Let’s Play Alien: Isolation – Part 1

In this multi-part series, we will be documenting the process of attempting to complete the main playthrough of Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation. Discussing the importance and relevance of this title and our experiences of interacting with the alien as we progress.

I’ll start this diary with a confession I’ve never made public: when watching the Alien series for the first time, it wasn’t in chronological order.

Now, this needs a frame of reference: I first watched the Alien movies in my early-mid teens (around 14 or 15 I think), so this long pre-dates the more recent entries in cinemas such as Alien Vs Predator and Prometheus.  You’re at that stage of your life when you really want to watch all those cool films that sat on the shelves; complete with their ominous box art and obscure stills from the film itself placed haphazardly on the back of the VHS box (that’s right kids, this is mid-1990’s, so pre-DVD era).  My father, in an example of ‘how-to-be-a-great-Dad-by-not-following-the-rules’, would let me sit and watch films with him that I had pestered him about on several occasions.  It was through this assault on his senses that I managed to watch both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day by the time I was around 13 or 14 years old.  In many respects, this not only helped nurture a fascination with artificial intelligence, but my equally unhealthy love for Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The man has a lot to answer for, but I digress.  When it came to the Alien series, the first film I successfully watched was James Cameron’s Aliens.

Only one major spoiler on the box art. 6/10
Only one major spoiler on the box art. 6/10

There are many reasons that, in hindsight, I have been able to cobble together. The prevailing theory is that in Aliens there was a greater sense of control over the proceedings than in Ridley Scott’s original.  Aliens is a rare example of a sequel that successfully manages to deviate heavily from the original by subverting the themes of the first movie: with the sexual horrors of penetrative violence and rape from the original replaced with the theme of maternity as the alien queen and Ripley act as matriarchs for their species.  This sense of control, as I considered it, comes largely from the militaristic themes driven by the United States Colonial Marines whose task is to wipe out the alien infestation and protect their own interests.  The irony of this is that now that I’m older, it’s clear that Cameron was actually telling an anti-war film: establishing parallels between the actions of the USCM on LV-426 and the American military in Vietnam.

Despite this, the key fact in my young mind was that the aliens could be killed.  While the film ultimately argues about the futility of such action, given the number of these creatures attacking this military force, as far as I was concerned it was gradually diminishing a finite number of them.  There is of course the obvious fact that it was a really cool film, but it established a fundamental distinction between itself and its predecessor that is perhaps best expressed in a sister-franchise by (my hero) Arnold Schwarzenegger: “if it bleeds, we can kill it”.

Returning to Ridley Scott’s original film Alien, it took me several attempts to watch it from start to finish – after having watched Aliens several times – all because of the core premise of the first movie: there is an Alien on board, it can’t be killed, it can’t be stopped and it is coming for you.  [pullquote]There is an Alien on board, it can’t be killed, it can’t be stopped and it is coming for you.[/pullquote]The tension of the original film makes it stand out still to this day as arguably the definitive science-fiction horror film, setting a scene that is both familiar yet foreign, with the promise of the titular monster on the horizon.  It’s arguably a trait that many modern horror films fail to establish: a looming sense of dread that doesn’t need jump-scares or gore to be reinforced.  The first couple of times I tried to watch it, I could not even reach the infamous dinner scene: the tension brewing underneath throughout forced me to walk away, knowing what was coming genuinely scared me.

The opening hour of Alien: Isolation reminded me what that fear felt like.


AlienIsolation

Isolation

The first hour or so of Alien: Isolation is a wonderful example of pacing seldom found in game design, with a clear emphasis on ensuring that the player is immersed in the environment crafted on the Sevestapol long before the titular character makes its appearance.  It draws many of its ideas from the first two movies in the Alien series, in establishing a sense of dread both the through the unknown and the familiar.  Once again I am placed in the situation I found myself as a kid, in that the tension makes me anxious.  The environment art of the game does a fantastic job: not merely mimicking the 1970’s style that is equally industrious as it is futuristic, but embraces it in a variety of locales that were not previously seen in the original film.  It’s a true testimony to the art team that the environments feel part of that universe, despite it being made almost 40 years later.  This only raises my anxiety, given it feels so much like we are trapped in this universe.

Not knowing when the alien will appear or how made the first couple of hours of gameplay rather gruelling and in many respects, harder than future gameplay sessions.  If anything, knowing where the alien is and being made aware of its presence would actually be a comfort.  It’s the distinct lack of conflict that proves difficult to handle.  A true testimony to how well this works is that I am fully aware of how ludicrous this whole situation is.  The Let’s Play AI series is an opportunity to discuss interesting AI implementations and here I am too afraid to confront that which we are here to examine.

AlienIsolation3
The Sevastopol is a wonderful environment to explore: fear bred both from the familiarity of the space and the promise that this environment brings in context of the narrative.

The pace is quickened somewhat by the introduction of other human characters, who not only help set the scene, but remind me of their (and my) impending doom.  The game after all places emphasis on the titular isolation.  Once accompanied by the character Axel, I’m simply waiting for his eventual demise.  Creative Assembly do an excellent job of placing us in more than one situation (as detailed in the video) where I felt this was the moment Axel would perish, only for it not to happen.  His death was put on hold, and that feeling in my stomach only got worse. [pullquote]Axel’s death was put on hold and that feeling in my stomach only got worse.[/pullquote] Axel eventually perishes in front of me, with his death signalling the arrival of the xenomorph.  However, this continued suspense is propelled towards desperation, as the game smartly does not yet reveal the monster.  Instead, we are made aware of its presence as we race for a transit shuttle to another part of the station.  This really doesn’t help.  I’m fully aware that the alien is now in play, but I have no means by which to interpret how it will interact with me and the environment around it.

So much credit must be given to the art team at Creative Assembly whose art style successfully places the Sevastopol into the universe of the first Alien movie.
So much credit must be given to the art team at Creative Assembly whose art style successfully places the Sevastopol into the universe of the first Alien movie.

Not long after another altercation with humans arises.  In hindsight much of this acts as a tutorial on the basics of sneaking around, given so much of your time dealing with other humans is focussed on avoiding their navigation patterns.  It all becomes rather useful once I stumble upon the alien as it crawls out of an air vent. [pullquote]The opening hours trains us to play stealthily and smartly.[/pullquote]

Suddenly the opening hours make a lot more sense, the game trains us to play stealthily and smartly.  All of these circumstances where I am forced to hide from humans has taught me the dangers of line of sight and staying hidden.  A subsequent reinforcement of such gameplay is driven by the death of the humans I met in the last altercation at the hands of the alien, despite their use of firearms.  It’s cementing that fundamental principle from the films, the thing that made me so scared as a child.  This thing will not stop and, in time, it’s focus is going to be placed upon me.

Escaping to Seegson Communications at the end of this first diary was a tremendous relief.  If anything, I was hoping that the alien would not be following me into the next area.  Perhaps I can have a reprieve for now?  I had yet to figure out how to deal with this thing and learn how it thinks, which I suppose is largely the point of this diary.  If we can resolve that issue, then perhaps this experience will prove less stressful in the long run.

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Tommy Thompson Written by:

Tommy is the writer and producer of AI and Games. He’s a senior lecturer in computer science and researcher in artificial intelligence with applications in video games. He’s also an indie video game developer with Table Flip Games. Because y’know… fella’s gotta keep himself busy.

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