Alien: Isolation; The Story, Such As It Is

When it gets down to it, Alien: Isolation doesn't have much of a plot to talk about.

Now, for the first third-ish of the game, that's not really a criticism. In that portion of the game, the game comports itself as a game, rather than as a movie wearing a video game's skin. The plot is only really there to provide a framework for the player, one that will hopefully make the gameplay reasonably intuitive to understand. That the plot is thin at this step is perfectly fine, and indeed I generally prefer games that deliberately give the plot short shrift in favor of focusing on the gameplay. If the entire game was like this, I might note some of the particularly egregious narrative problems as being kind of dumb (And some egregious nonsense does exist in the first third), but it would be with a metaphorical shrug. Who cares that it doesn't make much sense that Amanda and company go diving into Sevastopol once they learn it's gone to hell? I wouldn't, if the game had stuck to its guns.

Unfortunately, past roughly the one-third make the game increasingly sacrifices gameplay on the altar of storytelling, and at that point it becomes a problem that there isn't actually a story to be told.

Certainly, I can describe a Series Of Things That Happen, but events alone do not a story make.

In this case, the basic premise is that you're playing Amanda Ripley, ie Ellen Ripley's daughter, and that she's in pursuit of her mother sometime after the events of the original Alien. As a premise this is already a bit strange, to be honest, as the vast majority of people familiar with Aliens as a series are going to know that Amanda's quest is doomed before it starts by virtue of the fact that Aliens involves Ellen Ripley being found decades after the original Alien, while in Alien: Isolation Amanda is, what, mid-twenties? Maybe in her early thirties? Not fundamentally broken as a premise, but part of the issue is that the game doesn't do anything with this incongruity.

That is, there are no scenes that gain an additional layer from the audience knowing something that Amanda doesn't. Indeed, just last post I was commenting on the fact that the game can't seem to distinguish between information Amanda has vs information a player is assumed to have. Instead, the game plays the whole thing straight, as if the player isn't aware this is a doomed effort.

In line with the many self-sabotaging game design decisions littering the game, this is narratively self-sabotaging. If we had been playing a plucky young woman whose mother went mysteriously missing a decade or so ago, who missed her mother and had shaped her life around trying to find her, but was not Amanda Ripley, playing the resulting quest straight would be fine. A given player might be suspicious that this not-Amanda character's quest was doomed, but it wouldn't be inarguably and obviously so from step one.

Regardless, in this case Amanda is coming along with some Weyland-Yutani executives because a nice Weyland-Yutani employee came along and told her that they've found the Nostromo's flight recorder and he's willing to help her come along out of the goodness of his heart.


Now, anyone with any familiarity with the Aliens series who is not familiar with Alien: Isolation in particular almost certainly assumed I was being sarcastic with the prior line. A Weyland-Yutani employee doing something nice because they're genuinely a good person? Yeah, sure, and I guess you have oceanfront property in Nevada to sell, too.

But no, Samuels really is just a nice guy.

Now, I don't actually have an objection to this in and of itself. I'd be perfectly happy to see an Aliens story subvert the audience's expectations by having a Weyland-Yutani employee turn out to be just... not evil.

Buuuut Alien: Isolation is not a competent execution of the potential in that idea, and honestly it would be pretty difficult to make it work in a video game where the player is playing as a single particular person, ie a video game exactly like Alien: Isolation. To really have the subversion effectual, you'd need a scene where somebody trusts Nice Guy Weyland-Yutani Employee with a very important job that could easily go very, very badly if they aren't trustworthy, where the audience is metaphorically (Or possibly literally) screaming at the characters to not trust Nice Guy Weyland-Yutani Employee, and those kinds of scenes go very badly when you put them into a video game where the player is actively playing the character they're frustrated by the actions of.

But even aside the fundamental difficulties there, Alien: Isolation is just... kind of a confusing mess when it comes to Samuels.

I've already alluded to the fact that he's actually a Weyland-Yutani android. What I haven't commented on is that this is possibly a spoiler. Possibly, as in I honestly cannot tell. For a large fraction of the game, there's no evidence that Samuels is an android and nobody says anything suggesting they know he's an android. Then fairly late in the first third of the game there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it allusion to him being an android, where this is being presented as common knowledge, something no one should be surprised by. And around halfway through the game it's made a lot more obvious, with the scene where Samuels beats a Working Joe to death and a plotpoint about him interfacing with a computer -all while everybody either fails to acknowledge this or says things that imply they know Samuels is an android and always have.

And yet the game not only doesn't go out of its way to clearly convey this information to the audience from an early point but also constructs the beatdown scene as if it's some manner of shocking, horrifying twist. Something where it makes sense for Amanda to not say anything to him just then, because she's frightened to realize Samuels is not the man she thought he was and isn't even sure how to respond. As opposed to what we actually got where her silence is inexplicable and confusing.

So... was this intended to be a surprise twist at some point, and they didn't alter or remove the beatdown scene accordingly when they changed their minds? Or did they always intend this information to be common knowledge, and just did a poor job of slipping it in? And if it's the latter, why does the beatdown scene exist? What purpose could it have served in such a case?

I have no idea.

...

I alluded earlier to the first third of the game being fine in its lack of a meaningful narrative. The thing is, the first third of the game is a very different beast from the rest of the game in general, so much so that it honestly looks to me like the development team made that first third as a complete, standalone game, and then for whatever reason went 'actually, we can keep going' and proceeded to make the rest of the game without touching the first third.


The Alien hive is part of why I suspect this.

For the first third of the game, events are consistently constructed as if there is a single Alien wandering around, killing people. The Marshals refer to tracking it on security cameras, implying they never see more than one Alien on the cameras at a time, and many individual scenes are clearly premised under the idea of a single Alien, where you're consistently safe from being eaten anytime the Alien is busy killing someone else, such as at the tail end of Medical where you witness an Alien grabbing someone on the other side of glass and no Alien can enter your part of the map until sometime after that event has completed. There's a little room for ambiguity here; I was actually spoiled on the idea that the player encounters more than one Alien, and specifically it got presented as there being two Aliens. I found it plausible that there were meant to be two Aliens, or maybe even three Aliens on Sevastopol so that there could be multiple Aliens in gameplay even after ejecting the first Alien. A handful of Aliens sneaking about without anyone realizing there's more than one? Sure.

But an entire hive? No, that doesn't mesh with the first third of the game.

You'd basically have to assume that exactly one Alien was ranging out and killing people while the rest hang out in the hive. Even aside how dubious an explanation this is on its own merits, the game itself never attempts to suggest this as an explanation; this makes me doubt the devs gave any thought to explaining the inconsistency in the first place.

There's also the subtle point of mechanics to consider: the Alien is coded to do a certain amount of learning. If you distract it with Flares too many times without it being led to a human, it will eventually start ignoring Flares. Toss Noisemakers to pull it away to nothing one too many times, and it will start going to where the Noisemaker was thrown from. Scare it off with the flamethrower too aggressively, and at some point it will realize the flamethrower can't actually hurt it and charge right through to kill you.

This all makes perfect sense in a game coded under the assumption of exactly one Alien. It's slightly awkward if instead there's meant to be two or three, but an acceptable break from reality -it'd be problematic on a design level to separately track each Alien's learned behaviors unless the game went out of its way to make each Alien readily identified by the player; if they were indistinguishable visually the player would have no way of knowing what, if anything, has been taught to the Alien currently stalking them.

In a game coded from the assumption of an arbitrarily large number of Aliens?

Such a long-term learning mechanic makes no sense.

So much so that I genuinely believe they originally planned the game on the idea of exactly one Alien. There's a decent amount of secondary/circumstantial evidence in line with this, too, such as how it's extremely obvious the development team is collectively a huge fan of the original Alien movie -ie the one that has exactly one Alien.

The Alien hive probably got crammed in not because it was originally planned, but because they needed to continue justifying Alien presence and 'there's a hive' is broadly a logical, obvious scenario. Particularly telling is that they had available a better, easier explanation for having more Aliens, but probably had an internally set idea of prior events and so didn't think of it; there's really no reason the game couldn't have revealed that multiple members of the Anesidora's crew got Facehuggered, instead of one. Voila, room for three additional adult Aliens, or two if the plot insists on keeping Marlow alive, all without creating problems with meshing with the first part of the game.


Speaking of Marlow, he's the root of a lot of the problems with the third portion of the game, and another example of the game leaking assumed player knowledge into in-universe characters in a nonsensical manner. The last third of the game is you trying to escape Sevastopol because it's going to fall out of the sky and explode-


-because of course it's going to explode-


-that's just what making things hot does in Alien: Isolation, for some bizarre reason. Even Alien eggs explode after a brief puff of fire!

Anyway, the reason it's falling out of the sky is Marlow.

In short, he's seen what the Aliens have done, and has drawn the conclusion that there's no winning against Aliens except by not playing the game. He's also convinced that Weyland-Yutani getting their hands on an Alien would be a terrible thing that could only go bad places. As such, he sets the Anesidora to explode so it will take Sevastopol with it, killing everything. You then heroically fail to actually prevent this, but for some reason the resulting explosion merely destroys an 'orbital stabilizer' rather than the entire station the way everyone involved treats as the obvious outcome. (But nonetheless being too slow in the sequence will result in a game over, because consistency is hard I guess)

There's a lot of really bad, ignorant writing going on here. The 'orbital stabilizer' notion is dumb; you get into orbit by getting enough momentum going, and there's no friction in space. Once you've got a stable orbit set up, it can last for ages without further effort to keep it going. The notion that a futuristic space station would have 'orbital stabilizers' whose loss would cause it to fall out of the sky in a matter of hours is ludicrous. And even if Sevastopol was inexplicably designed to be dependent on this nonsense device, shouldn't it have an array of backups? If nothing else, you want to be able to turn them off for maintenance without, you know, killing everyone the instant routine maintenance is needed.

It's especially frustrating because this particular bit of nonsense is completely unnecessary. Just say the Anesidora's explosion has knocked Sevastopol out of a stable orbit, and that whatever mechanisms it would assuredly have for correcting such issues have broken down or are inaccessible or whatever. Voila, Sevastopol is falling out of the sky without needing to invoke nonsensical 'orbital stabilizers'. It's already an established idea that the station is being gutted and breaking down from lack of maintenance, and it's pretty believable that attitude jets or whatever would've been neglected or dismantled on the idea that Sevastopol will be decommissioned soon and so long-term risks aren't worth worrying about.

There's the obvious problem of the explosion not having its predicted effect, with no attempt to explain this inconsistency, but I won't belabor that detail.

The big thing, though, is Marlow's conviction is that leakage I was talking about earlier: a fan of the Aliens franchise drawing Marlow's conclusions is reasonable. It's long-established that Weyland-Yutani will, if they encounter an Alien, want to get a hold of them to somehow generate a profit, and it's a staple of these stories that it always goes wrong somehow.

Marlow drawing these conclusions is just mystifying, which is a fairly serious problem given literally an entire third of the game hinges on Marlow drawing this conclusion and acting on it. He doesn't even know about the hive! As far as Marlow knows, one Alien existed, and you got rid of it already, and he should know this, and he certainly doesn't have the meta-knowledge to know how these things tend to go in Aliens stories.

So why is he trying to wipe out all these Aliens he has no idea exist?

The first third of the game was okay at storytelling. It wasn't anything amazing, but it served its job of justifying an Aliens game where you're being hunted by an Alien. The last third of the game shouldn't be happening at all.

As for the middle third...


... it has its own problems, but they're mostly less about bad plot construction and more about baffling game design decisions, such as forcing you to play through a twenty-minute long sequence that amounts to 'wouldn't it be cool to play through the original Alien movie?!?' with zero actual gameplay content.


Like, yeah, it's cool seeing the Pilot and their ship and all, but this really shouldn't have been something pretending to be gameplay. It should've been a short cinematic, or detached from Alien: Isolation entirely; I'm sure there are people who'd pay money to go through something like this as a standalone experience.


Ultimately, the primary issue with the middle third, as far as narrative goes, is that we get an explanation for what's up with the Working Joes that is the antithesis of an explanation.

For the first third of the game, Working Joes turning intermittently hostile on people seems to be intended to be an indication that APOLLO -ie Sevastopol's central computer, and no, the all-caps name isn't an acronym or anything- is, for some reason or another, paralleling how the android of the first Alien movie was actually cooperating with the Alien. Whether APOLLO is breaking down or someone gave it an instruction whose wording was poor, the idea seems to be that APOLLO is following its normal general protocols but with an unusual willingness to have Working Joes turn to violence to enforce rules like 'this is a restricted area'. It's sufficiently ambiguous there was a bit there where I was wondering if APOLLO was going to turn out to be going mad with power, SHODAN but in Aliens, in part because there's a lot of System Shock-isms in Alien: Isolation whose recurring presence is pretty confusing if I don't assume they're deliberately modeled after the original System Shock.

Instead, our ultimate explanation is that Weyland-Yutani bought Sevastopol almost immediately after our heroes left for Sevastopol, ie well before they arrived, and told APOLLO that the Alien's survival is paramount.

This is completely irreconcilable with more or less literally everything the game actually has happening.

As the bluntest, most blatant example of how ill-considered this idea is: after you learn of Sevastopol having been purchased by Weyland-Yutani, the game starts having Weyland-Yutani propaganda play from the station's speakers instead of Seegson propaganda. This is obvious nonsense: either it shouldn't be playing Weyland-Yutani propaganda at all, ever, or it should've been doing so from the very beginning of the game. I'm not sure whether the issue is that they always intended this twist and didn't see how nonsensical it is or if it's this nonsensical because they changed their minds about what was happening after the one-third mark, though I'm most inclined to suspect they changed their minds simply because the first third is reasonably coherent and put-together on its own merits where the last two-thirds are nonsense through and through, but whatever the case this really shouldn't have ever been a thing.

However, that's a relatively superficial detail. Much more important is that the Working Joes have never behaved in a manner consistent with this supposed imperative, beyond the extremely broad consideration of not actively attacking the Alien. If you run with the idea that this is the explanation for Working Joe hostility, what should have happened is that the Marshals working to try to kill or eject the Alien should've led fairly directly to a mob of Working Joes attacking and killing the Marshals no later than shortly after the failed attempt to blow up the Alien, with little interest in being hostile to humans otherwise. Instead, the Working Joes are consistently characterized as fairly passive or defensive: they patrol set areas, and may attack people that enter those areas and probably will fight back if attacked first, but they don't actually go after people, not even people who are loudly and visibly trying to kill the Alien.

The Working Joes do actually attack the Marshals and kill most of them, but this only occurs after the Alien has been ejected, and the information we're given is that they're running down and killing everyone now. So... this isn't an action to protect the Alien(s). It's just APOLLO suddenly turning to mass murder in response to the Alien being lost. So. What, avenging the Alien?

This isn't even getting into all the other things that are difficult to reconcile with this explanation, such as how reactor Joes try to kill you when you're on your way to APOLLO. If APOLLO is being murderous to protect the Aliens... why is this happening? In particular, why does APOLLO obligingly share information when you get to it, as this is how this information is revealed? If APOLLO has decided you're an anti-Alien element and so must go by default, it should also be refusing to even hint about the Alien hive when you're talking to it. And if it hasn't decided that... why do the reactor Joes try to kill you on sight, then?

The middle third isn't as much of a trainwreck as the last third, narratively, but it's plenty bad.

Returning to that whole 'blow up the Alien' plotpoint...


... while the first third is relatively coherent, it's certainly not free of baffling, bad narrative decisions. One of the most infuriatingly bad trends of the game, which recurs from start to finish, is that of the player character having an explosion go off in her face and walking it off, not even suffering minor HP damage.

I'm not a fan of this kind of moment in most any game, but I get why it exists in more Action Hero sorts of games. If you're already running the player character as borderline superhuman, or actually superhuman, explosions going off in the player character's face without killing them isn't really fundamentally different from providing an explicit narrative explanation for why you can be shot and in a matter of seconds the wounds go away. Sure, whatever.

But an obvious major design goal of Alien: Isolation is to make you feel like you're there, and having 'me' repeatedly get blown up without it mattering at all is massively antithetical to that experience.


A related point: one of the big issues with the last third of the game is that it increasingly tries to produce movie-like experiences. In and of itself, this isn't particularly effectual, as, for example...


... it's very obvious that Aliens menacing the player character in a cinematic during a space walk sequence aren't real threats at all, completely undermining the goal, but to be brutally honest Alien: Isolation isn't good at movie-type experiences even aside how you shouldn't be trying to do that in a video game in the first place.


See this helmet? If you look closely, you might see the fluid that's just dripped on it. This is a sequence from late in the game, where you go to put on a space suit and an Alien comes after you from a vent above. You can see said vent reflected in this helmet, and you can also see that in spite of fluid having just dripped onto the helmet there's nothing in the vent.

So naturally when Amanda looks up an Alien is magically waiting there to lunge at her.

And lest you think this issue is a byproduct of me playing the game on a toaster, you can clearly see about 14 minutes into this video that on PS4 the reflection is not there. It's not that my computer didn't bother to try to reflect the Alien.

No, Aliens in this game are vampires is all.

More seriously, that's a pretty major choreography fail that has absolutely no reason to exist. This would be a dumb, terrible moment in a movie, completely ignoring how it also lacks punch because this is a video game and so obviously a plot-mandated Alien ambush is no real danger to the player.


Then there's the ending.

You escape to the ship you originally came in on, you wander around a bit calling out to the captain, and-


-inexplicably, an Alien has snuck aboard somehow.


This is a confusing, baffling plot point right there: how did it get in? No, seriously, how did it get in? This is not a question the game can brush off!

Yet that's exactly what it does: ignore the question completely.


But the sequence finds new lows beyond that, with the Alien slowly, slowly advancing toward you as Amanda falls on her butt and crawls backward in mortal terror.


You know, as opposed to in actual gameplay, where the Alien comes tearing after you at speed if it notices you?


What, am I supposed to assume it's confused because its meat is in a tin can?


Sure, fine, that explains the initial period of it sort of staring at you and not advancing, but in short order it's clearly decided it's going to eat you but continues to come after you slowly regardless. No actual reason beyond someone inexplicably thought this would be scary, I guess.


Even more baffling is the final outcome: you back into an airlock with the Alien right on top of you, visibly readying for an inner jaw strike, and you hit a button that's an emergency eject button or something I guess, though why an airlock would have such a thing is beyond me-


-and this results in Amanda drifting in space in her space suit, not dead, after a fade to black.

How?

Sure, let's assume the inexplicable emergency airlock venting button exists. That's dubious, but why not. Let's also generously assume the Alien was momentarily startled and so its initial strike was aborted. That's... plausible.


But not only is it an established part of the Alien setting that they cope just fine with vacuum, but the game itself just minutes ago made a point of showing that Aliens are fine in hard vacuum!

And the airlock is tiny. There's only so many directions to end up going. The most probable, realistic scenario if we assume opening the airlock shunts them out into space -which, fair, that's what we saw happen in the Aliens movie when an airlock was opened to hard vacuum- is that the Alien promptly ends up grabbing onto Amanda and proceeds to do whatever it intends to do. Which, given how the game characterizes Aliens, is probably punching its inner jaw into her face, instantly killing her.

This is the game setting up a situation in which Amanda unavoidably dies, and then arbitrarily pretending she doesn't die.

That's all terrible enough, but what really drives me up the wall is why?

Why does this nonsensical sequence exist? What is supposed to be the point of it? Sure, fine, have Amanda survive so you have room to make a sequel if you feel like it. But what's the point of this way of handling it? Why does the game end on Amanda hanging in space just before the credits roll -and I'm being completely literal there, to be clear- with absolutely no context or explanation? What is this supposed to communicate to the player, other than 'lol Amanda is alive for some reason'?

Like so much of the plot's mystifying decisions, no answer will ever come.

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What gets me most about Alien: Isolation's lack of a story isn't that it's nonexistent, or that what's there is largely bad nonsense.

What gets me most is people inexplicably looked at it and thought it was a good basis for an online miniseries.

I can only assume the people who made this decision had zero familiarity with the game itself and based their decision entirely on its commercial success. The only significant alternative scenario is that someone played the game and thought to theirself 'this game's thin, non-existent, nonsensical plot would make a great non-game story', and I genuinely have difficulty imagining an actual human being doing so.

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Next time, we talk about the Alien itself, the good and the bad.

See you then.

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