Every year the Polygon staff chooses 10 excellent games to award our Game of the Year honors, but that means some games we love don't quite make the cut. This year we've decided to run a series of opinion pieces by members of the Polygon staff explaining why certain games earned top marks from them even if they didn't make our staff-wide Game of the Year list.
Usually, with AAA games, I know exactly what to expect.
If I'm playing a game on a console, and that game was obviously made with a certain budget — say, more than I'll reasonably expect to make in three lifetimes — certain expectations come along with that experience. There will be violent conflict of some sort, and I'll face off against hundreds or thousands of enemies. My character will be overpowered, with the superhuman strength or speed needed to fell that comical number of enemies. I expect the mechanics to make me feel good in an uncomplicated way, to have "fun" without having to think about what I'm doing. I'll expect the tone and mood to be consistent with that of an action movie, or a big-budget sci-fi, adventure, animated or fantasy film.
And into this world of sequels and rote gameplay, of safe design choices and even safer aesthetic decisions, comes Alien: Isolation.
Isolation is frustrating, sometimes unfair and genuinely terrifying. It's sort of an anti-AAA game with a AAA budget, a game that's melancholy and beautiful until it's violently upsetting. It's the best game of 2014, hands down, and it's a goddamned crime that it didn't end up on Polygon's official list.
Counting the ways
I wrote about why Alien: Isolation deserves to be as influential as its inspiration, the first (the best) Alien film. It takes real gameplay gambles — including a controversial save system — that pay off with an experience that is tense, scary, and ultimately true to the world of Alien.
Every design choice that the team at Creative Assembly made supports an oppressive, genuinely scary experience. It's not a simple puzzle game or action game with scary window dressing. Every mechanic — from hiding in lockers, to having to slowly walk around the environments, knowing that the alien is nearby — is tuned to feel harrowing. This is a game where you die a lot, and you spend a lot of time hiding under tables, watching the singular monster stalk and strut about the room, sniffing you out.
As I wrote in that earlier piece, there is nothing about this game that was "designed by committee". It's one risky design choice after another, and it pays off in a game that is something almost no games of its size are ever allowed to be: interesting.
The monster vs. Amanda Ripley
Alien: Isolation has three great achievements: its world, its protagonist and its monster. The three elements work in tandem to make Alien: Isolation transcendent. The world of Sevastopol station is lived in, believable, and monstrously sad. It's falling apart, a depressed community ravaged by corporate greed and deals gone wrong.
And in this depressingly believable setting, we have the alien, a video game enemy that absolutely does not play by video game rules. It's smart, and it will kill you instantly, even if you think you're in a "safe" place. It feels alive and intelligent in ways that game AI never really does, and that is utterly terrifying.
Outwitting and surviving this monster is Amanda Ripley, the player character. Daughter of Lt. Ellen Ripley from the films, she takes cues from her mother as a smart, no-nonsense, cool-headed engineer that survives by her wits. She's one of the best characters of the year, a protagonist that shows her grit, nerve and intelligence through her actions, not via cutscenes.
One thing that became obvious to me was the unusual dedication the team had to their vision and desire to recreate the experience of the original Alien film. Even the game's worst flaw — enemies that pepper later levels that result in cheap insta-deaths — were put there because of that desire to stay true to that vision.
That dedication to vision and unwillingness to kowtow to popular design decisions isn't just unusual in a AAA game, it's unheard of. Alien: Isolation has a scrappy, almost indie sensibility — it feels like it was made by a small team of dedicated designers and artists that were obsessed with making something weird. It feels like something a (talented) fan would make, warts and all.
But it boasts graphical fidelity and tremendously complicated AI that can probably only be pulled off with a AAA team and budget. It's gorgeous, with a dark, detailed aesthetic that speaks directly to economic depression and corporate greed that translates all too easily to those of us living in 2014. The sound design is sublime, making the space all the more believable, the creature even more menacing.
Even if Alien: Isolation were the exact same game, but missing the Alien license, it would be an incomparable work. If the alien creature looked and sounded a little different, but still ran on the AI designed for this game, it would still feel alive, intelligent and intent on hunting you down. Isolation makes brilliant use of its license, but it doesn't ever use it as a crutch.
When I look back on 2014, I probably won't remember many of the games I've played, but I will remember moments. I'll recall — vividly — hiding in a locker while the creature sniffs around, my real-life palms sweating. I'll never forget inching my way through a broken spaceship corridor, hair standing on end, my ears attuned for the awful sound of the alien banging around in the vents. I'll remember Amanda's courage, which felt genuine in the face of the odds against her, not a rote show of bravado from yet another strapping male warrior who murders thousands of his enemies. I'll remember Alien: Isolation, the boldest, brightest, best game of 2014.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.