It’s hard to re-purpose the tone of a movie like Alien into a videogame. Though survival horror has evolved over recent years, to a point where players now accept that they won’t be given any weapons, and that they’ll have to flee rather than fight their enemies, the reputation of the iconic Xenomorph has been diluted, first by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s unnecessary sequel Alien: Resurrection, and, more recently, by the game Colonial Marines. It’s a monster that, in modern incarnations, has been fought and killed en masse. Compared to in Ridley Scott’s original film, the alien of today is a diminished presence.
Visually the Alien universe is hard to recreate as well. Michael Seymour’s superlative production design—ribbed walls, dripping ceilings, yonic ventilation shafts—demands preservation. The Nostromo set was such a functioning, consistent whole that to capture its atmosphere properly, any game-maker would have to deconstruct the first film piece-by-piece. They would have to understand perfectly how to make these grotesque, surreal elements fit together.
Creative Assembly, the team behind Alien: Isolation, has clearly done its research. Not only has it managed to design a game world befitting of Seymour’s original ideas, it’s taken the Xenomorph, horror’s ageing rock star, and made him scary again. Aside from P.T., Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro’s interactive prelude to the new Silent Hill, Isolation is the first truly frightening videogame in more than a decade.
“When we started work on Alien: Isolation, horror games were moving towards action and combat, and that didn’t interest us,” says Al Hope, the game’s creative director. “We focused on what we wanted to do. We didn’t pay attention to the rest of the industry.
“Our early discussions revolved around one question: if someone released the alien into our studio now, what would we do? There wasn’t a single response that was like ‘I’d find a gun and shoot it.’ Everyone said they would hide, keep peeking out, try to time their movement. So then we started to add in some caveats: it’s in the office, but also you’ve now got to make it to that emergency exit, over there. That helped us plan how the game would work.”
The Xenomorph of Alien: Isolation is relentless. Play the game on the hardest difficulty and you’ll find that every move, every path you take, has already been anticipated. It’ll crawl into the ceiling to stalk you invisibly. If you climb in a vent to take a breather, you better not wait long, or it’ll sniff you out and give you a Tom Skerritt. Ignoring the latter Alien fiction, Creative Assembly wants you to fear this thing like moviegoers did in 1979.
“As far as we’re concerned, the other movies don’t exist,” says Hope. “That original creature is completely unique. It’s unlike anything we have today, not just visually but in terms of how it behaves and what it represents. We wanted to re-establish that creature as the ultimate killer, really ‘re-Alien’ the alien, make it something you could be scared of again.”
Sit still when the alien is near you and you can hear it sniffing, screeching, trying to locate you. If you manage to evade it, you can listen to it plod heavily away, thumping across the metal as it relocates. It’s a vicious, terrifying bastard, perfectly modelled by Creative Assembly’s 3D artists. More than Outlast, more than Amnesia and certainly more than Slender, you have to think about how to keep away from it. “It’s down to you and your wits,” Hope says.
October is an interesting time for Alien: Isolation to launch. Last month we had Destiny, a game set in the distant future where weapons are lasers, robots are geniuses and technology, basically, has become a kind of magic. Most of your problems in Destiny can be solved by throwing a gadget at them. In Alien: Isolation machines are never the answer.
“To get the look right, we took that original film apart piece by piece,” Hope says. “It’s a ‘70s view of the future. It’s a real snapshot of the time: disillusioned, pessimistic. Obviously it’s a sci-fi film but what it says is that technology is not the answer. It’s not like the crew just needs to find a big gun and that will sort everything out. That’s what really grounds Alien. It’s what let us influence the player’s thinking, moment to moment. You don’t get the weapons or equipment to just kill this thing.”
It’s the perfect aesthetic for a horror game. The outdated technology—computers that still have keyboards, BBC Micro style readouts—subtly inform you that, even if you were brave enough to turn and face the alien, the tools you’d need simply don’t exist. Just as the dark, vaguely organic looking contours of Isolation’s spaceship keep you constantly guessing where the alien might be, the absence of high-tech has you on the wrong-foot.
Not that you’re completely unequipped. You get a flamethrower and some distress flares which can be used not to kill but repel the alien temporarily. That elevates Isolation above other run-and-hide horror games. You can’t simply avoid this thing—the mechanics aren’t rigged so that you know, implicitly, that you’ll never have to face it. It will confront you. You’ll have to fight back. Rather than submerge yourself in the hiding places the developers have conveniently placed, at some point, you’re going to have to take responsibility, and that’s frightening.
“It’s an exciting time to be making games, full-stop,” concludes Hope. “But I think there’s a renaissance with survival horror right now. It’s been evolving, quietly, over the past few years, and now we’re making that effort to move away from action and back to fear.”
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.