October Horrorshow: Alien: Isolation

Alien: Covenant was a profound disappointment, just like every Alien film since Alien 3. But it turns out that fans of the Alien film franchise have been looking in the wrong place for worthy sequels. Since the release of Aliens in 1986, there have been numerous comic book and video game entries in the series. None of it is canon, but it’s all fiction anyway so that doesn’t really matter.

If Alien: Covenant disappointed a viewer as much as it did this reviewer, there is a much better recent option available.

Alien: Isolation, from developers Creative Assembly, is a 2014 survival horror video game released on all major current platforms. It’s a direct sequel to the original Alien film, taking place fifteen years after the events in the first film. The story follows Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Ellen Ripley, the heroine of Alien. Now a young flight officer herself, Amanda is part of a crew traveling to the space station Sevastopol to retrieve the flight data recorder of the ship Nostromo, which was the vessel where the alien wreaked its havoc in the first film. That ship was blown up, and the flight recorder is all that is left. Ripley, as she is called, like her mother, is eager to learn what happened that left her without a mom. The vessel she is on arrives at the station, only things are a little off. She boards the station as part of a small party, but is immediately separated from the group, and has to investigate the goings on aboard a space station that has seemingly descended into anarchy. It doesn’t take long to find out that the same species of alien that terrorized the Nostromo has now found its way aboard the Sevastopol station, and the game is off and running.

The gameplay is first person, but this is not a shooter. There are weapons that the player can acquire and craft, but mostly these are used for diversionary tactics. That’s because, at heart, Alien: Isolation is a stealth game. It’s broken into nineteen chapters and those chapters are typical run and fetch quests or puzzles. There are only four types of enemies that appear throughout the whole length of the game — humans, creepy androids called Working Joes, facehuggers, and the alien — and only the humans and facehuggers are easy to kill. The androids are unbeatable without using specific methods, and the alien is indestructible. That’s not an exaggeration. The alien cannot be killed, so the main gameplay challenge is avoiding it.

The alien is a terrifying presence in the game. It doesn’t appear in every location, but when it does, it makes a special effort to find Ripley and kill her. And when it does, there is nothing the player can do (until they get the flamethrower about halfway through). The alien will kill them in a nasty death scene, and the player will have to load from a save point. (Again, this happens much less often when one gets the flamethrower. Thank goodness for the flamethrower.)

The alien uses some very clever programming to find a player and kill them. If one plays this game, get used to that happening, even on lower difficulties. There are ways to speed through the game without any obstacle being much of a threat, but what’s the point of that? Part of the point of playing a survival horror game is the horror. It’s right there in the name of the subgenre. This game is at its best on a first run-through with no knowledge of what’s ahead. Like the Alien films, the alien in the game is mostly an unseen menace. Countless times while I was playing I would be focused on some objective only to hear the deep, basso steps of the alien on the deck plating just a moment too late. Then it was a barbed tail through the abdomen and back to my last save point.

This caused a fair amount of dread while playing. It felt like the alien was constantly stalking me, and it was only a matter of time before it found me. That sense of dread was pervasive and unrelenting. And when the alien did find me to do its dirty deed, the moment was usually very frightening.

Unlike a horror movie, a horror video game doesn’t give the player the opportunity to look away when it all gets to be too much. A player has to power through all the fright and tension, sometimes past what they may find entertaining or enjoyable. The developers made sure that there are moments of respite for the player. This is crucial for the game’s narrative pacing, and also helps to make sure the player doesn’t get too inured to the alien. When those blissful moments came, when it was clear I was in an area that wouldn’t be visited by the alien, I didn’t want to leave. I knew that progressing further in the game would only guarantee more moments of agonizing death at the hands of the alien. For a video game, it was almost traumatizing.

Besides gameplay, Creative Assembly did a wonderful job at level design. The space station imitates the aesthetic of the Nostromo to exacting detail. That makes the game something of an all-encompassing callback, and callbacks are normally lazy and cheap, but they can be forgiven in this instance simply because it all looks so good. The hallways, doors, air vents, retro-futuristic technology, and sounds all harken back to Alien. The goal of the game, although it takes place in a completely different location, seemed to have been to place the player into the first Alien movie, and make it a participatory experience. It’s an obvious idea in an era when video games continue to grow in narrative complexity and scope, but that doesn’t mean it was easy to do.

Since there isn’t a lot of shooting for a player to do, the controls are on the simple side. There’s an inventory wheel, which will annoy some players, but most of the time a player will be using a small set of commands. In fact, it’s almost possible to get through the entire game using nothing but the action button.

Alien: Isolation is a terrifying experience. It places an overbearing amount of tension on a player willing to let themselves be swept away by it. Because of this, the game ends up being more frightening than any entry in the film series. The story is weak compared to the movies, but that’s something video games as a whole still need to improve upon. Played at night, alone with the lights out, Alien: Isolation stands among any of the most frightening horror films that a fan could name.

Oh, it can also be played in VR. Someday I’m going to try that out. But, and I am not joking, just the thought of turning around and seeing the alien in VR is causing me noticeable anxiety while I write this. That’s some good horror.