While standardization in gaming mechanics offers a means to utilize simplified systems to address a wide variety of different themes or interactive settings, it also simultaneously creates barriers in regards to incentives toward innovation or creating more fitting and tailored systems of play dependent on the subject material in question.
On one hand, while Valve’s Source Engine was initially used in developing Counter Strike: Source and Half Life 2, it has also been utilized by various other developers to address a wide array of other thematic subjects and world spaces. For example Left 4 Dead while mechanically similar to its parent shooters, allowed the same mechanical mold to be used in order to create a world space inhabited by zombies as opposed to terrorists or the Combine. And the same engine has been used for mechanically divergent titles like puzzle platformer Portal or “walking simulator”/artsy experimental work Dear Esther.
But with this same practice, developers also have had the tendency to shoehorn certain thematic subject matters or spaces into these pre-existing molds regardless of whether it may or may not make complete sense mechanically.
Because of this, it has been typically easy to classify games into generalized mechanical genres or characterize them by their similarities to other titles that may have established certain molds. For example the recent Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor has often been summarized as a mix of Arkham Asylum combat with the open world play of Assassin’s Creed and the comparisons are spot on. Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor even has its own blatant version of tower climbing to unlock portions of the map complete with its own stand-in for eagle vision.
With this reliance upon existing proven systems, certain properties and subjects are often ignored if they don’t conveniently fit into one of these molds. So while there have been countless Alien-themed games released over the years, the original Alien film has been largely ignored. While it would be easy to conclude this has been the case because of its inabilities to easily mesh with standardized mechanics, this wouldn’t be entirely true.
The Alien film franchise itself is one that has undergone heavy shifts in regards to how it both depicts its subject matter as well as in the manner in which it allows viewers to gaze into this foreign setting. While Ridley Scott’s original film Alien was deeply rooted in horror film conventions with the xenomorph playing a largely background role, James Cameron’s followup Aliens put them front and center. In Scott’s original film the sense of not knowing what or where the xenomorph was instilled an uncomfortably real and hopeless terror, while Cameron’s followup presented the xenomorph more as a merely physically intimidating opponent.
Looking back at the countless Alien themed video games that have been released throughout the years, it is no surprise why developers always chose to mechanically replicate the marines from Aliens, rather then staying true to Scott’s original vision.
Mechanically, Aliens provided the much easier model to translate into already established systems of play. Often times as a Marine, players like any other FPS used guns and plenty of ammo to dispose of wave after wave of xenomorphs and other alien threats.
In the context of Cameron’s film, these games were moderately successful. However while Aliens still retained a sense of the horror that the sight of the xenomorphs brought, many of these games lost that sense of instinctual fear through its own mechanics. The xenomorphs became no different from the zombies in Left 4 Dead or any of the other numerous and nameless enemies encountered in any other popular FPS title.
Alien: Isolation on the other hand has an altogether different methodology. While the game is still by all accounts an FPS, it largely uses more fitting mechanics to replicate the sense of terror that the xenomorphs created. Players do not merely interact with the xenomorphs like any other conventional video game enemy by killing or shooting at them, rather they must be avoided at all costs. And much like Scott’s original film, the bulk of Alien: Isolation excels in the segments when the xenomorph isn’t explicitly present, rather when the player like a character in a film is completely oblivious to where the threat is.
Many have already stated that Alien: Isolation is the first true Alien video game, one that is completely faithful to the spirit of the original work. While Alien: Isolation is far from a perfect game in itself, it definitely does strive to find its own proper and deserved place among the Alien canon.
On narrative and its place within the Alien chronology.
Alien: Isolation takes place 15 years after the events of Alien and 42 years prior to Aliens. Players play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley who travels to the space station Sevastopol with Weyland-Yutani representatives Christopher Samuels and Nina Taylor in hopes of learning about her mother’s fate. Samuels informs Ripley that the flight recorder from the Nostromo had been recovered and was being held at the space station awaiting analysis.
On arrival, the crew finds Sevastopol damaged and silent on comms. Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor attempt to spacewalk over but debris severs their EVA line sending the three hurdling in separate directions. Ripley manages to board the station and finds Sevastopol in complete disarray and seemingly abandoned. On further exploration, she finds that the station is still inhabited but operating under a complete lack of law and order. Individuals and groups fight amongst each other for resources and supplies, and it isn’t apparent what has caused this breakdown to occur nor why its inhabitants are so desperate.
Thus the bulk of the narrative of Alien: Isolation sees Ripley navigating through the space station and figuring out what exactly occurred to take an otherwise peaceful space station into all out chaos. While Ripley learns of an unknown creature early into the game, its full reveal doesn’t come until hours into the game’s narrative.
At which point, players must simultaneously deal with the various hostile humans and androids, as well as the possibility that the xenomorph could be waiting around the next corner.
In context to the original films, Alien: Isolation is closely tied in tonality to the original Alien in its portrayal of the xenomorph itself. Like the film, the game tends to use the possibility of the xenomorph being close as an object of fear, rather then placing the creature directly in sight of the players as a physically formidable threat to combat. It is worth noting that the xenomorph is unkillable, even if players for example somehow cheat the game and give themselves unlimited ammo or disable various scripts.
In regards to the series as a whole, Alien: Isolation seems to nestle in quite nicely as a proper entry between the first two films. Unlike the recent Alien: Colonial Marines or other past video game adaptations, it never felt as if I was merely playing a video game based upon another property. Alien: Isolation for all intents and purposes completely felt like it belonged among the Alien canon.
The visual aesthetic feels both contradictorily modern yet fitting to the original films’ time period. Computer displays to the set design fully reflect the state of technology when the original Alien was produced. While the game itself has a high degree of visual fidelity, computer screens reflect the low-res nature of older CRT displays and VHS recordings. Text and interfaces are extremely primitive being simple green letters against a black screen, and the interior design of the station reflects a more gritty industrial aesthetic then the more modernistic and sleekly minimalistic favorings of futuristic design today.
But more importantly, Alien: Isolation much like the varied entries of the film series has its own unique genre reflections that both separates itself as its own work, but also plays nicely into a tradition that sees each subsequent film taking a starkly different direction. So while Alien was a monster movie in space, and Aliens was more gung-ho and action oriented, Alien: Isolation sees Ripley placed in a world already infested by the xenomorph and the type of effect that might bring socially to an isolated collective of people.
Proper AI vs. Scripted triggers.
Alien: Isolation mechanically speaking, is most certainly a stealth title but one that isn’t exactly in the same category as the likes of Splinter Cell or Thief. While nearly all stealth games put the player in the position of a predator preying on unsuspecting targets, Alien: Isolation flips the dynamic with stealth being utilized as a means to hide from an entity constantly stalking the player.
And while the majority of the mechanics are not exactly innovative or new, there is definitely a more realistic bent to what has often been considered as accepted play. For example, hiding in closets isn’t so simple as it might seem in games like Metal Gear Solid where the player simply has to wait out an arbitrary timed alarm state. In Alien: Isolation, merely waiting in a closet or inside a cabinet offers little sanctuary in itself. Ripley must be aware of the xenomorph’s presence and hold her breath while leaning back at the right moment so that it doesn’t sense her. Also the motion tracker must not be used as it generates noise when too close to a moving target. And just because one might feel safe in a locked room seemingly insulated from the outside, the Xenomorph has a tendency to completely surprise Ripley coming out of the air vents on the walls or ceiling.
In a strange twist, I personally found the spaces that were the most dreadful to be in, to be the very same places that typically act as spots of refuge common in other titles. I dreaded ever having to hide as it would typically trigger the xenomorph to search if in proximity, and traveling through the vents was always a tense struggle.
And while it is somewhat difficult to state exactly how the AI is different in this game to others, it is fairly safe to say that I never felt the xenomorph acting in a manner that was altogether exploitable or seemingly artificial. The xenomorph even on easier difficulties is brutally smart and the developers even layered its routines in such a manner where they would unlock as players progressed, resulting in the sense that it was learning from the player’s behavior throughout the course of the game.
In addition to the robust AI of the xenomorph, it is also heavily scripted with automated triggers that enhances its effectiveness in both killing the player and elevating tension. I remember in my first encounter with the xenomorph, I had covertly stayed out of its sight until I had reached my destination for the next mission objective. I needed to pass through a large room to access an elevator to the next area. As I entered this large room, I could hear the xenomorph stomping around in front of me, it then stood up and turned its head toward me. It screamed a guttural shriek and proceeded to charge me.
In panic I ran out of the room and hit the emergency override on the door locking it in place. Feeling I had just escaped near death, I began to relax to only see some viscous fluid dripping on to me from up above. As I started to look upward, I immediately realized my mistake seeing that the xenomorph had simply bypassed the door in favor of just crawling through the ventilation shafts above me.
Pre-scripted events such as these have become a source of criticism since they have often been used to lazily establish difficulty artificially and in lieu of proper AI systems that can naturally react to player input. While these criticisms are often true, it doesn’t mean that heavily scripted play is necessarily a bad thing or a mechanic that has no purpose.
In Alien: Isolation with its combination of both a robust AI and scripted auto-kills, Ripley and the player are in a constant state of tension and anxiety. Players not only need to grapple with becoming familiar with the xenomorph’s behavior but must also be constantly on the look out for ceiling vents leaking saliva and walk a distance away from wall vents in case it is waiting to grab Ripley. In the sense, the space station itself that engulfs Ripley becomes a force to be constantly in fear of.
And while the developers have seemingly done everything to make the xenomorph invincible and completely terrifying, they have also taken steps to allow players to learn its behavior. For example, it will exhibit certain vocalizations that can signal its current thoughts and intended actions.
Ultimately all of these various facets elevate the in-game xenomorph to truly resemble a living and thinking creature. One that is equally engaging to play with, but also equally believably terrifying as a very real horrific creature.
Mechanical choices in play.
Alien: Isolation is a game that continuously challenges players to make hard choices. “Choice” here doesn’t refer to notions of player agency like in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, rather on strategically choosing how best to utilize the base mechanics of the game to ultimately survive.
With the space station engulfed in darkness, Ripley has access to a flashlight which can be used to navigate blackened corridors and hallways. But something as simple as choosing to use a light isn’t a simple given. Others will see the light including the xenomorph even at distances one would typically think safe in the context of what has been common in other games. Because of this, it isn’t surprising that many players have opted to simply crawl around ventilation shafts in darkness due to fears that it would give away their position to the xenomorph who also travels along these same seemingly hidden pathways. But at the same time, it has often been the case that these same players have also turned on their lights midway through only to come face to face with the xenomorph itself.
Since most of the usable items in the game rely upon a crafting system that utilizes a shared pool of materials, players also have to tend with which items they might need beforehand. Crafting doesn’t pause gameplay and if players find themselves needing an item during combat or other action, the game won’t provide the convenience of stopping time.
While this is admittedly somewhat annoying it does also force players to think ahead and also prioritize exactly what type of usable items will more likely be needed. And with the learning AI of the xenomorph, there are also questions of how often certain items should be used. If Ripley for example deploys a noisemaker constantly to distract the xenomorph, it will likely learn to ignore it after repeated use.
Staying true to its FPS modes of play, Alien: Isolation does feature the use of guns, IEDS, and other weapons. But the effectiveness of these tools is minimal at best and ammo itself is so sparse that Ripley will rarely have opportunities to fire at her opponents.
The simple rarity of ammo creates clear incentives to simply not shoot guns, instead hoarding them for use in emergencies. While this obviously promotes stealth play over “running and gunning”, it also forces players to think hard about firing off precious rounds and whether the situation warrants their cost.
And finally there is also the consideration that if guns are fired against hostile humans or androids, it is questionable whether the situation will be made safer given the noise will likely attract the bigger threat of the xenomorph, of which guns are completely ineffective against.
The flamethrower and molotovs do repel the xenomorph but fuel is seemingly in rarer supply then even ammo for guns. Thus its usage is largely relegated when stealth completely fails or is unattainable such as when Ripley must make her way through the nest towards the end of the game.
Lastly the motion tracker which is arguably the primary tool at Ripley’s disposal is one that also takes careful consideration when employed. While the tracker can conveniently map out moving targets that might be out of Ripley’s sight, it also ironically attracts those that might be close by. With its pinging sound on proximity, both the xenomorph and other hostiles will know exactly where the player is if it is used within an audible distance.
This was a lesson I learned the hard way the first time I attempted to hide in a closet and had my tracker out. Foolishly I looked at the tracker as it kept pinging faster and faster until the xenomorph walked into the room and immediately just ran over to the source of the noise, ripping me out of my supposed haven.
Alien: Isolation unlike most any other game out there, provides tools to the player but doesn’t fully expect them to use them blindly. Assassin’s Creed Revelations conversely expected players to fully engage in the 150 or so different bomb combinations they could craft. As a system of play that was implemented, the expectation should typically be that it will be used and furthermore, actually be relied upon. But in Alien: Isolation the various tools are there for players to choose to use or not. The choice to not shoot an enemy or travel with a flashlight is as much of a significant interaction as actually using them.
On QTEs, Immersion, and Journalistic disparity.
Probably the greatest testament to Alien: Isolation and its successes in creating terror is that it’s a title I will likely never play again. Much like Spec Ops: The Line, Alien: Isolation joins a shortlist of games that have made me feel so physically uncomfortable that the very thought of playing them brings both nausea and elevated blood pressure.
Throughout the week-long session of playing through Alien: Isolation, I found myself in my everyday real world actually avoiding walking under ceiling vents and overall being on edge. It wasn’t that I actually felt as if a Xenomorph might pop out, but that the game had so heavily engrained certain impulse reactions, that they had started to seep into my everyday reality.
Everything from the expertly crafted in-game AI to smaller systems such as QTE interactions fully enforces this notion. Simple QTE button sequences when performing complex movements like disabling locking braces on doorways or even simply saving your game are cleverly translated into the interface of a controller in a method that feels more biomechanically similar to the real world action then simply pushing keys. And these interactions like anything else in the game doesn’t give the convenience of pausing action, so players are continuously stressed even when waiting for a game to save.
The other facet to this is in the game’s great sense of immersion which is aided by the absolutely minimalistic UI and the great sense of presence achieved by the lively and audible reactions by Ripley to player input or those by the game’s systems on screen.
Ultimately if I were to state in a single statement what Alien: Isolation is to an interested individual, I would say that it is the closest thing to experiencing the events aboard the Nostromo from the film Alien first hand, not merely viewing it. And in this sense, Alien: Isolation as an interactive work might possibly reach a level of innate terror that the original film simply never could. Especially when considering the possibility of playing the title on an Oculus Rift or even simply with a good pair of headphones in a darkened room alone.
Lastly it’s worth mentioning that Alien: Isolation regardless of its own merits, also unintentionally brought to light a large discrepancy in the manner in which games seem to be reviewed both globally and between that of mainstream critics and the playing public.
Simply examining the reaction by critical professionals, Alien: Isolation was largely seen as mediocre by journalists in the States, while it was absolutely beloved by those across the pond in the UK and Europe at large. But strangely this division in opinion isn’t shared by the public, most of which absolutely loved it if outlets like the Steam forums, 4chan, or Metacritic are any indication.
And while I don’t like to play into a conspiracy theorist mindset, it’s another case that increasingly puts American professional reviewers in a spotty light that further makes the case that they have become either increasingly irrelevant and disconnected from the public they supposedly serve, or in fact deeply corrupted as many seem to believe.
While a disparity in opinion is far from abnormal or cause for any alarm, it does ring a certain degree of suspicion when arguably the two biggest American journalistic outlets IGN and Gamespot gave such low scores to Alien: Isolation when nearly everyone else is essentially preemptively calling it “Game of the Year”. And it doesn’t help matters that both these sites already have a criminally bad track record, whether it’s the way in which IGN responded to public criticism of Mass Effect 3, or Gamespot’s firing of Jeff Gerstmann over his extremely negative (but well deserved) review of Kane & Lynch years back.
And not to get diverted on too much of a tangent, it’s not that these major sites are to blame for their corruptible nature, rather the simple fact that gaming journalism unlike that of film or other longstanding mediums, doesn’t yet have a sense of competition in itself. Mainstream gaming journalism as it stand currently is simply way too centralized into a few corporate bodies that are simply ripe for corruptible potential especially when considering that sites like IGN and Gamespot have a sort of monopoly on the supposed “professional” opinion on what is considered good or bad.
This is in complete contrast to film reviews which are numbered in the hundreds if not thousands, making simply buying positive feedback ineffective. But things aren’t completely hopeless however as more and more players are simply not being swayed by the formalized and possibly bought opinions of these corporate entities, rather favoring the opinions of individuals like AngryJoe, TotalBiscuit, Errant Signal, or simply making up their own minds by watching the countless number of “Let’s Plays” that flood Youtube.