Trapped in Space: How ‘Alien: Isolation’ Got Horror Right

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Alien is markedly different from the other films in the franchise. It does star Sigourney Weaver as Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley, and features everyone’s favourite H.E. Giger-designed phallic nightmare, the Xenomorph, but in every other way it almost feels out of place. As the name suggests, there’s only one “alien,” and rather than a rag-tag bunch of hard-asses slinging bullets and grenades at it, there’s only Ellen, mostly just trying to avoid the creature. Most of the games based on the Alien franchise have chosen to base themselves on the later movies, with mixed results, but Creative Assembly took a gamble on trying to match the tone of the first film, and in the process they managed to make what might be one of the best survival horror titles ever released, Alien: Isolation.

There’s a simplicity to the idea of horror fiction set in space. Outside of a space station is the infinite void of nothingness, in which man can’t survive for more that a fraction of a moment before experiencing a horrifying death. Inside, space stations are cramped, claustrophobic spaces with limited amounts of resources and air. There is no safety, no land you’ll eventually discover or flare you can fire for rescue. Truly, as the old saying goes, in space no one can hear you scream. We’ve seen many other games do it before, with the System Shock franchise and Dead Space games, but with Isolation it feels like a returning king come to reclaim his throne.

Sevastopol wasn’t in great shape before the Xenomorph attack. Now it’s downright deadly

It’s these traits that make Sevastopol such a perfect setting for a horror game. A failing manufacturing and trade depot set up by equally-failing investors that has been falling apart since day one, Sevastopol wasn’t built for comfort or style. It’s a grey, dirty, and most importantly dark place, snaked with maintenance tunnels and air shafts. Most of the time it’s cramped, with little room to move around in the tight hallways, making the rare open room feel like a reprieve from the restricting design. It’s only real value comes in its stock of “Working Joe” utility androids – simple but effective androids that are able to resist most forms of damage. Other than that, Sevastopol really has nothing to offer anyone, at least anyone that isn’t Amanda Ripley.

Amanda is briefly mentioned in Aliens as having died at the age of 66, two years prior to Ellen’s re-awakening, and for much of the franchise that was all we knew about her. Good horror needs a good story, however, and the setup of Amanda searching for her mother on the last place the Nostromo‘s flight recorder was seen is a pretty great setup for a game. Like her mother, Amanda is strong-willed, resilient, and resourceful. From a gameplay point of view, she seems like a gender-swapped version of Isaac Clark of Dead Space, using both combat skills and her ability as an engineer to overcome problems. Unlike Clark, Ripley doesn’t posses an armored suit, and much of the game is played out in her flight suit, barely a shred of cloth that offers little protection against bullets, blunt objects, and no help whatsoever against the claws and teeth of a being bred to kill. Ripley is human, and when she enters Sevastopol, that’s the last thing she wants to be.

The save stations, whose beeping can be heard across the room, offer brief moments of reprieve

The Xenomorph is hands down one of the greatest sci-fi villains ever created. Sleek, black, vaguely phallic, and packing an arsenal of deadly claws and acid, it is death incarnate, and yet video games never seem to get this right. In many of the Alien games, the Xenomorph is cannon fodder, something you mow down by the dozens. That might be fine in an action game, starring a dozen brawny space marines packing M41A Pulse Rifles, but Amanda Ripley is an engineer packing – at most – a revolver and a few molotov cocktails. Alien: Isolation truly does the Xenomorph justice, and throughout the game his appearance is sure to give the player pause. While some may balk at the idea of instant-death, it’s this very mechanic that makes Isolation the masterpiece that it is. Of course the Xenomorph kills you in one blow; anything less just wouldn’t make sense.

It’s not just the instant-death of the Xenomorph that solidifies Isolation as a great game, however – it’s everything combined. Take the lack of a “jump” button: this limiting of your movement as a player, while it may seem minor, does a lot to remind you of how trapped you are. Also, making you ready your weapon instead of firing from the hip makes you think about every shot, and whether or not you can actually afford it. The various tools that you unlock throughout the game give it an organic Metroidvania feel, giving you reason to explore for hidden supplies next time you visit an area, as you set to work with that brand new blow-torch or security override. Even the crafting makes sense, both given Amanda’s resourceful nature and the scarcity of supplies on the station. Everything about Alien: Isolation feeds back into the horror aspect of it so perfectly that the game is genuinely terrifying throughout the surprisingly lengthy campaign.

Maybe most insidious of all is the return of the series’ trademark motion scanner. The Alien series has often used this to create a sense of tension, with the small device only giving a vague indication that something is near, but here it’s taken to a new level. The Xenomorph is a constant threat, slinking its way through the station’s vents, and its presence on the motion scanner is almost constant. But the Xenomorph isn’t the only thing moving on the station, and it’s often impossible to tell whether that beeping is the sign of impending doom or just a minor nuisance to be avoided. Even when you know you’re in danger, there’s a great sense of immersion as you hide in a cupboard, holding the scanner close and watching and waiting while the dot slowly moves away from you.

There are other humans left on the station, but they’re rarely in a mood to talk

It’s not just the Xenomorph that you need to be afraid of. While there are a few human enemies, these are the least of your issues when compared to the android army that inhabits the station. The Working Joe isn’t like the humanoid android that the Weyland-Yutani corporation has created, but rather features bright white skin, glowing eyes, and a monochrome voice that’s distinctly inhuman. They were built for function, and as such are incredibly resilient to damage, able to withstand multiple pistol or shotgun blasts with ease, and able to take an incredible pummeling from your trusty unlock tool before going down. Even fire doesn’t seem to harm them that much, and only pipe bombs and a high-powered rivet gun at the end of the game seem to actually make a dent. They are slow, making them somewhat easy to avoid, but they’re also completely relentless, and at times can find you even when you think you’ve lost sight of them. They don’t pose nearly as much threat at the Xenomorph, but in the moments it’s not chasing you, they do an excellent job of never letting you breath.

It really is rare that a game, especially a licensed game (and even more especially a licensed game from an IP that was on a downhill slide), nails everything so perfectly the way Alien : Isolation seems to. It does the Alien franchise fantastic justice with its retro-futuristic look, but it also does the survival horror genre great justice by being one of the best games in the genre in the past few years. Whether you’re crawling around vents avoiding the Xenomorph, or just dodging the creepy blue stare of the androids that infest the station, Isolation makes you feel uncomfortable and tense, just the way a good horror game should. This isn’t just a game for fans of the Alien franchise, but definitely a game for any horror fan ever, and certainly worth a look.  

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he’s on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He’s seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he’s not playing games or writing about them, he’s messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.