I’m Still Not Over Alien: Isolation
Contributed by DJMMT
As it is now October, I have been thinking a lot about horror games. I am not a horror game fan. There are a lot of things about horror games that I don’t enjoy at a mechanical level. They’re almost always in first person, which I hate as a general design choice regardless of the genre. They tend to rely heavily on jump scares, which any writer worth their salt will tell you is a cheap scare. I also dislike zombies as a general plot device, and those are way over done in every visual genre of entertainment. Video games especially. Finally, I find the horror game genre to be extremely derivative at a conceptual level. An overwhelming number of horror games focus on either zombies or ghosts. Even monsters aren’t that big of a concept in horror games today. It always goes back to zombies or ghosts. And when they do attempt to do monster horror, it’s always H.P. Lovecraft. How many times are we gonna fight secret cults and discover/prevent the return of Cthulhu? No offense to Lovecraft, but that lore is played out. Yet every so often an actually good and original horror game releases.
I don’t play many horror games, as I’ve already said I am not a fan. But I make it a point to try to play at least one a year in October, because Halloween. There are some exceptional ones in an ocean of over used ideas and mediocre gameplay designs. The most recent one that I really enjoyed was Until Dawn. I actually wasn’t interested in the game. I bought it on sale some years ago and never got around to it. Eventually I think I got it free on PS Plus as well before I actually played it. I had two different people tell me it was really good, but I just wasn’t interested. Ultimately, I ended up finally playing it last year, because my wife and I wanted to play a horror game together for Halloween. We both really enjoyed it. Best horror game I’ve played in years. Because of how much we liked it, I bought Man of Medan thinking it would be even better. It wasn’t. It was OK but not nearly as well written or polished as Until Dawn. We still plan on playing Little Hope and House of Ashes, but my expectations are much lower than they were going into Man of Medan. Until Dawn was excellent but it still does not compare to Alien: Isolation.
If you asked me to describe the perfect horror game, I wouldn’t take the time to try to describe it at a conceptual level. I’d just say flat out that it was Alien: Isolation. That game is so well made that I didn’t even mind that it was in first person. Every aspect of it was high quality horror in video game form. That development team truly understood two things better than most teams ever will. The first is that a great horror game starts with a great story.
The thing about Alien: Isolation that makes it so good is that from the very start it has a compelling narrative. To be fair, they cheated to achieve that. Creative Assembly understood that of all the movies in the Alien franchise, the original film was the most terrifying. So they used that specific film as the basis for their narrative. The game follows Ripley’s daughter as a follow up to the original film that takes place years later. They copied a lot from that movie. Basic concepts like the robots going rogue are pulled straight out of the original film. They knew they couldn’t outdo the movie, so instead they chose to emulate it, and that was absolutely the right decision. Alien: Isolation’s plot is compelling and impactful in much the same way that the original film’s plot is.
They second thing the developers understood in their conception of a horror game was that true terror doesn’t come from what you’re seeing in a video game. It comes from what you’re doing. Alien: Isolation has nothing in it that you haven’t seen before. The xenomorph isn’t mutated in any way. It’s not a new breed or anything like that. It’s just the classic xenomorph we’ve seen countless times. The robots are unimpressive looking by comparison to many other robots in video games both before and after the game released. They’re just bald white men with glowing eyes. The simplest of designs. Yet the game is horrifying to play. Because the fear isn’t induced by the things trying to kill you at face value. There’s no dramatic boss reveal or overtly violent cinematics. No, the fear is all in the experience of simply playing the game.
Everything you do in Alien: Isolation is fear inducing, because of how it’s done. Even saving is extremely stressful. Not just finding a save point but the act of actually saving the game is a nerve wracking experience. It’s a slow process that you aren’t guaranteed to complete. You can’t just sprint to the bonfire and all the enemies chasing after you disappear. You can be killed in the middle of trying to save. The xenomorph can show up and take you out at any time. It happened to me. Crafting in a corner, thinking you’re safe is scary. Taking the time to check the motion sensor, because then you’re not looking at your surroundings, is scary. The game places you in a constant state of worry while doing the most mundane of tasks. And at any time the xenomorph can just show up and tear you apart. It’s not a game with scary moments, though it does have a few contextually valid jump scares, such as when the robot laying on the ground comes to life and grabs your leg. Instead, it’s just a game that’s scary. Not just the atmosphere or the characters. The actual process of playing the game is scary. It’s stressful just walking down a hallway. There is no safe zone between events. There is no moment where you know you’re good for a while. It’s a constant atmosphere thick with fear. And it does this while maintaining a compelling narrative.
If Alien: Isolation was only about the fear, I’d probably not have finished it. I finished it in spite of the fear inducing experience it was, because the narrative was so compelling. Granted I’m speaking as a hardcore Alien fan. The narrative absolutely assumes a general interest and knowledge of the the franchise going in. But the point is that you’re not playing a game looking for scary moments. You’re playing a scary game that follows a compelling story. It’s not the atmosphere that holds you. It’s not the gameplay. It’s not the graphics or the audio experience. It’s everything coupled with a great story. That’s the kind of horror game I like to play. If the only selling point is that it’s scary, I don’t consider it a horror game worth my time.
Alien: Isolation came out seven years ago, and I’m still not over it. I’m still angry that they never made and most likely never will make a sequel. I’m still angry that I’ve yet to play another horror game that I enjoyed as much as that game. Most of all, I’m still angry that the reason we didn’t and probably won’t ever get a sequel is because the game didn’t sell well enough. Because that means the lack of a sequel isn’t because the studio just doesn’t/didn’t have interest in such a project. It means the gaming community doesn’t have enough interest in such a project. Not enough pew pew. Too much story. Not enough action-packed story beats. All the things that make the game great are exactly why it wasn’t as successful as it deserved to be. Years of the public being constantly fed trash games with AAA publisher backing have corrupted both the audience and the system. So we’ll continue to get more zombie shooters and more first person haunted house walking simulators with little to no variation on the horror game formula. But at least we’ll probably get more giant vampire ladies to fantasize about stepping on us I guess . . .