I’m cowering underneath a table within some laboratory and I’m just hoping that it won’t find me.
I can hear the heavy thud of its footsteps as it stalks from one room to the other. I bring up my motion detector and do a 360 rotation under the desk. I track the single blip moving rapidly to my position and like clockwork I hear the automatic door open – my only exit from the room. The music swells to indicate the increased level of threat, stirring high pitched strings and the flat mechanical blasts of horns. I hear a hiss as it surveys the room – it hasn’t seen me yet. The creature stamps across the floor. From underneath the table, I see two black legs stride past with a deliberate reduction of pace as if it senses something. Before I have time to think what that could mean it’s quickened its pace dramatically and the two legs walk out of view leaving me to watch in horror as its tail slides along behind it. I watch as each vertebra goes past, grazing the surface of the floor with a silent whoosh. The tail seems to go on forever, but eventually it’s pointed end drags past and out of sight. I peek out after it, hoping to get a more substantial glimpse of the creature, but all I see is the tail as it disappears around the corner of the next desk down.
It is such a perfect moment straight out of a monster movie.
Games are so often considered as the sum of their smaller parts, it is the little minute to minute moments that routinely resonate with the player. There are a lot of these little things that make Alien Isolation for me, the way dust particles hang in the air under a light, the ways the computers boot up with that arcane 70s crackle, but the single element I love the most is the slide of that alien bastard’s magnificent tail across the floor. There is an undeniable spark of genius invested in its many vertebra as it slides past you, that I think speaks to the care in which Creative Assembly applied to the whole game.
Alien Isolation looks fantastic, but also deliberately crappy. It’s many computer screens and interfaces are designed with the emphasis on 70s tech. Creative Assembly were very particular about the lengths they went to bring out the analogue VHS styled elements to the visuals and audio. It is blocky and devoide of wi-fi, it’s of a different time and accents the horror of being in space, at the mercy of this technology which in itself feels so ancient and decrepit. A PlayStation 4 or high performance graphics card just doesn’t exist within this universe, though they might have a Pong arcade cabinet somewhere.
It speaks to the different kind of experience to which the game is engineered towards providing. You are for the most part, alone on this hulking industrial spaceship, the Sevastopol, which bears a number of similarities to the Nostromo. So long as you’re playing the game correctly, the creature will be constantly hunting you, organically searching through the mechanical labyrinth of corridors, rooms and vent shafts of its own accord. This isn’t an antagonist that follows patrol points like your generic enemy guards, it feels alive and always thinking. You never know what its going to do next. Your only means of survival is to evade the creature by staying quiet and remaining quiet, leading to these moments in which it passes you oblivious to your presence. Part of the appeal of seeing the tail sliding along the floor, means that you haven’t been discovered, but there is still the tension! Step out in front of the alien, or make too much noise or even linger in one place for too long and the alien will discover you and kill you. In the majority of cases, once it sees you, you are dead. You can rarely escape it.
So far in my experience of the game, there has been only one instance where I evaded the creature after it saw me. It was a long corridor, I was edging my way to the next area, and at the other end, the alien comes bounding forward. I had split seconds to sprint into the next room and hit the temporary emergency override locking the door behind me. Once this happened, I had to find a hiding space, because I could already hear the creature fumble loudly in the overhead vent shafts. I hid in a cabinet, the doors closing just as I hear the creature drop angrily from the ceiling. It sounded PISSED. And this is what Alien Isolation is, an emotionally draining but a thrillingly immersive experience. It empowers the player only from a tactical standpoint in how well you evade the creature. It requires patience and a certain level of putting yourself at risk for the reward of progress.
So again, from underneath the table, I watch the alien walk past, it’s diabolical tail drags pathetically behind it, almost inanimately, a mere two metre length of rubber affixed to the body. I’m reminded of the many making of documentaries I watched on the special edition Alien DVD and how the monster itself was played by a man in a rubber suit. In some way, the creature of Isolation feels like a man in a rubber suit. You’d think this would have a debilitating effect on the horror, in how it breaks the fourth wall and one’s sense of immersion. It speaks to the enduring spell that fiction has cast over generations since the dawn of time. We know it’s not real but there is a level of commitment we apply to our own immersion within the fiction. It is especially true of movies, particularly the older movies, it’s hard not to laugh when we see Linda Blair’s head rotate a full 360 degrees in the Exorcist or when we see the rubber shark in Jaws. Yet these movies are horror masterpieces. The concept applies doubly to the virtual computer generated environments of video games of course. We know it isn’t real, yet we go along with it, we commit to it. At least up to a point. If something defies our expectations by coming across as fake or overly computerised, the spell is suddenly broken and we’re no longer immersed, we are laughing at how remarkably crap it all looks. We are suddenly in a position to judge everything and elevate ourselves above the experience and all those still immersed within it. “This is dumb”. On occasion however, these effects can just make the experience endearing and all is forgiven.
Today monsters are usually computer generated, and although there has been a movement of late to recapture some tangible sense of movie magic with animatronics and old school set design rather than green screen. Take JJ Abram’s Star Wars Episode VII for example, they announced early on into production that the film would be going back to brick and mortar sets and utilising real world locational filming. It’s exciting to think, that somewhere out there in a sound stage stands a full scale version of the Millennium Falcon, or at least a part of it. Similarly next year’s Jurassic World proudly declared early on into filming that it would be using full size animatronic dinosaurs as was the tradition of the late great Stan Winston. Go back further and you are looking at the legendary stop motion creations of Ray Harryhausen, the puppetry of Jim Henson or the makeup of Universal’s golden age monster movies. We’ve always required that tangible sense of something, even if methods, like for instance a man in a rubber suit, ultimately become outdated looking.
Monsters have always been a reflection of the darkers aspects of the human experience, which is why I think having a man in the suit creates a tenuous link with the audience. You think back to the old B-movie tradition, of men sweating profusely in rubber suits as with the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Toho Godzilla movies. The Alien is no different in this regard, but its design is menacing.
Back in the 70s, HR Giger’s alien creature was a bold and disturbing vision of evil right from the early concept art, a bio mechanical monstrosity unlike anything that had ever been seen in film before. A creature that burst out of John Hurt’s chest onto the screen with acid for blood and a mouth within a mouth upon a lethal pneumatic skull piercing tongue. In addition you have all the troubling Freudian ideologies associated with the creatures general design and life cycle that hint at a more primal fear of sexual reproduction. It was Giger’s vision that convinced Ridley Scott to direct the film in the first place. Nothing like it had ever been seen on film.
For production, a 26 year old Nigerian design student by the name of Bolaji Bandegjo was chosen to don the alien suit due to his tall slender build. In a way, the actor was more a pivotal part to the creature’s look, since the suit was basically built around him. And anybody who’s deep into the Alien fiction understands how the parasite takes on traits of the host, there is something intrinsically human about the alien itself. Giger’s original mockup had a visible human skull behind the dome, and it’s teeth are perhaps the only distinguishable human feature on its face – arranged into an almost human smile, shining from out of the blackness, a kind of Dionysian frenzy curbed by a calculating murderousness.
Humans don’t have tails. They have appendices, a completely useless part of the human body that sometimes has to be removed because of infection. Again, as that tail passes I am reminded of a great cinematic legacy, the works of hundreds upon hundreds of people working together to scare us with special effects. I’m reminded that there is a man in the suit, that this is a pure fantasy, albeit one that is intended to scare you. I’m aware that the tail trails the floor because the creature hasn’t seen me yet. I’m completely invested in the experience.
It also reveals the alien in a way we haven’t really seen before. At least not in video games.
In the wake of the Alien series and the myriad games that have spawned from it over the last three decades, most titles have sought to opt the shooter ‘bug hunt’ route and replicate the James Cameron experience. It’s easy to see why, because Cameron’s expanded universe comes pre packaged for video game adaptation. A gruff squad of absolute badasses clad in armour and armed with pulse riles, flame throwers and SMART guns, dropping from the skies via orbital drop ships boasting superior tech and inflated egos. Cameron’s template has been emulated nigh on infinitum, with Halo being the most avid worshipper. In some ways, his 2008 film Avatar owed a lot to Halo and the cycle went full circle.
There have been some great shooters based on Aliens. Rebellion’s Alien Versus Predator offered a fast and furious whistle stop tour of the Aliens franchise. Arguably the 2002 sequel made by Monolith provided a more honed experience with a better story and structure, but in terms of speed and scares the original was hard to beat. The best ‘Aliens’ game of recent memory is Aliens Infestation for the Nintendo DS. Taking the format of a 2D metroidvania, Infestation was set in the wake of the events of Aliens before the ‘story’ of Colonial Marines. Infestation took more liberties with the fiction and had more fun with some of the concepts. The game has you control a colonial marine from a squad of four. If the marine you control dies, they are permanently dead throughout the course of your playthrough. So your progression and achievements are effectively built on the victories and failures of a growing mortuary of Colonial Marines. It did well to replicate the feeling of Aliens as the Marines were cut down one by one by a threat they initially underestimate.
In these games, the aliens are typically running towards you in full on assault mode. They move swiftly across floors, walls and ceilings to maul you. The point is to put them down before they have a change to get into close quarters where they claw and swipe at you. Their tails are typically used as weapons to whip you or impale you. There is rarely a moment to rest, you must face the onslaught under the glorious high pitched din of pulse rifle fire. Even when you play as the Alien in the Alien Versus Predator, your secondary attack is usually always its tail, which you can coil up to strike whenever you release the right mouse button.
In Alien Isolation by comparison, it’s different to just see the alien walk around the environment, inhabiting the space of its own volition, observing everything as you observe it. It is as much an alien to its surroundings as it is as a creature to Ripley. Again, its influenced highly by the source material from Alien, where the creature was slowly introduced to the audience. Everyone remembers the way those opening titles slowly morphed out of the cold uncaring depths of space to spell Alien, the same sort of process was applied to the reveal of the creature. The creature never ran in Alien or showed any sign of athleticism like it did in most of its sequels, it was simply there at the worst possible moment, its presence lingering throughout the second half of the movie. The nemesis to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley.
Alien Isolation has generally been very well received though it has been divisive among players. One of the main aspects of criticism has been that the game is too long and becomes unnecessarily difficult in places as far as the alien encounters go. Some have seen the alien’s behaviour as too random, with the main course of action always being slowly creeping towards your objective whilst intermittently hiding in lockers and whatever hiding places are available when the creature gets near.
I have died countless of times before the alien, but I don’t think I would have it any other way. It’s not supposed to be your average video game antagonist, it is the perfect organism. As Mother calculates in Alien our survival chances are 0%, it’s not supposed to be easy, if it was, it would lessen the experience. I think that’s the ultimate thing about the game, it’s less of a game you approach to beat, it’s a game in which you are supposed to brave and immerse yourself within. Isolation reinstates the Alien as the definitive monster after years of over saturation. The game is an experience more than anything.
When Alien Isolation was first announced I wrote a piece on my old blogspot about my feelings towards the announcement following Colonial Marines. In hindsight, it’s nice to feel good about the Alien franchise again.