In February of 2014, AvPGalaxy was invited to Creative Assembly Studios in Horsham, England. Dachande and Corporal Hicks attended to get their hands on the demonstration of Alien: Isolation, have a tour around the studios and to conduct an interview with two members of the development team: Al Hope and Jon McKellan.
Below you will find the audio of that interview and a transcription. This interview was contributed to by the community of AvPGalaxy.net. Also see our hands-on preview and impression of the studio tour.
Al Hope: I’m Al Hope, I’m creative lead for Alien: Isolation
Jon McKellan – And I’m Jon McKellan and I’m the UI lead.
Corporal Hicks: I’m going to try not to repeat what you’ve been asked before. We wanted to talk about the origin and the evolution of Alien: Isolation – it’s been one of Britain’s worst kept gaming secrets with one of the Ministers of something revealing it on Twitter.
Al Hope: Minister of Culture. Kind of what was interesting was I was showing him around when we were doing the game. It was very early on and it was cool because he recognized it was Alien without us telling him what it was. Which was great, great for a MP to recognize the content but then I vividly remember saying to him “of course you can’t tell anyone about this, it’s a secret” so he said “I can’t tweet about it?” But then he got on the train and told everyone. I guess he alluded to what we were doing.
Corporal Hicks: Some of the early leaks and indications we got of the game showed it as third person. That’s obviously changed now to first person. Why did you go for the 3rd person approach first?
Al Hope: Yeah, when we first put together our short technical demo, that was in first person. Then for various reasons we tried the game out in third person and not least because to some extent survival horror possibly at the time was kind of kept in this kind of narrow box that had a certain set of criteria.
Corporal Hicks: Dead Space and Resident Evil were all third person?
Al Hope: Yeah, and the big franchises were in third person and there was a kind of a thought that perhaps third person would be the best experience. It was kind of interesting because we worked on the game in third person knowing what it was like in first person because we had done the demo in first person and then over the course of development, I was getting people cornering me saying “Al, have you checked the game out in first person, this is amazing, you wanna see it“. So what people had been doing was hacking – people on the dev team – hacking the camera to effectively be on the nose of the main character and then walking around and I think it was kind of a real reminder with what we initially started with which was a first person direct experience and seeing our game kind of elevated by going first person.
I think it would have been a good game in third person but first person… It suddenly became something completely different. You suddenly had this one to one interaction with the world and the alien and it was no longer hunting the character; it was hunting you. And it wasn’t the character looking over or picking around objects; it was you and it was a very direct, very visceral, very intense experience and I think that’s what it seemed like. It just confirmed what we initially thought when we started this which was this experience these encounters and this world, you need to experience first-hand and actually you need to be doing it yourself.
Corporal Hicks: This one is a bit of a hot potato for the fandom – where does the story stand in regards to canon?
Al Hope: The game is very much inspired by the first film and we wanted to capitalise on everything we loved about the first film. From the look and feel of the world through to the type of alien that we were going to try and put on screen and to do that, we needed a story which went into position right after the first glimpse of the Nostromo blows up and whatever we were going to do was going to take place within that space right next Alien and as far away from Aliens as possible in a way just so that we could take advantage of that original source material.
I think that’s kind of where this has come from. It felt like there was a character there who hadn’t really been put in the spotlight – Amanda Ripley.I think it’s just putting all those elements together.
I think, across all universes… not at least this one, I think the fans in the community ultimately decide what they feel is canon and so, I think for us, our inspiration is that original film and that’s where we’re coming from.
Corporal Hicks: People have been wondering why Amanda Ripley. What are you hoping to achieve with her?
Al Hope: We wanted to position our story and our world next to Alien and I think we explored a number of different stories but we kept on coming back to that question when the Nostromo went missing, really who would care enough, who would really want to find out what happened to it? Weyland-Yutani would obviously care. They say in the second film that it certainly has a value to them, a commercial value to them but who would care? And I think it was just knowing that Ellen Ripley had a daughter who hadn’t really surfaced at all. She would have probably cared, she would want to find out, she would want to know. But to what extent would she want, what lengths would she go to find out? It just felt that there was this incredible opportunity to just take up her story and see where it lead.
We wanted to take advantage of all the original source material but we also wanted an emotional connection to that first film, that it wasn’t just some guy from a company somewhere was investigating. We felt like that she was much more of a personal story, much more of an emotional connection if it was Amanda and we just kept coming back to that initial question and it felt like in Amanda is a very compelling character.
Jon McKellan: I think if we had gone down the route of it being a Weyland-Yutani exec they wouldn’t have the emotional reason to keep going through the scenarios. If it was just part of your job to find this thing and all hell breaks loose you can’t just go, “well … I’ll just step back” and not have the drive to go forward but being Amanda, she would have the drive to, she’s there for a reason, not just to fight the fight. She’s there to find out what happened. It matters to her so it gives a lot more weight to it.
Dachande: In the game are there any links to Prometheus such as Weyland Industry or is it pretty much separate from that?
Al Hope: It’s separate. We’ve been working on this game for quite a long time prior to anyone knowing anything about Prometheus. We really stayed very close to the first film, not really looking at any of the others in the series. So, we’ve kind of isolated – that was terrible! *laughs* – from all the other films in many ways.
Corporal Hicks: One of the interesting design choices seems to have been the androids, they seem faceless. That’s what we’ve seen in some of the press previews commenting that they’ve not been given many features. Is that right?
Al Hope: They have features. So another new element to the world of Sevastapol, the station that the game takes place on is Seegson, a kind of rival company to Weyland-Yutani and they have created their own type of android and they’re the android you see in the game. Ash is, at that moment, the pinnacle of android technology where Seegson are way behind and what you see is their best attempt at android technology. So they are lower scale and lower spec than Ash. They are something very different so they’re not a one for one reproduction of Ash.
Corporal Hicks: Now for the question. I’m sure you were expecting it. The legs… because everybody wanted it asked. With places like us, as fans, we are going to nit-pick and so far the only thing that seems to have really made people ask “why” is the legs?
Al Hope: So this is really interesting because we had that conversation over many months as we actually prototyped almost every type of leg imaginable. We initially did go “right, okay, we’re making a game based on Alien so it’s going to be the original alien and we’re going to recreate that“. What we found out very early on was that it looked like what it is which is a man in a rubber suit.
It was so beautifully shot and absolutely immaculately edited in that first film. You don’t actually see very much and what you perceive is really really powerful but when you look at the first alien, full-length, it is a guy in a suit because it was a guy in a suit and so our first alien was that and it was fine but it just did look like a man. It looked humanoid to the point that if he was running at you, it would look like a guy running.
We needed the creature to be very fluid in its movement, very capable in its movement and able to manoeuvre over objects and the world very rapidly and very seamlessly. When we tried with the humanoid legs, it looked like a guy doing parkour. It was a guy crawling over a space whereas the power of the alien is this otherness, this mystery. It’s quite an unpleasant quality to it that we weren’t getting with the straight reproduction of that first alien.
Jon McKellan: We’ve got to do things you haven’t seen in the film – like go in and out a vent – you don’t see the alien doing that. We’ve got to see that. The player might be able to glimpse that happening and we’ve got this humanoid sort of thing, jumping up to a vent and pulling himself in. It just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right and having the configuration we’ve got now frees us up in terms of animation and style. Having to drop out of a vent and landing on the floor looks very different when it’s a humanoid doing that compared to what we’ve got now. It’s given us some freedom to really play around with how we can move and do some really nice stuff that way.
Al Hope: Our intention from the start was we create that first alien but it just became a massive distraction. You weren’t thinking that’s an alien, you’re thinking that’s a guy and so it’s a compromise that we thought we’d done it for the right reasons.
Corporal Hicks: So earlier on the tour, you spoke about using only technology that had been available at the time the film was made so you’re building this new game, this new world and new corporations in the future. How did that limitation affect you when you were designing and building?
Jon McKellan: It’s been a really interesting process for me and for the team just trying to steer in a different direction from the route you would normally go. Like I said in the tour – Something like the hacking game. Any other sci-fi game would do some crazy, 3d holographic interface that you would connect to your brain or something. Something really extravagant and a lot of films, they make interfaces a lot more complex than they actually should be and some people who are in the know look at it and think “that’s silly“.
It would never work like that but the whole purpose of it is to look more complicated so that the users think they’re going to cover those characters. We’ve got the thing where we’re going to have a simple time where technology was much simpler and try to play with that complication, play on the simplicity. What the most primitive hand tool would look like?How do you hack something? The concept of hacking wasn’t really a thing back then. Trying to introduce that is actually really difficult but it’s allowed us – especially the 1979 cut off point – allowed us to explore areas we wouldn’t have normally looked at in the past.
The war radios, the first ever portable TV prototypes… and even just down to the blockiness and the bold colours of the actual screen interfaces that you’re getting and you don’t have 60 million colours to play with, you’ve got 6 and there’s nothing and what does that do the UI? What does that do to messaging? How do you use that? It’s a real limitation but in another sense, it totally frees you in a different direction that you wouldn’t normally get to.
Al Hope: It’s really good. We’re dealing with the future but it’s absolutely baked in the past so it starts to melt your brain as you start to think about what. We obviously need to expand the world and the universe because we need to create spaces that felt like Alien that weren’t in the film. But where do you draw your reference from? If you don’t have any rules, then it’s really challenging. So actually putting in that kind of hard stock on any of the technology or any reference after 1979, it was actually really liberating.
Dachande: You’ve obviously got the main alien there. Is there going to be any other forms of the life cycle like facehuggers or eggs or will it just be the main alien?
Al Hope: I think what we were trying to achieve when we started was really what’s it like to encounter Ridley Scott’s Alien. Something that was really imposing and massive and really terrifies the player. I think that was the main focus and push for what we were trying to create because it felt like games in the past had always focussed on the aliens that James Cameron had. The many or the one against the horde of aliens. It felt like this was a opportunity to do something completely different and it really felt like there had to be an alternative interaction for the player instead of just being at the end of your pulse rifle and what would that be like.
Before we had anything on screen, I remember talking to the guys saying, “we’ve got Ridley Scott’s alien in the studio, what are you going to do?” And they said, “crouch beneath my desk and I’m going to stay quiet and make sure he can’t see me“. Okay right, “you need to get to the fire exit, it’s over there, how are you going to do that?” “Watch where he goes and I’m going to try and move…” and you know, it was that kind of initial seed of an idea, it felt like we’ve got something, that single encounter, it could be really special and different and a new experience.
Corporal Hicks: So the main focus is on Big Chap then?
Al Hope: Yeah.
Corporal Hicks: Will we see egg morphing at all? The scene from the director’s cut where they find Dallas all gooed up. Is there anything quite like that?
Al Hope: I don’t think we’re really talking about the wider game too much today…