My wife and I are fans of the Alien movies, even though she’s never cared to watch beyond Aliens, and I sort of wish I hadn’t. The movies have only gotten dumber and gorier. But we both looked forward to Alien: Isolation; all advance details really indicated a game that faithfully recreated the look and feel of the original film, that accurately captured the sheer frightfulness of the lethal killer alien. After many games that revolved around mowing down dozens of aliens, and many disappointing films, this game looked promising.
The reviews seemed positive but mixed when the game released; we held off on a purchase until it went on sale. And we were impressed. It looked and felt like a direct sequel and spiritual successor to Alien. Small details were perfect: the dank, dim, narrow corridors aboard the ships; the sheen of sweat on the brows of the overworked characters; the working-class space trucker vibe imbued in both the characters and set pieces; the tiny props and magazines. We were engaged with the story, and the alien was terrifyingly unpredictable, unstoppable, and seemingly omnipresent.
I played the game while my wife watched. Playing the game could be unnerving and discomforting for us, as neither of us favors survival horror titles (and, outside of a select few films and books, we largely dislike the horror genre). But we loved the palpable sense of tension, the build-up to the reveal of the xenomorph, and the use of music and lighting and ambient sound and intense stealth-based gameplay to really amp up the tension and terror.
Then we got to the medbay level. The medbay level, I have since learned, is a common place for players to burn out on the game; it is apparently a trial by fire, a drastic upswing in difficulty, and notably more challenging and frustrating than other sections around it. The alien drops down from an overhead shaft, uncoiling in a truly chilling moment, and begins to hunt the halls for prey. You see it before it has seen you, so you have the chance to hide. You can creep through the halls and dip through a central observation room, hoping to evade the creature, but things are made considerably more difficult because you need to be able to get into some back offices through a password-locked door.
I died again and again and again at this point, whereas before I had a few close calls but got through more or less unharmed. And once I got through the naked and exposed corridors and successfully entered the code to get past the locked door, the alien would be drawn to those back offices. Suddenly, where it may have made a cursory inspection before, it would hover near my hiding places. It would investigate a room, leave, and then almost immediately retrace its steps. I couldn’t keep it away long enough to make sufficient progress at all once I got to those back offices. I have since read one frustrated player describing the encounter as feeling like the alien was almost physically tethered to you, and I couldn’t agree more.
Our emotions arced from thrilled terror to mild anxiety to general frustration to delirious amusement to simple boredom and back to frustration. I can’t recall at this point in time what difficulty I had been playing at–I think normal–but I grew so frustrated with the game that I kept lowering difficulty, without notable improvement. Maybe my competence was eroding with the increased frustration, outstripping the benefits of the lower difficulty settings.
On one run, I got so close to my objective, but the alien was approaching. I ducked into a hiding place before it detected me, but it crept closer and closer. Then it was glaring right outside my hidey hole, and suddenly, without any prior exposure to the concept or to the necessity of the feature, the game prompted me to hold my breath! I missed the quick action prompt, the alien ripped the door to my hiding spot off the hinges, and I was dead.
So that was the end of our efforts with the game.
With the ramp-up to Alien: Covenant, the release of the new Prey game, and an incidental reference to the intensity of the A:I experience in a podcast, I found myself holding renewed interest in the game.
I opened Steam and navigated to the game in my library. But I couldn’t quite pull the trigger and click “Play.” As if warming up to the task, I turned to my wife to tell her that I was going to give the game a try again. She seemed excited, at first, but not particularly eager to start at that moment–or at any other specific time in the near future. So I would have to go it alone. I still couldn’t quite get myself to start playing, either. After a few minutes, I realized I’d started pacing. It dawned on me that the idea of playing the game was actually causing some anxiety. I went to social media, vented about my situation, and expected to give up on the whole attempt.
Maybe I just needed a push in the “right” direction. Regardless, a friend of mine replied to my post, suggesting I should just play for a little bit, just for a quick taste of the setting and tone. That did it.
I logged back in–choosing to start a new game rather than continue, because fuck the goddamn med bay, and choosing to play on novice difficulty, because I don’t have the time or energy to struggle with an overly tough game anymore–, plugged in my headphones, and settled in for the attempt.
I played about half an hour that night, and I played half an hour the following night. Maybe less. I’ve been dragging out the experience of the game’s early moments, savoring the environmental storytelling and attention to detail (though as usual, the repetition of graffiti messages is a little immersion-breaking, when I’m not too tensed up so that I can actually reflect on them).
I don’t know how long I’ll keep coming back to the game. But boy, it just nails the environment so well. The world feels so lived-in, so real and tactile and plausible. The retro-futuristic tech looks fabulous and connects so well with the original film. And most impressive of all, even knowing when the alien first appears in the game, even knowing that I am basically “safe” for a good portion of the early part of the game, I am still on edge, easily dipping into fright, jumping at the THUMP of an activated bank of lighting or the distant creaking and groaning of the space station’s innards.
One thing I’ve found interesting to chart in my quiet moments are some of the books that I’ve come across during my brief, quiet explorations. There are lots of posters and magazines, but so far relatively few books.
Here are a couple:
The titles alone reinforce the game’s mood and themes. The space station on which much of the game is set has degenerated into “total war” between human factions and the rogue Working Joe androids. Man’s attempt to create facsimiles of life, in the form of androids and advanced AI, is often a secondary theme in many Alien films and, to my understanding, often serves as an important theme in this game (i.e., man plays god and fails at it). So maybe the book titles are a little on the nose, but they’re clever echoes of the larger themes in the game, even though you can’t interact with the books any further as you can in games like Deus Ex, Dragon Age, or The Elder Scrolls.
Unfortunately, neither of the books or their authors appear to reference anything in the real world. While hardly necessary, simply flagging real-world books that would illustrate similar themes would have been a clever nod, and it is something that has been done in other games (I’d again cite Deus Ex here as an example).
As you can see, I really do admire the attention to detail presented in this game. It’s just such a shame that it becomes too frustrating for me to proceed at some point. Who knows? Maybe I’ll keep playing, at least intermittently, eventually reach the medbay, and clear it this time around with flying colors. More than likely, I’ll give it up yet again, though.
Either way, it’s fascinating that a game that can frustrate me as much as Alien: Isolation can have such a powerful hold over me.
Now, will I see Alien: Covenant? No idea. The reviews are all over the place (Polygon versus io9, for instance). But given that my aversion to gore is only increasing with age, and given that this is supposed to be the goriest movie in the franchise yet, it’s a fair bet that if I do watch the movie, it’ll be at home, during the day, with my remote in hand, ready to mute and look away at any moment.