Game over, man: Why ‘Alien: Isolation’ thrives where most games fail


It is extremely rare that a film franchise contains two classics. Any two of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy would constitute a classic; any two of the “Star Wars” trilogy – No! The original trilogy – are certainly the bedrock of popular culture; the first two of the “Godfather” trilogy are among some of the best films of all time. What is even rare, though, is two films in the same franchise made by different directors and belonging to different genres. In that sense, Ridley Scott’s iconic 1979 horror masterpiece “Alien” and its 1986 sequel “Aliens” – a classic among action-adventure films – from the titan of the film industry, James Cameron, truly stand out in the history of cinema. So, it was only right that the video game adaptation of the same franchise would spawn a classic in its own rights, this time in an entirely different medium.

It was a small and simple bit of ingenious improvisation during a pivotal scene in the “Aliens” film as the marines and Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley – and then child-actor Carrie Henn’s Newt – are waiting for extraction and all seems lost when the shuttle crashes – due to a xenomorph, or the titular alien creature, onboard – and blows up. So, the late Bill Paxton – as Private Hudson – utters a desperate line: “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!” That line – improvised by Paxton as he developed a backstory for the character Hudson in which he was trained on simulators and would be familiar with the phrase – would go on to become one of the most recognizable pieces of dialogue in popular culture, and it would prove relevant when the “Alien: Isolation” video game came out when it was “game over, man” for other movie-adaptation games and horror games of the same genre.

So, let’s start with some basics to lay the foundation for that argument.

Concept artwork on the video game “Alien: Isolation.” (Courtesy of Feral Interactive)

In footsteps of an icon

In 2014, “Alien: Isolation” basically came out of nowhere when you try to think about it. The game was developed by Creative Assembly (CA), the hugely successful “Total War” games franchise which was real-time strategy games – as a side note “Medieval II: Total War” and “Empire: Total War” are my personal favorites of that franchise. CA had almost never delved into a first-person game, not to mention a survival horror game. They had no right to develop a good game in a genre they had no experience in, let alone a great game. It was a surprise, to say the least, but a welcome one.

The game followed the story of engineer Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen, the protagonist of the 1979 classic who was portrayed by Weaver brilliantly in the first and following films. It was set 15 years after the original film and was almost a direct sequel in spirit as it tells the events that take place when Amanda investigates the disappearance of her mother. Amanda learns that the flight recorder of her mother’s ship, the Nostromo, has been located and it is aboard the space station Sevastopol, so she follows the trail. Once she gets inside Sevastopol though, she discovers that the station has fallen into disarray. Chaos reigns supreme as Amanda learns that an Alien creature is on the loose, and she now needs to escape.

That’s basically the gist of “Alien: Isolation,” plot-wise. So, what was it against, what was so great about the behemoth of the horror film genre whose footsteps it was trying to follow? Glad you asked.

Sir Ridley Scott, born in 1937, might be one of the most influential filmmakers of all time – and one of the most prolific with over 50 directing credits and more than 150 producing credits all ranging from TV shows to epic films. He is one of the founding fathers of modern cinema, particularly the genres of sci-fi, horror and noir, or rather a cyberpunk-style neo-noir.

In 1979, Scott would revolutionize not just the field of thriller and science fiction as he helmed “Alien,” but also his decision to change the lead character from a standard male action hero to what would become “Ellen Ripley” with Sigourney Weaver’s masterful performance gave the world one of its most memorable cinematic heroines.

Upon its release, “Alien” was a box-office success, winning the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, three Saturn Awards – including Best Science Fiction Film and Best Direction for Scott – and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Although initially it was met with mixed reviews, critical reassessment since then has made “Alien” widely considered to be one of the greatest science fiction and horror films of all time.

It was even deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry in 2002 and in 2008, it was ranked by the American Film Institute as the seventh-best film in the science fiction genre, and as the 33rd-greatest film of all time by Empire.

A screenshot from the video game 'Alien: Isolation.' (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

A screenshot from the video game “Alien: Isolation.” (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

The film follows a small crew aboard the commercial space tug Nostromo as they are awakened from stasis due to a transmission detected from a nearby moon. As per company policy requiring any potential distress signal to be investigated, they land on the moon and sustain damage from the landing. The engineers stay on board and deal with repairs while three of the crew go to investigate the signal. They discover a derelict alien ship, enter it and one of them finds a chamber containing hundreds of large, egg-like objects. When he touches one, a creature – later would become known as facehugger – springs out, penetrates his helmet, and attaches itself to his face.

They return to the ship, and try and fail to detach the facehugger which they later find detached on its own and is dead. At this time they are aboard Nostromo once again. As the crew has a final meal before returning to stasis, the infamous chest-burst scene occurs as it turns out that the facehugger detached because its mission was complete – its mission being let’s say to lay an egg inside its host – and a small alien creature bursts from the crewmember’s chest, killing him, and escapes into the ship. That small alien becomes an enormous monster as it grows and wreaks terror on the crew, with Ripley the only one remaining alive at the end successfully managing to outsmart it and killing it finally.

“Alien” became a classic due to a number of reasons. The crew comprised generally older actors than what would be typical in the thriller genre, and this added an unprecedented degree of realism to the movie – a concept that would be summarized by the production team as “truckers in space.”

Esteemed film critic Roger Ebert would go on to note that the older age of the actors helped make the characters more convincing. “None of them were particularly young. Tom Skerritt, the captain, was 46, Hurt was 39 but looked older, Holm was 48, Harry Dean Stanton was 53, Yaphet Kotto was 42, with only Veronica Cartwright at 30 and Weaver at 28 in the age range of the usual thriller cast,” Ebert wrote.

“Many recent action pictures have improbably young actors cast for key roles or sidekicks, but by skewing older, ‘Alien’ achieves a certain texture without even making a point of it: These are not adventurers but workers, hired by a company to return 20 million tons of ore to Earth.”

The sets were gorgeous to look at, one could say gothic but in space. The analog technology of the time was implemented beautifully into the set design. The alien ship in particular was truly sublime – as the likes of Edmund Burke or William Wordsworth, famed writers of the Romanticism era, would put it.

The music while simplistic in nature, was thrilling as it gripped you immediately with one or two notes. The designs of the different stages of the alien, inspired heavily by Swiss artist H. R. Giger, were unreal to put it best. They were disturbing, unlike anything that the audience had ever seen before – and in fact since. The direction was clean and to the point. The film did not resort to jump-scares, most of the time, but the atmosphere it conveyed was more than enough to terrify the viewer.

It was a cultural phenomenon, a bedrock of cinema. This was what “Alien: Isolation” was trying to adapt, imitate, and resemble.

A screenshot from the video game 'Alien: Isolation.' (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

A screenshot from the video game “Alien: Isolation.” (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

Feeling the terror

The atmosphere carries the greatest importance for me in the world of video games – and even in some instances of movies. If the atmosphere is gripping enough, I can ignore most flaws that might bring down the enjoyment for many other gamers. I won’t be bothered by them at all because the atmosphere does enough to transport me to another world that I enjoy spending time in. I am loving this world that has immersed me in its atmosphere, so what if my movement is a bit weird, or if my vision is not as great as it can be? Why would I care?

It might be the opposite case for most other gamers who would think that it is supposed to be a game, so, it does need to perform the basic functions of a game well, it needs to have fun and immersive gameplay mechanics to be considered a good game. That would be the perspective of most gamers and I completely understand that point of view – and agree with the sentiment.

However, when it comes to personal taste, I am not looking primarily for a game but rather for an experience – and gameplay is not my top criteria when considering the factors of an experience. For an experience, the atmosphere takes precedence for me – it takes the lion’s share of the enjoyable, immersive, playable cake of experience.

Now, to circle back to “Alien: Isolation,” how best to put it? This might be, personally, the best atmosphere that I have ever experienced in a game, one that has stayed with me the most.

I still have not finished the entirety of this brilliant game. I suspect that I haven’t finished playing even half of it.

Why? Well, simply because I am too terrified to continue, though before talking about finishing the game, let’s talk about starting it.

Concept artwork on the video game 'Alien: Isolation.' (Courtesy of Feral Interactive)

Concept artwork on the video game “Alien: Isolation.” (Courtesy of Feral Interactive)

As someone who is not particularly fond of being scared, I do not actively seek horror films to watch or horror games to play. However, as someone who is an enormous fan of the original “Alien” film, I was keen to take a look at “Alien: Isolation” after it was released in 2014.

Based on the iconic film series, the game is designed to resemble the original “Alien” film like we discussed, rather than its more action-oriented 1986 sequel “Aliens,” and features a similar lo-fi, 1970s vision of what the future could look like.

I am in love with this design choice which has added so much to this game’s visual aesthetics from the user interface to the sets. The retro-futuristic art direction captures so beautifully the analog feel of the original film, and when integrated together with what I must call ingenious sound design and music, it is a perfect recreation of the atmosphere of “Alien.”

It all starts from the very beginning when you first open the game and the title screen greets you in all of its 1970s glory with Creative Assembly and 20th Century Fox logos in grainy film. Then begins the ambiance music of the menu screen, and even the sound effects when you hover your mouse over an option in the menus and when you click on them are simply majestic and perfect in their attempt to resemble the sounds of the “Alien” universe. All of it adds to the atmosphere of the game, pulls you into this hostile setting that is set to terrify you over how many hours you might play it.

If you are familiar with the “Alien” film – or films – just the menus of this game are enough to give you chills, so it is way more impressive than the actual game. It does an even better job in terms of gripping the gamer magnificently with an atmosphere dripping “Alien” all over.

When I first stepped onto Sevastopol, I was awe-struck. This is Nostromo, and the fact that I can roam around in it was overwhelmingly joyful for me.

The space station is littered with design choices that capture the essence of the original “Alien” film’s space aesthetics so correctly. Moving on from the sets, the tools that you use, mainly the motion tracker and the flamethrower – both iconic items of “Alien” that have been embedded in popular culture – are beautifully implemented. There is nothing more terrifying than hearing that iconic beeping sound of the motion tracker and seeing that green dot moving toward you.

A screenshot from the video game 'Alien: Isolation.' (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

A screenshot from the video game “Alien: Isolation.” (Courtesy of Creative Assembly)

It is no surprise that “Alien: Isolation” appeared in multiple “best of” lists and won several year-end awards, including Best Audio at the 2015 Game Developers Choice Awards and Audio Achievement at the 11th British Academy Games Awards.

The first-person perspective of the game puts you directly in the shoes of Amanda and creates a much more intense experience, while the lighting is sublime, to say the least. A heavy emphasis is put on stealth – with it being a survival-horror game – and most of the time you need to avoid or outsmart your enemies – those enemies could be human, artificial and the titular alien.

All of the aspects of “Alien: Isolation” complement the horrifying atmosphere and that atmosphere perfectly captures the essence of its counterpart in the original “Alien” film. That is why it took me three hours to finish the first 30 minutes of gameplay when you first enter Sevastopol because I was terrified by the sublime work of the atmosphere that I did not know if I was going to run into the alien around the next corner although I later found out that there is no conflict, no combat during the, let’s call it the “prologue” section before the xenomorph is revealed in all its glory. I was terrified in a section of the game when there was absolutely nothing to be scared of. I think that shows the power of the atmosphere of this game – or it might show how easily scared I am but let’s go with the first option.

Adaptations of video games are almost always a let-down. They are almost never able to capture the spirit of the original work. I think “Alien: Isolation” is an anomaly. I have not played nor seen any game that does such a good job at adapting its source material’s atmosphere, and I doubt I will ever see one again that is successful to such a degree.

So, in this irregular series of video game critiques that spawned out of a rant to change EA’s name from Electronic Arts to Embarrassing Arts, and adding Truly for good measure – Truly Embarrassing Arts – “Alien: Isolation” falls squarely on the other side of that spectrum which I had titled Truly Electric Arts.

It is undeniably a work of art, and it is truly electric.

Let’s leave it at that and catch up on another terrific journey through the realms of video games in our next TEA session.

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