Most games ignore what made Alien such a stunning horror film: stillness and dread.
The Ridley Scott-directed Alien was a haunted house in space, while the sequel, James Cameron’s Aliens, was a war film. Cameron made an allegory about the Vietnam War, with a crew of soldiers decked out in the latest gear getting their asses handed to them by a low-tech enemy with a mastery of the environment. Cameron’s approach is much more suited to video games, for the obvious reasons, and it tends to be what we get from games set in this world.
One of the rare exceptions is Alien: Isolation, a 2014 survival-horror game improbably starring Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley. The game is currently free through the Epic Games Store, and this is a great excuse to jump back in and see what makes the game tick.
Locked in with fate
Isolation takes place between Alien and Aliens, and it explores what happened after Ellen Ripley went missing. The stakes are strange, as they always are in prequels, because we know from the films that Amanda Ripley died of cancer in 2178.
We understand where she ultimately ends up, which means she canonically survives whatever happens in the meantime. And it turns out at least one situation that happened in the meantime was pretty horrific.
The setup of Isolation is brutal in its simplicity: Amanda is tipped off that the flight recorder from the Nostromo has been found after 15 years, and she joins the salvage team in hopes of learning what happened to her mother.
What she finds is that the flight recorder wasn’t the only thing recovered; there seems to be a terrifying creature loose on the space station. It’s killing people one by one, and it seems unstoppable. Anarchy ensues, with survivors looking out for themselves, the synthetic life-forms onboard the ship willing to hurt people to impose order, and of course the alien itself, always present, always a threat, always keeping the stress of the player fluctuating between “oh god” to “OH SWEET JESUS.”
If you’re in the mood for a horror game, boy howdy is this ever an effective horror game. But if you don’t feel like you can handle a constant flood of low-level stress spiking into moments of panic? This might not be the best time to try this one.
Alien: Isolation is, for the love of Giger, an actual Alien video game. It is a haunted house in space, and you are not given an arsenal with which to fight back, nor are you trained to do so. Amanda is capable and smart, but she’s no superhero, and the alien can and will kill her with one hit if she’s not careful.
Alien: Isolation is, in many ways, a hypervigilance simulator. You should always be scared, because you are never exactly safe.
How did they pull this off?
The developers had to balance making the Alien scary enough to be a threat every time it showed up, without pushing the player to the point where they get too scared or frustrated and stop playing.
“To achieve this, the game requires two distinct behavior management systems: the ‘macro’ or director-AI and the ‘micro’ or alien-AI. The director observes the player throughout the game, always knowing your location,” Dr. Tommy Thompson wrote in a Gamasutra post about the alien’s behavior. “Meanwhile the alien-AI is driven by a series of sensors and behaviors that allow it to hunt the player down. The director’s job is to point the alien in the direction of the player periodically, to give it a hint as to where it should be looking. Despite this, the alien is never allowed to cheat: while the director always knows where you are, the alien has to figure it out for itself. You can fool it, you can surprise it and you can escape it.”
The alien reportedly teleports only twice in the entire game, and those two times happen in story-specific sequences where the alien needs to be at a certain point, at a certain time.
Every other encounter with the creature happens because it’s hunting you, and the director AI is nudging it near you every so often. It’s never told exactly where you are, but it’s given enough direction to constantly keep you on your toes.
If most video games are power fantasies, Alien: Isolation is designed to be a powerlessness simulator. Being hunted relentlessly by an unstoppable angel of death is very clarifying in the moment; there is never a good time to let your guard down, and every musical cue or sweeping sound from your motion tracker is enough to begin the paranoia. With a constant threat, your brain is never given a break to relax.
The Alien AI is fascinating, and Isolation is the best Alien game ever created. But even with some very inventive AI, the game has trouble standing next to its movie origins. That’s partially due to the fact that it’s easy to stay scared of a monster for an hour or two, but a 20-hour game presents much greater challenges with pacing.
“Alien: Isolation falls prey to the same failing that has come to be a persistent problem in the film universe: overexposure,” Polygon’s original review stated. “While Creative Assembly’s stated goal was to recall the solitary terror and tension of the original Alien film, ironically, Amanda survives more direct encounters with the alien in one day on the Sevastopol than her mother did in her entire life.”
That’s the challenge of the director AI: to keep the pressure up without overloading the player. But once you understand how to hide effectively, the alien becomes less an object of horror and more of a nuisance.
“This overexposure undermines the power and terror the alien inspires,” Polygon’s review continues. “Every time I thought I heard the monster, every blip on my motion tracker, was a cause for a tightness in my chest at first. By the 300th time I dived under a table or into a locker, I wasn’t scared anymore — I was annoyed. Once the alien becomes an irritation rather than a force of nature, much of the horror in Alien: Isolation vanishes.”
Alien: Isolation is a tough game to finish, but a fun game to begin, especially now that it’s free. This is finally the Alien game the franchise deserves, and it never needs to devolve into an Aliens game to make its point. Its flaws may indicate that making a proper Alien game is next to impossible; what works and what doesn’t in games is very different from the same rules in cinema, but this is as close as we’re likely ever going to get, and that’s worth celebrating.
If you want to see how long you can tolerate fear, uncertainty, and yes, doubt, this is a must-download. Alien: Isolation will be free to download until April 29, 11:00 a.m. EDT.