It may be true that in space, no one can hear you scream. But if you're playing Alien: Isolation in a crowded room, people most definitely can hear you scream. I found this out last night when, after I shrieked "Oh god, no!" as the alien spotted me and charged, someone came by to ask if I was OK.
So, yes, as Mark Walton wrote after playing the game in January, being hunted in Alien: Isolation is truly terrifying. It's clear that the team at Creative Assembly has steeped itself in the look and the feeling of Ridley Scott's original film. This isn't what creative director Al Hope referred to during a presentation at Tuesday night's event as the "Vietnam in space" of James Cameron's Aliens, the film most games set in the universe have taken their cues from. This is the haunted house of Alien, more classic horror film than war film: one relentless, unstoppable killer stalking helpless prey. Because the dynamic is so different, the fear I felt as I played was of an altogether different breed than what I've experienced in sci-fi horror games like Dead Space, which still give you a fighting chance against your grotesque adversaries.
As a huge fan of Ridley Scott's film, I found the experience of being hunted by this legendary predator all the more exhilarating due to the meticulous way in which the team at Creative Assembly has sought to duplicate the film's production design. Alien presents a vision of the future, but as Hope said, that vision was "baked in the past." He referred to it as "lo-fi sci-fi." Ridley Scott, Hope said, took inspiration from Stanley Kubrick's 2001, but filtered that film's clean, 1960s concept of the future through a disillusioned 1970s lens, making it feel worn, everyday, and mundane. In the film Alien, technology reflects the technology that existed when the film was made, and this carries over to Alien: Isolation. Keyboards I saw on desks in the game resembled the hefty keyboards of computer terminals in the '70s rather than the sleeker keypads of today, and fonts on screens had the square, pixelated look of text on readouts in the film.
As Hope said, this future is "CRT, not LCD." He talked about how production designers on films like Alien would "kit bash," taking parts from pieces of existing technology and combining them to create the "futuristic" items used in the film. In creating the items present in the game, Hope and his team took the same approach, limiting their reference material to objects that existed in 1979. And when creating some of the in-game video assets, the team used tech that was available at the time, recording those assets onto VHS tapes, playing them back through old portable TVs, filming the screen, and manually distorting the signal to give the footage the fuzziness that displays have in the future of Ridley Scott's Alien.
The clunkiness of tech in Isolation extends beyond the way it looks and into the way it functions. Unlike readouts in so many games that give you information about your surroundings, the motion tracker in Isolation is not a UI element. Your character holds it in her hand and needs to be aiming it toward the alien to get the most information about his current position. There's a trade-off to using the motion tracker: when the device's readout comes into focus, the background goes out of focus with a wonderfully grainy, cinematic effect, so you're sacrificing visual information from your surroundings for the visual information from the tracker. As a result, even though the information the motion tracker provides might save your life, it also contributes to a feeling of vulnerability and fear, letting you know just how close you are to the possibility of a sudden, merciless death.
And that's what made my time with Alien: Isolation so terrifying. Technology wasn't going to save me. I couldn't fill the alien with bullets from an assault rifle or blast its limbs off with a repurposed mining tool. All I could do was look at my handheld motion tracker, try to stay out of the alien's sight, hold my breath, and pray.