One of the most terrifying slices of a game I’ve ever played in my life
Normally, it’s hard to get into the right mood on the E3 show floor. It’s loud, your head is always pounding and the charm of whatever cardboard house the publisher put up wears off fast.
I found myself in one of those flimsy constructions on Wednesday, a sort of plastic structure styled to look like a barracks from the Alien franchise. But unlike most demo stations, it was dark in there. And fairly quiet. People were seated at stations with headphones, and the tone was serious — almost somber for an E3 demo. I was there to play Alien: Isolation, a horror game directly inspired from the 1979 Ridley Scott film.
It’s a first-person horror game wherein hiding and sneaking around the environment are the only way to survive and progress. Players take on the role of Amanda Ripley — daughter of Alien heroine Ellen Ripley — an engineer who has taken an assignment on a space station in order to find out what happened to her mother. This being an Alien story, the situation becomes nasty once an alien breaks loose on the station.
There’s only one xenomorph — but it’s deadly and always looking and listening for the player. And there are other characters — human survivors as well as androids — that are unpredictable and often draw the attention of the alien.
I only really had about half an hour with it, but the Alien: Isolation demo was one of the most effectively terrifying slices of a game I’ve ever played in my life.
Essentially, playing means navigating the environment, hiding from everything that moves and trying not to die. I explored the environments — which make effective use of the 1970s sci-fi aesthetic and even better use of the sound design from the film — hid in lockers and used my motion tracker in order to avoid the creature.
I failed at that almost immediately, and damn near panicked in real life when the alien found me and killed me. I restarted, and crept more cautiously the second time around, peeking around corners and seeking out tunnels and quiet rooms to catch my breath.
And that was it. The chaos of E3 melted around me and I believed the fiction. I was there.
In the fleeting moments that I remembered that I wasn’t actually on a broken spaceship with a hulking beast, I noticed that my heart was pounding, that my hands were so sweaty that I was actually afraid I’d slip the left stick or even drop the joypad entirely. I was taking deeper breaths as a reflex. Physiologically, my body was in fight or flight mode.
I’m not the only one who has had that experience.
"We’ve been working on the game for over 3 1/2 years," says Alistair Hope, creative lead on the project. "We play it all day every day, and our hearts start thumping, and we leap out of our chairs and yelp when the alien kills us."
There are no prescribed paths for the creature, or patterns by which it travels. Hope notes that much of the terror comes from the fact that the xenomorph is actively looking and listening for the player. Unpredictability is also a major theme of Isolation’s gameplay. There are human and android characters that behave erratically — and can kill you just as quickly as the alien can.
"Most of our encounters are randomly generated in a way, because if you’re making a lot of noise, then the alien is generally a lot more aggressive and comes to find you," says Gary Napper, senior designer on the project.
"We don’t say that all the humans are enemies. You can actually play the game from start to finish without killing a single human. It’s what Ripley would do!" He laughs.
"But even those are not aggressive straight away. They shout warnings to you. They pull out a gun and give you kind of one last chance. If you want to back away, you can, which leaves you able to evade them, but your question as a player is, 'Are they going to make enough noise to attract the alien, and is that going to be a problem?'"
Creative Assembly is best known for the Total War series, a straight-laced strategy franchise light years away from the dirty, slippery, horrifying world of Alien.
"We’ve been making this game for about three years now," Napper says. "A lot of the team has been built up from scratch, to make this game specifically. We brought in a lot of talent from across the game industry," including Ubisoft, EA and Rockstar.
"But," he says, "I think the biggest thing is that we’re all massive, massive Alien fans, so we’re really critical of ourselves."
It shows in the demo — everything from the way the interface recreates the feel of the film’s computer system to the way the motion tracker’s pings bounce off of the corridors of the station, this feels like Alien.
It also shows in the whole-hearted embrace of the world’s fiction, and the decision to focus on the character of Amanda Ripley.
"When we started, we wanted to make a game that sat as closely as possible to the first film," says Hope. "So we really wanted a story that continued [that]. The Nostromo goes missing; what happened immediately afterwards? We realized that in Amanda, we had this incredible character, Ripley’s daughter, whose story has never been told."
"[We had a] lightbulb moment of ‘Wow, this is amazing, and what would happen if she were to confront the same horror that separated her from her mother?' I think from that moment, it was just 'That was what we have to do.'"
He also speaks about a trend that at E3 this year, regarding the controversy surrounding Assassin’s Creed Unity and Far Cry 4 and their lack of female characters. Isolation is one of the few bigger-budget games playable on the show floor that features a woman in the leading role.
"I think having a strong female lead is a big part of the universe; it just seemed the perfect thing to be doing," says Hope. "Amanda, I think, is her own character; she’s not just a clone of Ellen Ripley. She has a slightly different perspective on the world, but she shares many traits with her mother — being able to focus under pressure, striving to survive."
With 2013’s poorly received Aliens: Colonial Marines, Alien fans were burned — badly. Franchise fans have had a rough decade or two, and it’s safe to say that there was healthy skepticism in the community after Alien: Isolation was announced. The team at Creative Assembly is aware of that skepticism, and it's responded in kind, with an intense experience that looks, sounds and feels like Alien.
Playing it, I get a distinct sense that I'm empowered in an entirely different way from most other games. I pull out my motion tracker every few seconds, and, at one point, I'm actually afraid to run from one crate to another. This is a game about being small, being clever and being cool under pressure — not going in guns blazing, like a, well, like a space marine.
Napper leaves me with this piece of advice. "If you play it like you would in the real world — as if you were actually there, then you’d probably survive," he says, looking contemplative. "Because being quiet and hiding in cupboards and being a complete coward is sometimes the best way to stay away from the alien. Keeping him at a distance, keeping smaller, keeping quiet, not making any loud noises — your survival rate goes right up!"