Welp, 2014 is at an end, and it’s been an intense year in which my blogging experiment was put on indefinite hold. A lot of stuff happened, most of it kinda … bad.
Eventually, I mean to maybe unpack all that here, including the things that I learned and the things that I struggle(d) to deal with. In the meantime, since I’ve been out of it for a while, I figure I’ll highlight a few of the movies, books, stories and games I encountered in the last year that I rather enjoyed.
Up first is what is quite possibly my favorite game of 2014: Alien: Isolation.
We’ve talked before about how big an impact Alien has had on me as a piece of cinema, as a push into science fiction and horror and as a reason for writing. So Alien: Isolation — a game that focuses on the film Alien and its horrific haunted house, rather than on Aliens with its shooting things — was something to which I looked forward for the whole of 2014. I wasn’t disappointed when it was released in October. The title is gorgeous and painstakingly true to the film from an aesthetic standpoint. I was told by one of the developers that there are no objects or props that appear in the game that couldn’t have been created on set in 1979.
Reading the conversations surrounding the game has been fascinating since I feel like my experience has been different in comparison to a lot of people.
At this point, I’ve written a ton about Alien: Isolation for GameFront, as I have had several chances to preview the game before it came out (and I managed to convince everyone at work that I am the “Alien guy”). I expected the game would be too hard and too uncompromising for some players — it offers little in the way of help and it’s unforgiving at times as players face it’s towering 9-foot, adaptive creature.
Still, every week or two, a critic or player to whom I pay attention will rail against the game’s manual save points or its stealthy, hide-and-seek-and-hide-and-try-not-to-die gameplay. Not to discount the experiences of those other people, but I think Alien: Isolation is an easy game to play wrong. It requires a particular kind of style in order to survive its challenges. It is meant to replicate a very particular feeling: that of watching the movie Alien. That experience is not for everyone and not everyone is willing to make the compromises Isolation demands in order to enjoy it. Some players see those compromises as a weaknesses, but I don’t necessarily think that they are.
There’s something to be said for authorial intent in video games when it comes to difficulty, I think, although it’s not an area where most developers necessarily recognize that they can or do exercise an intent. In so many games, there’s effort made to carefully empower players — to push them without pushing them too much. Too much challenge is frustrating; too little is dull. Many games are created with this in mind and, seemingly, in fear of upsetting the balance. Developers worry players will put down their controllers.
Meanwhile, games such as Alien: Isolation seem to have difficulty in mind as part of the experience. It’s less something to be ratcheted up and down so players can find their comfort zone; in the case of Isolation, the developers at The Creative Assembly had a journey they wanted players to take. That journey required an intentional degree of challenge. When you start up Alien: Isolation, the game informs you that it was intended to be played on the “Hard” level difficulty, the highest of its three original settings.
Having a game tell you it intends to beat you is still not especially common (despite a few contrary examples), especially when big-budget games in particular seem angled to get players from one set piece to another, to let them grow their strength and feel powerful along the way. Developers often lament how few people see games to completion — the numbers are dismal.
Alien: Isolation is willing to be tough because that’s what its authors intended it to be like. It includes old-school game mechanics, like a manual save system that requires you to physically approach a terminal and spend a few vulnerable seconds logging your progress. It lets you die, over and over, because so few people in Alien films are able to survive.
In much of Alien: Isolation, there’s a clarity of vision, a sense of a particular feeling the game intends to convey above any or all other concerns. There’s also at least some willingness to commit to that vision. And that’s what made it one of the things I liked in 2014.