James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) may have defined the iconic ‘space marine’ for the future of both film and video games, but with Alien: Isolation, the developers at Creative Assembly are going to the just-as-iconic source material. And while Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979) may be a master class in suspense and tension, nowhere near as many games have turned to it for inspiration.
As the name implies, the developers of Isolation are looking to change that; gone are the squads of machine-gun-toting marines, exchanged for everyday tools, and a single Xenomorph from which to flee. The idea of adapting the first film in the series to a game may seem like a no-brainer now, but the team claims that as horror is getting harder and harder to find, they had no choice but to act fast.
Never has a new take on the Aliens game license been more sorely needed, thanks to the critical failure (and admittedly misleading marketing) of Aliens: Colonial Marines. But even if change is needed, pitching a survival horror game featuring one enemy is never easy. Especially as franchises like Dead Space and Resident Evil inch more and more away from suspense towards broad-appeal action.
In an interview with MCV, creative lead Alistair Hope explained that while horror may have been displaced in major triple-A blockbusters, it’s still something gamers will respond to – provided its done properly:
“We are big fans of horror games and big franchises like Resident Evil and Dead Space, particularly the earlier games. But the guys behind those titles probably felt they were only a couple of degrees off being the next Gears of War, so there was an opportunity for them to try that out. And that was their direction.
“We wanted to deliver on that Ridley Scott Alien, that enormous, incredible creature that I was adamant would look down on the player and you couldn’t just sprint past. A monster that didn’t have to be a bullet sponge at the end of the barrel of your gun.”
There is certainly something to be said for infesting an action game with endless throngs of bullet-sponges, as many such games in any number of contexts or styles are released each year. But rather than follow the path of Aliens – a film Hope refers to as “a Vietnam-in-space sort of thing” – the team decided to tackle a far greater challenge: face an unpredictable, intelligent enemy:
“Before we had anything on screen, I remember asking the guys: ‘We are going to release Ridley Scott’s Alien in the room. What are you going to do?’ We then started having fun conversations about crouching down behind the desk, making sure it couldn’t see us, and then working out how to reach the fire exit. That basic idea we felt would be amazing to experience.”
“So a couple of us put together a tech demo in the space of about six weeks. It was mainly for us to work out what we are trying to do. But it became a mood piece, in which the climax was this enormous Alien coming down before the player. It was the wow moment we wanted to achieve, something truly unique. And thankfully everyone we showed it to agreed and got very excited.”
If one thing was made perfectly clear by the announcement trailer for Isolation, it was the studio’s emphasis on building atmosphere and tension. Calling on the ’70s-era sets and style of the original film, the brief gameplay footage gave a distinct Amnesia vibe that hearkened back to the movie’s argument that the most terrifying enemies are those you can’t see, let alone kill.
The approach to horror is commonplace in the indie games scene, but rarely makes it into larger triple-A experiences. However, Hope is quick to point out that while “horror games” may be changing, major releases like Minecraft, Skyrim, and Fallout still rely on the same values to give players a gripping story. So the time seemed right for Creative Assembly to deliver what they call (and the phrase has been used in the past) “the Alien game that we wanted to play.”
Then Colonial Marines came along:
“When Colonial Marines was released, we weren’t completed cut-off, we were aware of some of the comments… And a lot of people were saying: ‘Can we have a survival horror Aliens game?’ That was the plus for the team here and we really wanted to tell the world at the time that this is what we are doing.
“You saw that there is a very vociferous, passionate and intelligent fanbase out there that really loves this franchise. That’s why everyone on the team has a massive smile on their face, because we’ve seen since the announcement that people are responding really, really well to what we are proposing.”
We suppose gamers should be careful what they wish for, as the chance to take on a single Xenomorph all alone – and make no mistake: you will be alone – is getting close by the day.
What do you think of the game’s take on horror? Is today’s triple-A space in need of more horror, or do you have your doubts of how successful Isolation can be? Sound off in the comments.
Alien: Isolation will release on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3 and PC in late 2014.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.