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Interview with Alien: Isolation Writers Will Porter and Dion Lay

After the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines in 2013, the fans of the franchise were distraught. It was a complete bitter disappointment in nearly every single facet. Then news of Alien: Isolation trickled down. Early on, weary of the disappointment of Colonial Marines, fans were skeptical of some of the early revealed aspects of the game. And then October 2014 rolled around and Creative Assembly released Alien: Isolation, blowing fans (and critics) away and reminding us all that it isn’t all doom and gloom.

Alien: Isolation is now racking in a slew of awards and it was recently announced that the game had sold over 1 million copies. AvPGalaxy recently had the chance to ask Alien: Isolation writers Dion Lay and Will Porter about their work on the game, on creating the vast and engrossing world that Alien: Isolation takes place in.

Just in case – beware spoilers.

AvPGalaxy – One of the defining aspects of Alien: Isolation is that it in heavily grounded in Alien. This is easy to see in terms of visuals. Did this decision create any challenges from a narrative point of view?

Will Porter – What makes the Alien franchise so fantastic, especially if you’re focused on its earliest films, is that an air of mystery pervades everything. Earth is distant; how much WY really know about LV426 is unknown; Ash’s history prior to replacing the Nostromo’s Science Officer is unclear… and I think this is why Alien: Isolation has managed to make itself comfortable within the early canon. It’ s also why, by my estimation, there weren’t too many challenges to overcome caused by the Alien tag – outside of the usual trials and tribulations of game development that is!

In fact our grounding in Alien gave us countless opportunities, especially in world-building. More than anything Alien, especially the first film, is about real people in space. It posits that travel in amongst the stars isn’t beautiful and life-affirming: it’s gritty, difficult, poorly-paid and laborious. Lacing our game with the ‘reality’ of Alien (alongside the spirit of the seventies) wasn’t a narrative challenge – but a total boon.

Take our psychiatric facility in San Cristobal Medical for example. A lot of it is flavour of course, most of my job is, but rather than take the standard video-game trope of the ‘gore-dripped madhouse’ we could take Alien’s realism and use it to flag interesting concepts. Say, for example, the fact that the human mind isn’t built for the vastness of space – or even prolonged removal from the natural rhythms of Earth. Mix this in a touch of what we’d now recognise as the 1970s’ misapprehensions in mental health treatment, through signage and language, and all of a sudden you’ve got a space to explore that feels subtly different to where most games have gone before.

(It could be readily argued that a lot of players wouldn’t notice this background detail as they’re being chased by a gigantic death-beast through most of the level and frantically trying to tap 1702 [my birthday!] into a door. This is, of course, true – but I very much believe that much of my work is for the player to absorb quite ambiently as they scan through terminals and half-listen to announcements. It’s a framing device that influences mood and expectation, and complements what one would hope is the cold-dread of the gameplay proper.)

Dion Lay – Using Alien as a starting point was actually beneficial rather than restrictive because the first film manages to do a lot with a very small cast and location. We know that working in space is not the high adventure we may have all envisaged and hoped for, the technology is actually pretty basic and recognisable and there are still the same class tensions and large faceless corporations – it’s not the utopian world of Star Trek. It was also helpful in setting the tone of the story – we could immediately test an idea by checking if it would seem in place with the original film.

When we came to expanding the details of Dan’s story it was a case of threading those themes throughout the audio and text logs while also using them to build up the background of Sevastopol so it felt like a real place with a long history. We also tried to get this mix into all the posters and adverts on Sevastopol, which Will and I both loved doing, especially when we saw the art for them. On the flipside, when the art for the poster came first we would look to Alien for something that would fit. For example, there were some really nice holiday posters created, but because we never see Earth in Alien, we ended up writing the copy for them as if they were slideshows of locales instead, similar to one Ellen Ripley is looking at in the Aliens deleted scene when she learns about Amanda from Burke.

AvPGalaxy – Some of the story elements used within Alien: Isolation were familiar to those gamers who read the comics or novels. Did you look towards the existing Expanded Universe when crafting the story for Alien: Isolation?

Will Porter – Yes we did, but given our focus on the original movie – and the fact that not all Alien fans are into the Expanded Universe – it was more to make sure that we weren’t stepping on any unexpected toes than anything else. In terms of the wider story arc this is perhaps a better question for (the amazing, talented, handsome etc) Dan Abnett, but in terms of the granular stuff we were certainly careful of accidentally using pre-existing character/ship names and the like. (That happens more than you might imagine when you’re working with a license that has the habit of borrowing names from the works of Conrad!)

Dion Lay – I think Will’s answer pretty much covers it here!

AvPGalaxy – Alien: Isolation introduced us to the Seegson Corporation and many of their properties including Sevastopol and the Working Joes, all of which were considerably developed. What sort of process went into the creation of the company, their history and particularly their Working Joes?

Will Porter – Bear with me on this one.

In 1999 I spent a short while living in North Carolina, which is where – standing six deep in a chaotic McDonalds queue – I saw a sign that read ‘Why not ask about our orange drink dispenser?’.

It stuck with me because it was nonsense on so many levels, not least the fact that the term ‘orange drink’ was so brilliantly vague. But why would I care? Why would the people about to sell me a burger care? Who thought that question should even be prompted in me? The answer: most likely a dull meeting in a corporate boardroom far, far away (light years, one might say) from the ground-level consumer.

Maybe it was an executive fighting the corner of the drink dispenser division, maybe it was a clueless bully surrounded by Yes Men… Whatever the cause, it was something that no-one either dared to call out, had the heart to stop or had it in them to care about. It was someone else’s problem, and a minor detail.

Everyone lower down the chain of command must have known that Orange Drink Dispenser sign was ludicrous, but it came from the top – so it went unchallenged. It became a sign on counters nationwide to be ignored forever. Until, of course, it eventually became the android line ‘Why not ask me about Sevastopol Safety Protocols?’ in Alien: Isolation.

To me, this is the voice of Seegson. An ineffectual boardroom (forever leaking talent to the likes of Weyland-Yutani) sending out nothing but self-deluding missives that have little to no use on Earth – let alone for the real people suffering on a dilapidated space station floating alone on the edge of space.

I wanted to make them the masters of corporate double-think – stressing the ‘everything is okay, we value you’ propaganda while the executives themselves look for their next plum job and siphon off what remains of the company gravy train.

Space Stations like Sevastopol are Seegson’s white elephant, and even though everyone who works for them knows they’re doomed – the enforced company message that everything is fine has been drummed home, and disbelieved, until the inevitable has taken place. Ultimately, it’s the little guys – the real working joes – caught in the downfall.

I think it’s from this language of corporate failure that the Seegson character, for me at least, grew. It was quite fun filling Seegson into the Weyland-Yutani timeline, positioning them even during their boom years as the Skoda to WY’s BMW. Likewise their sales ploys – such as tapping into the disquiet over the human verisimiltude of androids to explain away their shoddy products – were a great way to inject the android Working Joes into gameplay.

Ultimately, though, I think many of us know of companies like Seegson, which is why it struck something of a chord with people.

Dion Lay – When we started we knew we wanted some android antagonists in the game, but that they would be very different to the advanced Weyland-Yutani androids from the films. I thought if they were going to be simpler versions then maybe Seegson would try and turn a negative into a positive and sell them on the idea that they were more ‘honest’ androids – they weren’t pretending they were humans and shouldn’t be treated as such. Of course, this also ties into the class theme from the films and so it seemed natural to call them ‘Working Joes’.

I’m a big fan of cult British TV (The Avengers, Sapphire and Steel, The Prisoner) and a lot of it has a weird, understated horror to it that seemed to fit perfectly with the world of Alien, so when we came to do the dialogue we decided upon very polite service lines that would gain sinister undertones when at odds with the Working Joes’ actions. Our first attempts came out too much sounding like what we called ‘posh butler’, so I thought a better reference would be those automated messages you get when you phone a call centre – the content of the words are polite and friendly but it’s lacking any real sincerity. When we were designing the posters and adverts I watched a lot of British public information adverts from the 70s and there’s a particular chilling one about children playing near water narrated by Donald Pleasance which seemed like the perfect reference for the voice of the Working Joes.

Dan Abnett came up with the idea of Seegson in the first draft of the story as he felt we needed another corporation that wasn’t Weyland-Yutani and that they should be a less successful version who are almost getting pushed out of business. He then developed it further when we wanted to integrate it more, adding some history and the fact that they were once Sigg & Son (I think the spelling may have changed since then). Once we were doing the audio and text logs Will really went to town on it with more of their timeline and added some nice little details, like the fact that they were reverse engineering WY androids to try and improve the Working Joes!

AvPGalaxy – Many fans have noticed an unusual absence of chestbursters from the game. Was there any particular narrative reason for this omission or was it down to gameplay considerations?

Dion Lay – As much as we all love a good gory chestburst moment, I think it was one of those aspects that we’ve seen a lot in games, movies and comics, so we didn’t feel the need to include seeing one in the game. Of course, it does happen offscreen and those players who spend their time checking out the environment will be able to find the signs. It reminded me of Lovecraftian and Quatermass horror, where the hero gradually uncovers the mystery piece by piece only to find a horror worse than they could ever imagine!

Will Porter – With the above in mind, early on I was thinking that Ricardo could get facehugged during Ripley’s period of radio silence in Apollo, that he wouldn’t entirely remember or understand what happened (as with Kane) and that ultimately he’d keep his growing fears a secret from Ripley until the point of chestburst after the communications dish realignment. However, on reflection, we felt that if we were being faithful to Alien then the gestation period simply wasn’t going to be long enough – and as such it became a final facehug instead. That came with its own added elements of horror, when he presumably regains consciousness off-screen, so we gained something there.

AvPGalaxy – What kind of process do you go through when planning and placing all the in-game world building elements such as the data terminals?

Will Porter – What we do is essentially fill the details around the edges of levels provided by designers. Seegson Synthetics, for example, has the overlay of current events – the Survivors, the Alien and Ripley – but through our work and that of the art team, you can also gauge what Seegson originally intended the area to be, along with the under-used facility it eventually became.

The story of the game is you – as Amanda – being hunted through the station but if we’ve done our job right, you’ll have an idea of where you are, what was intended for that facility and what actually happened there as Sevastopol declined – and, depending on the area, when the Alien showed up too. Even something as basic the names for all the rooms (big shout out to Andy Oakley here, king of the sign system) are a nice prompt for the imagination.

Again, in keeping with the perceived ‘reality’ of the Alien future I did my best to lace audio and text logs with modern concerns that will likely still be a going concern next century. Health insurance is frequently mentioned over the tannoy and in advertising, questions of gun ownership and the second amendment get a nod, we have pay-day loan companies on-station, contraband goods, repossession… all that good stuff.

These are all microscopic parts of the game, but hopefully blend together to evoke a grounded and readily explicable version of the future.

Dion Lay – The very first thing was deciding that the logs should function as a secondary tier of the narrative; they should add depth to the world and characters for those players who want to explore a bit more without leaving other players in the dark about the story.

Next it was a case of taking Dan’s story, the themes of Alien, Sevastopol and its characters and seeing what interesting stories could grow out of there. We had some rough outlines and themes to begin with and these were constantly worked on and developed as the environments and design work informed them. We wanted the logs tied to particular locations but also have them intersect with each other, so I wrote out a massive timeline of Sevastopol’s history to keep track of everything and avoid contradictions.

After that it was a case of weeding out any logs that were repetitions, shifting them along the timeline and rewriting when we realised there was a way to tie them closer to another log or story point and finally working with the designers to figure out where they should be placed to make sure nothing was revealed too early. It was like doing a jigsaw where someone kept changing the pieces but ultimately a lot of fun!

AvPGalaxy – Did you ever explore the possibility of having the Derelict ship have more presence in the story of the game? If so, what kind of things were you looking at including?

Will Porter – The inclusion of the Derelict was something planned and agreed long before I turned up on the scene, so I can’t really say. I personally couldn’t imagine giving it anything extra, however, because it’s such a focal point in the Alien canon where so many timelines criss-cross (now alongside, of course, the Prometheus factor) that further exposure could easily muddy the waters. Working alongside 20th Century Fox, we were able to build into the canon with Marlow turning off the signal, which was really cool, so I think we covered it as much as we could.

Dion Lay – As Will says, it is such a focal point that I don’t think it was ever going to have more presence than it did in the final game. I was really pleased when Fox let us put the actual beacon into the level and just seeing the work that the rest of the team did on the surface and the Derelict was breathtaking.

AvPGalaxy – Was there any point in which the Alien Queen actually made a presence in the story of the game and how would that have played out?

Will Porter – No, she was always as previously described – there but unseen, for fear that the player would expect a battle. I think that, ultimately, we made the right choice. There were many meetings in which we discussed having vague hints at her presence but, to borrow a Dan Abnett phrase, it was too ‘on the nose’. She’s down there somewhere, in amongst the cacophony, but Ripley was lucky enough not to bump into her.

AvPGalaxy – The end of Alien: Isolation was left quite open ended. We know from Gary that ideas for the sequel are being talked about daily at Creative Assembly. Are there any unfinished story elements that you would like to explore in a potential sequel?

Will Porter – I was a contract writer on Alien, and I’m now back on my own game Project Zomboid. As such, sadly, there’s not much I can say on that subject I’m afraid.

Dion Lay – We haven’t got any information about sequel plans, sorry!

AvPGalaxy – Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Before we sign off, is there anything you would like to tell our readers?

Will Porter – I’d just like to use this space to thank the AvPGalaxy staff and community for being so consistently awesome. I’ve visited off and on for a long, long time – and pretty much daily during my time on the game proper. You’d be amazed by the number of conversations myself and Dion had that eventually boiled down to ‘What would everyone on the AvPGalaxy boards make of this idea/concept/problem?’. You’re a fantastic resource and clearly a great bunch, and ultimately your approval of Alien: Isolation (personally speaking) is the greatest accolade that the game could receive. [TLDR: ‘Love you lots’.]

Dion Lay – As Will says, AvP Galaxy was really helpful when we were making the game as well as interesting simply from a fan’s point of view! It’s really encouraging to see the passion for the series and the amount of work and detail people put into it and I think the major reward for the team has been the reaction to the game. We’re still sharing links on articles about it now!