In a departure from Total War, Creative Assembly strangely decided to reignite the neglected Alien franchise by usurping what had become an established paradigm with Alien: Isolation. As a child, I remember one Christmas when I was withheld entry to my Uncle’s room, where numerous members of the family had gathered to take turns playing Alien Trilogy on his new PlayStation. You could say that my interest in video games came not from playing them, but from the denial associated with them.
I remember incessant gunshots, a terrible electronic soundtrack that sounded like something I could have composed, and the constant pinging that I thought was sonar. (Shout out to 1GOTP1NK8CIDBOOTSON). These noises are what defined my impression of an Alien game. Running amok against a foe as numerous as ants, whilst accompanied by the kind of high octane electronic track you’d likely hear during a spinning class. All this while being continually reminded of how many Xenos were about by way of the motion tracker.
It’s easy to see where the logic and appeal for this type of game came about. Post-Alien, the franchise became action-oriented and that was exactly the type of game that sold. However, these subsequent efforts were dismissing the artistry showcased in the original film. The need to return to this far-flung future was necessary. Even if it was just to remind us where survival horror really comes from.
The Past within the Future
Look around you, what do you see? Do you see the high-tech materials, clean-cut design of Star Trek: Discovery, or do you see less? I see a bunch of disparate objects that don’t match, despite my best efforts. I see condensation dripping down the windows because it’s getting to that time of the year. There are tea stains in my mug, scratches over the screen of my phone and uneven bedsheets whose whites have gone murky because I washed them with colours.
The facade is an illusion, and it’s a costly one. See SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft as a recent example. The additional fluff will eventually give way to necessity and that which is economic and efficient. A certain amount of money allows for such luxury. As space becomes more accessible, there will be a moment where cost and effectiveness come before looks. The plastic casings in the Dragon are merely a housing for something beneath. The design is an ironic homage to the future imagined by science fiction, whether it needs to look that way is debatable.
The setting of Alien: Isolation is what I consider a superb example of the grittiness I tend to associate with a hypothetical future. Human beings have found a means to surpass the speed of light. It’s a distinctly lo-fi future, one where things aren’t perfect. Things break and need to be fixed and therefore, easy to access and understand. It’s a future I believe in. It’s one that I can relate to more so than the morally superior examples pretended by the shinier side of sci-fi.
As I moved through Sevastopol, I was astonished by the beauty of the set-pieces incorporated by Creative Assembly. Being perpetually frightened, I navigated the entirety of the game in a crouched position. This slowed the game down even more — my completion time was around 25 hours — and allowed me to view the station through authentic eyes. The kind that could easily have been stuck on Sevastopol and too frightened to make those life or death decisions.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream
At the beginning of Alien: Isolation, I remember entering a long spacious walkway that was covered in the detritus of an abandoned population. Graffiti and the hallmarks of panic were all that remained. As I proceeded further, a sudden noise made me jump. I remained ‘hidden’ behind a small bench and waited to see the outcome of the sound. To my left, large panels, or blinds, began to retract and reveal the view of space outside. The lights of billions of stars gently eased the darkness back to the shadows. Once the sound stopped, I was grateful for the extra light.
Though beautiful, it’s moments like that that show how a game can affect the emotions of the player. I was simultaneously terrified of what the noise could attract. Remember, in any medium that is using horror for an effect, a lack of sound can induce tension. Whereas sudden bursts of sound have a more powerful impact, by blocking, or confusing the one sense that humans rely on in such hopeless circumstances. I was caught between wanting to admire the beauty of this remote station I was stuck on, and being attentive to the danger inherent in my position.
For want of a better cliche, Sevastopol is a living, breathing space station. It seems to respond to your presence as you manoeuvre through the derelict walkways and access claustrophobic corridors. Its noises are a continual reminder that people once lived there. They are the dying sounds of routines that would have once been adhered to. Flashing buttons on consoles, the humming of electrical functions and the strange, almost conscious coincidences that give an eerie impression of a station in its death throes.
Even though Sevastopol is basically empty, I always felt the presence of the people that had been there. It had a lived-in feel about it without actually being lived in. When I compare that achievement with some RPGs whose worlds can feel empty, even when they’re crammed with a population whose main pastime seems to be walking, the result is quite impressive.
On Sevastopol, the ‘troubleshoot and return’ style missions were a believable facet of the story. As I get older, I’ve noticed I have less and less time for hackneyed, go there come back quests, where the aim is to hook the player on repetitive mechanics. If a space station is undergoing technical difficulties, it’s logical to assume it will need to be fixed in order to navigate the rest of the station or to regain a degree of control over certain systems to access locked areas. Inevitably, on such a large station, there would be much to do for someone who got themselves stuck there. It’s this narrative that prevents the walking tour of the station from becoming just that, a tour.
A Superior Species
“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” — Ash
A lone Xenomorph is hunting you in the isolated wastes of space, where you orbit a gas giant on Seegon’s Sevastopol Station. Alien introduced the Xenomorph as humankind’s comeuppance. A far superior species that act as a reckoner for anything in its path. In the original film, survival wasn’t guaranteed, it was a lucky outcome. I don’t want to bore you by detailing the Xenomorph. Let’s just say they’re the elite, and most possibly the most well-rounded ‘alien’ ever conceived. What’s even more frightening than their capabilities is their purity.
In Alien: Isolation you cannot kill the alien. Though you can distract or divert the attention of the Xeno, nothing will ever stop it from coming after you. Weapons will feel useless in your hand. They are really just pixel comforts to prevent the screen from being bare and so you feel like you may have agency. Even the motion tracker acts as though it were a stress ball. You don’t want to use it too often as the alien will pick up and track the sound. However, every now and then, it’s nice to know there’s nothing there.
The shift from hordes of Xenos to a single stalker has the appearance of being an obvious decision. Yet, it’s one that hadn’t been used. So, credit is due to those willing to buck the trend. The psychological weight of the seemingly indestructible alien is immense. This lends a permanent tension to the game that never dissolves. Even when the alien disappears for a while — a clever ploy by the developers, presumably so the Alien experience didn’t stagnate — it is replaced by creepy androids. They have received hostile orders from APOLLO (think HAL), the station AI. The fear and sense of isolation never abates.
Never once did I feel in control or ‘on top’ of the action. To be blunt, like the characters in a Lovecraftian tale, I felt and knew I was playing an insignificant part in the face of supreme irreverence. A human being, going about very human things. It had to be this way. The utilisation of the alien and its AI is a testament to the attention given to these core mechanics and the respect finally shown to what is a behemoth of the science fiction and horror genres.
Who would have thought that a linear first-person survival horror rendition of Alien would reignite, and in some ways, save its video gaming franchise. Maybe this is why we’re yet to see another instalment that continues Amanda’s journey. The height of the bar has been set by Alien: Isolation.
If another game was made, will it have the same impact as the first? Tone works once in the survival horror genre. By that I mean, once a specific style has been achieved — one that evokes sufficient fear — it never works as well the second time. Two recent examples of this would be Layers of Fear and Resident Evil. Both their successors, Layers of Fear 2 and Resident Evil Village, lacked what their predecessors accomplished.
By regurgitating the lone Xenomorph, the developers would be presenting the players with a recognisable foe. A foe they know how to best. It would be impossible to replicate the fear that arises from the environment and the encounters with the Xenomorph. Those instances would never be as pure as they once were. For that reason, they would never reach the standards that have already been set in Alien: Isolation.
Alien: Isolation, unfortunately, may have to be one of those games that I’m glad to have experienced, but have to accept that it may never happen again. With the fairly recent release of Aliens: Fireteam Elite, I’m convinced that will be the case.
The need to return to this far-flung future was necessary for Alien: Isolation. Even if that was just to remind us where survival horror really comes from. The obscure Japanese video game Nostromo, developed by Akira Takiguchi and released in 1981, is a poignant example of how the original film was already influencing what was then an unrecognised medium of expression. Toughened by a brand of psychological horror unique to Japanese culture, the video game industry would continue to utilise these tropes.
Though the history of survival horror dates back to a time when links become tenuous, Resident Evil was the first to use the term ‘survival horror’ in its marketing. It’s fitting then that Creative Assembly returned to the literal roots of Alien. In doing so they highlighted not only what the genre is capable of achieving, but also what a little creative freedom can produce.