Notes on Alien: Isolation

(All screenshots from my own playthrough. More available here. Some are from later in the game, though, so heads up.)

1. Isolation is a wonderful game. A confident game. Mark Serrels called it a brave game. Much like with Spec Ops: The Line, it’s the kind of game I look at with this dull kind of bewilderment that a publisher would release it like that. It’s one of those beautiful, daring games that manages to get past publisher focus tests without being sanded down to an impersonal round blob. It still has its imperfections and hostilities and roughness and personality that so few triple-a games are allowed to have. It’s the kind of game I don’t doubt countless developers are capable of making, but which I trust so few publishers to allow to exist unscathed without some injection of gamer-satisfying ‘content’.

2. Videogames have a long history of being influenced by the Alien franchise; though, usually more by Aliens than Alien. Almost every sci-fi shooter’s depiction of technology and spaceships and space marines can be traced back to Aliens in some form or another. Isolation, though, feels like the videogames industry has finally figured out that Ripley’s experience in those films is vastly more interesting than Hudson’s. It feels like the triple-a game that finally realises that an ‘interactive’ medium (urgh, sorry) can offer pleasures beyond power fantasies, that a woman engineer good at surviving is more interesting than a man soldier good at shooting stuff (which, really, is the theme of the three Alien films I’ve seen). It is one of those rare, beautiful triple-a games that is dedicated to ensuring the player is not the centre of the world, that they are not powerful, that they are not in charge, that they can not always ‘game the system’ or optimise their behaviour. This sounds hyperbolic, I know, but Isolation feels like part of a broader moment where triple-a games finally start to have some confidence in their creative direction.

3. I should elaborate on that. There are long periods in Isolation where nothing happens. Nothing. There is no alien after you, there are no enemies. You just walk somewhere and pull some levers and walk back. There are few triple-a games confident enough to include down-time, those stretches of time where the player has to work that bit harder to be engaged, where the game isn’t actively stimulating them with explosions and puzzles. The Last of Us has some great down-time moments, but almost always seems to eventually lose its nerve and interrupt them with an unnecessary firefight (the hydro-electric dam is a good example of this). Isolation, meanwhile, keeps its cool. It plays out its long, long stretches of down-time, and they just work. They stand on their own without some eventual necessary silly challenge to interrupt them. There are moments in Isolation that feel more like Dear Esther or Thirty Flights of Loving than any triple-a game I’ve played. There’s this sense of confidence and maturity (and, yes, of braveness), to not need to fill the game with an arbitrary amount of ‘content’ or features. It feels like a triple-a game directly influenced by the rise of ‘walking simulators’, of those games whose primary goal is to just let the player be present in a world. Isolation is rightly applauded for its emergent encounters, but it deserves no less praise for the times it is strictly, aggressively linear in a way few triple-a games dare to be. Both the open emergence and the strict authoring contribute to the same goal: a world where the player is not in charge, but merely present.

4. And what a world to be present in! The molecules of dust floating in the beams of light shredded through a vent. The framing of the great orange planet against the silhouettes of office chairs and the lazy blinking terminal lights in the darkness. The cables draped along a corridor. Isolation takes the most conventional of sci-fi videogame settings (drab, utilitarian, grey space station) and through framing and lighting turns it into this amazing, evocative place. Walking into a corridor and watching the fluorescent lights flicker on one after another down the hall to the dull buzz of electricity never gets old. When nothing is happening in Isolation, when I am just going to the one place I need to go to advance the story, just being in this world is enough.

5. Sound design, too, is incredible. The wind howls through corridors, computer terminals beep incessantly in dark rooms, metal warps and bangs as an alien scampers through the air vent over your head. An android cooly says “let me help you” as it walks up to you to break your neck. Just the atmosphere of this game is so well realised in every aspect. There is a feeling the game is going for, and the sheer craftspersonship of the audiovisual design achieves it.

6. Of course, where Isolation truly stands out is its encounters. Three main types of enemies: humans, androids, and the alien. Humans and androids are predictable in their behaviour the way enemies in stealth games are usually readable: you learn what they will react to and what they won’t. That said, they both remain refreshing encounters in their own right. The humans throughout the space station are not ‘bad guys’. Each is just trying to survive and while they commonly have itchy trigger fingers, they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. The best part about this is that, for once, it actually felt wrong to kill humans in this game except as last resort self-defence. I killed two humans through the entire game, each when I was cornered and about to die. Neither kill was neat, each was messy. My character is not a hunter in this game; she’s a survivor. The androids, meanwhile, are wonderful. They come after you cooly, never running. They walk after you, passive aggressively complaining about how you are wasting your company time. You walk away from them, trying to keep your cool as you put bullets back in your revolver and they keep walking. You don’t look behind you because that will slow you down. You just hope they haven’t caught up to you yet. I love the idea of a stealth game where enemies don’t raise an alarm, don’t freak out, don’t call for backup, but just walk after you. It’s so strangely terrifying.

So while humans and androids are learnable but still interesting, the alien is something else. It feels sentient and autonomous. It feels organic and unpredictable. It feels less like some strings of code reacting to other strings of code and more like an active and independent agent doing whatever it wants. Which is where the game’s most wonderful emergent behaviour arises from: walking through this room might be fine, as the alien is all the way over there; but it might also be impossible as the alien is hanging out in an air vent right in the middle of it. The game doesn’t know, and it can’t help you. It’s almost like a computer virus in the software. It does what it want. Within certain constraints, of course, but it ultimately feels like the designers made this digital beast then let it loose. This is what makes it so terrifying: that knowledge that it is unpredictable and not leashed to the designer. It really could be anywhere. Some sections will be more scripted than others, but you never really know which ones. At any time the alien might be autonomous. You, player, are not the only active, intentional agent in this game. That is terrifying.

7. More important than how each kind of enemy functions is how the interact together. Androids go after other humans as they would go after you. The alien ignores androids but will leap on other humans with as much vigour as it will jump on Ripley. The most wonderful emergent moments happen in these interrelations. One time, I opened a door and a woman was on the other side. She seemed as terrified to see me as I was to see her. She raised her shotgun and I ran. I hid behind a box, but she knew where I went. I was holding my pistol, but I was pretty much screwed. She walked up slowly, shotgun gripped. She turned the corner, pointed it at my face– and the alien leapt on her and I ran and hid in a locker and never looked back. That wasn’t scripted! That was this incredible, wonderful emergent moment that happened to me and not to anyone else. That feels so special, and the game does it again and again and again.

8. Save points are very far apart in Isolation, which is perhaps the main criticism I have seen people make of the game. It is frustrating at times when you are forced to repeat twenty minutes of play because the alien decided it wanted to jump out of a vent right in front of you at just the wrong time. Once, the alien stabbed me from behind as I was using a save point! I get the frustration people feel at this, but for me it mostly works. The fact I haven’t saved for a long time makes me more committed to my life. I am more likely to waste every bullet in my revolver to take out a single android than I am to want to repeat all this section again. I am more likely to just cower under a desk for ten minutes. Originally, I was scared that having to repeat large segments would ruin the atmosphere: do it once, die, then you know where everything is and you just do it a second time without any of the tension and fear. But this never happened. Each timed I died and redid a section, the alien always acted differently. I was never just repeating myself. I was always having to constantly adapt to this unpredictable, autonomous agent. So dying became less frustrating and more an opportunity for a different experience, for different emergent moments. That said, there are times around key story moments where an autosave should happen (and strangely, this does indeed start happening in the final moments of the game). Around certain cut-scenes or moments where the alien is definitely somewhere else and you are not about to be trapped, an auto-save should occur. But for the most part, the manual save system they have is the only option they had: there is an autonomous beat in this game the designers have little control of. You can’t autosave around an unknown variable.

9. Another main criticism I’ve seen has been on the game’s length. To be sure, the game could be a lot shorter. In terms of pure story pacing, it is glacial and slow and not a whole lot happens. Ultimately, it does overstay its welcome (which is somewhat fitting since every Alien film I’ve seen seems to have one or two more encounters than they really need). The story certainly has its moments, but it ends with the most disappointing and dragged out fizzle. Still, many other story beats do hit their mark during the game. After I went through medical, I felt like there was nothing else that could top that segment of the game where you are one-on-one with the alien for so long. Not long after that, there is a long period of time where there is not even a threat of alien encounters. But then something happens and this long slow buildup seems worth it, and it kind of really works. When Ripley first heads to the space station, the pilot of her ship says they have twenty-four hours before she has to leave. The rest of the game after this just simply feels like you are experiencing every single moment of that twenty-four hours for Ripley. Never really leaving her or jumping forward in time. Just, seeing what she goes through. And for that reason, I find the length mostly works. That uninterrupted-ness. More surprising, perhaps, is that despite its length it never once felt bloated to me. No gimmicky sections wedged in until the very end. No unnecessary shootouts. Only one moment I recall with an annoying timer that forces you to do things quickly. A few sections make this or that gadget temporarily useless and force you to adapt in new ways, which feel more fresh than anything. I guess, more than ‘long’, Isolation is slow. Very slow. And I love that. I want more slow games.

10. Okay, a general criticism I do agree with: the graffiti is dreadful. Real hamfisted environmental storytelling that works in a zombie apocalypse but not here. It literally vandalises the beautiful set design in the early stages of the game, but fortunately it soon disappears, only ever to be seen again when you return to those early sections.

11. My one major criticism of Isolation is the illegibility of the user interface. In particular, the use of the same assets for interactive and noninteractive objects. The computer terminal you must find to advance the game looks the same as four computer terminals that are mere background. The one you need might flash orange when you are right up next to it, but not until you are already almost close enough to get the ‘Press X’ prompt. There were multiple times in the game I was left walking in circles, more frustrated than frightened, not knowing what I needed to press X on to move forward. I understand the want to reuse assets like this for verisimilitude, but they could at least flash orange from further away. Being lost and disorientated and confused in the game was often wonderful, except when it was purely because a button was camouflaged.

12. A lot of videogames want you to roleplay your character: act like this character would act. Step into their shoes. Usually this creates an irresolvable tension between how the character should act and what the player can do. Niko Bellic is perhaps the exemplar of this. In most story-driven games, I role play the character as best I can, trying to be an actor in this story following my script. That has never felt as easy as it does in Isolation. Not only did I feel obliged to ‘act’ Ripley how I felt she should be acted, but the game made this so easy to do. Ripley is an engineer, not a soldier, and she knows her way around computers and machines better than firearms. So she creates these gadgets that help her out, far more than she does firearms. She suggests solutions to problems that are technical and confuse other characters, and then she goes ahead and does them. I spend all this time flicking switches and pulling levels and welding and typing at computers and doing things on screens that I don’t even understand but I am sure Ripley does. The game is so committed to this roleplay that the loading screen tips are not simply ‘how to play’ tips in the strictest sense, but ‘tips’ on Ripley’s personality: she’s not a violent person but she’ll defend herself if she has to, one loading screen says. Okay, so I’ll shoot back if shot at, but no sooner.

Then there is the fine control over her physical body. Leaning back and forward and around corners. Peaking out of lockers. To use a firearm, you must first hold down one button to raise it up, and another button to fire it. If you press reload, she will put a single bullet in the gun. To fully reload it, you have to hold down the reload button for the whole time. While squished inside a locker, if you want to read your motion tracker you need to first push your head back against the wall (pulling down on the left stick), in this real visceral sense of being crammed in a small space and pushing your chin into your neck. While using the motion tracker in a hallway, Ripley’s eyes focus on the nearby tracker’s screen, and blur out the environment. Hold down L2 while the tracker is out, and her focus shifts to the environment while the tracker screen blurs. It’s wonderful! All these little finesses create this intimate coupling of player concern with Ripley’s physical (and vulnerable) presence. Never has it felt so easy to be a character in a game.

13. The Alien films are interesting as feminist texts. There’s all kind of weird male gaze and ‘mothering’ stuff happening, but there’s also this great, independent, strong-headed character who knows her way around firearms and machines and aliens who happens to be a woman. It’s so wonderful to see Isolation continue that, with a mother/daughter relationship instead of the tired and old father/son one. Amanda Ripley is strong like her mother, willing to put herself in danger to get shit done while the men cower behind their locked doors, just looking out for themselves. I’m terribly unread in film criticism, and I don’t doubt there is no shortage of feminist critique of the Alien films, and I’m sure there will be plenty more written around Isolation (off the top of my head, here is an essay on the male gaze in Alien and Gravity, and here is Sigourney Weaver talking about Isolation and women in games), but it’s just so wonderful to see the franchise’s legacy continued with this strongheaded, young woman character. Ripley is more interesting than Hudson.

14. Isolation functions as a simulator for the kind of cool moments that happen in the Alien films, both the deaths and the near-misses. Kind of like Metal Gear Solid 2 is a homage to Metal Gear Solid, Isolation is full of moments and tropes that evoke scenes of the films without directly repeating them. Spacewalks to manually align satellites, pushed up against a wall with a flamethrower, androids of dubious loyalty and gross milky innards, an AI that is communicated with in a weird white room, a sudden yank into a vent, cowering under a desk. Nearly every dude is a coward or self-serving moron. It feels like the movies and it also nods to them in both the emergent and authored moments. Never mind the authenticity of the environment design itself.

15. Then there is the technology. The CRT monitors and clanky keyboards. The giant keycards and fluorescent lights. The MS-DOS AI and the grainy, VHS video feeds. The pixel-y and vibrant minigames on various terminals. It feels like you have stepped into the world of a sci-fi universe conceived of in the late 1970s. Which is, of course, exactly how it should feel. It seems like such an obvious thing to do, in hindsight, to retrofit the technology to match the franchise, but this more than any other design decision in the game really deserves applause for its foresight. What it contributes to the game’s atmosphere cannot be understated.

16. Here is four minutes of Isolation that I think exemplifies my time with it. I love how much time I spend doing nothing. Just cowering and waiting. The slow pace of the game and the amount time I just wait all just work together so magnificently.

17. Here is perhaps my single favourite emergent moment while playing the game. I watched this man die five times as I kept dying in this area. Each time was utterly different from the last.

18. Walking in Isolation is one of my favourite things to do in any videogames. It feels like this incredible feat of self-control to just walk down a corridor sometimes. When the alien is around, often crouch-walking will move you too slowly from one hiding spot to the next. On the other hand, running will almost certainly kill you, as the alien will instantly be attracted to the noise you make. Sometimes, the only thing to do is stand up and walk. You feel terrified because you are not cowering, and you feel terrified because you are not moving fast enough. It feels wrong but it’s the right thing to do. I can just see Ripley doing it in an Alien film, her entire body trembling and biting down on her lip as she forces her body to just walk up to the elevator, press the button, and wait. I can just see her pushing down the fear and the desire to just run and scream. I do this when I see the Alien leap into an air vent or when I know it is off a different corridor somewhere. Or when an Android has seen me and is coming after me. Just walk, Brendan. Walk. Don’t run. Walk. And breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.

19. Isolation has a crafting system, but it’s simple and not intrusive. It fits, too, as Ripley is a survivalist engineer type character. The stealth is rarely dependent on gadgets or gear (with the exception of the beautifully vague motion detector). You can build smoke bombs and flash bangs and pipe bombs, but none of these will be the solution to any particular encounter. Rather, they only ever feel like things I hold onto ‘just in case’, that I use as a last resort. Once I was in a locker with five armed men between me and a transport car. I leapt out, threw my one flash bang, and stumbled blindly into the car, hitting wildly everywhere in the hope I’d stumble on the button that closes the door before I get shot. The gadgets saved my life multiple times, but never in a cunning, planned way. Always in a desperate-to-survive way. There’s a ‘purity’ to the stealth in that way. It’s all about being quiet and hiding. The gadgets are just there as a last resort.

20. When people tell me they don’t want to play Isolation because they don’t like horror games, I want to tell them it’s not really that scary. The jump scares are few and far between (at least, the scripted ones are). Isolation isn’t frightful so much as it is tense. Always so tense. A tension that rarely relieves itself. Which, really, is very similar to the films. I love it for it. I love that constant tension and how it just glues my senses to the screen and to the speakers and just holds me there in long, torturous suspense. But then, Isolation is frightening. It is frightening because there is an autonomous computer program shaped like a xenomorphic alien lurking in the software and hunting you down, and no one is controlling it. This isn’t a ghost train at an amusement park where all the monsters are safely chained up. This is Jurassic Park after the electric fences fail. The designers aren’t going to keep you safe here. This isn’t going to be fair. There is a thing out there, and it has a mind of its own and it is coming for you. It’s wonderful and, okay, that’s pretty frightening.

21. I love a videogame with consistent commitment and focus to tone. I love a videogame that is able to take advantage of the resources and labour available to triple-a development without falling prey to the failings of design-by-committee where a videogame often feels more like a frankenstein of bits than a unified whole. I love a triple-a videogame that feels like it shouldn’t plausibly be able to emerge from the conservative, averse publishing model that would rather see a game be inoffensive to everyone than really meaningful to a few. Isolation is one of those games. There’s other things I could criticise, like how the cut-scenes run at about ten frames a second, or the occasional unconvincing deus ex machina of conveniently placed items. But overall its commitment to its style, to its tone, to its disempowerment of the player from start to finish, its downtime and uneventfulness, its unleashed spontaneity—its overall dedication to evoking a certain sensation is so well-realised. It’s willingness to let you fail. More than simply a good game in the Alien franchise, Isolation feels like an important moment. Or, rather, part of a broader important moment where triple-a game development begins to realise (or, at least, to be permitted), to simulate a broader range of experiences than just action-packed power fantasies. When a publisher like Sega is willing to release a game where I cower under a desk for fifteen minutes, I feel pretty good about where videogames are going.

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