As I attempt to stay active in the realm of creating stuff and talking about things, I’ve been doing some video game streaming on Twitch and posting the videos on YouTube. With the recent attention on Alien again thanks to Neill Blomkamp, I replayed Alien: Isolation for the third time.
I finished the game again this week on “Nightmare Mode,” the post-release difficulty mode that takes things up from “hard” to “ridiculous,” or at least it seemed that way at the start. Isolation was already tough because of its alien, an AI-driven character that reacts to the situation with procedurally dictated behaviors, but Nightmare Mode removes a bunch of the player’s prime tools of dealing with the creature. Supplies to make things like bombs and distractions are heavily limited; the alien adapts much more quickly to your tricks, making it tougher to use tools like the flamethrower (a staple of easier modes) to save your own life; the motion tracker, your most-used tool, is buggy and unreliable; you have no heads-up display information about things like your own health, which means you’re never really sure whether your next close encounter with an android, the game’s most ubiquitous enemy, will be survivable; and you’re robbed of the map, your most important weapon, which means you’ll sometimes hit dead ends or wander into areas of the level while trying to escape danger, which will place you in more danger.
At first blush, Nightmare Mode sounded insurmountable, but especially after two full hard-mode runs on the game, I found it a fun challenge that further amplifies the thing Alien: Isolation does best: conveying a sense of dread. The mode is far from impossible to complete, it just forces you to play better and smarter, and punishes you when you screw up by forcing you to make use of your highly limited resources. Flashing the alien with the flamethrower is much more tense when you know the weapon might sputter and die before you manage to slip off and hide. Slipping off and hiding is much more worrisome when you know that flash of the flamethrower cost you one you could have used in the future — and that you’ll probably need it.
What I appreciated most is the lack of resources in all areas means playing Alien: Isolation with no crutches. The things you can only really rely on are your own senses and your wits, and Isolation’s design is strong enough throughout to accommodate you. The motion tracker stops being an info-dump on the alien’s whereabouts and becomes instead a mere hint, a useful update, about its location — what you really need to do is listen. Alien: Isolation has pulled down a bunch of awards for sound design at this point and they’re all extremely well-deserved, with Nightmare Mode proving you can play the game, and survive it, pretty much by sound alone. You can’t rely on the tracker or your weapons, but the sound design means that paying attention rewards you with all the information you really need.
Then, toward the end of the game, Alien: Isolation does this absolutely evil thing where it brings up the music in some dire situations, suddenly robbing you of your best source of information. In the end, it manages to scare one last time by kicking that last support out from under you.
Overall, I think Nightmare Mode is my favorite way to experience the game. It makes every decision even weightier and each moment that much more tense. It’s not so hard as to be unbeatable, but it is so hard that you come away with an intense respect for the experience and for facing off against the alien. Nightmare Mode best captures the frightening, dread-inducing, unstoppable aspects of the alien that Isolation was looking to convey. It’s the most realized version of the game’s vision.
So as has been stated by me and others, Isolation really gets right the things it set out to do, like reinvigorating the alien as something frightening, and recreating the experience of Alien at the visceral, moment-to-moment level. Those are two things the game does really well. A third is the creation of its setting, Sevastopol, which is an interesting space that’s disintegrating constantly, less because of the alien and more because of the harsh realities of the Alien universe: in space, no one can hear you getting crushed under the weight of an indifferent economy.
Fascinating as Sevastopol is, and frightening and dread-inducing as I find the game, though, my latest turn in Alien: Isolation reminds me of the game’s biggest flaws in a way that was tougher to ignore than in previous runs. Isolation’s biggest issue is that it lacks humanity. It’s heavily disinterested in telling any story that goes beyond “we could get off this station if only someone would walk two miles and pushes a button,” and while it couches itself as being about the closure sought by Amanda Ripley in finding out what happened to her mother, it delivers none of that, nor really any emotional investment in that idea.
As Chris Franklin rightly points out in his “Errant Signal” episode about the game, in the scene in which Amanda finds the message from her mother suggesting Ellen Ripley encountered the alien — and survived — and might still be alive out there somewhere — Isolation spends more time talking about an exploding fusion reactor than on what should be the emotional climax of its story.
A lack of humanity is endemic to the game, in fact, and it’s the major place where Alien: Isolation falls down in terms of capturing what makes Alien Alien. So much of that film is concerned not by being stalked and murdered, but by simmering interpersonal relationships suddenly having the heat turned up beneath them. Some examples: when the crew meets in the mess to discuss the distress beacon, Parker comes upon Ash and informs him, schoolyard-like, “You’re in my seat”; Ash’s immediate response is to hop up, apologize, and spend the rest of the scene standing. Parker and Brett resent Ripley, who as the Nostromo‘s third officer seems intent on acting as their supervisor, and that informs their dynamic throughout the movie. Ripley cites regulations in leaving Dallas, Lambert and Kane in the airlock, and pisses off half the crew in the process, with Lambert and Dallas both lashing out at her in the next scene. Dallas throws up his hands as to taking responsibility on the call to keep the facehugger aboard, and Ripley won’t let the matter drop.
All of these moments build up the movie, making the one-by-one deaths of the characters carry more impact and depth. Their emotional states as things get worse and worse are reflected in how they act toward one another. Alien is a movie that includes a giant monster in a haunted house, but it’s a film about the people stuck with that monster, inside that haunted house.
Alien: Isolation fails to convey this part of the Alien experience completely, though it hints at it at times. For example, Samuels’ death to help Amanda keep moving forward is an almost-emotional moment, although there’s not enough characterization behind Samuels to give it any real impact (it’s not even very clear that he’s an android character for most of the game). Waits’ desperate attempt to justify nearly sending Amanda to her death in order to kill the alien is another potentially huge moment, but it never becomes more than a radio conversation, and Waits is dead by the time you reach him.
Even the random looters and survivors aboard the station could have humanized the situation and factored into Amanda’s decision to use (or avoid) lethal force when dealing with them, adding layers to the situation. An early encounter with survivors finds them hostile and actively hunting Amanda to eliminate her for their own safety; later, scavengers in the hospital react with warning the player off and threatening with guns, but it doesn’t take them long to actually start firing them.
Here, Alien: Isolation is trying to depict desperate people pushed to the brink, forced to fight off an alien, murderous androids, and one another in hopes of surviving. They’ve been on this razor’s edge for (at least) days when Amanda arrives. Interacting with, and potentially relying on, these other people had the potential to be one of Alien: Isolation’s most powerful tools. You’re not just dealing with imminent death, but with people in various states, just as the crew of the Nostromo did. Everyone with their own motivations, fears, and agendas.
At the very least, the game could have telegraphed some of this ambivalence in what feels like a real way, beyond scripted dialogue or bits of looping conversation that come up when you pass by humans who are unaware of you. Take the scavengers as an example again — should one spot you, like most humans in the game, they’ll raise their gun and warn you away from the area. Linger and they threaten; then they start firing. On paper, this restraint is not altogether common for most games, but would speak to the characters you encounter aboard Sevastopol being more than just another group of baddies to avoid or kill.
Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get away from these folks when they start brandishing firearms. You can’t, for example, put your hands up and retreat. If you’re lucky enough to quickly break their line of sight, you might avoid being shot, but I’ve always struggled to do so. Usually, you’re just killed even as you’re complying with their orders to leave, because the game is throwing a specific obstacle at you: a relatively weak but dangerous human enemy, whose itchy trigger finger is likely to draw the much more lethal alien. What the game is not trying to do is populate a desperate situation with what feel like equally desperate people.
Nightmare Mode reminded me, again, of the few-and-far-between moments of characterization in the game — except for that reserved for Sevastopol, which is lovingly created, beautifully rendered and liberally littered with bits of deep and diverse backstory. The location itself has a story, but the people still populating it barely do. As much as I love Alien: Isolation — and I do love it — this part of the experience always leaves me cold. Sevastopol is an empty place, and there’s more character in the horror roaming its halls than the inhabitants of a space city that’s slowly falling apart.
Three plays through Alien: Isolation, it still ranks among my favorite games of the last year, and I’m sure I’ll return to it often even after having spent so much time with it. As an Alien game, I continue to be impressed by it, and there are many, many things about the experience that the game does so incredibly right. I also find it an illustration of the ways that difficulty can play into the authorial intent of the experience, because the harder Alien: Isolation gets, the truer to itself it feels.
I do hope that if there’s to be another entry into a potential Alien: Isolation series, however, that it tries applying to its characters and story some the immense effort and care that’s been put into the alien and the location.