When you think about it, it’s a small miracle that Alien: Isolation even got made.
The last game made in the Alien universe was an irrefutable disaster of incredible proportions. Aliens: Colonial Marines. You wouldn’t be off base if you called it the most disappointing video game ever made. A borked mess on every possible level. A game that promised so much and didn’t even come close to delivering. The kind of game that sinks a license, even one as sturdy as Alien.
And in its immediate wake: Alien: Isolation. A game that, like Colonial Marines, would be played in the first person. A game developed by a studio that, for the last 13 bloody years, had been slaving away on workmanlike real-time strategy games. Their last non-RTS game? ‘Rugby’ for the PlayStation 2. That game was released in 2001.
How did Alien: Isolation even get greenlit?
More importantly, how did it become one of my favourite ‘AAA’ experiences in years?
I say ‘AAA’ with hesitation, but in this case it’s a useful catch-all term. When I say ‘AAA’, here’s what I really mean: Alien: Isolation is a video game intended for a large audience. A video game with high production values and, most likely, a significantly large budget. It is an expensive video game made in an environment where expensive video games are made at great risk to both the publisher and the developers who create them.
Usually this result in a video game experience where said risk is mitigated with safe design decisions. Usually.
Take a series like Call of Duty, which has barely changed since Modern Warfare. Take FIFA. Take almost every sporting franchise. Take Dead Space or BioShock: games burdened with multiplayer in a vain attempt to add bullet points to a sprawling feature list.
Take Destiny. Despite my love for this game, it can’t be denied that its astronomical budget has resulted in a ‘safer’ video game experience. That’s just the nature of game development: if you’re going to create a video game that costs a lot of money, you’d better make sure that video game has the ability to reach a broad audience.
Unless that game is Alien: Isolation.
In my four hours with Alien Isolation I have killed one person. Only one. I nervously hit him over the head with a blunt object. Then I ran away in terror.
In Alien: Isolation I have drawn my gun only once. It didn’t go well. I shot a total of three bullets into a pursuing android. Two hit him in the chest and the third lodged into a soft part of his neck. The bullets didn’t stop him, didn’t even slow him down. The android grabbed me by the throat and five seconds later I was dead.
Now I mostly just hide in lockers and cower in abject fear.
Most AAA video games earn their keep by empowering players to solve problems with violence. That’s just a fact. Alien: Isolation is different. Alien: Isolation actively disempowers its players. It provides you with a set of tools you are familiar with – guns, bombs, instruments of violence – and renders them almost useless. In Alien: Isolation you could shoot at things, but you’d have a better chance of survival if you hid in a cupboard and waited for the bad guys to just go away.
This in itself isn’t unique. The ability to sneak and hide is paramount in any stealth game. But Alien: Isolation is brutal in its execution. Unlike other stealth games, you have no real means to defend yourself. In Metal Gear Solid you can shoot, punch and kill when spotted. Same goes for Splinter Cell, Thief, Dishonored – almost any stealth game you care to name. In Alien Isolation you run. You run for your goddamn life, you hide in a locker and you hope and pray that they Alien doesn’t rip the door open and consume your soul.
In Alien: Isolation you are absurdly weak. In video games we are not used to being weak.
Why doesn’t Alien: Isolation have an auto save system? All video games have an auto save system. GODDAMMIT, THIS IS SO STUPID.
That was my initial reaction after being spotted and garrotted 15 minutes after my last manual save. The prospect of having to play the last 15 minutes all over again? Urgh.
So to confirm: Alien: Isolation has no auto save. But not only is Alien: Isolation missing auto save, it is a game that actively attempts to hide its manual save points from the player. Save point are actively obscured in the level design. Quite often I found myself missing save points because they were positioned in easy to miss spots.
At first this felt like a cruel oversight. But slowly I began to understand what ‘saving’ meant for a game as overwhelmingly terrifying and oppressive as Alien: Isolation.
In Alien: Isolation saving equals relief. It equals relief from tension, relief from fear, relief from the weight and consequences of death. No doubt the ability to auto save was discussed during the development of Alien: Isolation. No doubt a very deliberate decision was made. The decision the team made was this: screw the player’s expectation, this is the best thing for the game we want to make. People will hate this, they will complain about it, but in the end it will be worth it.
Alien: Isolation, in a sense, is fairly experimental and weird. An easier route would have been simple: create a licensed version of a game like, say, Dead Space. An expertly crafted series of breadcrumb trails with well-orchestrated scares, some shooting and a resolution. A polished experience, the kind of experience that would review well, a game that mainstream players could easily play and recommend to others as a ‘good’ game.
But Creative Assembly went in the opposite direction. I think people are forgetting this: it was a risky, almost pathologically stupid move for an unproven studio to go against the grain with an important license -- with money at stake -- and create a game that essentially lives and dies on the behaviour of one single enemy AI.
Again – I reiterate – it’s a small miracle that Alien: Isolation got made.
The smaller, more minor miracle is the fact that it somehow works. Alien: Isolation is all the more terrifying for the random nature of the Alien AI, for the genuine feeling that it’s alive and actively hunting you down, responding to your behaviour. It’s the reason why I’ve spent about 50% of my time with Alien: Isolation cowering in a locker.
Of course Alien: Isolation is not perfect, of course there are flaws. Of course it doesn’t always work and the illusion is sometimes broken, but the end result is a uniquely oppressive experience that works on a level we’re not used to in video games.
Alien: Isolation is an innovative video game that embraces its imperfections and sacrifices polish to provide an innovative, brave video game experience. In an industry obsessed with Metacritic averages, in an industry where multi-million sellers are commercial failures, Alien: Isolation is brave to the point of stupidity.
But it’s a brand of stupidity I hope other studios are keen to embrace. I wish more games were this imperfect.