The first Alien movie has a truly timeless quality to it, when it came out in 1979 it was a milestone in movie making history, not only was it an uncompromisingly scary movie, it was a triumph of technical production. Horror movies, sci-fi movies and not to mention video games have been chasing its shadow ever since, few have ever actually matched its intensity, clarity of horror and iconic set design. Not even ‘Prometheus’ , Ridley Scott’s own follow-up released decades later could live up the benchmark set by the sci-fi horror classic. Games in the alien franchise have almost universally followed the mood and iconography not of the first movie, but that of James Cameron’s action focused sequel ‘Aliens’. But after the unmitigated disaster that was ‘Aliens: Colonial Marines’, it was time for SEGA (gamings caretaker of the Alien franchise) to get out of the hole they had dug themselves into with their previous release, and return to the series roots. They had to recapture the restless, nail-biting tension of the original film in the form of Alien: Isolation.
Step Back in Time
While not wholly unique or completely entertaining gameplay experience, Alien: Isolation succeeds in areas where others games have failed miserably: translating film to game. One of the most iconic things about the Alien franchise is its look and feel. The 1986 era technology of the second film is plenty nostalgic and most of the games in the franchise know that, even Colonial Marines was willing to put in at least some effort to emphasize the bulky, neo-Vietnam look of the marines equipment. But the 1979 original is an entirely different beast, it was released at the very dawn of computing as a popular phenomenon and the chattering, clacking, faded green look of its equipment looks so much more dated than the 1986 designs. Past Alien games faithfulness to the sounds and iconography of the movies took rough around the edges gameplay, and transformed it into a much more immersive experience that it might have otherwise had a right to be. Alien: Isolation is no different, its unbelievable faithfulness to the sights, sounds and moods of its source material takes game design that’s extremely interesting, but not necessarily cohesive and elevates it into something that’s absolutely mesmerizing. In Scott’s universe, things are grungy, a little dirty on the edges. The technology interfaces in this game are decidedly retro and non-GUI. That’s the way the world imagined the future to appear back in 1979, disconcerting as it is to ponder in these days of touch-screen interfaces on our tiny mobile devices. It is simply incredible how devoted the team was to nailing the aesthetics and atmosphere of the sci-fi horror classic and how well their efforts unfolded in the experience of playing the game itself, it shows a real passion that sadly, many developers lack when translating already established franchises into video game format.
Game Over Man
The bulk of the story treads moreorless the same ground as the original and doesn’t specifically contribute to the larger Alien mythos, so its not really worthy of any particular mention. This is not to say this impacts the game in a negative way, the story doesn’t play out in a fashion where it can be accused of re-hashing the source material, but rather in a manner of tribute to the successes of the film and what it represented for the sci-fi horror genre. Which, in this case, has been translated into the fluctuating, semi-popular survival horror genre almost seamlessly. It’s truly a match made in heaven and it’s peculiar that something akin to Isolation has never been attempted, it is truly a labour of love by the team over at Creative Assembly. There is real talent at hand in Alien: Isolation, it is just a shame the triple A gaming market demands ‘bigger, ballsier’ games to warrant the price tag they slap on the box. I can’t help but feel there was significant publisher pressure from SEGA that subsequently muddled the pacing and direction the game was initially going for in those first few hours, I can’t imagine any passionate designer of any video game wanting to plant sequel-bait as intense as it appears in Alien: Isolation. Publisher meddling is a worrying issue within this industry and it often devalues the successes of what are considered to be ‘lesser’ titles and hampers their chances to reach wider audiences.
The Perfect Organism: Alien Isolation
Isolation is amazing to me not only as a game, and it is a very good game, but as a groundbreaking point in entertainment history where so much cutting edge technology has gone into the experience of making a human being feel like they are really being hunted by something so very akin to a predator in the wild. Much like how the 1979 original translated the tale of the Minotaur in the labyrinth onto a space station, Alien: Isolation takes this concept not only to pay homage to the triumphs in mood and atmosphere achieved by Alien, but to consistently make the player feel vulnerable, much like how Ripley must have felt in the moments of the film. Stretch that fear and dread over 20 hours and you have Alien: Isolation, a game that cares as much for its Minotaur as it does for its labyrinth. It’s just incredibly unfortunate that for a good bunch of those 20 or so hours, you as a player feel more and more disconnected from the experience each time the same old scare tactic or gameplay gimmick comes into practice, especially considering how fresh it initially felt once introduced. However, it’s not to say that this completely pulls you from the experience mind you, and to claim that Alien: Isolation nails ‘perfect’ atmosphere through its entire duration would be hyperbole of the highest order (punishable by death in some states). Principally, to enjoy Isolation that’s the experience you want, to be in fear, to be hunted, to be pitted against the superior foe with no way out but through. That the game is so clever and careful in constructing this experience is its path to success in re-creating the terror of the 1979 original. Alien: Isolation is slow, moody, challenging and unfriendly to carelessness, a niche game. But it’s a niche game that shares the same quality of timelessness as its source material, something that very few games can satisfactorily claim.