When I was a child, I loved watching movies. One movie that had a profound impact on me was Alien. I was nine when I first saw it and it scared the hell out of me. It also sucked me in, though, and stayed with me throughout the years. Now, everywhere I look, I can see the effect it’s had on films and video games. Like the proverbial boogeyman, it’s everywhere and I proudly wear my love for this film on my sleeve. I’m a self-confessed Alien nut.
In high school, I was taking a science fiction writing class, in which we studied classic sci-fi stories like Arena; I, Robot; Mars Is Heaven!; and The Time Machine. We also watched films. A friend and I eagerly suggested to the teacher that we watch Alien. She loved the idea, so we wheeled in a TV and got started. I’ll never forget how loudly Megan Minnick screamed when the alien grabbed Dallas.
Afterward, we discussed the film in class. I proudly stated how I loved Alien, cheerfully explaining to my befuddled classmates how cool it’d be to have an alarm clock that functioned similarly to the warning system on the Nostromo when it was set for self-destruct (they didn’t quite get it). Consider Bastian, talking to the old bookstore owner in The Neverending Story. “Your books are safe,” the old man says. “While you’re reading them, you get to become Tarzan, Robinson Crusoe! Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped in your submarine, while the giant squid is attacking you?” Like Bastian, I’m in love with this idea. Wouldn’t it be grand if I could be Ripley, trapped in the dying Nostromo, trying to escape from the monster?
What if this weren’t a dream? What if it were real? Behold, Alien: Isolation.
Alien: Isolation is a game being developed by Creative Assembly where you play as Ellen Ripley’s orphaned daughter, Amanda. The premise is simple enough: Out making her rounds, your mother disappears, along with her ship and crew. Fifteen years later, you are approached by a mysterious company rep, who tells you that the black box to your mother’s ship has been found and is being held at a decommissioned space station. Determined, you volunteer to go and retrieve it, but shortly after you arrive, the shit hits the fan. In a cruel twist of fate, you’re left trapped on a space station with a merciless killer that’s hunting you down, one by one…
For a fan of the original film, this is like a dream come true, but it’s all be for nothing if the game didn’t have the look and feel of Alien. This is one of the reasons I’m most excited about A:I. CA have gone to great lengths to bring the world of Alien to life. FOX Studios has donated 3TB(!) worth of data from their studio vaults, giving the game developers an unprecedented look at the film.
How unprecedented, you ask? Consider the shooting of production stills to promote a film. 50 shots might get taken, but only 1 shot gets used. CA is able to study all of them. They also have total access to Ron Cobb’s concept art, as well as his blue prints for the Nostromo, so that CA’s designers know everything about the sets in Alien, from their exact measurements to what materials they were made with. As a result, CA is able to make the set pieces in their game to scale. They’re not replicas – Sevastapol Station is its own place – but the look and feel made so famous in Alien will be fully intact thanks to the staggering amount of research involved.
Another aspect that the developers are playing close attention to is the music and sound design. As far as the score is concerned, the music being written for the game is being performed by session musicians who played with conductor Lionel Newman when recording Jerry Goldsmith’s score back in 1979! It doesn’t get much more authentic than that. For the game’s sound design, they’re using the same recording techniques, gleaned from studying the original recording sessions used by studio technicians over 30 years ago. The effect is an unparalleled level of authenticity never heard before in a video game.
The level of enthusiasm for the project and the attention to detail certainly gives people like me something to look forward to. However, as much hype as this ambitious project has generated, will it deliver the goods? It’s all for naught if the game sucks, right? The primary caveat offered by skeptics is that all we have so far from the studio is a “pretty demo.” Colonial Marines had a sterling demo but the final product was anything but. The question is, what’s to stop this game from essentially becoming A:CM 2?
Well, as nice as the demo was for A:CM, we’ve been shown more than a demo for A:I. CA has released countless featurettes providing an in-depth look at the making of their latest game, as well as having given dozens of interviews. If the demo were all we had to go on, I’d be worried, but there’s much, much more. Obviously in their interviews CA won’t say everything about their game, but I don’t think they’re being pretentious. The amount of authenticity that they’ve demonstrated thus far speaks for itself. No one has gone to this level of accuracy in a movie-to-game adaptation before and what we’ve seen thus far from CA easily outshines anything the studio has ever produced.
Still, leave it to people to insist that A:I will be a repeat of A:CM. “The artificial intelligence will suck!” they scream. The AI in A:CM certainly was bad. But again, the team has explained in great detail how much emphasis they’ve placed on a creating an intelligent hunter in A:I (one creature, I might add, that they can devote all their energies to). Also, the fact remains that virtually every account of the demo that I’ve read or listened to said that the player never felt safe or knew what the creature was going to do. Here are some of the accounts I’ve heard:
Shevvie, a user on the official Alien: Isolation forums, played the demo and had this to say about his experiences the creature1:
“The Alien in this game is no joke and speaking to Nee [the community manager for A:I] I’m in the minority because I actually survived the entire demo. One of my friends didn’t even manage to finish the demo because the Alien just kept getting the drop on him. You really do feel powerless against it, at no point did I feel that I could outrun or outsmart him unless I hid.”
Two members of PC Gamer played the demo and each gave his opinion on the behavior of their adversary2:
Sam said: “The crux of my Alien Isolation experience is making out what the creature’s sounds represent – a frustrated scream can mean it’s either about to charge and slaughter me, or it could signal that it’s sensed something but can’t figure out my exact location. A lot of my time is spent leaning back in lockers and holding Ripley’s breath while the alien sniffs the air and storms past. This is probably the scariest part of Alien Isolation, existing in such close proximity to this foe but not being entirely aware of whether it knows you’re there or not. I die a locker-related death twice, both times for failing to escape the alien’s line of sight.”
Tom, on the other hand, said: “Charging the monster with a hammer wasn’t the smartest idea I’ve ever had. The tool surely has a proper use in the finished game but, unsurprisingly, does nothing against the Xenomorph. The alien responded to the laughable attack by brutally slaying me in a scene that would become a familiar but always horrible occurrence. Over the course of the demo I was dragged out of a closet and eaten, impaled and eaten and dragged along the floor and eaten. My plans to troll the beast failed. Creative Assembly weren’t joking when they talked about the alien’s lethality…
“…The alien stops. The motion tracker falls silent. For me, this is the scariest moment in the demo. I know the alien is sifting through a complex series of overlapping AI priorities, but the effect is unnerving. It’s pausing to think. How many videogame enemies do that? My mind fills those silent, agonising moments with a series of paranoid thoughts. Has it heard the bleep of the tracker? Has it seen the green light of the tracker’s screen? The urge to use the peak button to take a look at the alien is almost overwhelming, but I resist.”
These accounts, combined with others that I’ve heard, as well as the steady interviews and podcasts done by CA on their own volition, lead me to think that they aren’t lying about their latest creation. Yes, the demo is just a demo, but ignoring it entirely out of a spite seems a little premature.
Another thing that skeptics are worried about is the design of the creature. “It’s too familiar!” these people insist. They’re forgetting something vital, which is the creature that we’ve seen in video games for so many years is the xenomorph, the monster from James Cameron’s Aliens. Ridley Scott’s version, the so-called star beast from Alien, has had much less time starring in games, if any.
Compare the two creatures. They might look alike, at first glance, but the differences are significant. One is essentially an insect. The other makes its own eggs and doesn’t rely on a queen to reproduce. The xenomorph is predictable and we know exactly how it behaves. The same cannot be said for the star beast because it’s only been in one film, in which the true potential of the monster is never fully explored. Literally and figuratively it is kept in the shadows.
Don’t believe me? Consider why the changes were made in the second film. In 1987, in #125 of Starlog magazine, James Cameron went on record, discussing why he altered the design of the creature3: “Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon’s proposed life cycle, as completed in the unseen scene, would have been too restricting to me as a storyteller and I would assume that few fans of ALIENS would be willing to trade the final cat-fight between the moms for a point of technical accuracy that only a microscopic percentage of ALIEN fans might be aware of.”
That “point of technical accuracy” makes all the difference. James Cameron added a queen to create hundreds of xenomorphs for the marines to contend with. However, CA has been adamant in having just one creature in their game; the changing of the star beast into the xenomorph isn’t necessary and the creature can retain its original design and thus remain something of a mystery to us. I believe that it will and if you’re still skeptical, take a look at this interview Allistair Hope had with PlayStation.Blog4:
“We really wanted to place our story as close as possible to the events of the original film. We realized that in Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda, we had a character who was closely tied to the first film, but whose story had yet to be discovered. We asked ourselves: “When the Nostromo went missing, who would care enough to keep searching for answers?” This led us back to Amanda; she would care.
“FOX has been extremely supportive from the moment we pitched the idea of the game to them. We’ve received a huge amount of production design archives from the original film which has provided an enormous wealth of additional material from which to draw upon. This is very much a game inspired by the first film.”
So there you have it. The game is inspired by the first film. As such, it can use the design of the creature as presented in that movie, not the creature that’s starred in so many video games over the years. A:CM used the xenomorph, a space bug; A:I will feature the star beast, more akin to the Shoggoth from Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.
Another reason I’m excited about this game is the fact that it’s a horror game. Alien was a Gothic Horror film set in a haunted house with no exits, the crew pitted against a creature that they couldn’t damage due to the acidic nature of its blood. If you’re going to make a survival horror game to a film in the series, the first film is the perfect candidate. CA understates the nature of Alien and are making the perfect kind of game to compliment that film’s strengths. The creature that they’re using is not the creature that we’re sick to death of, and their artistic output has really brought their dream to life. Time will tell if this dream fully materializes, but for me, it looks extremely promising.
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