Editor’s Note: This article contains mild spoilers for Alien: Isolation.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Alien, the space horror movie that spawned a cross-media franchise and numerous lesser imitators. What could have been just another B-movie was transformed by Ridley Scott and a group of talented filmmakers, artists, and actors, each of them providing some of their very best work.
There was that stellar cast of character actors, newcomers and veterans, such as Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt and, of course, Sigourney Weaver. There was the late HR Giger, beavering away in the corner of Shepperton Studios, constructing the titular Alien after an airbrushed piece of artwork in his collection of paintings, Necronomicon. There was Ron Cobb’s unforgettable interior design for the Nostromo, the labyrinthine craft in which Giger’s Alien would later stalk its victims. All these people and more threw in the ingredients that would soon make Alien a science fiction classic.
Thirty-five years on, and the videogame Alien: Isolation makes a concerted attempt to engineer a similar kind of deep space nightmare, taking a back-to-basics approach in which the Alien is a tireless, indestructible force of nature. Before its release, the game was both anticipated and, in a weird sort of way, feared: memories of Gearbox Software’s calamitous Aliens: Colonial Marines – a game hyped as a loving companion piece to James Cameron’s Aliens – were still raw in the minds of the franchise’s fans.
Fortunately, Alien: Isolation’s design and atmosphere is such that it immediately dispels the ignominy of Colonial Marines. While it’s far from flawless, Isolation is made with a captivating attention to detail and what feels like a genuine affection of the original film. In fact, it could even be argued that some of its ideas could have been made into an effective cinematic sequel.
The game itself is deceptively straightforward and perhaps even a little retro – something that might account for the wide spread of reviews Isolation has received between publications, from six out of 10 on Gamespot to nine out of 10 at Games TM. You’ll either warm to the game’s ruthless efficiency, simple concept and profoundly frustrating moments, or find its punishing nature and repetition a bit too much.
Trapped aboard a crumbling ruin of a space station called the Sevastapol, your job is to locate the flight recorder from the Nostromo – yes, the stricken vessel from the first film – and find a way to survive the attention of a predatory creature that has been stalking the station’s dwindling population over the past few months.
You start the game with little in the way of defence, and even as you amass a range of weapons, from pistols to shotguns and flamethrowers to improvised explosives, you learn that these aren’t necessarily useful in most circumstances. The Alien will shrug off bullets, and even the flamethrower will only keep it at bay for a while. Then there are the Sevastapol’s other scary inhabitants, the Working Joes – a small army of android slaves who’ve decided to turn against their human masters. Hard to kill and immensely strong, the Working Joes will track your movements with their dead, red eyes, and it’s easy to be cornered by a pair of these plastic-faced ghouls if you don’t keep your wits about you.
For the most part, Alien: Isolation forces you to unlearn just about everything you might have picked up from other recent survival horror games. Here, it’s not enough to just sneak around until you’re caught, and then open up with your guns once the alarm’s raised. If the Working Joes – or worse, the Alien – have sniffed you out, attempting to fight back will almost certainly result in your swift death. Your best option is to use a piece of your improvised equipment to create a distraction and then find a safe place to hide. Better yet, you should probably just make sure you aren’t spotted in the first place.
Isolation is a game that punishes rash movements and mistakes at every turn. In a throwback to earlier survival horror games, you can’t auto-save, which can be both a source of pleasing tension and controller-gnawing frustration: the sudden, unscripted arrival of bloodthirsty Starbeast can occasionally leave you returning to your last save point, and if you were mere inches from an emergency terminal (the places where you can save your progress) when you were caught, the irritation can be difficult to bear.
It’s also fair to say that, even with a map and motion detector in your hand, the Sevastapol’s corridors and crawl spaces can start to look very similar to one another once you’ve started dashing round them in a blind panic. In one part of the game, your humble writer spent several minutes creeping round in circles and avoiding Working Joes, before he realised he’d been walking around in circles. Alien: Isolation isn’t a game for those born without a sense of direction.
Such matters aside, it’s as an atmospheric experience that Alien: Isolation excels, and it has to be said that the amount of detail put into the game is quite breathtaking at times. As an evocation of the Nostromo, and the work put into it by such artists as Jean Giraud, Ron Cobb and Chris Foss, it really is something to behold. Before you’re being hunted by Giger’s monster, it’s worth simply wandering around the game’s environments and taking in all the homages to late-70s design: the beige, padded walls, the 8-bit computers with their chunky keyboards and displays.
The amount of work the developer Creative Assembly put into the game is showcased in a book published by Titan – imaginatively titled The Art of Alien: Isolation. Here, it’s easier to appreciate all the stuff we only have time to glance at while we’re being pursued in the game itself: a colossal spaceflight terminal, an eerie refrigerated facility, an abandoned research lab. There’s a hint of BioShock’s influence in both the concept of the Sevastapol as an isolated community gone awry (here, even the humans are out to get you) and in the little background details, like the posters for Weyland Yutani and Seegson (the latter being the company behind the Sevastapol) and fiction lager: “Some things are too good to be savoured,” the strapline says. “Buy two bottles.”
Both the game and the book highlight how timeless those original designs from Alien are. Creative Assembly were given access to terabytes of archived design documents and artwork by Fox, and the studio have sensitively reworked it to create the Sevastapol and the game’s other claustrophobic environments. The result is something both quaint and strangely convincing; the antiquated displays and interfaces all create the impression of a utilitarian construction, an oil rig in space – a station that was probably out of date before it was even finished. As a coherent piece of world-building, it feels absolutely real in the moment.
Alien: Isolation doesn’t get every last detail right – the lighting isn’t quite as harsh and dramatic as it is in Ridley Scott’s film, and some of the character models and line readings are distractingly stiff. But this game, more than any other before it, recreates the sense of coldness and dread present in Scott’s film. When you’re sneaking through a duct, bleeping motion tracker in hand, waiting and wondering if something’s going to tumble out of the darkness at you, it’s difficult not to be swept away in the moment. Couple the slavish dedication to sci-fi detail with some superb sound design, a great recreation of Jerry Goldsmith’s original music and an alien that feels truly alive and threatening, and you have really effective survival horror stealth game.
Alien: Isolation also answers a question raised by Ridley Scott in 2012: can the original xenomorph still be threatening? Around the time when Prometheus came out – Scott’s semi-prequel to Alien – the director said something to the effect that the Alien had run its course. A string of sequels and appearances in movies, games and other media had, he said, diluted the monster’s power to terrify audiences.
Isolation arguably proves that theory wrong. The Alien was simply over-exposed and, on occasion, mishandled.
Here, once again, the creature is as it was 35 years ago: fast, strong, barely glimpsed yet all the more terrifying when it does finally emerge from the shadows. One early appearance in the game isn’t handled as well as it could have been, perhaps. The next, where the thing unfurls from the ceiling while your protagonist cowers behind a desk, is utterly nightmarish.
Then there’s the Alien’s counterpoint: protagonist Amanda Ripley. A character established in a brief line cut from the theatrical version of Aliens (but restored in the Special Edition) Amanda is, of course, the estranged daughter of Ellen Ripley. That Amanda is a canonical character (even a tenuously established one) adds to Alien: Isolation‘s air of legitimacy, and indeed, it makes me wonder why nobody at 20th Century Fox had thought of exploring the character in a movie.
Isolation’s back story is simple and immediately understandable. Taking place a few years after Alien, the game introduces Amanda as a young technician. When a rep from Weyland Yutani shows up one day to tell her that the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been discovered, Amanda’s understandably keen to listen to its contents, and finally learn why her mother disappeared.
For all the niggles, faults and caveats Alien: Isolation raises, it also has a lot going for it, including this highly effective premise. Ridley Scott saw fit to head off in a radically different direction with Prometheus, but Isolation serves as a reminder that there are still some interesting avenues to be explored – avenues more closely connected to the Alien universe than those introduced in 2012’s prequel, with its hapless scientists and hairless Engineers.
In fact, some of the story ideas presented in Alien: Isolation could work better as a film than a videogame. Amanda Ripley doesn’t exactly leap out of the screen as a leading character here (partly because of that stiff animation and voice acting mentioned earlier), upstaged as she is by the looming presence of the Alien and its playground, the Sevastapol.
If Alien: Isolationwere a movie, with a strong actress cast as Amanda (say, Marion Cotillard as a random example), the basis of a great outer-space horror is all here. Sure, the plot would need hacking down and reworking to better fit the template of a 120-minute film, but the elements are present and correct in some form: the memorable setting, the references to Joseph Conrad, the corporate intrigue, and, of course, the inimitable Alien itself.
It’s too early to say whether Alien: Isolation has been successful enough to spawn more games like it from Creative Assembly (at the time of writing, it was kept from the top spot by FIFA 2015 in the UK charts). But I do wonder whether executives at Fox will have observed some of the critical reactions to the game – or maybe even played it themselves – and been more than a little surprised at what a powerful presence the Alien still has.
Alien: Isolation proves that the 35-year-old Starbeast still has the ability to terrorise both its prey and audiences alike. I’d argue it’s high time the Alien returned to the big screen and frightened the life out of a new generation of cinemagoers.