Alien: Isolation

by Richard Watson

Alien: Isolation
February 26, 2020 Richard Watson

The perfect organism finally got its perfect game.

It is undoubtedly the best game based on the Alien franchise, and will likely rank among the greatest horror games of all time. It is true to the cinematic essence of the 1979 film in a way that no other game (or film, for that matter) has been — but it also breaks ground in game design. We revisit an unexpectedly special title, five years on.

The legacy of games based on film franchises is not a proud one. With few exceptions, adaptations in this direction have seemed hard to pull off — not least for the Alien franchise, which for years has been the vehicle for formulaic first-person shooter games. 

Then in 2014, Alien: Isolation came out. Unlike previous Alien games, this was the first that seemed inspired by the original title in terms of its theme and aesthetics. Many games have emulated the conflict between humans and aliens as envisioned by James Cameron in the sequel, Aliens (1986), but none had attempted to translate the visceral fear of being alone and being hunted by such an implacable creature.

Developed by Creative Assembly, a developer better known for their strategy game series Total War, Alien: Isolation is primarily based around stealth and survival gameplay rather than gun-toting action. It is set fifteen years after the original Alien, and the protagonist is none other than Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. While a survival horror stealth game isn’t Creative Assembly’s usual fare, it earned several industry awards in 2014, including PC Gamer’s Game of the Year.

The xenomorph in Alien: Isolation is what it should be. What it’s meant it to be. What it has wanted to be again since the original release: terrifying. Few horror games actually instil the fight-or-flight response when the threat presents itself. Amnesia: The Dark Descent managed it. 2008’s Dead Space and the Silent Hill series also stand out. But Isolation was the first that managed it with a film franchise that had terrified its audience in a similar way. This is a game that makes you feel powerless: the human may be Earth’s apex predator, but Isolation makes you feel like a failure of evolution.

Too many horror games give you something. Some glimmer of hope or an ability to fight back. Anyone familiar with Amnesia will understand feeling defenceless in the face of a horrifying creature. Isolation does give you weapons to work with, but you’ll find that a gunshot is a particularly dangerous choice. Loud noises are a sure way to attract the xenomorph; and at best, a well-aimed bullet will only stun it briefly. This is clearly communicated by the game. Should you have to use a gun against humans or androids, or perhaps a charging facehugger, there are consequences. If you do find yourself face-to-face with the xenomorph itself, you can drive it away into the ventilation system with a flamethrower burst, eating precious fuel but buying you a lifeline.

The terror isn’t only in the moments in which the alien is breathing down your neck or walking past your locker, though. Even when you’re ‘safe’, you know it’s there. While you’re fighting Sevastopol Station’s various other threats — killer androids or terrified survivors — the alien stalks you, and reminds you it’s still about. 

There is an element to the xenomorph as an antagonist that few games have replicated: intelligence. I don’t mean a higher stat than your character — I mean in the sense that it quite literally learns. Amnesias grunts and brutes were ‘on rails’ and became predictable. Isolation’s xenomorph, in contrast, studies you. It learns about you — how you hide, your methods of escape. Come to rely on a particular tactic and you’ll soon find it ineffective. Sure, you can hide in an air vent or locker, or waste some flamethrower fuel to buy yourself an escape route — but don’t spend your options too fast, or you’ll find they run out. 

This is a contrast to many games this decade, in which an enemy may hit punishingly hard, but has defined patterns of behaviour the player can learn. Many combat games require you to study the attack patterns of an enemy, usually by trial and error. The xenomorph isn’t like that. You can’t beat it, and you can’t learn it. In addition, constantly-changing behaviour gives the impression of much greater complexity than most computer-controlled opponents in video games are capable of.

This behaviour destabilises the player, in the same way a horror film fan is left uncertain by Halloween’s Michael Myers’ ability to appear from the shadows when you least expect it, or get back up when you think he’s dead. 

In some ways, this part of the game doesn’t feel fair. This is a creature that is better than you in every single way. Feeling totally outmatched is the entire point, and Isolation pulls this off beautifully (aside from the occasional bug in the AI — more on that shortly). It’s one of the few games that makes the computer you’re playing against feel like something more than a collection of rules. It’s unnerving — to the extent that I wouldn’t really be surprised if it turned out everyone playing the game was actually playing against a human over at Creative Assembly controlling the alien.

In short: it’s immersive. You never see or feel the puppet’s strings move, so it doesn’t seem like a puppet. I had never before, and never since, actually felt like a part of the franchise in which a game is set. You sometimes forget that you’re not Amanda Ripley.

There aren’t a huge variety of other enemies, but their behaviours and locations will keep you alert. Working Joe androids will sometimes let you pass without trouble, and sometimes they’ll try to strangle the life out of you. Facehuggers must be taken out before they can get a grip — often requiring a gunshot (a risk in itself). Aggressive or territorial human survivors will sometimes need to be cleared from the path. All the while, the xenomorph is watching. 

The game doesn’t try to make you feel special either. The alien doesn’t have some sort of vendetta against you, like the recurring enemy in Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. You are simply another target. So, in addition to being the game’s main attraction, it is an environmental element — one that can even be exploited to your advantage. Should you be able to attract it to other hazards such as survivors, you may be able to entice it to clear the way. This, of course, is a calculated risk; your plans can backfire, sometimes with fatal consequences.

As excellent as the xenomorph is in the game, it takes far more than that to create the ensemble that Isolation achieves. Sevastopol’s design is exquisite and holds faithful to the atmosphere of the original film, set for the most part on the mining ship Nostromo. The station is clearly designed not only to lend itself to gameplay — with well-placed hiding spots and carefully-designed corridor systems — but also captures the aesthetic that the franchise is famous for. The ‘cassette-futurism’ of the computer terminals, the lighting, and the design of the whole station instantly transports you back to the first time you watched Alien. The save points are emergency phones on the wall that wouldn’t look out of place on the 1979 film set.

On the topic of save points, even the very nature of progression in the game was chosen carefully. In many games you can tap (usually F5 and F9) to quick-save or quick-load your game. No monster has power over the player’s ability to suspend reality. This kind of functionality would have felt jarring and out of place in Isolation. Instead, the save points are located within the station, similarly to Dead Space. This makes them feel valuable and rewarding and, at times, piles on the pressure in a tense situation. When the alien is sniffing you out and it’s been a long time since you last saw an emergency phone, you sometimes forget that this is only a game. While Skyrim players can quick-save before trying various dimly-informed methods of taking on a snow troll, or Kerbal Space Program players can try that aerobraking manoeuvre a dozen times or more, in Isolation you must be careful — lest your progress be snatched due to your mistakes.

Sadly, there are a number of points that let Isolation down. These are not, for the most part, design missteps; rather they’re bugs that jarringly interrupt gameplay. While travelling with Axel (a resident of Sevastopol who accompanies the player for a while) he more than once got stuck in his ‘hide’ AI stance, making advancement impossible. As for the xenomorph itself, it’s hard to tell which elements of its AI are intentional. The motion detector — an invaluable tool for keeping track of it — seemed to not only misreport its location sometimes, but also clearly showed the xenomorph spawning or despawning on more than one occasion. Of course, some of this may be intentional; faulty equipment would be an excellent gameplay element. But given there’s an entire section of the game where the detector fails, the implication is that these readouts are correct. These glimpses behind the game’s curtain can be a little immersion-breaking when the illusion is so perfectly maintained elsewhere.

But while Alien: Isolation’s execution isn’t flawless, it’s pretty damn good. It has redefined how enemies can behave in video games, and it’s also a faithful homage to the original film — not just in theme and aesthetic, but more importantly in scope and pace. Creative Assembly understood the cinematic DNA that made Ridley Scott’s 1979 film great, and made a game out of it.