You don't realize how "safe" and unimaginative most game worlds are until something comes along that breaks from genre tradition. The environments and industrial design of Alien: Isolation are just such a break, and they're two of the most exciting aspects of the game.
Ridley Scott's Alien film provided the same sort of disruption for the movie industry, and it's one of the reasons it continues to look timeless. Everything from the actors, who were older than what we'd expect from a science fiction movie today, to the equipment they used made the world feel lived in and real.
Here was a group of working class people struggling with a situation that was far above their pay grade. We're used to seeing characters ignore rules in order to succeed, but the deaths of the crew of the Nostromo could have been avoided if they had listened to Ripley and followed protocol. She was concerned about safety, and was used to working in harsh conditions to make a living.
Everyone in Alien looked as if they probably had calluses on their hands. They were the type of people whose work comes through in their rough, firm handshakes, and their workplace was designed for the job first and comfort second. This is why the movie feels so real; we see ourselves in these people. They're trying to make a living doing a dangerous job.
Living and dying in space
Alien Isolation digs into the same aesthetic, and the results go a long way to helping the game stand out. This is industrial, reinforced equipment found in a back-alley space colony that was already on the way out. It's large, it looks heavy, and it's clunky as hell. The screens show the bright green letters of CRTs from the 70s and 80s, and the computer terminals all have large, loud keyboards.
This is the future as imagined by the people of the past. We have space travel today, but in the early hours Isolation is focused on the sort of space travel that will happen when we begin to offload manual labor into tightly controlled environments. Everything in this world looks like it could take a beating, and the focus is on buttons and switches, dials and gauges.
The lack of touchscreens may be weird to our modern eyes, but it creates a mood that's rare in horror and science fiction these days. The fact that we have technology in our hands today that eclipses what we see in Isolation helps to make the world feel more real. Every piece of electronics looks like it was designed with the idea that someone, at some point in the future, would slam it into a wall for some reason.
Everyone in Alien looked as if they probably had calluses on their hands
This is the first time I've ever seen a boom box in space, but it fits perfectly once you begin playing. This sort of retro design was hyped during the game's production, but the end result proves that it wasn't just hype. The inter-chapter videos show the station floating in space, covered in static and tracking errors. It makes you feel alone and helpless, trapped inside an analog security monitor that no one is watching.
Alien: Isolation is an incredibly uneven game, as you can tell by our review. It's also one of the most visually and aesthetically distinct game I've played this year. It doesn't sugarcoat its world of working class men and women trying to survive in a place no one cares about, and that's before the events of the game take place.
The game even addresses the fact that the human brain isn't designed to deal with deep space living for this long, and hiding from a preternatural killer from space in a padded room is a disturbing experience. This isn't the fall of Rapture, a beautiful undersea world designed for decadence and pleasure. This is the death rattle of a hard, brutal workplace that chewed people up and spit them out.