Alien: Isolation is not a perfect game. It has issues with pacing, a frustrating save system, and, as stated in our review of the game, it becomes a slog by the end. Despite this, it succeeds in one way that no other video game has ever come close: It captures the feminist spirit of the original films, and does justice to Ellen Ripley — one of the cinema's all-time greatest protagonists.
While there have been plenty of games based on the Alien franchise (check out our retrospective here), very few of them have actually centered on the films' hero. Fewer still have captured what makes her such a great character: her ability to stay cool under pressure, her balance of toughness and humanity, and her smarts. In the films, Ripley is a working woman, just trying to do her job and stay alive, someone we can all identify with. She's sitting at number eight on the American Film Institute's list of 100 greatest film heroes of all time.
But while so many games have borrowed much from the franchise — the sound of the pulse rifles, the very concept of badass space marines, the slinky, horrifying xenomorphs — Ripley hasn't really come through.
This summer, Kotaku's Luke Plunkett summed the situation perfectly in a tweet:
kinda funny video games will copy everything about Aliens except, you know, Ripley.— Luke Plunkett (@LukePlunkett) June 17, 2014
Alien: Isolation stars Ellen Ripley's daughter, Amanda, an engineer that gets caught up in the disaster aboard Sevastopol station, a creaking hulk of an outpost. A "pure" horror experience, the game captures the tone of the first film, and, in Amanda, it captures the spirit of its protagonist.
Like her mother, Amanda is a technical expert with no illusions about the nature of the megacorporations that rule life in the 22nd century. She's smart, she's resourceful, and she's a survivor. In cutscenes, we see a no-nonsense woman. She's been on deep-space jobs before. She doesn't buy the company line. The only thing that sets her off towards Sevastopol is the promise of learning what happened to her mother.
Amanda is a survivor. No matter how awful the situation — and Alien: Isolation pits you against so many awful things it's almost comical — Amanda gets by using her wits, her skills and her cool head. A brutal xenomorph stalks you through the station. Humans will shoot on sight. Creepy AIs with red, glowing eyes are constantly on the lookout for you. The station itself is falling apart. But Amanda perseveres. Swearing quietly under her breath, she does what needs to be done — she tracks down the tools that need repairing, helps other survivors. She gets the job done.
The game reinforces Amanda's engineering expertise in its systems. You can repair items, scavenge for spare parts and "craft" useful tools and items. Finding a blueprint for an item allows you to craft it. Is it game-y? Yes. But, at the very least, it's a feature that is wholly consistent with the character and setting, and it directly shows off Amanda's skill set.
Is there something to be said about the fact that Alien: Isolation is disempowering, compared to many other games? That it stars a woman, and therefore, further emasculates players who are used to, say, killing thousands of orcs in Shadow of Mordor or being the master badass of the army, as in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare? This fall's crop of big-budget games is all about making the player feel like the ultimate badass. So why is the game with a prominent woman protagonist centered on making the player feel powerless?
Amanda Ripley is actually more empowered than most other AAA game characters.
If Amanda Ripley were presented as anything less than a competent, cool-headed engineer, there would be something to this argument. But she is not a weakling, nor a shrieking damsel in distress. She survives because of her strength and her smarts, where so many others fail. Alien: Isolation is simply not a power fantasy. It is a survival fantasy, a brutally difficult one at that.
Because the odds are so stacked against her, Amanda Ripley is actually more empowered than most other AAA game characters. When you're fighting comparatively weak enemies, it's easy to look like a badass. Face off against a xenomorph, and you'll see what you're really made of.
In much the same way that Ellen Ripley's tough-talking blue-collar woman spoke powerfully to audiences in the '70s, when women were fighting hard to gain respect in the workplace, Amanda Ripley is a protagonist we can get behind as we fight for better portrayals of women in video games.
The place and portrayal of women in games has been a massive topic in the industry in the last couple of years. Many of us have been calling for more and better woman characters, and calling games out when they feature poor portrayals of women.
It may have taken 35 years, but Ellen Ripley finally has a worthy successor
Amanda is not sexualized or fetishized in the way that many woman game characters have been in the past. She's tough, she's smart, and she survives precisely because she is tough and smart. She doesn't exist as a sidekick or the wife/girlfriend of a prominent male character. Alien: Isolation is her story. She's the kind of person I would want on my team in real life, if I were to face off against something awful.
It may have taken 35 years, but Ellen Ripley finally has a worthy successor in video games. Sigourney Weaver herself has expressed approval of the mother-daughter legacy (something you very rarely see in horror/sci-fi fiction in general). I would love for Amanda to spark a brand new "Ripley" effect in video games, the same way her mother paved the way for other women action stars in film.