Released in 1992 by Infogrames, Alone in the Dark was a first in many ways. Not only was it debatably the first survival horror game ever made, it introduced many of the genre's familiar elements. The tank controls, the prerendered backgrounds with superimposed 3D models, and having to collect and utilize limited resources in addition to the usual complement of fighting enemies and solving puzzles. All things that would, in varying capacities, appear in almost every survival horror game to follow (at least until the early 2000s, when the focus would shift away from "survival" and more to action and over-the-top gore).
It was also the first to implement a two-character "scenario" system, though functionally there's very little difference between the two characters here; they never interact with one another, the scenario doesn't change, and there are no significant gameplay differences between them (though the opening narration does change slightly). Naturally, later games like Resident Evil would improve upon this idea by having different weapons and events occur for each character, but this was where it got its start.
After you pick Emily Hartwood or Edward Carnby, you get an opening cutscene:
Your chosen character travels to the mansion of Derceto in search of a piano in the attic, which each character is after for different reasons (with Edward looking to recover it and sell to an antique dealer while Emily Hartwood seeks a suicide note linked to her uncle's death). They make their way to the attic without incident (apparently not noticing the monster watching from the window), and then the game begins.
As mentioned, the game was the first to make use of "tank controls", meaning that your character's facing is rotated via the left and right arrow keys, with the up key making them walk forward (or run when double-tapped) and the back key causing them to back up. Actions are carried out with the space bar, though to select what action is performed at any given time one must open the menu with the Enter key and select an action or an inventory item to use. A little strange considering one of the PC platform's advantages was having over 100 keys to work with, but regardless, that's how they chose to do it.
In any case, searching the piano turns up Jeremy Hartwood's suicide note, revealing that there are now some dark forces at work in Derceto:
...And right on cue, you're immediately attacked by a strange rat-creature bursting in through the window. Fortunately the nearby chest holds a useful implement.
So that leaves you in a manor with God-knows-how-many other nasties after you and no ammunition left. Well, not quite; if you know to push the chest over the trapdoor and the wardrobe in front of the window, these two encounters can be avoided and leave you better prepared for later ones. But I don't expect most people would know that the first time playing through...
After searching around for a few more clues and useful objects, you head downstairs to a hallway lined with several doors. Well, we came in through the far one, so let's examine the one on the far le-
...oh. The floor now gives way beneath you, plunging you to your doom. How silly. Well, let's try the near left door then.
A quick search turns up a locked chest and a small desk. Nothing too interesting, so let's back out.
..Oh, another zombie. Well, we may have no more rifle rounds, but we did find something in the chest in this room:
Unfortunately it doesn't prove too hardy of a weapon and snaps in half after only two hits. But thanks to the Throw command, we can still use the broken blade and handle to finish it off (although it is admittedly tricky to aim owing to the tank controls and the low-poly models not making it entirely clear which direction you're facing).
Searching the other room doesn't turn up a whole lot, but it does result in another rat creature bursting through the window to attack us (they must have some powerful leaping abilities or something considering we're several floors up). Unfortunately I have no more weapons to use, but a nearby vase proves itself useful.
...And when that doesn't quite finish the job, fisticuffs will fill in. Though they're something you want to use sparingly because it's very easy to get inescapably stun-locked and killed in this game, particularly in small, cramped rooms like these. Of course, hand to hand combat isn't exactly at its best with tank controls in place. Remember Perfect Weapon on the Playstation 1? Eugh.
Searching the smashed vase reveals a key, which can be used to unlock the dresser in this room, revealing two shield-shaped mirrors. Seems like an important puzzle item to me!
...I could go through the whole game like this, but you get the gist of how it works. Essentially, it's an adventure game with some light combat elements and a few scares thrown in; random zombie attacks, rat creatures leaping through windows to attack, and ghosts that will erupt into colorful spheres and murder you if you disturb them, to name just a few. As per survival horror standards, though, you have a very limited supply of ammunition and health-restoring items to work with, and many enemies throughout cannot be killed at all, forcing you to avoid or outmaneuver danger rather than fight it all head-on.
The game's design is also a little bizarre at times, with somewhat off-putting puzzles and deathtraps (a portrait of a Native American that shoots you in the back with an arrow, to name one). Some traps are also downright wicked, with rat monsters frequently appearing as soon as you've backed yourself into a narrow space you can't easily escape from and, at one point, having to traverse a room full of dancing ghosts without touching any of them; easier said than done with the camera angle and tank controls. To the game's credit, though, there are relatively few opportunities to get yourself stuck in an unwinnable state; so long as you make sure to search everything, keep your health relatively high and save often, you shouldn't find yourself dying or getting stumped too often.
In addition to a handful of ports to various computers and home consoles (including the PC-98, FM Towns, Mac and 3DO), Alone in the Dark also spawned four sequels. Alone in the Dark 2 again followed Edward Carnby, though it took a shift away from Lovecraftian themes in favor of having him fighting against undead gangsters and pirates who have abducted a young girl named Grace Saunders for sinister purposes. Alone in the Dark 3 is much in the same vein, following Edward Carnby as he fights zombified cowboys in a ghost town called "Slaughter Gulch." Both of these games featured a much heavier emphasis on combat and were heavily panned as a result, as the awkward controls didn't lend themselves well to that style of gameplay. Nor did the fact that these games were strictly linear and stepping off the specified path at any time would result in the player being instantly killed by a ghost...
The third sequel was termed Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare, and served as something of a reboot of the series. The game centers on two characters, one a descendant of Edward Carnby who also happens to be named Edward Carnby (now said to be a member of a bloodline of paranormal investigators) and a new character named Aline Cedrac. They set out to explore a small island off the cost of Massachusetts and find clues about a lost civilization called the Abkani, apparently destroyed by a race of underground-dwelling monsters called the Creatures of Darkness. It also wasn't too great, though it did feature some impressive lighting effects for 2001. It's also the game on which the Uwe Boll film was loosely based (and the less said about that, the better).
Finally, another reboot came in 2008 simply titled "Alone in the Dark", which revamped the game into a strange hybrid of first person shooting, Prince of Persia style platforming and puzzle solving elements. Unfortunately, these elements never really come together and form a cohesive whole, resulting in a game that feels like a disjointed jumble of ideas more than anything. Though to its credit, it did at least feature some innovative fire and physics effects for its era and some pretty clever, if poorly realized, gameplay elements.
Well, regardless of the franchise's downward spiral, there is no denying that the original Alone in the Dark was a major influence, defining many of the core tenets of the survival horror genre and being a rare example of a western franchise achieving popularity in Japan. So popular was it, in fact, that it served as a direct inspiration for games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, which have both gone on to become massively popular franchises in their own right. Alone in the Dark may not be the most fondly remembered of franchises, but there is no denying that it set the standard for just about every horror game to come.