Warning: contains spoilers for the single player game.
By now many if not most of you will have played, completed, and made up your minds about Alien: Isolation. The conclusion that fans have reached, from what I can gather, is that though it’s often unnecessarily taxing and overlong, Creative Assembly’s effort is the first in over thirty years of Alien games to tap into the unbridled anxiety and horror of Ridley Scott’s movie. I can certainly agree.
Why so late with this article? It took some time for me to finish the game thanks to fatherhood, work, and studying for my masters degree. I was also trepiditious at first because I heard it featured sporadic save points and though I enjoy games that present that particular sort of challenge I wasn’t confident that I could give this one my time. If I was effectively taking everything in through nibbles rather than bites then I felt that I might not enjoy the game as the developers intended it to be enjoyed: in a hunched lumbago-inviting pose and entrenched in fear-stricken, absorbed patience. Luckily I was lazier than projected and studied very little and the game was more forgiving with its save points than I had anticipated.
But first, let’s get something out of the way…
Through no fault of its own, Isolation has been married by shotgun to Colonial Marines. Rarely can one be discussed without the other being invoked. I would imagine that Creative Assembly were first amused, and then irritated, by the ceaseless questions and references to Gearbox’s game. Isolation has obviously taken great inspiration from Alien in term of atmosphere and aesthetics, but C. A. never intended to recreate the film and its environments down to the last screw. Instead they used it as a launching pad to create their own environments, characters, and scenarios. They even hired William Hope, Aliens’ very own Lt. Gorman, to voice a central character aboard Sevastopol, and pretty much kept quiet about it. Not, as you might assume, for secrecy’s sake, but because they refrained from the masturbatory self-aggrandisement that Gearbox relished in. ‘Yes’, Creative Assembly might as well be saying, ‘William Hope is in this game, but no, it does not lend credibility or authenticity to the experience – the game shall do that for itself.’
That’s the last time I will refer to Colonial Marines in relation to Isolation, save for the odd apophasis that may cheekily slip in. Now–
The game takes place in November-December 2137, fifteen years after Alien and forty two years before Ellen Ripley finally returns home. In Ellen’s absence her daughter Amanda has grown up to be capable, resourceful, maybe somewhat embittered, and handy with a wrench. Samuels, a representative of Weyland-Yutani, approaches Amanda with an offer to accompany him to Sevastopol, a partially decommisioned station owned by W-Y-wannabes Seegson Corp. The hook? Seegson have in their possession the flight recorder from the Nostromo. Once Amanda and company arrive at Sevastopol they find that the inhabitants have been beseiged by our favourite biomechanoid menace. Trapped and isolated (<– aha!) on the station, Amanda must find a means of surviving and escaping unsavoury humans, errant androids and of course, the Alien itself.
The inclusion of Amanda had many fans up in arms, and not without reason. For one, it neuters two pertinent questions that we as an audience should have when dealing with a character: will they survive their ordeal, and will they find what they are looking for? For anyone who knows these films going in, both questions are answered before we even play (that’s ‘yes’ and ‘no’, respectively.) All we’re doing, you could say, is escorting Amanda through her Sevastapol ordeal to ensure that she finally reaches a care home.
But I found that this hardly mattered in the context of actually playing the game. Yes, if you’re thinking in terms of story then it’s easy to dismiss the whole experience as an exercise in foregone conclusions, but I doubt this will weigh heavily on your mind when you’re actually trying to survive the game’s many enemies and deathtraps. Perhaps at some point, I thought while playing, there will be an opportunity to provide Amanda with some closure, making the whole experience less about following the matter of course and more about exploring how this character deals with loss and the many questions that will never be answered in her lifetime. The game doesn’t quite go there, but more on that later. As it serves, I embraced Amanda quite completely. There is nothing in her that hints of the by-the-bookishness that made up her mother as we met her in the beginning of Alien, and she’s nothing like the tortured gun-toter of Aliens either. Amanda Ripley is not Ellen Ripley, and that’s a damn fine thing. It also helps that it makes sense for Amanda to be embroiled in the catastrophe at Sevastopol. The character motivation is there, and all of the other connective tissue is sound. I’m not sure how the Nostromo flight recorder could possibly be designed to survive the explosion at the end of Alien, but I can buy that it may have been jettisoned prior to the ship’s destruction.
Regarding the other characters, I was quite disappointed, as there was almost no time alloted to them. Samuels (looking remarkably like a cross between Michael Fassbender’s David and… a young John Hurt?) had probably the most potential of all the secondary characters, but he is quickly shunted offscreen. Taylor and Verlaine also barely figure into the plot. This probably won’t bother some people, but I am heavily attracted to story and character development in games. I understand the emphasis on being isolated, but a little more meat around the bones would not have hurt. It’s a shame that there wasn’t much for me to chew over after finishing it. As thinly sketched as many of Alien’s characters appear to be, fans are still picking them apart decades later (for example, look at Strange Shapes reader Adrian’s comments on Parker and Brett here and here.)
Another thing I have to pat C.A. on the back for is their treatment of Weyland-Yutani. The myriad of video games and comic book spin-offs have gone quite overboard when depicting the Company and its employees, usually portraying them as a collective of oleaginous sociopaths. I’ve shouted enough about the Company not knowing about the Alien throughout the first two films (see The Android for more) and it’s nice to have a game like this not resorting to moustache-twirlers in place of genuinely interesting antagonists. The human enemies in the game all have justifications for their actions; some can even be understood and empathised with (I felt a little bad after sneaking up on one Seegson employee who muttered to himself, “Wonder how the kids are doing…” before I thwacked him across the skull with a wrench.)
Scattered around the station are audio logs featuring everything from mundane co-worker sniping to last testaments. One particularly effective log near the end of the game states, “My wife is dead, my children have been taken…” It reminded me of the scenes at Hadley’s Hope in the Aliens Special Edition, specifically the shot with the children tricycling down the halls. Thanks to some grim foreknowledge I don’t need to see their fates to feel revulsion and sorrow. It’s a neat trick that adds subtler layers of horror.
When it comes to the game’s environments I can do nothing but prostrate myself before Creative Assembly for not only their fidelity to the original film but also their ability to study its aesthetic and create their own environments. I’m not entirely sure why Sevastopol Station is modelled after the Nostromo’s refinery; maybe the gothic towers and spires of the tug were too irresistible. The recurring graffiti daubing the station’s corridors is a small letdown, having long been an easy shorthand for societal breakdown. It seems that whenever the chips are down people scramble for the spraycan. But that is a mere nitpick, and barely intrudes on immersion. I would love to see Ron Cobb exploring this environment. I think he would be quite proud. There are also some nice knick-knacks peppered around the game: see if you can find Blade Runner’s origami unicorn and the sketches of the Alien drawn by the Seegson employees.
The Alien planetoid and the derelict spaceship also make an appearance, and they have been expertly reproduced here. A nice touch is the inclusion of the derelict’s signal beacon. It was originally set to feature in the first film but was never built or filmed. James Cameron explained that seismic activity in the intervening years between Alien and Aliens had uprooted the derelict and destroyed the beacon, explaining why the Company or the colonists never found the derelict until they were directed to it by Burke. In Isolation we get to shut it off ourselves, and the design deserves some applause, at least from myself, as I’m happy to see that they snuck in some Prometheus-style technology but kept it overwhelmingly biomechancial and dark.
In typical Alien tradition, Isolation also has a couple of Joseph Conrad references: there is a character named Marlow, after a character in Heart of Darkness, and Verlaine’s ship is called the Torrens, after a passenger clipper where Conrad himself once served as first mate.
The sound design is another element that I think C. A. pulled off perfectly. It is engineered to keep you constantly alert. Ripley’s senses seem constantly sharpened: she can hear distant servos whine, the hiss of air rushing through open doorways, the crackle of ruptured computer banks… the effect is cacophanous sound and the need for a discriminating ear to separate the clunking of the station from the thundering steps of the Alien.
As for the enemies, the Alien is a masterstroke. The design is pretty much Giger’s save for the legs, which seem to be modelled after those in Alien Resurrection. Luckily, the legs barely matter in gameplay, so my purist concerns didn’t amount to a jot. I had spoken to lead game designer Gary Napper earlier this year at the ‘An Audience With…’ event in London and he assured me that C.A. had tried Giger’s original legs but the results were rather poor in motion. The production team on Alien had the same problem, forcing them to limit the Alien’s appearance on screen. Obviously, for a film such a restriction can be a blessing, but a game is another thing entirely. The legs they went with, ultimately, aren’t a problem at all, and the Alien is the last thing I can complain about. They pulled it off wonderfully.
When it comes to being hunted by the Alien, well, Creative Assembly did not make this game for the quick-save, regenerating health crowd, and so the beast presents a considerable challenge. It is rare to ever feel truly safe, and I love how they inverted some tropes of the stealth genre. In games like Metal Gear Solid 2 the cabinet locker was the player’s sanctuary: if you picked wisely you could even get some lascivious company to tide you over until the area was clear. In Isolation the Alien will inspect and open lockers to find you if you’ve taken to stuffing yourself into them. A clever little trick that does magnitudes for the atmosphere and tension.
As for the other enemies, I’ve already briefly touched on the humans, but there are also androids aboard Sevastopol. Now, there’s no shortage of robots in the various Alien games, but the Working Joes seem the most authentic to the films and are, in my opinion, the best that any of the games or comics have to offer (sorry, Jeri the Alien impersonator). The sequence where the AI Apollo unleashes the Working Joes (“It’s like they’re hunting”) feels outright apocalyptic – rubble burns, klaxxons blare, the music thrums, and an assortment of humans struggle against both you and the homicidal androids, compacting the feelings of helplessness and abandonment. Opening Apollo’s core is another choice moment: the chamber rumbles, the Alien scores swells, and the core -reminiscient of the gravity drive in Event Horizon– heaves out of the chamber pit, allowing you access.
So what didn’t I like? Well…
Excuse the apparent tangent, but one of my abiding problems with Dead Space was that the player’s role was largely janitorial. You begin by boarding the Ishimura space station, find that it has gone to hell, and work to escape by repairing electronics and circuits and gathering card keys – not problematic in itself, but fatigue quickly set in after a long cascade of ‘Fix this then we can escape–No, fix this and then we can es–No, fix this–‘. It seemed designed to hide a lack of imaginative objectives or a compelling narrative (the survival horror genre, admittedly, is famed more for its atmosphere than its storylines.) That’s not to rubbish Dead Space, a deeply affecting game in its own right, but the few problems it had threw me off replaying.
Isolation has this same problem, where simply going off for a first-aid kit becomes detour piled upon detour and the occasional treasurehunt, with Amanda’s journey becoming outright Odyssean at times. The most egregious example of this comes near the end of the game, where I actually started to lose my patience and subsequently my immersion.
After a couple of excellent set pieces that would have served brilliantly as climaxes, the game deigns to keep us treasure-hunting and switch-flipping. Then, literally as soon as you’re about to leave Sevastapol for the Torrens to end the game, it throws you back into the hive. Your immediate objective? Retrace your steps. It’s maddening, and seems contrived to eke out more gameplay. Conciseness would have helped the latter stages of the game massively. The ending cinematic itself is so abrupt I thought I had mistakenly pressed a key that skipped it for the credits. As for that final image? There’s no real suspense seeing Amanda floating helplessly through space. I’ve seen Aliens. As a result it’s impossible for the ending to stand alone. I have an inkling that Creative Assembly were assured to some degree that Isolation would not be the last Alien game under the Sega and C.A. umbrella. I cannot explain that ending otherwise.
So what’s next for this series, gaming-wise? If Creative Assembly follow Isolation with a sequel then I’d like them to continue to be innovative and not repeat what they have done here. Therein lies overexposure, dilution and diminishing returns. If they manage to escalate and expand on what they have already built then a sequel could be even greater, and though it may not be a popular idea I would love to see them create a game themed around the second film, which has been so heavily misconstrued and misrepresented by its various arcade games and comic book adaptations that it’s no surprise that a backlash has reared up, with fans, largely tired of cliched machismo and lame duck Aliens, laying the blame squarely on Cameron’s movie rather than its imitators, knock-offs and bastard children.
A Creative Assembly Aliens game, where the characters are constantly being hemmed in, where ammo is absolutely finite (forcing you to strategise when and when not to shoot), where the Aliens are crafty and can work together to circumnavigate barriers set up by the player, where every squeeze of the trigger must be considered thoroughly, where every Alien battle can feel pyrrhic… I’d love to play that game, and I have full confidence that Creative Assembly could not only make it, but make it better than any of my expectations or hopes. I would be surprised if they didn’t opt for escalation with the next game, considering the incredible hive environment they recreated here (the howling Aliens are haunting and brilliant all in one) and a near-final image that scared and excited me in equal measure.
But what more is there to mine from Alien? Well, the emblem and badge designs from the film suggest a broader but undefined political and cultural landscape that would been fascinating to explore. Unfortunatley, none of the films really bothered with any of that and I’d love to see it opened up more in a sequel, perhaps with a Blade Runner-esque city, citizenry and mystery? Apologies if my imagination gets ahead of me here, but after being thoroughly disappointed with much of Prometheus and outright beleagured by Colonial Marines, this game has certainly reinvigorated my hope for future Alien projects.
And that, for me, is the bottomline concerning Alien: Isolation. It has done what many thought impossible or folly and made the Alien a viable threat again. It has shown that there is an appetite for this sort of game, set in this low-fi world, populated by space truckers and grease monkeys and patrolled by Colonial Marines and Sheriffs and stalked by biomechanical terrors from the deep unknown…