E3 2014: How Alien: Isolation Helped Me Overcome My Greatest Cinematic Shame

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As of a few weeks ago, I had never seen a single one of the Alien movies. We all have our great cinematic failings, and this was one of mine. Well, this and the fact that I'm still able to enjoy Point Break without the slightest trace of irony. But, nevertheless, imagine my surprise when I sat down to play Alien: Isolation a little while back and managed to have a rather enjoyable time with it despite my shameful lack of familiarity with the source material.

Part of it, I think, is that Alien: Isolation feels so different. It's a first-person survival horror game that actively discourages combat. You're constantly on the run from an alien as you crawl through the gloomy remains of the Sevastapol space station. That alien hunts you by sound, so even hurried footsteps--let alone a gunshot--are enough to give away your position.

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And so, you sneak. I hesitate to call it a stealth game, because in my head, I associate that genre with breaking into certain places--Shadow Moses as Solid Snake, half the foreign embassies in the world as Sam Fisher. No, Isolation is about getting the hell out. The Sevastapol has gone to pieces, and you're just trying to make it out alive as you look at that blip on your motion tracker and hope a grisly death isn't on its way.

It's different from most survival horror games, too. The fact that you aren't encountering a series of enemies but rather one persistent one who haunts you everywhere you go makes it all feel like a prolonged game of cat and mouse. Even as I encountered other humans during the game--survivors with a screw loose and an itchy trigger finger--my first thought was to sneak on by them so as to avoid conversation and the noise it would produce.

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You feel uncomfortable and generally powerless, a condition that stems largely from the atmosphere. The interplay of light and shadow, the creaking of metal around you, the derelict yet lived-in condition of the place--it all adds up to a very impressive level of ambiance. But what surprised me most was the way it managed to be so creepy while still feeling like a movie from the 1970s. It's this odd case of modern video game software attempting to convey a dated idea of what the future might look like. There's the clunky CRT screen on your motion tracker, or the quintessentially 1970s brown vinyl seating of an employee dining area. Even the in-game item screen employs a retro, lo-fi choice of fonts. It's an aesthetic that really transports you back to a specific moment in cinematic history.

I was impressed. Over the years, so much of my exposure to the Alien franchise has come from first-person shooters where a gun was always your best means of survival. With its offbeat gameplay and gorgeous atmospherics, Isolation took my conceptions of the IP and turned them on their head. And so I used this as an incentive to do what any reasonable person would have done years ago: I finally watched Alien. Well, that and Aliens--just not any of the others. I'm not a madman.

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And boy I'm glad that I did. Watching those two films gave me a newfound appreciation for what Creative Assembly is trying to pull off here. In a very basic way, I understood a lot more of what was going on in the story. An example: at one point toward the end of the demo, I had a tense confrontation with a synthetic whom I had awoken from a sleep state while activating a computer terminal. With his glowing eyes and measured speech strongly discouraging me from pursuing my current task, this synthetic struck a creepy chord--but he felt a little out of place. Now, having seen what happens between Ripley and Ash, I get the undercurrent of tension between humans and synthetics and the role the latter serve in the overall story.

But on a broader level, I appreciate the deviation that Creative Assembly is taking here. The developers are moving away from years of Colonial Marine power fantasies toward something that focuses on a more desperate, helpless kind of story. That said, I can already tell that this is going to be a polarizing game. The things I appreciate about a slow, measured pace and the omnipresent threat of an immediate death are the same things other people will find tedious and punishing. But I do find Alien: Isolation to be an interesting new entry in the world of licensed games. No matter how it turns out, I'm happy that this is the direction Creative Assembly is headed.

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