For me, the real appeal of the 1979 sci-fi classic Alien isn’t the creature itself but the world the film creates. The perfect antidote to the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas, it paints an engagingly bleak picture of a future where profit, not the desire to seek out new civilisations, drives space exploration.
Upon first viewing the film I was fascinated by the situation the film’s characters found themselves in; crawling through the cosmos in a spacecraft, the Nostromo, that was as sleek as a garden shed and only marginally more spaceworthy. I’d have kept watching even if the Alien hadn’t started dispatching the crew who, as it turned out, weren’t going to make it to their next paycheque.
But it wasn’t until I got to play space-sim Genesis Alpha One that I was really able to step into the shoes of the Nostromo’s crew, an experience I’d been craving since I first saw the film. Alien: Isolation, for all its strengths, overlooks certain aspects of Alien and the Alien universe. Despite its title, it never carries with it any real sense of isolation. And while the Nostromo’s crew were the emotional heart of Alien, you spend so little time in the company of Isolation’s NPCs that, outside of the initial jump scare, you don’t really care when the Alien hauls them off for a special hug.
Genesis Alpha One, on the other hand, recreates the atmosphere of Alien to the point that, despite the lack of an official license (and aided by the game’s first person perspective) it feels like you’re walking the low-tech corridors of the Nostromo.
Right from the word go you’re aware how excruciatingly alone you are and how tiny your salvage vessel is against the vastness of space. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes occurs when the Nostromo’s crew finds themselves in a remote planetary system; you can read the horror on their faces as they realise just how far from home, and from rescue, they are. In Genesis Alpha One you’re subjected to that deeply unsettling sensation every time you jump to another system. As the hyperdrive winds down you’re left gazing into the uncharted void; you don’t have the comforting presence of No Man’s Sky’s welcome space stations or, indeed any other space traffic at all. You are utterly alone.
The game’s permadeath mechanic further underlines just how precarious your situation is and how little your corporate employers care about you. Were they able to rescue you, they’d be more concerned with retrieving the minerals you’ve mined instead of fishing your corpses out of the cold depths of space. It’s not surprising, then, that you find solace in the presence of your crewmates. There's an antagonistic element to Alien’s crew interactions; Brett and Parker, the ship’s mechanics adopt a “them and us” attitude to stay sane, frequently antagonising Sigourney Weaver’s character.
But watching them dine together, before John Hurt’s lunch disagrees with him, it’s apparent how strongly they’ve gelled, unified by their shared experiences and grievances. Genesis Alpha One gives you the same, and perhaps necessary, opportunity to get to bond with your crew, though it never forces you to forge interpersonal relationships. Your crew are a less diverse bunch than the Nostromo’s crew (provided you don’t start tinkering with their DNA), nor are they anywhere near as a talkative. But you spend so much time in their company that you’ll grow attached to them, and accustomed to their presence.
As in Alien, the chain of command is very tenuous, but you’re theoretically the captain, which leads to a great deal of genre-appropriate introspection. Do you follow the (loose) chain of command and delegate dangerous situations or, as Dallas did when he chose to pursue the Alien, put yourself in the firing line? I initially chose the former option until, after sending my crew planetside, Crewman Chuff McGinty (I may have tampered with their names) was devoured by space scorpions. His loss hit me so hard that I decided to personally intervene on every trip, permadeath be damned.
Genesis Alpha One’s first person perspective ensures that you become familiar with and suspicious of, every nook and cranny, every creak and groan. True, there’s no lone killing machine pursuing you through the ship but skittering alien critters can find their way below decks and problems will snowball if you fail to take care of them. The Nostromo’s mechanics, Parker and Brett, were portrayed as a couple of slackers but, struggling to keep my craft in one piece, and being pitched into space when a corridor collapsed, gave me a new found respect for their skills.
Not that day to day life would have been any easier for the rest of the Nostromo’s crew or the company’s other employees. Genesis Alpha One emulates and expands on the kind of routine that they undertake, from charting new destinations to checking essential systems and performing salvage. Yet this becomes oddly comforting, as it likely did for the Nostromo’s crew, who perform their tasks almost on autopilot. In the same manner that the Nostromo’s crew are presumably paid just enough not to quit, you’re given just enough of a reward (in the form of resources) to keep performing tasks. And, likewise, it’s never something you joyfully engage in; as in Alien, Genesis Alpha One’s world is one where you begrudgingly tolerate your job, not like it.
The more time you spend with Genesis Alpha One, the more it morphs into an authentic Alien experience, so much so that you expect Sigourney Weaver to come walking round the corner. In Alien, the Nostromo was every bit as much a character as the human cast, with its dimly lit corridors and claustrophobic vents. Your craft, too, takes on a character all its own becoming more labyrinthine the more modules you add to it; every dimly-lit corridor and chunky wall panel echoes Alien's grounded aesthetic.
The icing on the cake is the dramatic sense of timing the game sometimes exhibits, subjecting you to the kind of unpleasant coincidences that plague sci-fi films. In the same way that Ash, the Nostromo's android, just happens to malfunction when the xenomorph is on board, for dramatic effect, Genesis Alpha One will sometimes helpfully alert you to a significant malfunction just as the door of your shuttle is closing. I've no proof the game micro-manages the peril it puts you in, but given that there are usually long stretches of quiet beforehand I have my suspicions.
I've accepted that I'm not going to get an official Alien game (other than the downloadable content available for Alien: Isolation) but, after playing Genesis Alpha One, I'm not sure I want one. An official Alien game would, after all, have to adhere to the game's plot, robbing it of any real surprises. Genesis Alpha One takes the essence of Alien, going beyond the xenomorph itself, and stretches it out to deliver the unsettling, unpredictable Alien experience I've long sought after.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.