The best kind of horror game doesn’t need any guns. It doesn’t need to scare you with difficult enemy encounters and shock value. Sometimes, silence is scarier than all of that.
This story has been retimed to coincide with Alien Day, a celebration of all things Alien, where you can get the entire Alien: Isolation collection for just under $12.
That’s a lot of what Alien: Isolation is about. Creeping through dark hallways of a mostly-abandoned space station called Sevostopol, you have to try your best to make yourself unknown. Amanda Ripley, the star of this Alien experience, does have a gun. But I almost never equipped the pistol or flamethrower that I picked up in my roughly hour and a half with the game.
I asked developer Creative Assembly’s creative lead/writer, Alistair Hope, about survival horror, guns, and the legacy left behind by Aliens: Colonial Marines. “We were never going to put a pulse rifle in this game,” he said. “It’s just not what this game is about. This game is about survival, it’s not about killing. It’s about, in any given situation, having the player having to make those choices and having this constant checklist of, ‘Ok, where am I, what’s happening, what have I got at hand, can I do anything, can I build something, if I build it is it actually the right thing at the right time,’ and then it’s down to the timing of when I have to throw this thing and so it’s kind of making the player continuously judge and measure what’s going on. It was really important to me that every action the player had had some kind of risk associated with it so there’s no kind of magic bullet.”
Hope: “We were never going to put a pulse rifle in this game.”
Guns are there, but they mostly felt useless. “There are weapons, and they don’t have the same role that they have in other games,” Hope said. “They are these kind of desperate choices. They might work. It’s about trying to change the odds.”
Even the flamethrower, which feels like a super-powered weapon, isn’t weighted the same it is in other games. “You think, ‘Alright, here we go. This is the answer to everything,” Hope said about the flamethrower. “Actually 1) resource is really scarce and 2) the alien understands fire and if you just aim it at the alien it will back off. And he’s not stupid, he’s not going to run at you. It’s more likely to try to get around you. It’s very reactive situation.”
You don’t have much ammunition for any weapon and they get you into more trouble than you were already in more often than not. Hope and I both anticipate crazy offensive tactics and impressive speedruns when the game releases, but going in guns blazing is just one option, and likely not the smartest one. So I mostly stayed away from using them.
I did, however, grip onto a motion tracker device almost at all times, always aware that an alien encounter is just one too-fast step away. Before you can see a yellow blip pop up onto the device, before you can hear the scratching claws of the solitary Xenomorph that is hunting you from inside the walls and the ceiling, you can feel that murderous presence all around you.
I think I must have moved slower than most of the other journalists who started the demo at the same time as me. I stood frozen, staring at the motion tracker for probably far longer than I should have. At a point of time I was, no exaggeration, exiting lockers just to scramble right back into the same one. My motion tracker was almost constantly going off, beeping threateningly at me.
Turns out I was probably more nervous than I needed to be. During my interview with him, Hope told me that the motion tracker is constantly sensing the alien’s presence, because it’s constantly there. But that’s not to say that it’s noticed you just yet. “It’s running under its own senses, mainly of sight and sound,” he told me in an interview last month in Los Angeles. “When it’s in the pipework, in the vents, it’s just navigating around waiting to have one of those senses triggered. If you make a noise, [for instance]. [The alien will] navigate around the world looking and listening. If it doesn’t perceive anything it will just drop down and have a look. That could be at any point. It could come across humans and then you hear this gun fight and you see people running past windows.”
So the alien is at once unpredictable and predictable.
Hope: “[The alien will] navigate around the world looking and listening. If it doesn’t perceive anything it will just drop down and have a look. That could be at any point.”
Eventually I learned to take a few more risks. I’d walk as calm as I could to duck under tables or, if I was lucky, exit to a new room, where I’d immediately have to enter a locker again to hide from the Xenomorph who apparently couldn’t take its nostrils off of me, always on my trail. I felt like I couldn’t have a moment’s rest to explore each room, to search for resources. If some ammunition was near me I’d grab them, but I mostly didn’t want to be caught clicking buttons in random corners for the Xenomorph to plop down and grab me, its spit spreading between its teeth, taunting me before each death.
You can’t run, because you’ll make too much noise. You can’t turn your flashlight on, because you’ll get spotted. You can, however, creep around silently, and hide in every new room you enter. Eventually I had my first encounter that forced me out of my dependency on trying not to pierce the silence of the space station I was navigating. I saw a few humans, who immediately brandished their guns at me and yelled for me to leave. They seemed almost as terrified as they did eager to put me down. While I cowered in a locker, sure that the lone Xenomorph would get here any second given the amount of noise the shouting moron was making, I saw the human walk into the room I’d dipped into, pacing back and forth searching for me and muttering about how I had to leave immediately. They sounded like words of a madman.
I couldn’t understand why the Xenomorph didn’t make its appearance yet, and then I finally gathered up the courage to run into the room — where I realised there were actually multiple humans — and fired off a few rounds. Not to kill anyone, though. I wanted to make my own noise, because clearly the alien was only attracted to noise I’d made, not anyone or anything else. I dipped back into my trusty locker again, and watched as the humans came running after me, firing off bullets and then, just like I planned, squashed by the alien.
The Xenomorph paced around, sniffed my locker while I clutched onto the controller as if I was clutching onto the motion tracker, and it started to make its way back to whatever hiding place it’d come from. I looked down at my motion tracker again, the backdrop blurring to focus my vision on the digital screen, and I saw the dot slowly move on. It moved off the screen, but I could still see the pulsing yellow colour indicating that the alien was close. Close, but avoidable. I could sneak back out again and, provided I was careful, I just might survive this, I thought.
I eventually found my way to well-lit, fairly open room in the shape of a square or rectangle. I could walk all the way around, and I did so, carefully. Soon I realised there was no Xenomorph coming this way. I ran around. I felt free! I examined every corner. Then I found the two generators. I assessed my equipment, just in case a fight was actually going to come, and turned both generators on. Machines started up and it was then that I noticed a tube encasing an android. The glass tube started opening up. Uh oh. Then the android stepped out. I pulled my pistol out and shot the hell out of its brain, but nothing. I threw a molotov at it, nothing. I tried lighting it on fire with my flamethrower, nothing.
In one hit, with its glowing eyes barely a foot away from mine, I was dead. On my next try I set up some traps and planned my attack more strategically, but it didn’t look like I was dealing this thing any damage. So on the advice of one of the game’s developers, I went back to the Alien basics: I tried hiding. I crouched around the room, always making sure I was out of the android’s line of sight, and made my way over to a computer terminal. After completing a mini-game involving matching symbols to a provided code, the doors opened and I ran out.
Hope: “Horror is kind of about not knowing and feeling underpowered and underprepared for what you’re confronted with.”
High on fear, I’d forgotten the number one rule in this game: don’t make any noise, don’t get spotted. In almost an instant the alien spotted and killed me on my panicked run down the now-open hallway. So on my respawn I took my time, letting the game automatically tuck me under tables and chairs as I crouched near them. Eventually I managed to duck under enough cover along this hallway to avoid the frightened, shooting humans and the bloodthirsty alien that just knew someone was out there, hiding.
When I did make my way down the hallway, I burst through the doors at its end. There were lights shining in all directions and all of a sudden the alien pounced down right in front of me, snarling. But something happened and the ship started to tip and we both slid down its floor to who knows what end and…that’s the end of my demo.
During my interview with Hope I asked him what horror was to him. “Horror is kind of about not knowing and feeling underpowered and underprepared for what you’re confronted with.” And that’s exactly how I felt playing Alien: Isolation.