Between our review and video, the editorial team at Polygon have enumerated the ways Aliens: Colonial Marines fails as an action game: from the bad aiming and joyless battles to the brainless story. As a follow-up to its cinematic inspiration, James Cameron's Aliens, it also fails.
First, humor me as I share what I believe are the two tenets of good horror. Like all crackpot theories, there are exceptions, but I believe most great horror makes includes these two very simple things.
First, the story takes place somewhere familiar and safe, but isolated — like a home. I use the word home in the loosest sense. The setting may be a suburban house or it may be an Upper East Side apartment. Maybe it's a boat in the middle of the ocean or a ship on the edge of the galaxy.
This is applicable to horror of all kinds. The progenitor of the modern horror game, Resident Evil, was set entirely within one giant home. The home is also isolated, meaning its walls provide a sense of security and separation from the outside world.
A "home" establishes a sense of safety. In the home, we get to know the characters. We develop a sense of empathy, because we understand these are normal, relatively good-hearted people — not unlike us.
In the context of Alien and even its more recent prequel Prometheus, we are introduced to the protagonists in bright, sterile, safe environments. The space ship sets make liberal use of white and beige. People (and robots) have meals and watch movies. They do things we do. They're just like us! We're just like them! And so we care.
The progenitor of the modern horror game, Resident Evil, was set entirely within one giant home.In Colonial Marines, the player is plopped into a dark, purposeless set of corridors. Which lead to more corridors. Which lead to another ship containing more corridors. Everything's black and lifeless and militaristic.
The world is the architectural equivalent of the "bald space marine" — utilitarian and lifeless.
The other tenet of horror is the "inexplicable evil."
Villains are scary, but we understand them. They can — we hope — be stopped, confronted, talked down from the ledge of insanity. But an inexplicable evil, human or otherwise, is an unknowable, unstoppable force.
An inexplicable evil is chaos incarnate and that is terrifying, because how can we stop what we don't know?
Villains are scary, but we understand them [...] an inexplicable evil is an unknowable, unstoppable force. In Alien, the inexplicable evil is the alien, naturally. Being the first film in the series, we are slowly learning how the creature spawns, how it bleeds and how it hunts. What we don't learn is why. The alien behaves more like a weapon than living creature, its sole purpose to kill humans.
In Aliens: Colonial Marines, the game assumes the player knows the creatures' backstory. Worse, the monsters are tamed into bullet fodder for a drawn-out campaign. And so the player blasts dozens of wobbling beasts that look like the infamous aliens but behave like harmless tin ducks in a shooting gallery.
In horror, when the "inexplicable evil" invades the "home" our perception of reality is frazzled. It's fear by way of the transitive property. If good people in that safe place can be savaged by pure evil, what's to say the same won't happen to us?
The best horror movies leave permanent, nerve-twitching imprints on places that before seemed harmless: showers (Psycho), the ocean (Jaws), dreams (Nightmare on Elm Street).
Then there's Aliens: Colonial Marines. A game in which you play as lifeless humans, kill threat-less aliens and navigate a personality-free world.
An hour in, you are asked to shoot human beings, rival soldiers wearing baseball caps. The reason is vague and lost in the mindless dialogue, but it's clear you've invaded their turf. And there's the rub.
You are impossibly powerful, disturbingly murderous, and unapologetically motivated by nothing more than a need to move forward. You're invading the home of these soldiers, and eventually of the aliens, slaughtering the old and the young with the emotion of a shriveled cadaver.
The inexplicable evil is you.
You are impossibly powerful, disturbingly murderous, and unapologetically motivated by nothing more than a need to move forward.
Alien is a perfect example of good horror, and that's why after decades it's still beloved. Watching the film is like an emotional purge. Aliens: Colonial Marines is the opposite. In this game, there's nothing to be afraid of or to care about.
Many horror classics are built upon a foundation of corn syrup blood and rubbery severed limbs. But gore is not the purpose of good horror. Horror, at its best, enforces our sense of empathy, provides catharsis for our fears, and reminds us of our mortality. That's why after the credits roll or the game ends you feel energized. Properly terrified, your being alive is so apparent that you feel both present and relieved.
After playing Aliens: Colonial Marines I felt nothing. Well, I felt one thing: an urge to rewatch Alien.