Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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Technopath Twosome

My free time has been a bit scattershot in its uses, and I haven’t had quite as much of it lately as usual, so here’s another week with a meandering post. I’m still primarily reading Phenomena and still primarily playing Prey, but I didn’t engage with either much the past week. I watched more TV and movies in my downtime; that’s included making a good run through much of the first season of The Umbrella Academy, which I’d petered out on only a couple episodes in when it first released, and watching the adorable and funny Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, although while I adored it, I think you have to have a baseline fondness of Will Ferrell’s typical comic characters and plots.

While my time with Prey was reduced this past week, with no play at all on any weeknights or most of the weekend, I still remain thoroughly engaged with it. I made it a point to load up my last save last night, just to make sure I didn’t lose track of what I was doing and how to play with so much distance from it, and even with a week of the game going untouched, it felt like I’d never left it at all. I meant to be in for 10 or 15 minutes and stayed in for a little over an hour. I only stopped as my usual bed time drew near because I’d reset the reactor of the space station and just watched two technopaths drop into the reactor room outside of my shielded control room and promptly hijack my arrangement of turrets. Foiled by my attempt to prepare! I’m eager to see how I’ll get out of this–whether I’ll be able to sneak away, or if it’ll have to turn into a resource-draining brawl.

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I love how the gameplay in Prey evolved from a white-knuckle survival horror experience to a game of open-level experimentation, alternating between combat, stealth, exploration, and special abilities. It definitely owes a lot to games like Bioshock in structure, but it’s hard not to keep coming back to film; the game’s first few hours play out more like Alien, but by the later game, even while the difficulty and variety of challenges continue to ramp up, it’s more like Aliens–which was no walk in the park for its characters either, but definitely more of an action-adventure experience. But there are plenty of other sci-fi ideas packed in. Just as one example, its core wrangling with identity and memory, and the uncertainty about what is really happening, all feel rather Total Recall.

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The video games, films, and literature pulled from are from a wide array of sources. It might be fun to revisit some of these references and influences when I’ve finished the game.

For now, I guess I have to figure out how to deal with those technopaths!

Retrospective: The Black Hole (1979)

One of my friends loves Disney’s 1979 sci-fi adventure, The Black Hole (directed by Gary Nelson, who is probably better remembered for his television work or the original film version of Freaky Friday), and he has encouraged me to watch it for a while now. I was interested by the premise, and with Disney+ making so much of the Disney back catalog available, I had no excuse not to watch it. It is the first of many Disney sci-fi and fantasy films from the seventies and eighties that I hope to watch over the coming months, and it was an interesting first choice indeed.

The premise is initially simple: the crew of a deep-space exploratory vessel discovers a long-lost research station somehow floating just above the event horizon of a black hole. After almost being pulled into the black hole’s gravity, they dock with the seemingly derelict station, and over the remainder of the film, they discover its secrets. But there’s so much weirdness layered on top of and woven between that simple premise. Please keep with me here–I’m going to get into a lot of the dumb and the bad at first, but it has its charms.

The movie starts off weird: the first two minutes and twenty-six seconds play the parade-style score over a black screen. We’re introduced to the (all-white) crew, with one blonde woman among the overwhelmingly male presence. This woman is a doctor, but most people refer to her by her first name, including the enigmatic surviving leader of the space station. She also possesses ESP, a concept that isn’t really developed much at all other than to provide a convenient plot device: she can communicate telepathically with the ship’s robot assistant. How does she possess such a power? Why is it treated as normal? How can you use telepathy with a robot? Why is the only woman, who is a doctor, largely characterized as someone who can feel deeply and sense the emotions of others?

The robot, on the other hand, is a purely Disney droid. He’s absolutely adorable. He’s bold and sassy and speaks in popular sayings and riddles. He acts like a vulnerable puppy at times but he always gets the job done when called on. IMDb informs me that V.I.N.C.E.N.T. is voiced by an uncredited Roddy McDowall, who does great work providing a warmth, earnestness, self-assurance, and dry wit to the little bot. As much as Vincent seems particularly engineered to be cute and likable, I can’t help but buy in completely. He was, in many ways, the heart and soul of the movie. He was probably the most heroic, and he was easily the most competent, all while poking big ol’ eyes out of his tortoise shell of a torso. And really, this seems exactly how you’d want to design a robot interacting closely with humans in an enclosed environment: overwhelmingly capable, but reassuring and cute, someone you’re bound to like and feel safe around. He’s the anti-HAL.

Much of the rest of the movie doesn’t make as much sense from a design or scientific perspective. The ship designs are cool enough but not especially memorable. The depiction of the black hole (and gravity, and anti-gravity, and exposure to vacuum, and comets, and so on) was wonky and certainly bad science even for the time. The ending in particular seemed to want to have a mind-bendingly bizarre conclusion like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it falls flat, playing heaven-and-hell tropes far too literally without saying much. That we would have heaven and hell displayed was clear enough early on in the film, when characters would make melodramatic statements about how a black hole looks like hell itself or could contain the very mind of god.

You can feel Disney’s desire to cash in on the sci-fi space adventure genre. Star Wars premiered in 1977. Alien came out earlier in the same year as The Black Hole, and that year also saw a Buck Rogers reboot. Flash Gordon would release a year after Disney’s foray into the craze. Dune would come out in 1984. Sadly, The Black Hole feels like a movie chasing after the greatness of Star Wars and Alien, like the others. Its special effects are impressive for the time–but Star Wars and Alien look better. It has crisp, distinctive sound design, but it often likes to play with dated B-movie sound effects. John Barry’s score is somewhat generic and mundane, like a knock-off of a bombastic John Williams soundtrack or the older sci-fi serials that preceded them all, although when Barry’s score goes for an eerie refrain instead of more pomp and circumstance, it can be effective. At its worst, it makes action scenes feel even flatter than they would be without music, which is really saying something.

That said, I respect writers Jeb Rosebrook, Gerry Day, Bob Barbash, and Richard Landau for at least telling a new story. In a world awash with more Star Wars and Alien films, and plenty of other franchise staples, reboots, sequels, remakes, and adaptations, it’s refreshing to see something different. The story and the production both seem a bit unrefined, but this also gives the film quite a bit of quirkiness. And while the movie released into a post-Star Wars world, it feels more like it was an eighties movie designed to appear like a fifties or sixties scif-fi pulp adventure. It felt more like Lost in Space or Forbidden Planet or the original Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even though the story doesn’t betray the slightest hint of scientific awareness, with plenty of nonsense shoved in, it nonetheless focuses on a small team of characters who must face the unknown with logic, heart, and bravery. They aren’t going to start/end a war or get swept up in a religious crusade. The appearance of the costumes and set designs felt more of that earlier sci-fi era, as well.

It also did something I loved, something I believe I’ve talked about on this site in other contexts before: it mixed a big space sci-fi story with the intimate creepiness of a Gothic horror tale. That’s an element of the plot that I haven’t even really touched upon. But the secrets of this eccentric and isolated science station leader, his missing crew, and the robotic army he’s assembled slowly unravel through unescorted detours to observe hidden proceedings in remote rooms down abandoned halls, or in melodramatic yet polite conversations in an ornately appointed dining room. You can guess the abominable scheming of the villain in advance, especially if you recognize the tropes. That element of the film’s plot was almost as engaging as Vincent’s storyline, and more interesting. But I actually don’t want to get into further details here, because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, even decades after it came out, I think it will be more fun to find out on viewing it.

I don’t have much to say about the cast; the acting was serviceable, but I wouldn’t point to a stand-out performance, aside from Vincent and his charming older-model counterpart, B.O.B. (and wow, that’s apparently an uncredited Slim Pickens–no wonder I liked him). Other than that, whether an otherwise star actor or obscure talent, none of the performances were stellar (get it? space joke). Maximilian Schell portrays a megalomaniacal, amoral, and charismatic villain who veers toward desperation as his plans deteriorate. Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, and Yvette Mimieux are forgettable as the ship’s crew (yes, Anthony Perkins is forgettable here), but their scoundrel of a journalist attache, Harry Booth, is played with self-important bluster and a layer of sweaty sleaziness by Ernest Borgnine. No one’s acting is ever really bad–it’s just lackluster. But I suppose they did what they could with the script, which generally lacks much emotion or nuance and makes sometimes arbitrary character choices.

I discussed a lot of the weirdness and faults of the movie above, but I hope I also highlighted its charms and eccentricities. It was a fun family space adventure. It’s definitely a product of its era, and yet it reached back to pull themes and ideas from times that preceded it. It’s serious and goofy and engaging. It wants to be metaphysically intriguing, though it doesn’t have much to say. I never got bored with it.

To my friend who recommended it: thank you for the suggestion; even though I didn’t love it like you do, I did have a fun time!

Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

I can’t handle Alien: Isolation

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.

Months passed.

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:

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War in Totality, by Frank Herman.
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This Man, This God, with an undetermined author (perhaps “Alicia Ewald”).

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 ExDragon 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.