Your default speed is 'walk'. It's one of the first things I noticed when I started playing Alien: Isolation. It felt important. The second thing I noticed was how tall I felt. Uncomfortably tall. Might bump my head on the ceiling tall. That also felt important.
The third important thing I only realised in hindsight: In my two hours with Alien: Isolation I didn't fire a single shot. Probably because I spent 80% of my time cowering in the corner of rooms, hiding under tables, sneaking into lockers. At one point I literally jumped out of my chair. Literally. There's no other polite way of putting it: I almost shit myself. This is a preview of Alien: Isolation, but it's really the story of how a video game made me almost shit myself.
But back to the walking. Let's start there. It felt important.
"If you were running around at 15 mph that would break that credibility," explains Al Hope. "If you sprint you're going to make a whole lot of noise and the Alien is going to come and find you."
Al Hope: the creative lead on Alien: Isolation. Like a responsibly dressed Bond villain, Al was watching me play, drumming his fingers sadistically. I played in a dark room. At various points during the demo he would slowly lurch behind me, past me to point out escape routes. He would whisper, he would tiptoe — almost as if making noise in real life might attract the attention of the Alien. Almost as if he himself was afraid of the Alien.
Later I would ask him what it felt like to watch a human being almost shit themselves whilst playing a video game he helped create. But first let's explain precisely why I almost shit myself.
The moment occurred about 20 minutes into my playthrough. I watched the Alien slink out of an air vent like an otherworldly liquid. As the accompanying music hit my eardrums I cowered in a corner, peeking intermittently. I was already on edge at this point. It's difficult to explain why.
Part of me believes my brain is just primed that way. This is the great advantage Alien: Isolation has over almost every other video game ever made: it has the Alien as its antagonist. An enemy we are already afraid of. We've seen the movie, it's part of our cultural consciousness. I was afraid from the moment it appeared on the screen.
So I cowered. I had an objective, an area I wanted to move towards, but the Alien was crawling all over that space.
Here's the thing: in most stealth games enemies have some sort of pattern. You have a vague idea of where they're going to walk when. If disturbed, of course, that pattern will change, but there's something comforting in the fact that you have some sort of idea how things will behave. Alien: Isolation does away with that completely.
"The fact that the Alien isn't scripted means that you can't predict what's going to happen," says Al.
You don't bloody say.
10 minutes later I would literally jump out of my seat in terror.
I waited. I waited for a long bloody time. I waited to see where the Alien would move next, to try and get an idea of his behaviour, what would startle him, what would attract him. To get an idea of just how much noise I could make, how much he had to see of me before he came charging. Pure tension. I crept from hiding space to hiding space, cowering. At one point, underneath a hospital bed, I sat crouched, completely still, as the Alien slowly walked past. I could see his tail, I could see his feet. I could hear his feet. An oppressive 'thump'. 'thump'. 'thump'. Always with the 'thump'. 'thump'. 'thump'.
Then I saw my objective. An ID card on the pre-mauled body of some sort of health practitioner. It was now or never. I slowly crept towards it. The Alien had moved to another room. I sped my crawl to a brisk walk. I was going to make it. Almost there! I snuck into the tiny, claustrophobic space. I picked up the card. Finally. Safety. I felt perfectly safe. Exhale.
I swung the camera round and there, one foot away from my face was the Alien.
That was the moment I physically leapt out of my chair. That's the closest a video game has ever come to making me shit myself.
I asked Al Hope to talk me through that moment. What he was thinking, as an outsider, as the creator of this experience, as he watched me get torn limb from limb?
"I think just before you got caught you thought you had achieved some sort of small victory," he says. "You had managed to get somewhere that you felt was safe. You had let your guard down. You were breathing a sigh of relief. You had stopped paying attention. The creature had obviously seen you and just quietly came up and got you. That's completely natural — you felt like you had gained the upper hand but you put down your guard."
At the precise moment when I was caught I remember thinking, this must just be part of some cinematic cut-scene. I've reached this point of the game and this is the twist. As soon as you get the ID card the Alien spots you. It must have been scripted, it was too perfect. Too Hollywood to be the end result of an organic, emergent experience.
But no. This was the end result of my own behaviour. The Alien simply reacted to what I was doing, hunted me down, and killed me.
"How it happened to you was one of the magical things for me," says Al. "Thousands of people play the game and everyone has a different story like yours. It's infinitely different. The angle you were looking at when you got attacked was spectacularly perfect. You swept your camera and BAM! It got you."
It got me.
The second time it got me. I was in a room — again rigid underneath a table. I crawled out and, through a glass window, I saw the Alien. I saw its eyes look back at me. That's the strangest thing to say about a collection of polygons and artificial intelligence, but I literally felt like I was staring into the eyes of a creature who wanted to kill me.
This time it was different. I knew the Alien had seen me. I knew he was coming. But I was trapped. There were lockers I could hide in but in that specific moment I felt frozen in fear. Overwhelmed with indecision, I just stood there. I didn't move. I stood there and waited for death.
"You were a rabbit in the headlights," says Al. And he was right.
After my demo I spoke to Al about my experiences, convinced that my playthrough was the best one, the most dramatic. I was certain it was part of some carefully crafted PR demo. The moments were too intense, my experience too… cinematic? I know it's the wrong word, but I'm struggling to find the correct one. It all felt a little too conveniently staged, but it wasn't. What had happened to me has already happened to others, and it will happen to more people when the game is finally released — all with subtle variations.
"That moment you just had was so powerful because it happened to you," explains Al. "It's your story."
Yep. My story. The story of how a video game almost made me poop in my pants.