a curse... okay, it’s clearly an actual haunted house. As Carnby, you drive up to the house, let the driver head off, wander inside, and the scene shows you someone sinister watching. The game proper starts with you inside the attic, where both characters wish to see a piano.
The start is slightly baffling, with no apparent objectives. There’s the piano, which says it’s irrelevant. There’s an obvious trapdoor nearby, which you can’t open or even look at. With much trial and error, I manage to open a crate, and retrieve a rifle. Hooray! Wait, what’s that..? Okay, now I’m being attacked by a... giant bipedal naked mole rat, apparently. That’s just great. Thankfully it’s very slow and I can kick it to death, and it dissolves into purple gas bubbles. Presumably an iodine-based lifeform, then?
I pause briefly to try the piano again, and the trapdoor swings open. This is obviously sinister, and I’m already standing by, brogues poised, when the zombie lurches out.
Zombie re-dead, I start wandering round, gathering every single item I can fit into my pockets, most of which is not immediately useful. But there’s a sword! This comes just in time, because now there’s another zombie standing outside the door...
You know, it’s pretty noticeable that there’s really no reason for me to be here. My character’s sole motivation was obtaining some piano, which I was standing right next to when the game started, but perversely refuse to touch. I can’t help noticing, too, that I appear singularly unprepared for piano-removal, which is the pretext for my being here.
Aah, the piano... Carnby’s background has only a passing mention of possible secret drawers, and doesn’t give any reason for him to care about anything but the piano’s market value, so after my first nine or ten fruitless attempts to interact with the piano I shrugged and assumed it was actually just a bad pretext for you being there. Having finally read Emily’s background properly for the sake of this article, I realised this was wrong. To find the secret drawer, you need to search the piano from a specific angle, as any fule no. This gets you a letter saying the house is overcome by hellish forces and old Hartwood killed himself so that “they will find my body but will not have my soul” – which is slightly informative, but a bit misleading. What this is all about, you eventually discover, is finding a living body to possess.
Anyway, as is my habit, let me paint you a vividly snarky word-picture of my experience with the game, and how bad I was at it.
Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying
I eventually manage to make my way downstairs. Seeing my route clear, I continue downstairs, past various doors, to the main entrance. Huh. Much easier than I expected, but escaping from the house is the obvious thing to do. Maybe the next part of the game is about exploring the grounds, or my client will send me back? Maybe once I see what's outside I'll have to come back to explore? Most likely, though, it's plot locked.
I open the door, and am confronted by a gargantuan eye. There’s a brief cutscene of the house trapped in some hideous otherworld of Lovecraftian abomination, and I’m dead.
Ah. It’s one of those games. At least it's a pretty cool game over.
I reload, and enter a sideroom. Grabbing a few things, I go for what appears to be a cloth lying on a chair. It suddenly rises into the air, chases me down and emits an unearthly shriek that rips my soul apart. A zombie drags me deep into the earth, to a hidden grave.
I reload, and avoid the ghost. In a nearby bathroom, I find an immortal jellyfish-thing that devours me.
I reload, and avoid the jellyfish. I find a large bedroom, containing a huge, interesting picture of Davy Crockett or someone. As I wander away down the bedroom, the painting suddenly begins hurling tomahawks at me, killing me.
I reload, and run down the bedroom as fast as possible, literally racing the tomahawk. As I approach the other end, an arrow appears from nowhere and kills me. Oh, there’s another evil painting, which you can’t actually see at all from the entrance.
I reload, and inspiration strikes. I place an Old Indian Cover on the first painting, race down the hall, and find some doors just in time to duck through and avoid an arrow from the other end. Inside, a purple monster ambles out of the wall. I run away into a suit of armour, which kills me.
I reload and go downstairs, dumping a load of junk in the kitchen. A zombie appears behind me, and during the ‘fight’ my actions are constantly interrupted by pickup prompts from all the junk on the floor. I am killed by inventory prompts.
I reload, and kill the zombie. Next up is a whole roomful of zombies, which are actually a pushover. The next room contains a weird monochrome-bestowing cloud of something which I avoid like the plague, and head off instead into what turns out to be a cellar, where I am devoured by immortal rats. No, seriously.
Okay, you probably get the idea. This is a very dangerous game. Sudden death is to be expected in horror adventures, but this isn’t the sort of game where I’m sleetching about with bated breath, wondering if a hideous monstrosity will pounce on me from around the corner. I spend so much time dying that it’s just one of those minor annoyances, and most of the deaths are so random that a resigned Gallic shrug is my only response. Once artwork is killing you with laser-guided arrows, giant spiders rain from the sky and you’re being chewed to death by Achillean rats, moving on is about all you can do. This is very much a “do it again, stupid” game, built on death after death: after a while, it reminds me of Rogue Moon. I’m half-seriously starting to wonder whether this really is supposed to be a serious game, or whether the designers were laughing their heads off. There’s something strongly pantomime about the whole business – pirate-duelling, wight-mice, humorously-collapsing bridges – but surely it’s too early in the genre to be that parodic?
I’ve never been a fan of games where you have to progress either by repeatedly dying to learn what not to do, or by being stupid. Well, I’m prepared to put up with it in the more abstract kind of game, and to some extent in CRPGs where tactics are a thing, but in an adventure game, if an ordinary job leads to my ordinary PI being attacked by all kinds of supernatural monstrosities, the only sensible option is to get out of there immediately. If the game doesn’t want me to simply peg it down the stairs and vanish into the night, it’s the designers’ responsibility to change my mind, and an unpredictable, arbitrary death feels to me like a lazy shortcut.
Ideally, they should give me some strong in-character reason to stay and investigate the house, which overwhelms the instinct to flee. Alternatively, if they’d revealed the true state of affairs, then naturally the only option is to stay the course and try to fix things. That would have been pretty easy to do; there are windows all over the place, and I could have peered out and seen monsters in the grounds, for example. Or, of course, they could simply have locked the front door, like nearly every other door in the house. But I feel strongly that in any game making a pretence at realism, it should be perfectly possible to get through the game in a single attempt, without relying on metagame knowledge and without defying common sense. Obviously that’s never likely, but it should be possible.
What the game shouldn’t do is expect me to automatically explore a dangerous environment without giving me any motivation to do so, though it’s a common enough problem in gaming generally – a lot of RPG scenarios rely on this too. “Hey, there’s a load of caves twenty miles away in dangerous wilderness, full of cannibalistic orcs. Let’s go there and poke around for no reason!” The mystery in the house is nothing to do with Carnby, after all. I’d like to think this is an area where games have progressed since this came out, and certainly the adventure/survival games I’ve seen since offer much better personal motives for investigation in the face of danger, or else don’t give you the option of escape.
Left In The Dark
Leaving off the Let’s Play for a bit, let’s talk about the mechanics, and the basic structure of the game.
From a modern perspective, the controls are distinctly sub-par. The only basic commands available are various directions of ‘saunter’. For everything else, you have to pop up a menu to select what kind of ‘special’ action you want to do, picking things like “search”, “jump” and “fight” from a list, return to the main screen, and hold down the spacebar while pressing a direction key to actually do them. Running requires double-tapping the movement keys, which works about one time in six. It’s certainly not the most unwieldy control scheme ever, and you get used to it fairly fast, but it’s hardly convenient. Towards the end of the game, they introduce a new game mechanic – jumping. Though the manual does mention in passing that it’ll eventually show up, it creeps silently onto the menu like a thief in the night. The first jumping puzzle, for your information, involves leaping from block to block above a pit of Deep One-infested water while a purple insect attacks you. A little practice to find out, for example, how far you jump, might have been nice.
The learning curve is pretty steep, too. Having you attacked within about thirty seconds of the game starting gets things moving, but it does also throw you in at the deep end. Luckily combat is pretty simple. You can block off the window and trapdoor respectively to avoid fighting, but you’ll need to be comfortable with the controls, know ahead of time what objects can be moved, and know the attacks are coming; new players won’t have any of those advantages except possibly the last, if they’re playing Emily and unusually sensitive to clues. There’s a reason why games now tend to start you off in a safe zone. Your early experience also trains you to fight things, whereas a fair number of later enemies are simply invulnerable.
Luckily, the game’s relatively slow-paced so it’s not usually a problem selecting and switching actions; and it is clever enough to automatically open doors that you walk into for a second or two. In the light of recent articles, I’ll also note that it’s a 3D game with a character-relative control scheme, and the camera shifts are predictable. 3D combat is no more difficult than it was in POPSOT. This game came out in 1992, and controlwise it’s giving games that were released a decade later a run for their money.
Something the game doesn’t do well, however, is setting out its parameters. These days, we’re used to introductory sections, tutorials, tooltips and what-have-you. These help you understand not only how to interact with the game, but also what the game actually is. Those objectives and interaction styles sometimes shift over the course of the game, but that’s usually signposted clearly too. Without this support, in a game more complicated than Sonic or Duke Nukem, it can be difficult to know what assumptions the designers are making, and how you’re supposed to interact with the game – not in a philosophical way, I hasten to add, but just in terms of playing it. I’ve experienced some of this issue before, in both Beyond Good And Evil and Planescape: Torment, where my expectations of gameplay didn’t quite match the reality, and it always causes problems. The manual doesn’t give any pointers either. I do wonder how people coped in 1992, without a background knowledge of tropes to draw on.
In AITD, there are no particular pointers as to what sort of thing I should be doing, once ‘get the hell outta here’ is ruled out. Obviously I can work out some basics – pack-ratting is long instilled in me, and when monsters appear I should kick them in the head – but neither of those is actually going to achieve victory. What I’m left with is wandering aimlessly through a building without any idea what I’m trying to achieve or how to achieve it. The manual is completely silent on the subject. I assumed it was just a case of collecting stuff for puzzle-solving until I get out of the mansion, and fending off occasional monsters, which turned out to be wrong in an important respect; for which see below. It’s only about halfway through the game that you can really discern anything resembling an objective.
The first significant puzzle is actually a pretty good example of this opaqueness.
My Nightgaunt’s Got No Face, How Does It See?
You find two winged things blocking the stairs, with no way down. They’re completely invulnerable, though you can easily waste all your precious ammo and die a few times before working that out. To remove them, you must find a key hidden inside a vase, which opens a desk containing two small mirrors, which can be balanced on two statuettes on the landing, which will banish the monsters. It’s not an especially fiendish puzzle as such, but there are several things you need to understand in order to solve it.
First rule: inventory objects might contain other objects. You don’t actually find a key; you find a vase, of no obvious use. Nor can you search the vase if you pick it up, though some later inventory objects (like first aid boxes) are examinable and contain other objects. You have to decide to add the pointless vase to your inventory, then throw it at something. Unlike any other inventory object in the game, it will break when it lands – you can cheerfully hurl a lit lantern and a playing gramophone around like bean bags. You must then examine the fragments, despite having no reason to think there was anything inside. If you tried something creative like throwing it at a nightgaunt, you’ll be unable to approach close enough to search the fragments without getting murdered, leaving you unable to continue.
Second rule: interactivity is unreliable. Most of the house’s prominent furniture will either contain loot, or give you a ‘nothing here!’ message when you try to examine it, while curtains and chairs tend not to, which gives the impression that this method detects likely interactable objects. The statuettes don’t give any message, which implies that they’re just decoration. However, if you’re standing exactly next to one and use the ‘drop’ command on a mirror, you attach it to the statue instead of dropping it. This is an extension of the Piano Rule, where using the right command on the right object from slightly the wrong position gives you the misleading ‘nothing here!’ message.
Thirdly, the clues are broad and opaque. You find an extract from “The Golden Fleece” in the house, which talks about using mirrors to fight Medusa, a serpent-haired woman whose gaze turns people to stone. From this, you should infer that you can use the mirrors to fight demon-looking things that don’t turn people to stone, not by getting into combat with them like Jason did, but by attaching them to some random statuettes, which will banish them for reasons never explained. If you do get into combat while possessing a mirror, the mirror gets smashed, leaving you unable to progress even if you can extricate yourself. I assume people less thick than me worked all this out for themselves – I never even found the key, either as a small child or a grown man. It's good to see that despite the passing of time, some things are unchanging. This decade, however, the internet existed, and with it walkthroughs.
All games have a set of arbitrary rules in terms of what’s possible and how the world operates, but this one isn’t good at introducing the player to those rules. This is pretty important, because it creates an extra layer of irrelevant complexity to puzzles, which makes them annoying to solve. In real life, there’s no interactability distinction to limit what you can do, but games train you to think like that – so it’s the game’s responsibility to help you understand the system it’s using. This is especially true in an adventure-type game like this, where a wide variety of interactions occur. Similarly, you don’t initially know whether books you find are likely to be irrelevant diversions, clues to immediate puzzles, or explain things that you’ll encounter later in the game – and the game should at least start off by giving you a hint.
In addition, many of these rules only apply once. The piano is the only part of the game where you need to search a specific face of an object. The vase is the only container that you can’t search, and the only breakable inventory object in the game. The nightgaunts are the only enemies you can defeat by puzzle. The pirate is the only enemy that requires minigame combat to defeat. Pirate, you say?
Zombie Pirate Swordplay Interlude!
About halfway through the game, there’s a pirate who can only be killed using a sword. To kill him, you must engage in actual duelling, timing your swings to be exactly right to break his guard. This is an extremely long, slow process, rendered more difficult by the fact that most of the time he ends up between you and the camera, so it’s hard to judge whether he’s close enough to be hit (and to stab you) or not. He blocks most of your attacks easily, which for the first two or three minutes of the fight can give the impression that he’s immune to your sword, just like he is to your pistol, rifle and magic knives. As far as I could tell, the game doesn’t actually give you any hints that swordfighting is the way to go, or that this fight alone involves tactical combat rather than just timing your foot to when their face-equivalent is in range. As so often, I found the answer in a walkthrough; it didn’t speed up the fight at all, but it did at least reassure me that I was doing the right thing. I think I spent something approaching five minutes fighting the one undead pirate, which is longer than a typical boss battle in a full-fledged tactical RPG. Um, yeah... there’s quite a few ways they could have improved my experience here, ranging from ‘providing some hints somewhere’ through ‘making him worse at blocking’ down to ‘just taking this bit out’. And now, back to your regularly scheduled moaning.
In my various trips to the walkthrough, I started to realise why I was having trouble getting anywhere.
“Throw the heavy statuette at the suit of armor in the second floor landing to acquire the durable (and unbreakable) sword.”This is a crucial step to completing the adventure. The suit of armour in question is immune to rifle fire, melee weapons and kicking. Why should a statuette destroy it? Moreover, the statuette has a very plot-critical look to it (accurately), you already know that at least one item broke on throwing, and you may already have learned that the plot-critical mirrors could be broken. Given all that, and the typical fragility of statuettes, throwing it around without a good reason is really not very sensible.
“Shoot one arrow down the hallway to dispel yet another possessed painting and put the bow away.”...some sort of homeopathic approach to exorcism? I foolishly assumed that, like the knives, swords and rifle, the bow was a weapon for hurting things. You might also expect some thematic connection between the two haunted Native American-themed paintings and how to defeat them, but no.
I also feel like they really didn’t think about what the player actually sees when setting up their clever little puzzles. There are several segments where archaic resolution and long-distance camera make it virtually impossible to tell which way your character’s facing - and precise facing is crucial in combat - let alone whether he’s standing on anything safe. One of these is a maze, in the dark, to which no maps or clues are ever provided, and displayed on such a large scale that your investigator is only a few pixels high. You must wander round at random until you find a slightly differently-coloured blob. If you put down your lamp and carefully inspect it, you’ll find the universally-helpful words “there’s a mechanism to trigger!”. In this case, it means “This ‘ere is a door, and there’s a gaping hole in it what’s exactly the same size as that gem you just nicked out the pirate chest! HINT HINT”, but while this would be immediately apparently to our intrepid investigator, the player isn’t allowed to know that. Given the number of irrelevant rooms and angles the game provides views for, I think they could’ve flipped you to a big dock-off shot of the massive door and its suspicious gem-niche as soon as you entered this area, rather than leaving you as a microscopic speck standing next to another microscopic speck. There are also many opportunities to fall off things whose edges are not readily visible, plenty of which appear to extend to the wall right up until you fall off.
The fixed camera angles can also leave you underinformed. Very occasionally you can be attacked by an enemy that’s offscreen, but that’s rare; struggling to work out the range to an enemy is a bit more common. More significantly, I got completely stuck at one point because of some doors I didn’t know existed. The room in question was full of toxic smoke, so you had to rush through it for the sake of your health. Since the basic camera angle was pretty comprehensive and the room was very small, it hadn’t occurred to me there might be another view to check, so I’d missed the existence of a set of doors on one wall. The doors are only visible if you cross to the far corner of the room. Obviously, being an adventure game, it’s scrupulously linear and there was no way left to proceed. Cue walkthrough.
As a puzzle-solving game, I think in some respects it may actually suffer from too much action; or rather, on infelicitous blending of the two elements. It relies on you finding everything and then mentally running through your inventory when a problem arises, searching around and trying combinations until you crack it. However, quite a lot of the time you’re being attacked, which makes calm reasoning a bit tricky. At one stage you’re searching a library for a) a secret door; b) the switch for said door; and c) the false book to activate said switch. At the same time, you’re being hunted by a monster that can lurch straight through obstacles and can only be killed by a weapon found inside the secret door. The same applies to the smoke-filled room, where your thoughts tend towards “grab obvious item and run out of opposite door” rather than “I wonder if there’s anything interesting to see if I stood in the far corner of this room, and therefore how I might get past this grey blob that’s sapping my health, and therefore what the blob is and how I might best remove it?” In fact, given the Lovecraft theme, I originally assumed it was a Colour Out Of Space, not some leftover ganja.
What I see here is a game too early in whatever genre it is for mechanics and expectations to have been formed. There’s a certain incoherence to the way you play, relying on trial-and-error in the same way as many pure adventure games, and with inconsistent mechanics that make it hard for the player to get a feel for the game. I think more recent exploration games have, by and large, tightened up on this sort of thing, and got better at signalling their expectations to the player. Similarly, I suspect they’re better at deciding what type of problem each area should present, and keeping the types separate.
There are a few other signs of unsophisticated design that caught my interest. You can’t do anything if you’re holding a lamp, for example, but must put it down first. Objects never disappear, even when useless, so you can easily end up with junk all over the place – I already mentioned how this got me killed once, and finding secluded places to dump rubbish becomes an issue at times. These aren’t enormous problems, but they are obvious flaws in the game that later games have thankfully addressed.
There’s a very hotchpotch feel to the game – here a zombie, there an immortal rat, here a haunted painting, there a sort of Venus flytrap whatsit. In some ways it reminds me of ‘classic’ D&D dungeon crawls, with monsters, peculiar magical effects and deathtraps scattered at random throughout the building, and keys to arbitrary doors kept in arbitrary places. You could quite easily believe it was generated with a random encounter table...
When the players reach the conservatory, read the following text:
You enter a 10’ by 10’ room, with lush vegetation sprouting all around. The room is clean and neat, with a wooden floor and walls of a strange, iridescent marble. In the centre stands a life-size statue of a woman with a goat, amidst sprouting ferns.
If the party searches the statue, they find three arrows and a torrent of poisonous spiders pours from the ceiling. The spiders are too small to target with any attacks.
In some ways it’s quite fun – you never know what you’re going to get, and the ridiculousness of the whole business prevents it from being particularly stressful or alarming. This is for the best. I am not really a good person to play serious survival horror, as my brief experience with Penumbra Overture demonstrated; I need a bit more control than they want to give you. It does mean it probably won’t be a good fit for anyone wanting that very same serious survival horror experience, though. I also appreciated the straightforwardness and effectiveness of the combat – you’re not particularly fast or nimble, but providing you’re fighting something you can kill, you can kill it fairly reliably.
On the other hand, it does mean a fairly high level of random deaths. There’s the aforementioned immortal rats, the shrieking ghost (which is impossible to fend off if you once disturb it), and in one case, a book that kills you if you glance at it. To be fair, there are two books in that room, and one warns you that some books are dangerous to read out loud, and specifically names the other. So it’s a fifty-fifty shot, really. Although, reading the title page of the other to find out its name is enough to kill you, unless you’ve guessed that the pentacle on the floor will protect you, which isn’t mentioned anywhere in the game and requires very accurate positioning to work, so...
Another issue with the hotchpotch approach to dungeon building is that it really restricts the game in building up a coherent narrative or environment. Most monsters occur only once, and a handful in two different rooms; they’re not variations on the same theme, as in many games, but a miscellany of Lovecraft extras. What this means is there isn’t any particular sense of progression, just moving from one oddity to the next. Throwing a mismatched assortment of monsters at you tends to break up the sense of continuity, and sometimes gives it more of a pulp sci-fi feel than a horror one. In Alone In The Dark, it also keeps things well away from the source material, which rarely offers more than two distinct entities in the same story and tends to embed the specific monsters firmly into the environment.
More modern games tend to aim for progression along at least one axis: sometimes there’s a straightforward escalation of power, sometimes they’re more complex rather than more powerful, while others use enemy phenotypes to illustrate and emphasise narrative and environmental progression by making them more sinister, more corrupted, or more alien as you move from relative comfort and familiarity towards the climax of the game.
The ending is... well, somewhat anticlimactic, rather odd, and largely unexplanatory. For me, it came as a bit of a shock; I thought I was just starting to delve into the sinister underworld below the house, and then the game ended. So it turns out that the sinister pirate and the sinister landowner mentioned in various books are one and the same, and that he has some kind of immortality pact with the Great Old Ones. Also, he’s out to steal your body. It’s... well, not entirely clear why that means opening the front door will kill you, or where the ghosts came from, though you can infer a semi-explanation for the monsters in the house. I must also confess some bemusement as to why the Dread Pirate Thingy turned out to be a fire-breathing tree.
I also realised that it’s remarkably easy to lose this game several hours before you stop playing. There’s an item you’ll need to finish the game, which you might have never found, and if your oil lamp’s out of juice I think it’s impossible to win. Another difficulty I had was that, over the course of the game, my health had been whittled right down to the line by the time I reached the finale. There’s a 1990s-sized pool of save slots, so reloading from a save with better health wasn’t an option. Since you can’t heal once your meagre supplies are exhausted, the final fight was a real pain, trying to dodge fireballs and Deep Ones, destroy the pirate-tree, then survive the Rocks Fall Everyone Dies to reach safety. Actually, my problem was mostly the latter. Really, you had to program in a rockfall that causes actual damage for the player to run through?
This isn’t a bad game once you get into the swing of things, but it suffers from some of the common problems of adventure games: puzzles that sort of make sense once you know the solution and don’t think too hard about them, and anomalies in how you’re supposed to interact with the world. There are too many arbitrary deaths for my taste, you don't quite get enough information, and they haven’t yet polished the art of hinting at sensible courses of action. It's so linear that there's really no replay value. The graphics are perfectly acceptable 99% of the time, but occasionally obfuscate the situation in ways that can be fatal; the lack of any camera control can occasionally leave you short on crucial information, or struggling in combat.
While there were quite a few frustrations, I did find it interesting playing this early game and seeing what’s changed and developed since it came out all those years ago. It was also nice to finally finish a game that foiled me in my childhood, even if I had to resort to walkthroughs. Finally, while I've griped more than enough about things that caused me problems, this is just about the first game to try and do the action + horror + puzzle combination, and what they've achieved is really pretty impressive all things considered, especially given technical limitations at the time. Plenty of the things I nitpick are only really apparent with hindsight and in the light of two decades of experimentation and advancement in game design since Alone in the Dark was released.
If you enjoy puzzle-adventure games, or feel interested in the development of adventure and survival horror, or have a lot of free time, it's worth a look. It's cheap and can be pretty quick to play through; alternatively, you could really buy into the puzzle-solving aspects, shun walkthroughs, and work out everything for yourself, which would substantially extend that play time.