Way, way back in one of my very first episodes when the show was borderline unwatchable, I talked about adaptations. I talked about how games have historically failed to reflect the properties being adapted; that video games didn’t so much take the source material and make a game out of it, but force the source material onto a game. So Ghostbusters becomes a third person shooter, Jurassic Park becomes a tycoon game, and Dante’s Inferno becomes… that thing. The Alien franchise as a whole didn’t fare much better: an arcade beat ‘em up where predators punched aliens to death despite, you know, acid blood. There was that 2D action game that tried to turn Alien 3 into Metroid. And then a plethora of first person shooters, some of which were fondly remembered (AVP Classic) and some that are… not… so much. (Colonial Marines footage).
Alien Isolation, though, sort of wants to wipe the slate clean. Not just of Alien games, but all of the subsequent films as well. After decades of fighting Predators and Terminators and for some reason Batman, and after running its franchise into the ground and then running its spinoff franchise into the ground, and after comic books and novels and a line of children’s toys… These days the Xenomorph has sort of lost its… well, alien-ness. It’s no longer a foreign and unknown entity, it’s an established slasher monster to some and a nostalgic action movie grunt for the rest. In ignoring the myriad of media released in the 35 years since Alien, Alien Isolation seems to want to reach back to the franchise’s roots and make the xenomorph something to fear again.
And to do so it wants to recreate the first film not just with visual and audio design but with game systems. Well, not the whole film, but part of the film. Namely this part. Or maybe this part. And maybe a little bit of this part. All three scenes form the basis of the two DLC missions that take place during Alien. But more than that, those scenes capture the tone and experience that Creative Assembly aimed to systemize.
Alien Isolation is, it turns out, not really a horror game. Or at least not in the traditional sense. Oh, it’s got its dark hallways and a few dead bodies and the occasional pop-up scare. But it’s not a game about jump scares like Five Nights at Freddy’s or a game about grotesque body horror monsters like in Dead Space. Superficially it seems to owe a lot to Outlast, even though both games were in development at roughly the same time. Both are scary first person games about hiding lockers and under tables, collecting batteries, horrific death animations, and escaping in vents. But Outlast is a virtual haunted house; a game big on scripted jumps set in a dark, decaying asylum where tortured people with twisted bodies consume each other and sometimes you. The game tried to wring fear out of every dark, grimey, desperate corner.
Alien Isolation, on the other hand, is in a relatively sterile, plastic-y space station that’s comparatively well lit for most of the game. It’s really not that dissimilar from System Shock 2 in its tone and the way it conveys fear with limited darkness but a whole lot of audio design and player disempowerment. Still, when compared to the gritty, rusted insane asylumns in games like Outlast or The Evil Within, Sevastapol Station itself doesn’t really seem to engender an inherent sense of terror, and the game seems pretty okay with that. What Alien Isolation achieves instead – and what its mechanics seem designed from the ground up to provoke – is a sense of constant tension. It doesn’t make the Alien scary by having it pop out of a vent or make a sudden loud noise to startle you. Instead it wants you to know exactly where the Alien is at all times – keeping track of it visually or with the motion sensor or positional audio is sort of the core mechanic in the game. It’s not about eliciting singular intense adrenaline rushes of fear. It’s about simulating the experience of being prey, of testing your fight-or-flight response for the majority of its duration. And being the hunted is scary, but more than that it’s also demanding and exhausting. Where other horror games have a sense of tension and release that look like rapid spikes from, I dunno, four to ten, Alien Isolation is comfortable holding things steady at about a seven or eight for the whole run of the game.
Most of this is due to the relentless nature of the alien. The other threats that exist can be dealt with. Humans can shoot you to death nearly instantly, but they’re glass cannons. Androids take a ridiculous amount of damage but they can be overcome with the right tools if you’re forced into combat. But it’s the xenomorph alone that is unkillable. At best it can only be distracted or scared off into the vents with precious flamethrower fuel. But it’s never really gone, and so you have to always be wary about where it is. And this procedurally generated pursuit is the game’s crowning accomplishment; a cat and mouse game that doesn’t feel like a series of preset encounters but scurrying away from an unpredictable and deadly foe that makes each run through a level feel a bit different as the alien cuts off different corridors at different times.
But that unrelenting tension is enhanced and emphasized by other mechanics. The much-maligned save system, for example, which actually isn’t as bad as some might have you believe. I’ve always been a fan of save systems being used to provoke player responses, from Animal Crossing to Dead Rising to Resident Evil. And Alien Isolation’s is pretty tame compared to some of those. The save points aren’t really that far apart – typically no more than two or three minutes of sneaking between them. But they are usually out of the way and you often have to break from your beeline to the mission objective to find them. This makes saving a choice you have to commit to, a constant cost/benefit analysis you run in your head as you juggle preserving mission progress with achieving the next objective or even simply surviving. Even the act of saving itself is a risk vs. reward choice – you have to stand straight up for three seconds, making you a tempting target for any of the station’s inhabitants. It also warns you if enemies are close… but doesn’t stop you. You decide how much you want to risk standing up and saving next to what could be an alien, an android, or an armed human.
The computer interfaces, too, are used to force onto the player a constant state of alertness. The game doesn’t really pause for these things – as you read about Sevastapol’s history or crack a door you’ll hear the alien bumping through the vents or thudding closer. And the game has an astounding number of hacking minigames and door latches to figure out. It’s an attempt to get you to effectively fumble for your keys at the front door as the alien closes in. Alien Isolation is very much about observing and reacting to the alien’s behaviour, and it wants looking away towards a door, computer screen, or save point to feel like a risky dereliction of duty.
The game reiterates in its few loading screen tips that hiding is only ever a temporary solution, but that’s something of a half-truth. You can often hide indefinitely in lockers if you’re underneath a certain threshold of awareness. You just won’t make any progress. So players do need to keep moving, if only because the alternative is to not play the game. But the alien is also attracted to what it hears, even more than what it sees. It’s easy enough to crawl under a desk to avoid its line of sight, but footsteps or god forbid a gunshot will cause the xeno to come running. And the result is a game that punishes cowering in a corner and running off half-cocked with equal aplomb. It forces the player into a situation where the only realistic strategy is to move forward as calmly as one can; to face that which hunts you in order to survive it. In a real way, it encourages a playstyle that reflects much of what made Ellen Ripley such an awesome hero in the first place: a quiet confidence; a determination bounded by constant risk assessment, a pragmatism that demands we move forward but not recklessly or without a plan.
So finally we have a game that systemizes Ridley Scott’s Alien with a sincere, scary approach and makes you empathize with the film’s protagonist in ways possible only in games! And that’s really really cool! I don’t want to underplay that – the game does a fantastic job of systemizing scenes from Alien, and it does so using AI-driven monsters, clever level design, some gorgeous 80’s retrofuturism, and audio design that should frankly win all of the awards. This game does some things you’ve never seen before, and does them to a very specific end.
But then there’s the rest of the game. Yeah, fifty percent of the time you’re playing this cat-and-mouse game with the xenomorph, cautiously peeking around corners with your flamethrower at the ready and eying your motion tracker every few feet. And that feels basically like being dropped straight into Alien. But then there’s the other fifty percent.
Take, for example, Amanda Ripley. There’s nothing wrong with her on paper – another tough-as-nails blue collar space worker thrown into the path of the Alien just like her mom. But… well, first of all, for a game so interested in being a pseudo sequel to Ridley Scott’s film it’s odd that they’d use a character from a deleted scene of James Cameron’s Aliens. But what’s really frustrating isn’t that they peeked outside of one film’s canon, but that they don’t really know what to do with the character. Amanda is working a sector of deep space near where her mother disappeared, still holding out hope that some day she could find some answers. When Samuels arrives and tells her they found the flight recorder of her mother’s ship she agrees to go with them to Sevastapol in search of closure. And there’s tons to work with there, right? Not just a character with clear motivations and a macguffin to move the plot along, but a lot of thematic stuff to unpack. The game’s called Alien: Isolation, so maybe the game itself could be a metaphor for Ripley dealing with her mother’s abandonment. Could the alien be a manifestation of the emotional trauma those unanswered questions? Or maybe the choice to reference Cameron’s Aliens with Amanda Ripley was intentional – that film toyed with themes of motherhood and mother-daughter relationships from the view of the mother, and maybe this game is trying to approach those same relationships from the view of the daughter? Well the answer is… none of that. The game loses interest in showing us Amanda Ripley’s face pretty much after she arrives on Sevastapol station, and consequently we lose empathy for her emotional journey even as we’re deeply invested in her physical one. A first person perspective doesn’t have to be quite so destructive to our sense of empathy, but the game also drops the missing mom plot for ten hours of gameplay only to tersely resolve it in what amounts to a glorified audio log by Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. And since the game tries to keep the first person unbroken except for the beginning and end, we don’t even see her react.
Then, instead of a quiet character moment with Amanda to at least sell her side that rather limp attempt at wrapping things up, it’s right back to goofy videogame action where a nuclear reactor that looks as ridiculous as the one in Spider-Man 2 is about to explode! This, by the way, is part of why people complain about pacing in the game. There are moments like Amanda finding out about her mother or destroying the Alien or contacting the rescue ship or reaching the AI core that feel like they should mean something, like all that stress and fear and time was worth something. But there’s not really a coherent plot that moves forward. It’s a series of causally linked scenarios unified only by constant stress, so the fifth or sixth time you think things are really going to start moving only to have a new macguffin thrown at you on the other side of the ship you throw your arms up in frustration. Eventually you quit or you make peace with it – after several hours of ignoring Ripley’s character motivations and using its other characters as exposition dumps, quest givers, and objective markers more than, you know, characters you begin to realize the game’s not interested in telling a story in-game.
But interestingly enough the game is interested in telling the story of Sevastapol Station. It’s mostly done via computer terminal readouts and a few audio logs, but it seems to be where the writers put the bulk of their attention. If Weyland-Yutani is a stand-in for seemingly eternal military-industrial conglomerates, Seegson is a company that reflects a very current economic landscape. Seegson invested in Sevastapol as a real estate venture, but it never turned a profit and was forced to begin decommissioning the whole thing. The lack of investment in infrastructure becomes a recurring theme in the gameplay as elevators, computer systems, and air filtration all regularly fail. It built low-cost, sentience-free, consumer-level androids, but they were so buggy and off-putting and no one bought them. It offered state of the art laboratory space, but tenants never came. Sevastapol is basically Space Detroit; a city abandoned by industry watching most of its population move away as its corridors corrode and it systems fail. And that’s before the Alien shows up.
In that light it’s easy to start seeing other ties to these themes of despair. After all, what better metaphor for the burden of an uncertain economy than a constant source of stress you can never fully divorce yourself from? And Alien Isolation uses it’s 70’s scifi retrofutism to connect the past with the present. Alien was released in 1979, at the tail end of a decade of recessions and energy crises and the same year Carter made his “malaise” speech. And the original Alien certainly sympathized with the idea that blue collar workers bear the brunt of corporate machinations far beyond their control. One gets the sense that Amanda Ripley’s fate isn’t what we should be worried about after all, but Sevastapol itself: a society pushed over the edge by the alien, but brought to the edge by its own devices. I doubt that any of this is intentional, but I do think the game hits a nerve; it resonates thematically on this note whether it meant to or not. The story of Seegson and Sevastapol combined with the angst of the gameplay all tap into an socioeconomic anxiety that seems pervasive today.
Unfortunately the game takes almost all of the goodwill it’s earned and in the last few hours of the game flushes it more or less down the toilet. Stay with me, this is going to get a little ranty. First, while the game was heavily marketed as having a singular Alien in reference to the first film – and in fairness levels only have one active alien at a time – it turns out that the alien had started a nest all by its lonesome under the nuclear reactor that powers the station, just like in Aliens. Except without the queen. Because I guess they like how warm it is under nuclear reactors, I dunno. And, wait, so the alien is an aggressive worker that’s reproducing in the absence of a queen? Would that make it a #GamerGate? (rimshot). Anyways the eggs show up the same way they do in Alien 3, which is to say without any explanation. So because of the eggs the game introduces facehuggers, which in fairness are probably the best facehuggers to ever appear in a videogame, but that’s not saying much. After putting in all the work to systemize alien interaction and avoidance, though, the facehuggers are just insta-death machines that poof out of existence when hit with a space wrench. And acid for blood isn’t a thing anymore, I guess. But the Facehuggers and the plot holes aren’t even the real problem.
Basically this is one of those games that couldn’t figure out how to “finish big” with its core mechanic set, so to get that epic heart-pounding finish they throw them completely out the window. The last hour or so of the game is a linear adventure full of auto-saves and a big emphasis on scripted first person platforming segments. Because if there’s one thing that reminds me of Ridley Scott’s classic film it’s dangerous elevators and out of control subway cars. Finally you escape and in what is somehow both grotesque content reuse and the most pained nod to the original film the game makes, you override the locks and free Amanda’s ship using the same interface that Ellen Ripley uses to blow up the Nostromo. And yeah, I’m sure that has caused Seegson all kinds of lawsuits. This being an Alien game you know the life raft isn’t safe, so of course we get our last little scare. And now, after fifteen or more hours of gameplay, we get our closure. (Heavy sigh) Have I mentioned that this game doesn’t seem to care at all about its characters or have any interest in telling a story?
Alien Isolation has no idea how to end itself, it has no idea how to pace itself, and it has no idea how to structure itself. It was indifferent to its characters even as it put tremendous amounts of love into its setting and its monster.
I can’t deny that I really enjoyed playing it, that I adore its ambitions, and that it caused me – however briefly – to become introspective, which isn’t easy for a big budget game to do. Alien Isolation has a fascination with the interplay between anxiety, stress, and fear, and the driver of those emotions through much of the game is the singular alien. And while in some sense the alien is scary throughout the game, after a while you learn how to predict its movements, distract it, and otherwise survive it. You learn how to deal. The creature goes from being deeply terrifying just to glimpse to being just one more thing on a checklist to observe before moving between rooms – even if it can still surprise and upset you. You don’t stop being tense, but you do stop thinking about how you’re tense because you develop a system for working around the alien. And that creeping numbness to Alien Isolation’s emotional toll made me reflect on how readily and easily we internalize burdens of anxiety these days. After more than a decade of terror threats, wars, economic collapse, rising economic inequity, and in the face of shorter term issues like GamerGate the world of 2014 is the world of “Oh, so this is how things are changing for the worse from now on. Okay.” I think there’s a resignment to a worsening world today, and the mechanics of Alien Isolation reflect that. The source of your stress can’t be fought or killed or beaten. Unlike her mother, Amanda Ripley doesn’t really save her pet, defeat the alien, and fly off in her escape shuttle. She just barely survives being blown out of an airlock. Because today you don’t really win the battles of what gives you anxiety: you just endure. And I think that may be the saddest thing I took away from the game, but it’s also what hit me the hardest.