Surviving Horror – Alien Isolation: You Have My Sympathies

survivinghorror

Surviving Horror is a periodical series about my favourite video game genre, survival horror. With it, I hope to explore how the genre got its start, how it effectively manages to scare us as players, and how it has evolved in term of mechanics, themes, and storytelling over the years.

All in all, the Alien franchise is around 532 minutes, or close to nine hours. Even adding in the deplorable AVP films and the beautiful but flawed  Prometheus and it clocks in at fourteen and a half hours.

At twenty hours, Amanda Ripley’s story of survival in Alien Isolation is a damn long one.

Up front, I am going to go ahead and recommend that you play Alien Isolation for yourself. It’s an intense, stressful, often scary game that does both itself and the source material proud, and while it can be a little overlong or frustrating at points, I ultimately found it to be a very rewarding experience.

As ever, there will be spoilers below the box art, up to and including the game’s ending. Consider yourself warned.

1 box art

It’s no secret that, until now, video games based on the Alien franchise have borrowed most heavily from James Cameron’s second franchise entry Aliens. And it’s certainly not hard to see why. With its squad of marines and Vietnam-like overtones, it seems the most ripe for adaptation into a medium that concerns itself more with minute to minute action to convey story than any other.

That is, until Alien Isolation. The recent resurgence in horror games was bound to be noticed by a triple A studio eventually, and Creative Assembly is first out of the gate with a game that takes nearly all its cues from Ridley Scott’s original terrifying classic.

Alien: Isolation™_20141011001447The story is that of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley who was first introduced in a scene in the special edition of Aliens. Fifteen years after the disappearance of the Nostromo, Amanda gets a call from Weyland Yutani, stating that the ship’s black box recorder has been found, and is currently being held on a space station in the area called Sevastopol. Upon arriving at Sevastopol, Amanda discovers that not only has the station fallen into misfortune, along with its patron company Seegson, there is also a familiar alien creature aboard, killing anyone left behind.

Alien has always been a thematically rich series. The first film has themes of workers’ rights, and how they are considered unimportant by the company the Nostromo crew works for. Aliens is about motherhood, with the final battle really coming down to two mothers fighting to protect their children (Ripley protecting Newt, the Alien Queen protecting her nest).

With that in mind, the key theme of Alien Isolation is that of abandonment. In the fifteen years since the first film, Amanda has worked in the Zeta II Reticuli region of space, waiting for any sign from her wayward mother. And along similar thematic lines, when she arrives at Sevastopol, most of the people already left in the wake of Seegson’s financial issues. In many ways, the early chapters of Isolation are reminiscent of the start of Bioshock with the world feeling very lived in, but eerily left abandoned and falling to ruin.

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As prevalent as the alien (or ‘creature’ as it is referred to throughout) is in the story, the backbone of this game is the environment itself. Lovingly crafted, each area distinguishes itself well, while maintaining a consistent aesthetic throughout. The station itself is also very well laid out, allowing for backtracking in an almost Metroidvania style, to collect any missed blueprints, or even to return to some areas for new objectives later in the game.

Sevastopol feels like a lived in space, rather than a separate set of levels, joining modern iconic gaming locations such as Rapture from 2007’s Bioshock, Butcher Bay from 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, the titular asylum from 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, and the USG Ishimura from 2008’s Dead Space. Every rusted corridor is evocative of imagery from the first Alien film, with air ducts hissing steam around every corner. There are constant places for the creature to drop down from to claim an unsuspecting victim, and though the first 90 minutes or so are monster free, it didn’t feel like long until I was unceremoniously introduced to the game’s titular antagonist, and true star of the show, the alien itself.

5 alien

The first time the alien showed up in gameplay, it was a harrowing experience. I had just gotten done sneaking around a group of armed and hostile humans, making my way towards my goal of reaching a security room when down it came, slithering out of a ceiling vent and through the door, back towards my next objective.

I’ll be honest, my first instinct was to not leave the room. But I quickly learned to my dismay that this is not a viable tactic. Staying in one place too long meant the creature found me. Moving too fast meant the creature found me. I know logically it was a construction of logic loops designed to appear random, but damn, it felt like I was being hunted by an actual living thing.

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For as long as the game is, it actually did a remarkable job with keeping up the tension. My initial worries that the actual horror of it would wear off did come to pass, but being stalked throughout the various hallways of Sevastopol was always an intense experience, to the point where even putting the disc in the PS4 was enough to raise my heart rate slightly.

There is a point later in the game, after chapter 11, where the alien that had stalked me so relentlessly was dispatched. With the assistance of a trap set by Waits, the station’s Colonial Marshal, I completed my objective to jettison a part of the station into the nearby sun, with the alien (and almost Amanda) along with it. Of course, even with the alien gone, there was no real downtime to be had, as the game shifted focus towards its other prime antagonist, the Working Joes.

7 working joe

It wouldn’t be an Alien game without some android induced paranoia, and that’s where the Working Joes truly shine. They look like crash test dummies with glowing eyes and fake rubber skin pulled over an endoskeleton. Where the alien is a familiar sort of terrifying, the Working Joes are something new. By comparison to Weyland-Yutani’s almost human robots, these are cheap and disposable, but also relentless and very hard to kill.

The whole Seegson Corporation is perhaps my favourite aspect of Alien Isolation. The team could have rested on their laurels and made Weyland-Yutani the company behind Sevastopol (and a late game twist does reveal they purchased the station upon learning of the alien on board), but the introduction of Seegson as a low rent and desperate equivalent  to WY is an interesting and valuable addition to Alien canon.

I will also note that these chapters focusing on the Working Joes as the main threat provided one of my favourite visuals from the game, and a nice homage to Ash in the original film:

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But of course, you can’t have an Alien game without the titular aliens, and when they did come back, they did so in style. Chapter 14 introduced the reactor area of Sevastopol, and within it, the alien hive.

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This point was an interesting one to me as it kicked up the intensity a notch, and was the closest the game came to being a full blown action game. For one thing, I was suddenly dealing with multiple aliens rather than just the one. Not to mention facehuggers making their first appearance in the game, complete with an instant death animation.

I tried several times to play the hive level cautiously, and found myself punished with a quick death every time. Really, the only way to play it was to keep moving, blasting everything in sight with the flamethrower, and hoping for the best.

While it was a change in pace to empower the player in such a way, it was one I felt the game earned over the prior 15 hours or so, and felt perfectly suited to the one level that took some of its iconography from James Cameron’s Aliens. It wasn’t quite my favourite point in the game (more on that later in the scariest moment section) but it was a definite highlight.

10 reactor core

Admittedly, as the story goes, it does drag a little towards the finish line. I didn’t mind some of the backtracking through earlier game sections with a new objective in mind. In fact, I found that added to the station’s realism a little. But as a story, it did reach a point where I was rolling my eyes at false climax after false climax.

The first two I’ve already mentioned. The first came in chapter 11, when I blew the first alien into the sun, along with a chunk of the station. The second was the end of chapter 14, when I overloaded the reactor and torched the alien nest. Then there was the beautifully intense chapter 18.

It goes all out, with an objective to help the Torrens (the ship Amanda arrived in) dock with the station for a pick up. In the course of it, Amanda is dragged into a secondary nest located in Sevastopol’s transit system. It’s a mad dash out of there, dodging two aliens, numerous facehuggers, and fast moving trains, all building up to a final scene where Amanda, cornered by no less than five aliens while on a spacewalk, uses an explosive bolt to blast them all into space while Sevastopol tears itself apart as it hurtles towards the planet surface.

11 ending

It was all good, and again felt earned after so much sneaking about. But the developers just couldn’t resist tacking on a weird coda and cliffhanger, where Amanda is left drifting in space after being attacked by a final alien on the Torrens.

The real problem is that thanks to the source material, we know she survives. We know she gets back to earth, marries a man with the surname McLaren, and dies before her mother is found drifting in the Narcissus. It felt a little cynical, almost like there was some sort of mandate to leave it totally open ended so there’s room for a sequel.

And don’t get me wrong, I hope there is one. I would absolutely play another 20 hours of Alien Isolation. I just wish they hadn’t jeopardised their own story in an attempt to convince me I need it.

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In many ways, Alien Isolation was a game that went against all my expectations. Having played several of these new wave of first person horror games now, I expected a triple-A version of that, but it’s not quite what I got. It has the invincible main enemy, the first person perspective, and the hiding in lockers, but that was pretty much where similarities ended.

For one thing, it brought back the survival horror mainstay of resource conservation, something I found sorely lacking in games like Outlast. Everything, including med kits and noise makers to distract enemies, are built using objects found in the environment. Components were rare, and I often found myself frantically trying to scrape together the resources for a molotov cocktail that would cause the alien to flee and give me a precious minute or so of breathing space.

Then, of course, the game also features combat. There aren’t many weapons to choose from, and even less ammunition to find in the environment for them. At any one time, I had maybe ten bullets for my revolver if I was lucky. But then there is the other problem; combat attracts the alien, making stealth the far more viable option. It reminded me of some of the older Silent Hill games, where I was often making the choice between fighting enemies or just trying to run around and escape them, only updated for a more modern experience.

This blending of distinct modern and classic design elements worked for me in a way I never expected, especially after I felt underwhelmed by the EGX demo. This is the first of the modern lot of games that felt like an actual survival horror experience, and not just a horror game. It genuinely felt like a modern take on the classic elements of the genre, and it was one I truly appreciated.

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Scariest moment: Alien Isolation is a game that relies on the familiar to create a sense of dread. As fans of the franchise, we know what the alien is capable of, and that’s what makes it scary when it’s coming for us as players. But there is one section of the game that takes this concept to its logical conclusion.

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In flashback, the player takes on the role of deuteragonist Marlowe, as his crew follows a familiar distress beacon to a familiar planet to board a familiar derelict ship. There was no combat in this section, just a sense of mounting dread as I crossed the planet surface and entered the ship, building up to a descent into the egg chamber.

I can’t quite put my finger on what it was about that sequence that got to me so much, but my hands shook the whole time, and when the objective told me to explore the derelict, I knew I didn’t want to do it. The closest thing I can point to is that it was a perfectly paced recreation of that sequence from the first Alien, and that taking part in that actively rather than just observing as a viewer was more intense than I’d have ever expected, despite the lack of any obvious scares in that whole chapter.

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Surviving Horror will return fairly soon with a write up on The Evil Within. But not too soon, since I haven’t played it yet. And NaNoWriMo will be taking up a lot of my time in November.

Surviving Horror will probably return in December with a write up on The Evil Within.

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