I finished Alien: Isolation last weekend, after a glorious, 3-week slow burn with the game. Despite its issues (and it does have issues), I feel comfortable saying it's likely going to be my personal game of the year. More importantly, I think there's a lot to learn from it.
Spoiler warning for Alien: Isolation ahead.
Alien: Isolation is an intense first-person horror game set in the Alien universe, and it sets out to recreate the aesthetic — and the sweaty, tense experience — of the first film in the series. The best film in the series. It's a truly bold, risky, brilliant game that only fails when it remembers it's a video game.
Alien: Isolation is a divisive game, for a number of good reasons. It's way too long, with obvious filler content. I put in around 28 hours. Most playthroughs are likely closer to the 20-25 hour mark. This is way too long for a horror game that is 100% focused on being a tense, difficult experience.
Far worse is the inclusion of cheap, frustrating enemies in a few sections of the game. It's tarnish on the better-designed sections. They're a boring, rote, frustrating feature that belongs in a cheap haunted house.
Alien Isolation is flawed, but importantly, it's interesting, especially for a AAA release. It's a big release with a huge franchise attached to it that takes the sort of risks we normally only see from independent games. There are many things about the game that other developers should rip off, starting right now.
Take risks. Real ones.
Isolation is a game where shooting a gun almost always means certain death. Where one singular creature — that cannot be killed — stalks the player, almost entirely unscripted, throughout the experience.
This core design is so antithetical to the "bigger, better, more badass" mantra of AAA game design with its hyper-masculine power fantasies that it's astounding that it exists at all. A game with a woman hero, no less. There is nothing about this that sounds like it was designed by committee.
Every one of those elements is absolutely core to Isolation, and every one is an incredible risk. And every one of those makes Isolation an interesting game.
In his notes on Alien: Isolation, critic Brendan Keogh comments on how strongly the game stands apart from other big releases of the season.
"Much like with Spec Ops: The Line, it's the kind of game I look at with this dull kind of bewilderment that a publisher would release it like that. It's one of those beautiful, daring games that manages to get past publisher focus tests without being sanded down to an impersonal round blob.
It still has its imperfections and hostilities and roughness and personality that so few triple-a games are allowed to have. It's the kind of game I don't doubt countless developers are capable of making, but which I trust so few publishers to allow to exist unscathed without some injection of gamer-satisfying 'content'."
Don't be afraid of quiet time
I spent a solid portion of my play through hiding in a locker or under a table, or just off in a dark corner, just watching the menacing alien creature strut and stalk through the level. Praying it didn't sense me.
I spent hours of my actual life hiding in a virtual locker, in other words. The game turned inaction into something tense and interesting.
I may have done some pretty mundane things in Isolation, but I was never bored. Why? Because of the next point.
Make one truly terrifying enemy, and commit
There are other enemies in Isolation: devastated, scared humans with guns, creepy androids that kill you in brutal ways — but there's really only one that matters. The one that hunts you down wherever you go. The one you hear rustling in vents, or clomping around the scenery, shrieking every so often. The alien.
The alien will kill you on sight. Or sound. If it senses you, you're dead. At one point you can use a flamethrower to buy yourself a slim chance at survival, but that's it.
It's a true threat, not a bullet-sponge or just a difficult foe. It's unpredictable, and it's powerful. It feels real and intelligent and dangerous in a way that's rare in games.
Keogh compared the alien's AI with a computer virus in the software:
"Walking through this room might be fine, as the alien is all the way over there; but it might also be impossible as the alien is hanging out in an air vent right in the middle of it. The game doesn’t know, and it can't help you.
It's almost like a computer virus in the software. It does what it wants. Within certain constraints, of course, but it ultimately feels like the designers made this digital beast then let it loose. This is what makes it so terrifying: that knowledge that it is unpredictable and not leashed to the designer. It really could be anywhere.
Some sections will be more scripted than others, but you never really know which ones. At any time the alien might be autonomous. You, player, are not the only active, intentional agent in this game. That is terrifying.
Give me a world that means something to me
Alien: Isolation takes place on Sevastapol station, a creaking hulk of an outpost that was past its prime long before it had alien troubles. It's run by corporation called Seegson, a sort of off-brand Weyland-Yutani.
In this particular grim, corporate-overrun future, Weyland-Yutani is like an Apple, Google or Amazon. Seegson is a knock-off competitor that just can't hack it.
It's the working stiffs that get screwed when things go poorly for the company. Sevastapol is falling apart, thanks to cost-cutting measures and shoddy maintenance.
There are so many threads to pick up on — some in audio logs, others in personal emails on the ship's many early-80s-era computer terminals — that speak to a depressed economic climate and a downtrodden populace. There's a lot of blue-collar grit in these messages. It's a science fiction setting that felt like a mining town in Kentucky.
Errant Signal's analysis of the game goes deep into this idea — that the story of Sevastapol says much about our modern resignation to shitty situations.
Make a woman hero that shows her character through actions, not cutscenes
I touched on this extensively in a previous piece, but Isolation's protagonist, Amanda, is a badass. She's a survivor, through and through, and the systems in the game reinforce this at every turn. She's an engineer — she thinks her way through problems, creates solutions, and gets by on her smarts and her cool head. This is supported by the game's mechanics and systems, it shows us instead of telling us what kind of person she is.
The game is sparse on explicit story content, but I like that Amanda's toughness and resourcefulness — as well as her core decency — are told implicitly, through gameplay.
When she encounters a mechanical problem, she fixes it. When someone needs to get help for an injured crewmate, she goes. When someone needs to be walked through a complex technical operation under awful time pressure, Amanda speaks calmly and reassuringly. She cares, and she knows what she's doing, even in the worst circumstances.
We don't need a cutscene showing that Amanda can get through these awful situations and keep a cool head. We play it. We experience it. And that makes her a stronger character than almost every other game protagonist I played as this year.
Ripley, signing off
Alien: Isolation caused me to hyperventilate. Whenever I played for stretches longer than 3 hours, I had cramps in my neck and hands from the physical tension of playing the game. And, in some of its most frustrating segments, I cursed the game out.
For all of that, Alien: Isolation got under my skin. Deep under my skin. It helped me deal with my own panic disorder in a way that Daniel Link mentions in his excellent piece on how the game helped him accept his anxiety.
I can't imagine having that personal of an experience with any of the other big-budget games coming out this fall. I'll play them all, and probably enjoy them. But Isolation is special.
It's rough around the edges. Like a real fan production, it runs too long and never seems to know where to stop. But I haven't been able to stop thinking about since the moment I first picked it up.
I only wish more games would learn from its risks and boldness and willingness to be weird.