Developer: Creative Assembly / Publisher: Sega / Played on: PC
“Your objective isn’t to kill, it’s to survive.” — Alien: Isolation Creative Lead Al Hope
I’ll deal with the elephant in the room right away. Yes, Aliens: Colonial Marines happened and it wasn’t very good. Alien: Isolation is entirely different. Rather than stitch together a script-heavy corridor-shooting campaign, Creative Assembly spent the last three years building a tense first-person survival horror that hearkens Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.
That’s Alien, singular. There’s only one, and he’s a lethal, terrifying killer.
“We’re kind of going against the grain,” Alien: Isolation Design Lead Clive Lindop said. “It would’ve been easy for us and Sega as a publisher to go ‘Make it the rollercoaster.’ Very tightly scripted, loads of jump scares. It’s predictable and we know it can work.”
But Creative Assembly wasn’t interested in following that path. Their goal is more profound — a game that recreates what it feels like to be hunted, to run and experience the helplessness and panic that comes from facing the next rung on the food chain. It absolutely worked on me in the thirty minutes I had with the game, so if that’s what you’ve wanted in an Alien game, you should start getting excited.
Mechanically speaking, enemies like Alien: Isolation’s alien are so rare you can count them on one hand. He’s an instant game-ender. There’s no killing or even hurting the alien. All you can do is hide and run. If he catches you, you’re dead, and that’s it.
“We wanted to re-Alien the alien,” Hope said. “We wanted to reestablish it as this mysterious, terrifying creature.”
The process of doing that ran Creative Assembly against conventions in modern game design.
“As you know, over the last few years games have had their difficulty curve flatten out. They want to let you just flow through the experience,” Lindop said. “We want the alien to be respectable to the player. We want to go ‘this is a lethal killer.’ He doesn’t ever give you a break. He’s always that efficient.”
He gets that efficient by using every one of his senses to track you down in game. If you make a noise, he’ll check it out. If you turn on your flashlight and he sees that reflected off a wall, you’ll draw his attention. It’s nothing so trivial as death zones you have to avoid. The alien is a living, sensing predator that you have to evade and outwit.
“He’s not running under any prescribed paths or pre-set patterns. He’s using his senses to try and track you down,” Hope said. “He’s listening for you, he’s looking for you.”
That oppressive atmosphere gives the alien a presence even when he’s not physically around. The developers liken it to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs or Jaws in… Jaws. Once you’ve encountered the alien, he’s always a looming threat. Any empty room could contain the alien, and it’s a tension you can’t fabricate with scripted scares.
Right about now you may be reckoning that you’re such a mastered student of games that you will eventually “solve” the alien AI. A similar thought ran through my head while playing; that given enough time, I’d peek behind the curtain and see the diminutive man ordering me to pay no attention.
“You don’t get to observe him like that,” Lindop said, “and he isn’t following patterns. Suddenly, you’re in a much more immediate fight-or-flight adrenaline reaction. You’re just making decisions moment-to-moment. A lot of the suspense is that you don’t know what the right decision is.”
Most tellingly, even the developers can’t out-smart or out-maneuver the alien at every step.
“We’ve created him, we know everything about him, we know the space that he’s in, yet we die,” Hope said. “We get caught out. It’s really fascinating.”
To hear the range of situations that the alien will notice makes this believable. For instance: if you’re hiding under a table, you’re reasonably obscured from the alien if he’s close. If far away though, his angle of vision can more easily spot you.
The developers even shared a trickier story — a player hid in a tall locker to avoid the alien’s gaze. The player entered while crouching, but it didn’t matter. The alien saw the locker door move and knew immediately where is prey was cowering.
“When you have all your modern tools stripped away from you, you have to survive on a much more fundamentally instinctive level,” Lindop said.
Like any good survival horror, Alien: Isolation restricts your toolset. There are no guns here and you can’t buy a rocket launcher through DLC. You have your eyes and a motion tracker… and that’s about it.
“It’s not really about the technology in Alien,” Creative Lead Al Hope said. “The motion tracker, it feels quite advanced, but it only really shows you how close you are to death. It’s not particularly helpful. It actually supports the horror more than the survival aspect.”
You can bring up the motion tracker at any time, but it’s not a perfect tool. All you get is a blip on the screen, provided anything is moving. That tells you motion, distance, and nothing else. In complex situations, that information may only complicate your decisions. Is this blip on the far side of this wall I’m staring at? No that’s way too close. Is it in the ceiling? The floor?
“It offers more questions than answers, really,” Hope said.
You’re also able to freely peek around any piece of cover with a mechanic that’s similar to 2011’s Bodycount, if you happened to play it. Basically, you can swivel around your current position with the movement keys, giving you the ability to dynamically find lines of sight around different pieces of cover. It means that cover doesn’t have to be all waist-high. You can peek between the slats of a staircase or shift anxiously behind the horizontal slats of a locker door. That freedom of motion comes with a very interesting drawback though.
“Unlike something like Dishonored, you’re not safe when you’re peeking,” Hope said. “There is no 100% safe place.”
In most stealth games, if you’re hidden and you lean out to look, you’re still considered “hidden.” That’s completely not how it works in Alien: Isolation. If you can see the alien, it can see you, and it absolutely will see you if you hang out for too long.
“It’s all about risk management,” Lindop said. “How much do I want to risk to find something out? And every movement is a risk.”
This cat-and-mouse mechanic creates a very interesting exchange. If survival were your only goal, you could find a cozy locker to hide in until the end of time. However, you always have an objective, and crossing open ground to get there is phenomenally stressful.
“When you’re at your safest, you know the least about where he is and what’s going on,” Lindop said. “You can’t help but look.”
As a result, the crux of the game is trading risk for information. It’s a kind of uncertainty principle but applied to space aliens: the more you know, the less safe you must be. This results in darting from cover to cover and taking the most reserved attempts to gather fresh information on where the alien is. The process makes you feel like a harried rabbit or hunted animal. I’m not sure I could endure a full game of tense, high-stakes stealth.
“The game couldn’t be 100% that,” Hope explained. “We needed contrast, tension, and release.”
While my brief play session with Alien: Isolation is exactly what I want from an Alien game, there’s more to it than running away from a Lovecraftian murder machine. While the developers didn’t have time to explain the rest of the game in detail, the presence of a life bar on the game’s UI implies enemies or environmental hazards that aren’t single-hit kills. They did acknowledge a crafting system — a natural assumption given all the random materials you collect while foraging in the game’s levels, though its extent is mysterious.
Accoutrement notwithstanding, at least understand that Creative Assembly is not building a corridor shooter laced with paper-thin spooks and gun-holding strawmen.
“You have to accept that the best moments are systemic. It’s complete immersion,” Lindop said. “The player’s doing something on a console and they just happen to look right and [the alien] walks through the door. You can’t plan it, and you definitely don’t want to script it.”
CRT, not LCD
A living, lethal alien and gameplay build around hiding and running — that’s the sales pitch for the game proper, but what about canonical obligations? This game is called Alien, after all, and that comes with significant responsibilities. I can at least vouch that Creative Assembly understands the creative lineage here. In a short presentation, the developers laid out their list of creative hallmarks: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1972’s Solaris, and most recently Duncan Jones’ throwback film Moon.
“We’re absolutely passionate about that 70s view of the future,” Hope said. “Nobody seems to have capitalized on it.”
To put a fine point on it, there’s a certain sci-fi magic from the late 70s and early 80s. It’s the clean, stylish 60s future with a layer of grime applied. Rather than the geometric, pristine hallways of Kubrick’s 2001, you get the dingy, rickety, busted interiors of the Nostromo. Those references may reach beyond your cinematic / chronologic referentials, and luckily Creative Assembly was able to boil it down to perfect modern terms.
“If Mass Effect is over here and it’s a really stylish, shiny, holographic view of the future, we’re over on the other side in the gutter where it’s junky and clunky and push-button,” Hope said. “It might not work, it’s a bit crappy… but it’s a distinct look and feel.”
It’s a hard aesthetic to capture apart from references. It’s a design sense borne from pre-computer generated imagery — creating the future with only practical effects. As a result, it’s as if humanity explored the stars with nothing more than a ZX Spectrum.
“That kind of… what I call Betamax future,” Lindop explained, “one of the key messages in the original film is that technology won’t save you.”
That sentiment is echoed at every point in the game. Even Alien: Isolation’s UI looks like the proud product of a Commodore 64. Pausing blocks out the screen with a chunky, full-color mosaic transition that will hammer at your nostalgia if you’ve ever seen a monochrome monitor.
That said, the game doesn’t look basic by any means. You have to look good to look bad, and Alien: Isolation boasts a custom engine that recreates the iconic Ridley Scott lighting and fog that gave such density to his shots. As a personal fan of that “betamax future,” simply walking around the game’s environments before the alien decided to crash the party was a total pleasure. The world is rendered in appreciable detail — legible notes are strewn over work desks aside a cluster of empty coffee cups while hardened gum clumps in the hinges underneath.
“We have these goals we want to achieve with our immersion and our lighting. It’s a game about putting a player in this atmospheric setting. We wanted to be sure we could deliver on that,” Hope said. “The safest way we could manage all the unknowns on the horizon was to start working on it ourselves.”
Aside from just spiritual authenticity, let’s turn our skepticism to the game’s canon. Yes, you play as Ripley’s daughter, Amanda Ripley. At first mention this sounds like desperate link to the original movie, but it’s more organic than you might think. For starters, Amanda is canon to James Cameron’s Aliens, insofar as deleted scenes count. Early in the movie, Carter Burke mentions to Ripley that her daughter has died in the some sixty years between the first and second movies. So… Amanda Ripley is canon. Ish.
The more meaningful link comes from an application of logic to the gap between Alien and Aliens. In that sixty years, what happened to the Nostromo? It was seemingly a very expensive ship, why didn’t Weyland try to find it? If they did find it, why are they seemingly unaware of the alien’s presence in Aliens?
“Out of those questions, Amanda emerges,” Lindop said. “And she emerges in a very human way. You have this girl who’s eleven years old when her mother vanishes. She grows up in this terrible litigation over crew error, investigations, court cases… her entire life is followed by this mystery, this absence.”
And so, 15 years after the Nostromo disappears, someone finds the Nostromo’s black box.
“She’s going to have the chance to answer some of these burning questions that have dominated her entire early adult life,” Lindop said, “so she goes.”
When you combine all those factors, suddenly it doesn’t sound so forced. Depending how stringent and zealous your enjoyment of Alien is, the setup of Alien: Isolation is (potentially) both believable and additive.
“We wanted to make a story that was self-supporting, that stood on its own, was in this big space, and the entire original series could continue. It’s a completely self-contained parallel story,” Lindop said. “We don’t change anything. We doing ruin the thing that you like, we just telling this parallel, wider universe story.”
A Novel Take
While I can’t comment on the success or failure of Creative Assembly’s take on Alien, I am delighted at their take on the subject. Alien: Isolation looks to provide a true interactive interpretation of a movie. It may not recreate specific scenes, but it wants to recreate a feeling. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best approach a game could take.
“We don’t know if the players are going to have the same experience with each other,” Creative Lead Al Hope said. “Some will play a level and have truly amazing moments. Others will have long, quiet, tense moments. It depends how they play.”