Alien: Isolation; General Gameplay Design

Last post, I commented on the fact that it takes entirely too long for the player to meet the Alien, even in the context of trying to ease the player into the gameplay.

The other part of the problem here is that the game is very, very bad at the process of easing the player into the game, or indeed of teaching the player much of anything at all. I might've been able to grudgingly tolerate the delay to getting to the first Alien encounter if it had functioned as an extended tutorial. If it legitimately took that long to go over all the basics unrelated to being hunted by an Alien... okay, fair enough.

Worse, it's bad at constructing itself to be intuitive and natural, and indeed is prone to frustrating, nonsensical self-sabotage. As perhaps the most glaring example, the game does the standard modern video game thing of highlighting objects you can interact with in a color... and botches this sensible bit of design by making the color in question pretty much the exact shade of yellow the game loves to use on its lighting. There's a particularly egregious case early in the game of an object necessary to advance being placed under a spotlight, which ends up ironically serving to hide it, but this is a problem regularly throughout the game, and there's really no excuse for such an obviously bad combination of decisions. Somebody, somewhere, should've noticed how utterly contrary to sense this is long before the game was released. Yet somehow it made it to release and has never been patched to make more sense.


Here's a couple examples -albeit examples where missing the interactable isn't interfering with your ability to progress through the game- of the trend. Yellow highlighting effect under yellow lighting. As an additional bonus, the first screenshot illustrates another baffling component to this decision: a surprisingly large number of objects that get highlighted are, themselves, yellow. It's really easy to see some yellow, jerk your attention to it, and go 'oh, it's just a naturally yellow object' and then ignore it, not realizing the reason it caught your attention was because it was briefly more yellow.


Not as readily conveyed by screenshots is the frustrating decision to make it so you have to be nearly on top of an interactable for the highlighting effect to trigger. There's a piece of loot to pick up in this screenshot, but it's essentially invisible, and this is true in actual play as well. This heavily undermines the majority of the utility of even having a highlighting effect, as if you're close enough to trigger it you can probably already clearly see the object. Worse, there's a delay between you getting close enough to trigger the highlighting effect and it actually kicking in, enough so that it's easy to look closely at an area and still miss things. And still worse is that many interactables don't get highlighted at all. Some of these are even crucial interactables!

A related issue is the Motion Tracker. In addition to fulfilling the expected function of letting you keep track of enemies without having to see them, the Motion Tracker magically knows where your next objective is. That's silly, but the actual reason I'm bringing this up is how this gameplay-sensible idea is implemented very badly.

First and foremost, the game doesn't give you the Motion Tracker until you're a decent chunk of the way into the game, and the pre-Motion Tracker sequences are not uniformly straightforward enough to make this a non-problem. The first time I played through the game I got completely stuck for a half hour because it wasn't obvious that progress was inside a random side room in the form of an easily overlooked floor vent. If the game had just given me the Motion Tracker right away, that colossal waste of time would've been avoided.

Second of all, the game routinely undermines the utility of the Motion Tracker by deliberately designating an area you're intended to search, with your Motion Tracker ceasing to provide you feedback beyond 'you're somewhere in the right area' once you're inside the bubble of objective space.

Third and compounding the second issue, objectives are often extremely unclear, which is particularly frustrating since in most such cases the player character isn't at all uncertain as to what she needs to do next. It's just the player being kept out of the loop. For example, one sequence has you locking down a series of areas, with this being a case where the Motion Tracker only points you to the area rather than the specific locations you need to go. A player may well notice that some doors in the area have 'emergency override' buttons that force them to close, and draw the reasonable conclusion that they're intended to go around hitting all those buttons, unaware that those are actually a standard gameplay mechanic that only temporarily locks the door, intended to basically let you run through a door and prevent a pursuer from continuing to follow you. In actuality you're supposed to interact with a series of generator widgets -which is especially confusing if you're replaying the game and don't remember this sequence well, as in the rest of the game this particular device is almost always used to turn something on. But your objectives are frequently so unclear that even with the Motion Tracker successfully taking you exactly to your destination it's possible to end up wandering around, unclear what the game wants you to do!

Fourthly, some particular objectives are extra-broken, where you're supposed to do a series of things in preparation for a final action and the Motion Tracker uselessly points only toward the final action instead of toward any of the sub-actions.

Fifthly, the Motion Tracker pointing to your objective is fundamentally fairly poorly suited to the game attempting to have something of an open world, with multiple possible paths to a given destination and a fair amount of backtracking. As far as this goes they made a respectable effort: where objective markers in games often point straight toward the objective with no regard for the intervening terrain, the Motion Tracker usually points to where you need to go next in an immediate sense. Unfortunately, the Motion Tracker has an iffy idea of what constitutes the shortest path, and in some more open rooms can get very confused as to where it should be pointing you.

Each factor alone is a variation on 'a time you most need it is one of the most likely times for it to not help', but taken altogether? The Motion Tracker is basically only reliably useful for when you're navigating inter-chapter environments, unclear which elevator/train car/whatever the game wants you to take next because your verbal directions have been limited to your final destination and you actually need to perform multiple map transitions to actually reach your destination. That is, you were told you need to go to Location C, but to actually get there from Location A you first need to go to Location B, which your radio buddies didn't bother to mention -with the game allowing you to also go to Locations D, E, F, and G, even though all of them are time-wasting dead ends.

This is a very core mechanic here, and it's busted multiple times over. The code is unreliable, the design decisions are unnecessarily self-sabotaging, and as a bonus it makes it a lot harder to forgive other aspects of the experience.

Getting temporarily stuck because you're lost is a deliberate part of the experience of a Metroid game: even when you can get pointed to an objective by the game, it's either optional (eg Metroid Prime and Echoes) or the guidance still leaves you to do the hard work of finding the actual path to your destination. (eg Metroid Prime, Echoes, and Fusion) I might find it frustrating in the moment, but I don't criticize the games for having it as part of the experience.

Getting temporarily stuck because you're lost in Alien: Isolation is caused by the development team making poor choices and also not doing adequate Q&A for one of the core gameplay mechanics. I absolutely am criticizing Alien: Isolation for making it so easy to get stuck or lost when it's got a core mechanic specifically to prevent that.

While we're on the topic of problematic ambiguity...


... there's a human in this screenshot. For context, this screenshot is taken from the second time you're forced to pass through this particular room. The first time you go through this room, there's one person, and getting close enough triggers a scene of her taking a shot at you and then running away. Once you pick up a mandatory forward progress item she left behind, she comes back with friends, and they will all shoot to kill if they spot you. The game doesn't make you clear the room out or have a plot beat explicitly have them leave if you avoid getting them killed, and even if it did do that, if you're reading the text logs the game keeps indicating that the citizens of Sevastopol have basically broken up into territorial gangs.

The net result is the intuitive expectation is that this fellow is part of that same gang, and will shoot you on sight.

So naturally he's a harmless civilian where being spotted by him leads to him and the player character having a friendly conversation with no hostility or suspicion whatsoever. And no, listening in to him and his buddy talking won't cause them to sound any different from the many people who are willing to shoot you on sight.

Worse, if you're a player who prefers to proactively kill people, and eg line up a shot on one of these guys' heads, you will get a game over with zero warning. Because for some insane reason the devs thought it for the best that the punishment for killing non-hostiles should be that you instantly game over for absolutely no reason with zero explanation of why you just got a game over. What?

These aren't even plot-critical characters. They are literally nameless and as far as I'm aware you never see them again after this scene. It's irritating when a game triggers a game over for killing a plot-critical NPC, but I can understand the logic involved. In some games, that's preventing the player from putting theirself in an unwinnable situation, even. But for literal no-namers? Great, I get it, the devs don't want to encourage the player to murder civilians, or they feel that's severely out of character for the player character, or something in that vein. But this is appallingly bad design, and in this case there's absolutely know way to know ahead of time that the game will punish you with a game over. Even if you got the randomly cycling tip telling you to not kill unarmed civilians, it didn't indicate that would result in a game over and you won't realize these are non-hostiles regardless! Heck, if the intent here is 'Amanda wouldn't kill innocents', that has the key problem that Amanda would probably think they're hostiles herself!

On top of all that, one of the easier ways to kill hostile humans is to throw a Noisemaker or the like at them so they end up with an Alien chewing their faces off. This doesn't trigger a game over if it gets a civilian killed, so it's entirely possible for a player to get civilians killed and end up believing they totally skipped a human stealth puzzle sequence. Or for a player to go out of their way to kill civilians without triggering a game over, violating the spirit of the game over trigger while sticking to its letter. Isn't that just fantastic design?

Oh, but it gets so much worse.

I cited this as an example of ambiguity, and said ambiguity being problematic. It's not just that it's easy to draw the logical-but-unfortunately-incorrect conclusion that these are the same hostiles from before. It's that the way actual hostile humans are designed magnifies the problem.

First of all, the sound tuning issue I complained about. Armed and hostile humans in Alien: Isolation will actually almost always react to noticing you by shouting at you a few times, which is supposed to give you the opportunity to retreat to safety. Only once they've said threatening things a few times do they become willing to pull the trigger. Some of them will even refuse to pursue you if you back off. Unfortunately, voices are so quiet, and hostile humans so prone to chatting with each other or even talking to themselves, that at any kind of reasonable volume it's extremely easy to completely fail to realize you've been spotted and are going to be shot at if you don't break line of sight, whether because you didn't hear them at all or didn't realize they were yelling at you rather than whining about how the station is coming apart or whatever.

Second of all, while some hostile humans will calm down and go back to normal business if you break line of sight, the majority of them will respond by going to where they last saw you and attempting to search the area if they don't reacquire you. Furthermore, if one of them notices you, generally all of them will converge on you. In many cases, the overall room design is such that being spotted unexpectedly is basically a game over, because short of siccing an Alien on them you're not going to kill them all and you're not going to be able to sneak past them anymore. The net result is that you're actively encouraged to pick off humans before they spot you, so you can pare them down to a manageable group, or to get the Alien killing them so you don't have to deal with them. As such, when you do run into non-hostiles, if it's not immediately obvious they're non-hostiles you have good reason to consider killing them without trying to ascertain whether they're friendly or not first, as trying to get close enough to clearly see a weapon means risking being spotted.

Third, and critical to the prior two issues, armed humans are extremely lethal, even on lower difficulties. If you fail to notice someone shouting at you to go away or they'll shoot, being shot doesn't serve the purpose of finally making it obvious you're in danger: more likely, it serves the purpose of making you dead before you can react.


Oh, and as another example of problematic inconsistency, here's an amazingly bad bit of the game. You're trying to get into a mall, there's armed people who will start shooting at you through this shutter if you approach, and what the game demands you do is rub your face against the shutter. Why? Because the way you're intended to get in -turning a robot on so it will go through and in the process open up a tunnel for you to crawl in through- is arbitrarily unavailable until you hit the trigger acknowledging that you can't open the shutters.

So first of all the game wants you to approach humans instead of avoiding them -and in fact it wants you to keep approaching even once they're obvious in their hostility, or you can't complete the game. Second of all, this is so arbitrary and non-obvious that even on my second playthrough I spent twenty minutes stuck, trying to figure out what I was missing even though I remembered the bit about turning on the robot.

Less egregious but still not very well implemented is Working Joe hostility. There actually is a way to check whether a given Working Joe is hostile, in that their eyes glow red if they're ready to kill you, but... by definition you're risking being spotted if you're trying to get a look at their eyes, and Working Joes will pursue you for a long time. They also don't have to worry about an Alien ripping their face off, whereas basically anything you do to fend them off is risking calling Alien attention your way, heavily discouraging letting them spot you in the first place. Furthermore, the narrative explanation for what's going on with Working Joe hostility doesn't offer any way of predicting whether a given Working Joe will be hostile or not.

On top of that, the game doesn't even hold itself to consistent design rules that can be used as predictors: one early sequence involves you activating a Working Joe, having been relentlessly hunted by the Alien up to the room in question, and realistically speaking you're going to have to fight this Working Joe because it absolutely is hostile and you're not liable to get the things you need done while it's active. This particular case ends up manageable because the Alien is arbitrarily unwilling to actually enter that particular room no matter what, allowing you to be as noisy as you like in the process of taking apart the Working Joe... but if you quite reasonably conclude that this means any later situations involving activating a Working Joe will involve it being hostile but the Alien unwilling to get involved, sorry-


-that'll get you killed.

Pulling back a bit, a common thread to all these problems is that the game is bad at teaching the player about itself, and indeed doesn't seem to understand the concept of teaching moments. Shockingly, this even extends to when the game is unambiguously trying to tell you, the player, something about how the game works. As a concrete example, there's a mechanic the loading screen tips try to inform you of, but in so unclear a manner I would honestly be surprised if even 10% of players actually figure the mechanic out thanks to the tip.

The mechanic in question has to do with the crafting system: crafting an object involves manually assigning the resources one by one and once they're all slotted in finally clicking a button to create the thing. One loading screen tip recommends committing resources to craftables to free up space, which makes sense since your carrying limit on each type of craftable is completely unrelated to your carrying limit on each type of resource.

But what the tip actually is referring to is the entirely unintuitive and non-obvious mechanic that resources are stored in the future craftable at the point you click them. That is, if you click three Sensors into a recipe and than change your mind and back out -the three Sensors are trapped in the recipe and you're not getting them back, but now your three slots for carrying Sensors are free for you to fill them up with new Sensors. Critically, you can even do this with an object that you're at the carrying limit on, with only Scrap being impossible to pre-commit like this.

This is kind of an insane mechanic all by itself, making a complete joke of the notion you have a limited carrying capacity of crafting resources, but the key point here is the part where the game tries to explain it and does so extraordinarily badly.

Another example of the game being bad at teaching things, though a different kind of problem, is that it explains to you that different enemy types have different degrees of awareness. This much is true, and it informing you that Working Joes are the least aware in general is also true, but it presents it as a simple hierarchy: that Working Joes have the worst vision and hearing while the Alien has the best.

In actuality, humans are the ones with superhuman vision, and the only capacity in which it's accurate to suggest the Alien has superior hearing is that it has special mechanics for reacting to certain noises regardless of distance or intervening terrain. The Alien may seem to stare right at you while actually failing to notice you from ten feet away, whereas humans will catch a glimpse of the top of your head from across a fifty-foot room and immediately recognize that you're a strange human that merits shooting.

I'm not sure why the game claims such an obviously wrong sensory hierarchy, whether the hierarchy is what they intended and just didn't notice it's not what they made or what, but it's a pretty stand-out error, and one that inhibits the learning process.


A non-verbal example of the game not seeming to understand teaching moments is this sequence. The context is that you're searching for a friend -the man in green, name of Samuels- for reasons I couldn't explain because frankly the game doesn't give an actual reason, and at this moment you're in a vent watching him beat a Working Joe to death because he's an android and specifically a model much stronger than a Working Joe. So hey, you've found him! He's right there, and you could talk to him!

But you don't. You watch him beat the Working Joe to death while you hide in the venting, and catch up later, with no acknowledgment of the fact that your character saw this happen. No suggestion she was too scared to speak up or something.

There's narrative issues here I'll be covering in a later post, but the relevant part to this post is that in a different game this would be setting up for a boss fight with Samuels, where the game design purpose would be to convey to the player that Samuels will absolutely ruin you if you try to beat him down in melee. After all, that's what'll happen if you try to go toe to toe with a Working Joe, and he's just stomping this Working Joe, and indeed you follow a trail of Working Joe bodies so he's apparently been killing a lot of them. You're not going to get lucky or something.

In actual Alien: Isolation, this sequence... is just baffling. Baffling for narrative reasons, of course, but also just baffling on a design level, because no, Samuels isn't a boss fight. Instead this is leading up to trying to save Samuels by doing some wrench-type stuff. So... what was the point of this sequence? Why did we need to see Samuels beat a Working Joe to death?

Probably related to all this your craftables. A decent percentage of them are reasonably intuitive or conveyed fairly clearly to the player: the Noisemaker makes noise, potentially distracting the Alien away from you or siccing it on humans you don't want to deal with. The Molotov sets things on fire, and notably the Alien fears fire and so can be driven off by a Molotov to the face, a fact the game heavily insinuates. The Pipe Bomb is a powerful explosive that can be used to rapidly kill Working Joes, and less obvious but not particularly surprising is that it can also drive off the Alien if you land a direct hit. The EMP Mine disables Working Joes en mass for a long time, potentially letting you beat them to death or run away.

Other craftables, though... I have no idea what they're intended to be for in real play.

I say this is probably related to the game's difficulties explaining itself because the very process of trying to explain something can lead a creator to better understand whether it does anything at all. Games that try to explicitly explain or create teaching moments for things the player can use rarely have something that's just useless unless the reason it's useless is a non-obvious bug or has to do with non-obvious issues of efficiency.

As a concrete example, the Flashbang's existence mystifies me not because it couldn't potentially fill a distinct niche, but because Alien: Isolation hasn't constructed a distinct niche for it. What the Flashbang does, mechanically, is temporarily stun humans. Excepting exactly one sequence in the game, though, this isn't really any different from throwing a Noisemaker, because they both produce a lot of noise and so both of them will bring the Alien running and get the human(s) killed. You could remove one or the other and increase the carrying limit on the remaining one and it would work out about the same in practice.

You can actually use the Flashbang to temporarily stun the Alien, admittedly, but there's several other things that can do that. I suppose one could argue it could be used to stun the Alien while also stunning a human to buy yourself more time to escape both?...

Regardless, the game doesn't try to teach the player what these are used for, and I'm pretty sure the developers were unclear what the actual point of some of these is themselves.


On a different note: the flashlight.

Before I get into the details I'll note that it's surprisingly common for games with some manner of player-controlled lighting mechanic to have its design pointless and/or nonsensical, such as how the original release of Doom 3 arbitrarily forced you to choose between having your flashlight up or having a weapon at the ready. This is one of the few examples of Alien: Isolation botching things where I don't actually expect better.

Even so, it's still a thing this game handles poorly.

In theory the flashlight is a tension-inducing mechanic. You want to be in darkness so other things can't see you, but you also want to be able to see, and in Alien: Isolation enemies will actually notice the flashlight and go after you -or so the game assures me, but I've never had cause to see it in action. After all, there's no reason to actually use the flashlight.

The main problem is that very few areas are sufficiently poorly-lit for the flashlight to be at all worth considering. The secondary component is that the majority of the exceptions are the inside of venting systems, which are consistently designed so the flashlight is unnecessary to navigate them, in part because your night vision is actually pretty good -that screenshot up there is actually a lot darker than the in-game lighting is.

The net result is that the flashlight doesn't contribute to tension at all, and you have no reason to care about the flashlight having a limited battery life. You could remove it as a mechanic entirely and it wouldn't affect much of anything, bar I suppose preventing some portion of players from pointlessly getting themselves killed because they're sure the flashlight must be worth using.

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There's honestly still more game design problems littering the game, but these are the most widespread and/or egregious issues.

Next time, we talk instead about the interface of gameplay and narrative.

See you then.

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