ALIEN ISOLATION uses every trick to max out the terror, and it’s hard work as a result

ALIEN ISOLATION is a game that intrinsically divides opinion. By its very nature and design, it is an unwelcoming, uncomfortable experience. And its developers seem to have exploited every opportunity they could to ramp this up. This means it makes you suffer, and that doesn’t seem to be an experience everyone welcomes.

On the other hand, many people – me included – are in awe of the game. Strong reactions all round.

It was on this topic that I was planning to write a post yesterday when I ran into a review that confirmed part of what I was thinking, by Calum Marsh on the AV Club. He hated the game, calling it a “stunningly realistic locker simulator” and hanging his main criticism off the fact that you spend a lot of time in, well, lockers – and lockers drawn using a limited palette of interior textures. I was taken aback by this review, and disagreed so strongly with every single point in it – both aesthetically and from a game theory perspective – that I made a fool out of myself trying to be funny about it, rather than writing this post.

So here is that post.

ALIEN ISOLATION is a ‘survival horror’ game apparently made by a group of people that have read, memorised and possibly now re-written chapters in, the survival horror manual. I have been referring to ALIEN ISOLATION as the most theory-led major game I’ve played in a while, by which I mean, it seems to me that if you were to take an academic approach to every known composite part of games in the survival horror genre, if you unravelled the DNA, so to speak, of what makes a survival horror game and isolated a series of genes that provided for desirable survival horror characteristics, and then switched all those genes on, making every part as extremely survival-horroresque as you could… you’d end up with something like this game.

My reading of the game is that they sketched out on paper everything that they could do to make it scary, and then turned all that up to 11 throughout their game design, with a view to maximising one thing: the player’s fear, which would almost wholly characterise the play experience. This is, in my view, its USP. I don’t recall a more effectively scary game than ALIEN ISOLATION, particularly if you are prepared to buy into it – which I certainly did, and do. Here’s a quick breakdown of why I think this is so.

Most-immersive player perspective
First person. The player is Ripley; the Alien is hunting “you”, not a character model.

Restrictive controls and viewpoints/perspectives
The player can’t perform physical feats. Can’t run very fast. Can see a 90 degree field of vision at best. Can’t see through walls – but a motion tracker provides just a little bit of what you need. The player’s options are fundamentally limited.

Balance of odds against the player
The player’s weapons are weak, enemies’ are powerful. The player dies easily, they do not. There are lots of them or they are “invincible”.

Player disempowerment
The player is rarely in control. The player is the victim. The player is coerced by the game into submissive in-game behaviour. Success criteria is not whether the player gets at least 50% headshots: it’s merely not dying.

Dark lighting
Obviously! Preying on the primal fear of danger in the darkness. The player’s torch provides a narrow beam, drastically heightens risk when used, and has finite battery. Often, the player must turn off all the lights in order to use the lights’ power on other essential power circuits like door mechanisms. Darkness is just another environmental hazard in ALIEN ISOLATION.

‘Gothic’ art direction
Established artistic tropes provide cultural cues for the player. A faithful representation of Ridley Scott’s original ALIEN mise en scene gives the player a lockerful (boom boom) of expectations that the game then sets out to play on, whether to fulfill or subvert.

Oppressive flavour and feel
The grimness, the hopelessness, the awfulness of the flavour helps set a leaden tone that’s essential to maximise the claustrophobia this game needs to work properly – and to provide high contrast moments of relief, too. Immersiveness is vital to keep the player scared.

Dramatic music
The usually unobtrusive and cinematic non-diagetic music – also canonical to Scott’s ALIEN, mostly –  has the ability to completely change this game’s running gear. Silence is golden: the player quickly learns a pavlovian response to rising strings, for example. They are a warning; heed and succeed. The same dark lobby the player crosses in serene peace is transformed into a terrible, exposed trap by the emergence of a few violins.

Unscripted action points
Hazards in this game aren’t always predictable. A random element renders the player unable to wholly assume safety when a section is replayed. Many hazards are unfortunately pre-set: it’s the same air vent the Alien always appears in a certain section, etc. I think the ALIEN ISOLATION crew underplayed this aspect. A less-scripted Alien that appeared in more unexpected ways each time would have been even scarier, but whatever. The artificial intelligence for that would be even harder to pull off, I guess.

Limited health
The player’s health is finite, and there are few health packs. Time was, this was a normal part of scaling the difficulty – especially if the player had to insert coin to continue – and it is a feature that many games and particularly first person games have left behind since, arguably, HALO: COMBAT EVOLVED broke the mainstream mould. Recharging health is now the norm, I think it is fair to say, and so taking it away both alienates some players unused to this ‘penalty’, and at the same time represents a legitimate tension-heightening tool. The player cannot hide for a while and restore health. Health is finite. Health pickups are finite.

Limited resources
Ammo is scarce and in any case, barely useful. Weapons are risky and have negligble effect, they are more like distractions that allow the player to escape peril temporarily. The player is not given the power, generally speaking, to escape the oppressive game mechanics.

Irregular save points
In a similar situation to finite health, time was that having to complete a long section before the player could save their progress was sort of the default. Save points, if there were any at all, were often end-of-level situations. Level passwords, even, before writable memory was available. Today, and in this game in particular, fewer save points like finite health also qualifies as both a feature that alienates (boom boom) some players due to a perceived ‘penalty’, and at the same time represents a legitimate tool to leverage terror in the player. Too-regular checkpoints arguably removes elevated tension over extended periods from a game’s toolkit. The debate then, assuming that the save points have not been inserted in broken places – like having a long unskippable cutscene immediately after it, Kojima-san – is whether there are enough of them. In my view scarce save points is critical to extremely elevated tension, which this game trades on and relies on. I would postulate that there can be zero built tension around the fear of death itself in any game in which the player could throw away their life with no penalty. Even in ALIEN ISOLATION once the player has saved, they can piss about for a laugh with no fear of dying whatsoever. In fact, doing so is often a welcome relief from the numbing tension. PS yes alright mate: I can see the bloody RPGs on the rooftops!

I could go on and on: the classic just-too-long delay for doors to open, and the fact that they make a giveaway noise before they open. The way the door-lock and other minigames take place in real time, heightening tension. The way you can still look around while completing necessary interactions with the environment, a constant reminder that death could occur at any moment. The motion tracker’s rising cadence as hostiles get nearer. The creepy, glowing eyes of the inhuman androids in the darkness. The total helplessness of being stuck in a locker with only the glow of the motion tracker and a tiny viewing slot through the doors, as you try and calculate if you’re doing it right or if you’re about to meet certain death.

ALIEN ISOLATION doesn’t do anything new, I don’t think. In fact, I think every single point I have raised here has been explored by Mikami et al in the RESIDENT EVIL franchise alone.

It just takes these elements, ramps them up, and says to the player: you want terror? Ok. Here’s terror. Nothing but terror.

I love it deeply, and it’s the very game that I hypothesised well over a decade ago would be “peak survival horror”: a sincere, faithful game based on ALIEN and done right.

But here’s the thing: I’m not yet sure if I enjoy playing it. It’s genuinely hard and genuinely unforgiving. It terrifies me: visceral terror. I made a pre-purchase decision to play it with headphones on, too close to the screen, in the dark, and buy into the fear from the start: to treat it like I treated ALIEN all those years ago. My experience of it has been unparalleled. I literally had to stop playing it last thing before bed, because the adrenaline from the tension would take a while to pass through my system afterwards and I’d lie awake (my sleep hygeine is normally pretty good!). I started playing it in 30 minute bursts because it’d stress me out too much in longer sessions.

Do I enjoy it? Yes, I think I do. But I have a strange relationship with it, a unique relationship. It is, for me, unlike any other game I’ve ever played, and as someone who values the artistry and craft of (‘mainstream’, not ‘indie’ in this case) gaming originality, and who reckons they’ve played an awful lot of games these past 25 years, that’s about as high praise as I can possibly give.

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