Finding a way to finish Alien: Isolation

I’ve written before about my mixed experience with Alien: Isolation, and my abandonment of the game after too many failures in the medbay level (only Mission 5 of 18!). That was, amazingly, over four years ago, which was even then almost three years after the game was originally released. My brief attempt to return to it quickly shriveled into nothing as well.

Yet enough time has passed that I’d let go of my frustration, and I was far more curious about experiencing the rest of the story. And after all, I get into a certain mood starting about a month before October anyway. Watching Alien and Aliens again, I wanted to see the story of Amanda Ripley in full, to understand how it connects and adds to those classic films.

So I started again. I prepared myself for a potentially grueling experience, went with the lowest difficulty of novice, and started the game again. And I found myself really enjoying the game! It was very tense, but that was appropriate for the content of the game. I appreciated the atmosphere. I held my breath in adrenaline-pumping games of cat and mouse. I cursed and gasped in fear. I marveled at the considerable attention to detail the designers invested in every prop, every nook and cranny of the space station and starships you encounter along the way. I abused tactics that wouldn’t work on higher difficulties, becoming over-reliant on hiding spaces like cupboards, lockers, and the leg room beneath desks and tables. I advanced slowly and steadily. I had a lot of scary fun. The alien became less intimidating, more of a mechanistic gameplay challenge than a horrific creature, but that was fine. I enjoyed teasing out elements of the story. I enjoyed how the fate of the Anesidora and its crew provided an explanation as to why W-Y never sent its colonists to track down the derelict ship before Ellen Ripley could verify its location decades later, even as they settled on the same world that it was located on. (I don’t need a lot of explanations in space horror, but that was an unusual gap that was filled well here.) And I cared about Amanda Ripley, Samuels, and Taylor.

Yet I didn’t finish the game, and I don’t think I will. I ran into what seems to be the other section besides medbay that frustrates a lot of players: the long hallway connecting cluttered rooms that you must move back and forth along to power a generator, go back to flip a switch, and then return to the generator once more when the power goes out. Suddenly the xenomorph was acting much smarter than it had at any other point in novice play, and it was angry. It was always willing to hop in the vents, to open every cupboard, to creep around the room insistently. I was low on flamethrower fuel and couldn’t just flame my way through–plus, my conservative, over-cautious playstyle always backfired as I waited out useful opportunities and was too nervous to inch around tables to keep Ripley separated and just out of sight from the alien. Even after I decided to take a few days’ break, which became over a week, I still felt sick to my stomach thinking of forcing myself through the same anxiety-inducing hallway creeping and repetitive macabre death sequences. But I also felt horrible about giving up entirely because I really wanted to see the story through, and rather than less than halfway into the game, I was on Mission 17, the second-to-last mission!

This is the last screenshot I took, in Mission 16. That accurately reflects the end of my experience being able to actually enjoy the game. The next mission was just too much for me.

Thankfully, there were some ways I could still experience the story. My first option was to watch IGN’s Alien: Isolation web series. Unfortunately, this brief, seven-part series was inferior in basically every way. For starters, it was incredibly rushed, with no sense of horror, let alone mild fright, throughout. The alien was over-showcased. The character beats were stripped of meaning. There was very little breathing room. Important plot points were rushed or skipped entirely. Two skipped sequences were especially annoying. First, a scene shows the Anesidora‘s crew discovering the egg room on the derelict freighter and being attacked before anyone went off to shut down the beacon, and while they mention that they want to make sure no one else can find the discovery before this happens, there’s nothing to suggest they’d waste time searching for and deactivating the beacon when the captain’s wife has just been victimized by a life-threatening parasite. Second, Ripley is shown to purge the reactors to wipe something out, leading to the release of the surviving aliens onto the rest of the colony, but the series doesn’t bother to show or explain that she discovered the alien hive nestled in the reactor, thus making her choices incomprehensible. Outside of plot, atmosphere, and pacing issues, the animation is crude, coupling together still-good-looking game cinematics with very awkward machinima segments with poorly chosen camera angles that really let you notice the characters’ untimed, floppy-mouthed animations during dialogue that otherwise would have been obscured by various elements of a first-person video game experience. Side-by-side, the difference in quality is exceptionally jarring. Then there are some changes that seem downright unfortunate: Amanda’s discovery of her mother’s final message to her is powerfully delivered by Sigourney Weaver in the game, but the series must have had difficulties licensing the use of the voice again or something, because the context of delivery is slightly changed and this time it’s a combination of warped digital voice and Amanda’s own flat recitation of the dialogue, stripping the sincerity and much of the emotion from the moment. That’s true of the larger project, though: this condensed series plays like reading a Wikipedia plot synopsis.

The second option proved better: finding a YouTube series of playthroughs. I found an impressive walkthrough with no player reactions, just gameplay footage, and watched the one-and-a-half videos that showed me the rest of the game that I hadn’t played. This was tense and sometimes terrifying, even when I wasn’t the one having to get Ripley out alive, even when I knew that the purpose of this video was demonstrating a successful run through the game. I can honestly say that this was an ideal way for someone like me, someone with a low tolerance for the game’s punishing difficulty coupled with its sense of dread, to appreciate the other things it really excels at, like story, mood, atmosphere and visual aesthetic, voice-acting and sound design, lighting and textures, and so on. Given that it looks like most of the missions can be beaten around 30 minutes, I would even recommend that someone who has not been able to beat the game, or who has otherwise avoided it because of concerns about being able to successfully play through the content, just go out and find a good walkthrough series to watch like a single-season television series. For anyone who otherwise would enjoy the setting of the game or who is a fan of the franchise, of sci-fi, or of space horror but who would struggle to play the game to completion because of skill/patience/stress-tolerance issues, a walkthrough series is the way to go and worthwhile.

Having now seen the conclusion of the game, not just via rushed cinematics but through the experience of the final two levels, I feel at peace with my experience with Alien: Isolation, and I’ll remember the story, setting, and characters fondly and without regret.

(For the record, all the screenshots included here are from my own playing of the game. Also, amazingly, even with an incomplete novice playthrough, I managed to earn 40 of 50 achievements. I’ll take my small victories!)

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