Alien: Isolation‘s reveal in early January pricked a lot of ears and crossed a lot of fingers. To create a game that uses Ridley Scott’s masterpiece as its central font of inspiration, featuring a story parked in the grey zone between Alien and Aliens, and a focus on lo-fi aesthetics and survival horror gameplay over hi-octane gunplay, it all seems like a free shot at an empty net – but then again so did Colonial Marines. With fans understandingly cautious, developer Creative Assembly have been keen to show off their game and, more importantly, actually let people play and experience it first hand.
The reactions from industry journalists (and AvPGalaxy’s own Corporal Hicks and Dachande) have been universally in favour of Creative Assembly’s work so far, but many fans still remain reserved and, after the humiliation of Colonial Marines, perhaps rightfully so. The devs behind Alien Isolation certainly seem to acknowledge and understand this difficulty, and are certainly rising to the challenge of satisfying a beleaguered and suspicious fanbase.
On February 12 at the Ray Dolby Theatre in Soho, London, Alien: Isolation‘s design lead Clive Lindop, lead UI artist Jon McKellan, and lead game designer Gary Napper stood up before an assembly of forty to fifty fans to give them a behind the scenes look at their game. I travelled nearly five hundred miles from my home in Scotland to London on an overnight bus to attend. The presentation itself was mostly a reiteration of everything they said at the time of the game’s reveal. It wasn’t particularly revealing in terms of showing us anything new, but it did delineate further the game’s design ethos and the intentions of the developers.
Central to this is Alien’s ‘used universe’ aesthetic. Creative Assembly studied the film’s production details (loaned to them by Twentieth Century Fox in a three terabyte package) meticulously. They looked at blueprints and continuity photographs and reams of concept art. Then they duplicated the style of the film’s artists in order to create environments that looked as though they belonged within (and subsequently leapt from) Alien itself. They did likewise with the score, re-recording and supplementing it in the process. Now, borrowing the film’s visuals and audio is double-edged.
The game can mimic Scott’s film down to the nuts and bolts holding the spaceships and stations together, but can it surprise players who know Jerry Goldsmith’s every cue? Can it frighten fans with a creature that they frequently visit in their fan-art and fiction, never mind their nightmares? To their credit Creative Assembly are well aware of the benefits and limitations that mimicking Alien can bring, and they made a point to stress that they don’t want players interpreting the musical cues to divine when the Alien will attack, and they hope to create situations where the last thing the player wishes to do is stand up and scrutinise the Alien’s design (but if you can, please do. It’s almost meticulous and very encouraging to behold).
Regarding the titular monster, the team wanted to bring Giger’s Alien back into the mix, at least in terms of its biomechanical design and single-mindedness. Giger’s Alien, they pointed out, was the most honest character in the film. Where the Nostromo’s crew members bickered and struggled and jockeyed amongst themselves, the Alien’s goal was never in doubt. Every encounter with it resulted in death. Creative Assembly want to bring that purity of purpose back to a series which has lately treated its namesake as a crawling bullet-sponge.
The real interesting part was seeing and hearing the game over a top-of-the-line sound system (Dolby Atmos, if I recall). Amanda Ripley’s ragged breath enveloped the room. The station’s klaxons and various other alarms overwhelmed. The Alien’s footsteps boomed. The gameplay footage consisted of Ripley Jnr babystepping through the corridors and labs aboard Sevastopol. Now and then she would inspect a fuzzy-screened motion tracker (design-wise it’s somewhere between Ash’s jerrybuilt contraption and the Colonial Marines’ militaristic hardware). The HUD is unobtrusive, the health bar is small and consigned to the lowest left corner of the screen.
The motion tracker, when raised, dominates the screen. The environment blurs when you inspect the device, limiting your field of vision. This way, using the motion tracker will have tactical elements and risks that don’t exist when a HUD is pasted to your screen. Registering the exact location or pathway of a blip on the tracker turns out to be a matter of interpretation – the tracker isn’t entirely helpful, but it’s probably one of the best tools you’ve got. Creative Assembly again stressed that the tracker’s usefulness (or lack thereof) has an analog in Alien, namely the scene where Dallas is in the vents. That feeling of being backed into an insurmountable situation is what Creative Assembly are hoping to replicate in your various encounters with the Alien. When the creature does appear Ripley suddenly shrivels behind cover. You can only glimpse the Alien as it feels you out (in addition to giving the Alien visual and auditory senses, Creative Assembly imbued it with a sixth sense that seems to narrow down your location, at least when in proximity to the creature).
Getting discovered is always fatal. The Alien lets out a frightening roar (an original sound which I approve of) and its footfalls turn into a rapid drumming. It’s amazing to see how disorientating the gameplay suddenly becomes in these moments – the camera jerks back and forth as Ripley runs, her panicked breaths become sharper and sharper and the killing blow is instant and decisive. We were treated to a few impalings, with the Alien’s tail bursting through Ripley’s guts. Another kill saw the Alien snake around Ripley’s body and leer in her dying vision. The response to the footage was a series of smiles and approving nods in the audience and a few screams from my fiance, who I had brought along.
We were short of time when it came to the Q&A (technical difficulties spun it out for a while, so there wasn’t much time at the end, we were politely interrupted and told we’d have to hurry). The questions included discussions on how Creative Assembly plan on making an intense ten-twelve hour game that doesn’t become redundant in terms of scares and tension after the first few hours. We were assured that there would be lulls in tension and that the game features a cast of characters with their own motivations, selfish or otherwise. That way the game does not revolve exclusively on the Alien. The balance will be difficult, they admit, but they’re also confident that they can crack it. They are also hoping to forge a relationship between Amanda/the player and the Alien. Essentially, the player and the A.I. are in a situation where they will have to learn from the actions of the other. Online multiplayer games were cited for their degree of unpredictability when facing another opponent who is a living, thinking being at the end of an internet connection.
The issue of canonicity was also addressed, and Creative Assembly deftly explained that there are two modes of thought concerning canon: the one you’re told to abide to by official merchandising and other such materials and authorities, and one you create for yourself. Creative Assembly have no plan to ram Alien: Isolation into any official continuity. If the fans wish to do so, then all the better. If not, then their game will still hopefully exist as a viable entry in its own right.
I did ask, and I remember the exact question because I rehearsed it in my head so I could enunciate clearly (thick accent here): “The original Alien had a great idea: that if you could hurt the creature then to do so would be to your detriment, due to the acid blood. I’ve never seen any of the games really capitalise on this. Can you talk about your approach to it?”
Garry Napper answered: “Spoilers! … we can’t really comment.” But he did add that the acid blood will play a part, but an undisclosed one for now (speculation: will we get to injure the Alien in environmental traps as a throwback to Alien’s unfilmed airlock scene?)
The presentation concluded and we all filed into the lobby where there were drinks and snacks. Earlier, when Jon McKellan was talking in the presentation, my partner had leaned over and asked me, “Is he Scottish?” So afterwards in the foyer we jumped and interrogated him on the matter. He was quite pleased to hear another Scottish accent and we spoke for a while before he introduced us to Garry Napper, who was likewise pleased that we were from Scotland (they were either Scotophiles or impressed by the miles we had crossed).
Garry asked if there was anything I wanted to ask about the game that I hadn’t the opportunity to ask during the Q&A. We had literally one minute until we had to dash for a cab and get our bus home or we’d be stranded in London. My brain was stupefied, but I remembered folk speculating about cocoons and egg-morphing since the game was riffing so directly from Alien. Garry did not specifically rule out cocoons (that I can recall) but we did talk about egg morphing not being in the original movie; there seemed to be a concern that its inclusion would only please a small core of fans whilst possibly estranging many other players unfamiliar with the deleted content. I actually agreed. I thought egg morphing would be muddying the waters at this stage (apologies to fans of the scene), and I had a general feeling that the game wouldn’t focus on the life-cycle at all (no facehuggers or chestbursters, we are told).
Before we dashed Garry did mention (unprompted) that they tried to give the Alien human legs, like the suit. Unfortunately it looked incredibly silly when it ran for you (he did a pretty funny impression). I told him that when it came down to it purism wouldn’t do their game any favours in this matter, since the Alien they had created moved so convincingly and Giger’s suit, the original filmmakers testified, looked quite ridiculous when overexposed in such a way. I have to say that when Creative Assembly’s creature appears in the game the last thing you want to do is scrutinise it. You hide. You only glimpse it. When it runs after you the player suddenly seems disorientated (the sound of its approach is difficult to pinpoint in these slices of panic). Its scream is terrifying, its footsteps, like I said, they pound the floor. It feels heavy and fast and deadly. Moaning about leg fidelity, to me, seemed like a non-issue after all that.
Talking to the developers afterwards was certainly the best part of the night, it’s a shame we were stumped for time. It turns out that Jon McKellan and I share a mutual friend; he formerly worked with a a dear old school pal of mine in a game studio a half-mile from my house. It was a funny coincidence. You hear that joke about everyone in Scotland or Ireland knowing one another? It was like that. Very odd and funny. We shook hands with the devs and left. We had a battle of dialects with a Cockney cabbie and made our overnight bus back home. On the way my fiance said, quite revealingly, “It’s going to be great, but I won’t play it. It looks too scary. I’ll watch from behind you instead.”