Let’s Play Alien: Isolation – Part 2: Sensory Overload

Arriving in Seegson Communications was ideally going to be a reprieve from the alien after my initial encounter. While certainly it did make some distance between myself and the xenomorph, it did introduce me to something else that was equally challenging by introducing the Working Joe’s.

Picking up from the end of our first diary, we enter the Seegson Communications wing and are introduced to the ‘Working Joe’s’: a series of rubber-faced automatons which bear a resemblance to many of the androids that appear throughout the Alien series. While these androids are largely humanoid, there is little consideration for imbuing human characteristics upon them. While functional and autonomous as non-player characters in the game, it’s clear from their design that they are intended as slave workers to operate many of the functions within the Sevastopol station. To say I was wary of their intent and the any potential (read: guaranteed) turn in the plot, was an understatement. I had left one problem only to immerse myself in another.  Only this time, the problem was standing right in front of me.

There had been some reference to the Working Joe’s back in the opening hour of the game, with painted scribbles on walls warning us of their intent. Any subsequent skepticism is warranted given their design: with voices often lifeless and monotone and little expression to be derived from their rubber faces. If anything it was a reminder of a totally different film and game series: as it is indicated in James Cameron’s Terminator (and indeed in several video games such as Future Shock), the T-600 series of robot had rubber skin. They were easily spotted and clearly identified as a threat. Beyond all this, there is the fundamental fact that any non-player character I had met was either aggressive or (vaguely) cooperative. The big difference between those two classifications, was that the majority of cooperative characters I had met were either distant, crippled in some fashion, or dead.

[pullquote]Any non-player character I had met was aggressive or vaguely and unwillingly cooperative.  However, the majority of cooperative characters were either distant, crippled or dead.[/pullquote]

The sense of unease attributed to the Joe’s walking around, even if passive to my presence, was tolerable given that the alien itself was not around; allowing me to relax the stealth muscles I had only just crafted in part 1. In the opening hours, we had only just began to train these skills, first with hostile humans and then secondly with the alien, even if that latter exchange was rather brief. It’s smart to take a moment to relax this tension and the challenge it presents to allow us some reprieve. Given this isn’t going to be a short game, allowing me the chance to take a break is going to help maintain my playthrough.

Well, I’m more or less committed to this given I’m going to do the whole diary, but it would at least make things easier.

While originally passive and helpful, how can you trust a face like that?
While originally passive and helpful, how can you trust a face like that?

The actual purpose of this segment of the game became rather clear not long after, as we discover a motion tracker lying on a workbench. It evokes the style of motion trackers seen in both the original movie, but also in James Cameron’s sequel. I found it interesting that its design seems to be derived more from the tracker in Aliens. I imagine this is partially due to the fact the tracker in Alien was cumbersome and the user interface wasn’t exactly obvious. The other reason arguably being screen time: the tracker in Aliens is iconic, with the scenes in which it is adopted heavily being some of the most memorable from that film.  It has subsequently been adopted in some form in almost every game inspired by the Alien series. As a result, Creative Assembly have made an interesting visual and functional design that is both pragmatic while also a retro-imagining of technology from Aliens, which takes place some 40 or 50 years in the future.

The Seegson Communications chapter is a finely crafted tutorial for the motion tracker.
The Seegson Communications chapter is a finely crafted tutorial for the motion tracker.

Regardless, it becomes apparent that this area of the station is designed to be a safe place to test out the tracker. The Working Joe’s have been rather passive thus far and can move around the environment freely. As a result, the tracker proves to be a fun tool for observing these AI characters in the current game state. We can observe whether characters are moving, but with a number of caveats and features that continue to make the motion tracker an interesting game mechanic:

1) It adheres to the original conceit of the tracker in that we know how far away a NPC is, but we still have the mental task of then identifying the location relative to the local geography.
2) We cannot really focus on the tracker and the environment at the same time. The need to focus our eyes on a particular object means we focus on one or the other.  This is the first time I have seen this implemented such that depth-of-field shifts depending on the focus of the players eyes.  I love how such a simple mechanic will increase the tension in hostile situations.
3) If we cannot watch the tracker, we can still listen to it. Audio confirmation of objects proximity through a radar-like pulse can both inform and panic the character with ease.
4) We learn throughout this chapter that this tool is not 100% reliable: with interference in the signal while travelling through air vents: which are a key part of the aliens strategy.

But thankfully, we don’t have to deal with the alien right now. So it becomes apparent that at some point, these Joe’s will become hostile, given the need to train me in how to use this new tool while refining my stealth skills. So having been given the narrative context of trying to get in touch with Amanda’s colleagues, we find ourselves trapped in this corner of the station where the Joe’s are now actively incapacitating or killing humans in the area. Despite this, the Joe’s are not systematically exploring the map and instead exhibit routine navigation behaviours. Unless a Joe hears something in proximity or catches you in their (limited) line of sight, they will simply continue their walking pattern. This provides a safety net: with this deterministic behaviour offering an opportunity to learn how to use the motion tracker. The observations in the motion tracker, tied with our implicit knowledge that the behaviour of the Joe’s are fixed, allows for a smooth learning curve and you quickly gain a sense of accomplishment by successfully avoiding several of these androids in quick succession.  Of course, it’s important to appreciate the simplicity of the Joe’s AI behaviour in comparison to the alien which – at present – is still something of an unknown.  It’s a long process, largely due to my own conscientious approach, but we successfully get in contact with my colleagues and receive a new objective to head towards the San Cristobol medical wing.  All the while, I gain a new set of really useful skills in a relatively safe environment. As we now return back to the transit hub after Seegson Communications, we can really put these skills to the test.

Ah yes... I remember you.
Ah yes… I remember you.

[pullquote]I was such an idiot: everything I had just been taught I ignored and foolishly walked into the open[/pullquote]

We head back to the transit hub, specifically to the location I saw the alien kill three people earlier. The first thing that happens, due to my own stupidity is that I first get grabbed by a supposedly dead Joe and then the alien kills me. We saw this at the end of the first diary entry. In hindsight, I was such an idiot: everything I had just been taught I ignored and foolishly walked into the open, made too much noise and pretty much offered myself to the xenomorph. Did this alleviate the tension and unease I felt? A little, but not enough. However, it was something of a relief to finally die by its hand. Hopefully, as we die more at the hands of the AI, this will be relaxed even more.

As this chapter of the diary wraps up, we successfully navigate back through the transport hub towards the San Cristobol medical wing.  As noted, the alien is moving around this area and while the experience is relatively short, it does give us some time to test the motion tracker against the alien.  One feature of the motion tracker that is as useful as it is frustrating is that we can almost always detect where the xenomorph is and can even track it as it moves around the map using air vents.  Sure, this is a highly useful bit of information, but at the same time, the game never lets us forget that this creature is nearby.  It’s only when it has moved beyond the range of the scanner can we have some sort of reprieve.  However, given that this thing can move quickly through airvents that do not respect the local topography, such a distance can be quickly eliminated.  Despite this, we’re now a little more prepared for what will come my way next, thanks to the primitive behaviour of the Working Joe’s and how the use of simple AI techniques can act as a tutorial for future gameplay sequences.

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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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