Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

I stayed perfectly still after they chased me into the air vent. I hadn't heard anything for several minutes. Surely they'd left by now. Crawling out of my hiding spot, I found myself face to face with one of my pursuers. He hadn't moved. He started shouting. Alien: Isolation had broken again.

Video game artificial intelligence (AI) is something most of us don't notice until it breaks. It's always there, influencing our gameplay experience, affecting how we feel about every moment in a game, but it's also one of the most overlooked elements of video gaming. AI is the spice that takes a video game from bland to cool — it's the thing that immerses us in a game world the way nothing else can.

AI means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, especially in video games.The term can refer to the programming processes that drives a game's characters, individual entities within the game, or even, in some cases, opposing players you never see, like the enemy players in a real-time strategy game.

Back to Alien: Isolation. It's a great game, occasional glitches aside. Never before have I played a movie game that let me felt like I was actually inside a movie. Alien: Isolation makes me feel like I'm one of the characters in an actual Alien film, like I'm there.

Every Alien film establishes a clear goal: kill or get rid of the alien. Many individual moments throughout the films lend themselves to interesting gameplay, whether it's Dallas climbing through the air vents with a flamethrower or Ripley in a mech-loader, punching out the queen. These films, like video games, are very encounter-driven. The stories in the Alien universe translate to game mechanics extremely well.

Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

The alien itself is a complex creature, which means a lot of gameplay possibilities. It hides in shadows, encouraging attention to level design. It can crawl in air vents, leading to surprise attacks on the players. It hates fire, so we can use flamethrowers against it. At the same time, these complexities are somewhat rigidly defined. We know how the alien's life-cycle works. We know that it bleeds acid blood. We know it takes on the characteristics of its host. In other words, the Alien films have set up a distinctly compelling sandbox for developers to play in.

Alien: Isolation depends on the strength of its AI to be an enjoyable experience. The alien must act in a way that helps the player feel like they're in an Alien movie. That is its job.

Every decision you make in Isolation comes back to the alien. Do you hide? Use precious flamethrower fuel? How long do you wait for it to leave? You are living the Alien experience with an "actual" alien that will act and think like an alien. That's awesome! It's also terrifying. Mostly awesome, though!

I've talked with plenty of people over the years about "good game AI". I've had developers and critics alike tell me that good AI is impossible, because, to them, good AI is what is technically known as "strong AI", or AI that is essentially as smart, if not smarter than a human. Personally, I don't think that's good game AI. Good game AI is that which makes a game enjoyable to play.

A strong AI would be more like another player, with the same goals a player has: it wants to win. Good game AI doesn't want to win, it wants to make you earn your win. This is why the alien is not some realistic simulation of movie's greatest monster, but an impression of it instead.

In Isolation, the alien is almost always nearby. Sure, you can distract it for a while, or move from one room to the next, but it's always going to end up close by anyways. The alien is often believable, until it decides to inexplicably hang around in one room while you hold your breath, hoping it will leave so you can crawl out of the locker.

Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

The alien appears to have an approximate knowledge of your location at all times, popping up wherever you are, which keeps things tense and uncertain. It doesn't outright notice you (except for the times it glitches and does) unless you fail the stealth game aspect of gameplay. This is great for maintaining the horror movie tension, but sometimes the game stretches a bit too much and it starts to feel fake.

Several times, I've watched the alien leave the room on my motion detector, disappear, and reappear behind me almost instantly. Occasionally, the game's so focused on crafting tension that it forgets about something far more important: immersion.

The funny thing about the word "immersion" is that, through marketing overuse, it's essentially lost all meaning. Now, any game that holds your attention is "immersive". While it's true that "immersive" is more or less synonymous with "engrossing", it has another, more specific connotation relating to the idea of being submerged. When you are immersed in the ocean, you exist inside the ocean.

The 1990s gave rise to the concept of the "Immersive Sim". The idea was that players could exist within a game's world and treat it as if it were a real space. Some of the most well-known '90s immersive sims include games like System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project. Both of those games were developed by Looking Glass Studios, and both put an especially heavy focus on artificial intelligence.

A game without great AI is like an empty movie set. A good set is nice to have, but a movie thrives on its characters. Great AI breathes life into a game's characters and its world. It is the most important ingredient in replicating that immersive movie experience.

For a good example of an immersive sim in action, let's look at a level from Looking Glass's 1998 classic Thief. The game takes place in a fantasy world, and you play as a thief named Garrett. One mission sends you down to the Bonehoard, a series of underground ruins. One particular area of the map features zombies. These aren't your normal zombies, however; you can't hack them to pieces. They will get back up shortly after you've killed them. The only way to truly be rid of them is to use holy water on your expensive water arrows — which are traditionally meant for putting out light sources, allowing you to hide better.

Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

I was playing the game recently and the zombies were proving particularly troublesome. When a zombie notices you, it roars, alerting other zombies who roar, alerting even more zombies. Being caught meant being swarmed by every zombie in the level. It was frustrating. I didn't have enough arrows or holy water, either. So, I formulated a plan.

I found a room occupied by two or three zombies. I quietly opened the door, then snuck to a balcony above it. I fired at the first zombie with a regular arrow. He roared. His friends roared. They began searching the room for me, not realising I was hiding above them. Soon, more zombies began to arrive. When the room was finally packed, I began firing my holy water arrows. The splash of water from the arrows meant that I could kill multiple zombies with a single arrow. I made short work of them.

That's the concept of immersion in a nutshell. The game created a space. It created enemies who had a logical set of rules. It gave me water arrows, and, logically, they would splash, because that is what water does. I was able to treat the game-world as if it were real and MacGyver up a creative solution to deal with the zombies.

When a game breaks immersion, it pulls you out of the experience. Good game AI, I think, works like Thief's, rather than Isolation's. Tension is important in an Alien game — it's a crucial component — but immersion is the bedrock that it should be built on. If a game stops being believable, does it continue to be scary?

Of course, for immersion to work, we have to buy in to the experience. Alien, the movie, only works if we let ourselves get absorbed in its reality. It doesn't work if someone stands in front of the screen telling us that an alien didn't really burst out of a man's chest. It's a symbiotic relationship: Alien: Isolation, as an immersive game, must do what it can to present a "real" world to us, and we must treat it as if this is so. We have to be along for the ride.

Because Alien: Isolation is a video game, it has to be interactive, which means it has to put a lot more work into feeling "real" than Alien ever did. For the experience to work, the game has to be immersive. The rules have to make sense and be consistent.

If either you or the game breaks that relationship, the game stops being scary and the experience falls apart. When the people hunting for me stop moving, or when the alien teleports behind me, it breaks my immersion and pulls me out of the experience. It stops being scary, which is the whole point of an Alien game in the first place.

We play Alien games because we want to live the Alien experience. When the AI breaks or cheats, the immersion is lost and the game falls apart. When the AI works, then we become Ripley, hiding in a locker, holding our breath, waiting for the monster to pass.

Alien Isolation's Artificial Intelligence Was Good...Too Good

GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can't get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.


    Funniest glitch I had in Isolation was trapping the Alien in air ducts by not leaving him enough room when he followed me in.
    It was useless though, as soon as you moved away it would get you

    Yeah, the Alien was allowed to instantaneously traverse ducts no matter how far apart. That's just plain cheating and frustrating as a player - especially in a stealth game where you rely on npcs to have completely unrealistic but observable and exploitable patterns to their behavior. I'm also convinced there were set patrol areas, that either contained separate individual alien npcs for each area or caused the alien to respawn when you crossed in to them, which allowed for turning away from one creature, moving through a door and running smack in to another. Still a great game even though it went on too long.

    Last edited 27/06/15 1:30 pm

      That's just the paranoia getting to you lol. Picked it up at the steam sale and am now stuck in an area where it seems to do exactly how you described it.

      Unfortunately it is just he Alien seeing or hearing you already, and just taking the quickest path to your doom, which sometimes is the air vents in the ceiling so he can specially surprise you when you open that door. I've seen him do it man, he usually hisses and runs away because he heard or saw something. You look at him running away but then it hits you that the AI is just trolling u by instead of running straight at you it decides to take the scenic route into the next room to kill you.

        No, it teleports. Presumably to get around game breaking situations, and also to rubber band to the player. Even if it didn't teleport, travelling between vent openings instantly is a piss-poor design cheat, but 9 times out of ten you aren't seeing it happen right in front of you so it 'works' in terms of atmosphere.

        Skip to end for teleport:

          Wow you're right. O well, too scared to walk out and meet it on
          hard mode anyway haha. So for me it works :).

    Ermmm... didn't someone mention somewhere that the detector's pulse can actually be heard by the Alien so using it while hiding will actually allow it to zero on you? XD

      Yes it does that, and for a long time I didn't believe it was true, but if you have a sound device (webcam, mic, etc) plugged in you might want to not sneeze or fart too loudly when you are playing the game. He can freaking hear you!

    The funny thing about the word “immersion” is that, through marketing overuse, it’s essentially lost all meaning. Now, any game that holds your attention is “immersive”. While it’s true that “immersive” is more or less synonymous with “engrossing”, it has another, more specific connotation relating to the idea of being submerged. When you are immersed in the ocean, you exist inside the ocean.

    I feel like we need these little distinctions for many words the lesser writers use on this site.

    There's no shortage of games where the AI is "too good". The classic example is of the sniper in an FPS who tags you from across the map.

    Another example is RTS games with a highly optimised build order; a novice doesn't know the "best" order, and so winds up being rushed by the (AI) enemy whhile still building up their base. (Not that that ever happens to me. Nope, never.)

    I gave up on chess, as a kid, because the version of chess on my VZ-200 Z80 computer could beat me handily at its easiest setting (one move every seven seconds). But then, this was not long after a human being caught me in a Scholar's Mate...

      But that's not good AI. Good AI should include hesitations and mistakes of a human player. Take counter strike for example. An average player can snipe people from across the map but if someone breaches his nest an average player will briefly panic as they try to switch to their close combat weapon. I want to see AI panic, run, fumble, waste grebades down the stairwell hoping for lucky timing. Peoples intelligence isn't perfect, neither should the artificials

        I agree that good AI in a game context should make mistakes. I've seen this described as "artificial stupidity."

        It depends on whether you're approaching AI from a Turing test perspective of trying to simulate a human being, or from a perspective of trying to get your computer to always make the right decision.

        For games, we definitely want the former. If you're programming an AI to buy and sell shares, you definitely want the latter.

      That build order thing used to happen to me all the time in Warcraft 2. I'd build my town hall, some farms and a barracks, then while I was training my first footman, two grunts and an axe-thrower from the enemy have scouted out my base. And because I'm defenceless, they'd wipe me out.

    I would kill for a horror survival game in the same vein as this but with a Jurassic Park theme. Could you imagine being hunted by a pack of Velociraptors as smart as they're made out to be in the original movie. Two hunting you, one is purposely loud to attract attention, trying to manipulate you and the direction you move. The other waiting in shadows for you to take the bait. Imagine running after the first one spots you... Not only are you shit scared but your thinking "where the F#$K is the other one!" praying to god he is not around the next corner as you run for your life.

    Last edited 27/06/15 5:27 pm

      This needs to be a thing!

      Dude, imagine guiding Dr Satler through the Power Substation yourself. Listening to Jeff Goldblum's directions while trying to listen for unusual noises at the same time.

      The sounds the raptors make alone would be enough to make me soil myself.

      i'm sure the modding scene may do something like this. otherwise, start learning how to mod yourself

      I kept thinking about this the entire time playing alien! Imagine alien-style ai and stealth in a jungle with an un-assailable T-rex. FREEZE!

    nope the a.i.i is fine.
    learn to play and use gadgets accordingly.

    The AI that I hate is single player and the AI ignores all the other characters and gets you.
    Come on 6 targets, stops fighting them and turns straight to you with single kill shot. That pisses me off.

    Didn't feel like AI as there would be certain "Alien enabled areas" where it would go through a pattern of disappearing and coming back and just patrolling the area, making it painfully obvious he wasn't going to go away until you reached the next checkpoint etc.. then you get to resume playing again normally until the inevitable "Oh hes back again".

    Game truly broke for me when I found a room in medical without a roof vent to lock him in to. One shortcut door was locked (avoided unlocking it from the other side) and the other could be locked from outside using a panel. Lured and trapped the alien inside and next thing, he just goes "Nup, im not staying here and teleports away"... /sadface

    His "Learning" was just behaviors not being unlocked until later parts of the game and then once you get a flamethrower as long as you could spot him and fire before he reached you then you were safe.

    Scariest/Funnest section was actually dealing with those crazy androids :)

    Last edited 29/06/15 2:57 pm

    I played it with the occulus DK2 once and only once.

    I hid in a locker for a good 10 mins. It was only then that i came out, and i started going around the corner and into the hallway. It was only then that i heard a crash from behind. I ran. Never been so afraid of anything in my entire life. It grabbed me and I had to tear the headset off my face, i couldn't bring myself to look at it. LOL

    Then there was another time i hid from an android thinking i was safe in a locker and I watched it walk out into the hallway only to come back in real quick and open up my locker and start punching me. I think i screamed. I dunno... it was all so intense. LOL.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now