Next year, PS5, Xbox Series X/S, and PC players can look forward to Alone In The Dark – a reimagined love letter to the 30 year old classic that was responsible for pioneering the survival horror genre. And knowing that they’ve got pretty big shoes to fill, THQ Nordic and Swedish developer Pieces Interactive have assembled a mixture of hot new talent and seasoned veteran developers. This includes Mikael Hedberg (who heads up the project as game director, and who was also the writer on Soma and Amnesia: The Dark Descent), Guy Davis (who provides monster designs), and Jason Köhnen (who provides the eerily haunting soundtrack).
Getting the right team in place is only half the battle though. And in order to find out as to how THQ Nordic and Pieces Interactive are ensuring that they don’t let fans of the horror series down, I spoke to Mikael Hedberg, game director of Alone In The Dark, and got to ask him as to how he was able to step up to the role of handling what is ultimately proving to be a welcome return for such an iconic franchise.
Mr Mikael… You were the director and writer of Amnesia and Soma. Based on your previous development background, you’re obviously a prime candidate for reinvigorating a horror franchise like Alone In The Dark. What intrigued you about the franchise, and at the same time, why did THQ tap you as the main guy who would be responsible for bringing back such an iconic franchise that is also associated with the video games industry as a whole?
I work for Pieces Interactive in Sweden, who are the developers, and our publisher is THQ Nordic. Pieces were starting a new project, and they had a look at all the IPs that THQ owned, and they wanted to figure out what they would want to work with. They thought that Alone In The Dark really popped out. They thought that this would be really cool, and they were trying to figure out how to do this. They were looking for someone to head it, like a creative director, and they found me. They called me up, “are you interested to talk about this?”. And I’m like, “sure”. Of course, I’m curious. And when I learned that it was Alone In The Dark, then I was like, “now I have to do this”. Because as you probably know, Alone In The Dark is the godfather of these kind of survival horror games.
Yeah, exactly. So even when we were doing Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I would almost say that there’s some slight references in it to Alone In The Dark. So you can’t really stray from it. It’s there. Everything has sprung from it. So when they asked me if I wanted to pitch in and help them try to do this thing, it was a no-brainer, and it was just super interesting. But then the whole question became, how do we do this in a respectful way? We wanted to do it properly, because it’s sort of like digging up someone’s artistic work, and what does it mean to make something new out of it? We started talking about it. Is this a sequel? Do we want to do a remake? Things like that. Doing a remake is actually really difficult because it’s a short game and it didn’t really fit. We couldn’t really make it work, so we said, let’s try to reimagine it. What would the people who made the original, what would they maybe do if they did the game today? From there it grew. We just sort of over-analysed the original game, and took all the things we could find and then repurposed them, and came up with this whole new story.
Frederick Raynal… He was the person that created the original Alone In The Dark. I know that Atari sold the IP to THQ, but did Frederick Raynal have any input with regards to the new Alone In The Dark game – even in terms of how he’d like Alone in The Dark to be going forward?
No, no, no [laughs]… I thought about contacting him early on, but I thought it was probably better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. But it’s funny, I know that he has been in contact with THQ recently, and I’m looking forward to meeting him at some point. I really hope he likes it, and it would really mean a lot to me if he put his stamp of approval on our game.
The first game is three hours long. I know that you’ve referred to Alone In The Dark as a love letter. But at the same time, and I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way, I’d like to say that beforehand… but sometimes you can stretch a concept too thin.
I don’t play games that are over 15 hours long, as they’re just a tad too long for me. But for the average player who isn’t content with a 12-hour campaign, and that’s not the world that I live in… Ultimately, some people might argue that 12 hours is too short. Whilst trying to respect the heritage of the franchise and also respecting the heritage of what the original title was, but also respecting the wishes and demands of the current player base… there is that dichotomy. It’s a fine line between respecting the past, and also respecting current conventions. How did you go about trying to reinvigorate the franchise according to today’s gaming climate?
Yeah, as you say, it is a challenge. Because some people would expect 20 plus hours or something like that. But there’s certainly a group of people, and I include myself in it, where in a story game, you’re happy if it’s hovering around 10 to 15 hours, or maybe even shorter. One of the things that I knew early on was that we were going to do two campaigns. We have two protagonists, so you have Edward Carnby and you have Emily Hartwood. I think if you’re having two campaigns, it’s almost a strength if it’s not too long. Because you want the player to be finishing the first campaign and be like, “oh yeah, let’s play the other one, I want to see what happens.” Rather than be like, “oh my God, do I have to do this for another 20 or 30 hours”? It’s short and sweet. We can do three hours of course, but it’s definitely something that I didn’t want to stretch too thin, because it’s still a contained and investigative story. As you say, if you stretch it thin it becomes a slug to get through.
Two different characters, two different play styles… and I assume, two different scenarios which allow them to utilize their own respective strengths and weaknesses? That obviously comes out, not only in terms of play-styles but also in terms of the characters and how they go about interacting with the environments…
Well, I wouldn’t go so far. It’s not like they have different abilities or anything like that. It’s more of a story thing, really. It’s about how they approach… I try to apply different moods to them, so it feels different. It has a different tone of the changes. I feel like it’s more like two stories in one, rather than two completely unique experiences. But yeah, there will definitely be some differences between the two characters and I hope that people will understand and appreciate the differences.
Your previous two games, Amnesia and Soma, they were first-person… I was going to say first-person shooters, and then I was like, “wait… that’s not quite right”. They’re first-person horror games… I’m just going to mention Resident Evil briefly.
Resident Evil basically took the original Alone In The Dark concept, like the third-person fixed angle perspective, and ran with it. But then Resident Evil went first-person with VII and VIII. I know that the new Alone In The Dark is incorporating the third-person perspective from Resident Evil IV onwards… Going forward, and bearing in mind that your previous work was first person oriented, is there any possibility of future Alone In The Dark content, even as extended chapters or DLC, being first-person oriented?
I’m not sure. It is interesting. We talked a lot about it when we were designing this thing. The thing is that we don’t want to stray too far. As you say, the original had these fixed angles, and already going to the third person camera that was behind the shoulders was a big step. We were like, “are people going to accept this, or is it going to feel like Alone In The Dark“? We felt that taking yet another step of making a first-person mode would be going too far. Also, I feel like we already knew early on that we wanted a kind of cinematic quality to it. Personally, I feel I’m more engaged in the character that I’m playing if I can see that person. What happens if you go full first-person mode, which made Amnesia and Soma really effective, is it becomes very close to the player themselves. So in those games, it was almost like a struggle to bring out the character in the character that you were playing. I felt that it was much easier in Alone In The Dark. Hopefully, people will agree that it worked in both Amnesia and Soma, but here I feel it made more sense. It allowed for that cinematic storytelling, rather than that really close and almost in-your-face type of stuff that you get in first-person.
The first game was great, the second game was great, but then after that, the original IP holders started to mismanage the franchise. Do you think there’s an extra expectation that’s based on the fact that THQ are now holding the rights to the franchise? Based on your previous development pedigree, as well what you did previously… THQ have obviously brought on board the right talent that’s highly respected, but at the same time, what sort of expectations do you have in terms of trying to reinvigorate a franchise that has been badly mismanaged in the past?
It is interesting because we’re allowed to have this perfect 20:20 vision in hindsight, because we’re looking at it from a historical view, where we have all these sequels. We can now go and say “hey, this doesn’t really feel like the original”. For instance, I wouldn’t say any of them are bad. I don’t like to say that any games are bad, because so much effort is required to make a game. So I wouldn’t really want to call them bad. But you could say that it’s more or less Alone In The Dark-y, I guess, and I feel like some of them feel more like the original. But for sure, yeah, the very first game is of course the original. But you can kind of sense that for every sequel that came out, it’s kind of straying away from it. You’re kind of losing more and more of it. I think an interesting example is Alone In The Dark: A New Nightmare, which I think was pretty good actually. It’s a fine game. For me, my biggest objection is really that they went for a modern era. I think the old 1920s and 1930s era was important for Alone In The Dark. But I know people might disagree, so I wouldn’t say that I’m right and they’re wrong. But hopefully, people will think that we did it justice, that we brought back the right things, that we cared enough, and that we basically did a good job.
Horror games were pretty big around 15-odd years ago, but then they went away. Basically, we had all these horror games coming out, and then their popularity ebbed, so they went away for a bit. Why do you think they’re coming back again in such a big way?
I guess there’s many reasons. It’s a pretty nice genre for indie developers. You can make something that’s pretty simple and effective, so I think indie developers are doing a really good service for the genre. But of course, we still have the big kahunas to the Resident Evils and things like that. But we’ll see. It’s interesting. I agree, it goes up and down a little bit of how much people are playing them. But I would love to see more of them come back, and maybe if we could see a new Silent Hill or something. That would be fun… But of course, I’m here to promote Alone In The Dark [laughs].
You mentioned the word “indie” and it just made me think of something. Considering that Soma and Amnesia were two “indie games” in every sense of the phrase, especially in comparison to what you’re associated with now – which is essentially a AAA title. Now you’ve obviously had to step up to the plate… What sort of transitionary process did you have to go through, not only in terms of the prep work, but also in terms of your head space… where you had to step up from say what was essentially an indie developer to what is now a mainstream director of a game that commands a significantly larger budget?
It was a big difference because for Amnesia and Soma, I was basically the writer. I was the story guy, and now I have to step up and be the creative director and make a whole lot more decisions as well. As you say, this has a bigger budget and there’s a lot more stuff going into it and that was definitely a challenge, but I’ve been loving it so far. It’s really fun. But you always learn a lot of things about different departments, and I just try to rely as much as I can on the people I have around me, and trust the experts and just listen to everyone in terms of what’s the best way to approach things. And of course, try to steer the ship, and try to keep the vision, and make the best of it.
You’ve been associated with a number of accomplished horror titles and are again stepping back into the horror genre. What tips would you give to someone who is looking to follow in your footsteps and make a horror game?
I guess I would start making my own games as an indie developer. I would just pick up one of the engines like Unreal or Unity, and start doing the work. Because if you start doing the work, you can start learning. I would say that it’s really about putting in the hours. It’s always difficult to start out thinking, “I’m going to be the horror director or writer”, because at some point somebody’s going to need to do the groundwork and if you are the person doing that, it definitely makes things easier.
You’ve got a background in horror games, but if you were to diversify, what game genre would you like to tackle going forward?
Drama probably. Some sort of drama. It’s one of the things that I feel we don’t see enough of in games. It would be really interesting to see if you could try to do something a little bit more serious. I think people who’ve played Soma realize that. That we can be pretty serious and deep if we want to. We can explore some heavy subjects if we want to. But of course, doing straight comedy at some point would be amazing. The other day I was sort of joking, but after a while, I felt like it was getting more serious. It was almost like a game that was a musical, and what would that be like? That was also a really fun idea. But I’m open to discovery. Even though you might think of me as the horror guy, I constantly think, how is this different from my previous titles? What’s new that I can discover? What else can I explore and incorporate? There’s always things to do.
Last question, but it’s in three parts. As the horror guy, what’s your favourite horror game?
My favourite horror game… If you’re going to go really, really far back, it’s a horror adventure game that was called Dark Seed. But that’s really early ‘90s. I think one that people know about is Silent Hill 2, probably.
Favourite horror film?
‘The Omen’, I would say.
Favourite horror book?
It would have to be something by Lovecraft. I would probably go with ‘At the Mountains of Madness’. It’s one of those titles that every now and then I feel like somebody needs to make this into a game or a movie. And sometimes I wonder if I am that guy? I don’t know. Maybe in the future, we’ll find out.
Thank you so much.