Alien: Isolation; Where Gameplay Meets Narrative

One of the core problems with Alien: Isolation is that it really, really wants to be an immersive experience, something where the player feels like they're actually on Sevastopol, hunted by an Alien...

... and in countless ways both small and large it goes out of its way to actively undermine this goal.

Starting from the big picture: the crafting minigame. The basic idea of the player character Macgyvering up useful tools from stuff on hand is a decent one for a horror game, and it's so fundamentally ambitious there's an extent to which I'm willing to forgive it failing to live up to a hypothetical reality. It's just unreasonable to expect a game to represent all the possible things you could do with basic materials.

But.

Part of the key premise of such a crafting minigame is that usable materials are few and far between, and while mechanically Alien: Isolation holds itself to this (Sorta), in every other regard it engages in persistent self-sabotage.


The decision to place the action aboard a space station, particularly in conjunction with eventually giving the player a blowtorch, is already a big problem: if Sevastopol had been a planet-side colony, it would be easy to have much of the game occurring in the woods or relatively low-tech parts of the settlement, in which case the fact that you can't readily craft technological widgets like an EMP device would be a pretty easy sell. If nothing else, it would be easy to buy that the player character wouldn't know how to do something clever with alien plants she's unfamiliar with. On a space station, though, there's electrical parts almost literally everywhere you look, and you have the tools to get at them, while playing a character who explicitly knows how this stuff works!

Worse, you routinely find rooms filled with useful materials in convenient boxes, but they're arbitrarily not designated as objects you can interact with so, sorry, that supply room filled with stuff is 'empty' as far as the gameplay goes.

Speaking of, something the game keeps trying to hammer home is the idea that the station's inhabitants have been looting the station to the bone. I shouldn't even be able to complain about the inability to loot these stuffed supply rooms, because they should already have been cleaned out. So hey, that's double the reasons these supply rooms are anti-immersive!

A related topic is the consideration of armed human enemies. If a human ends up dead, you can loot their body, and if they're armed this will be reflected in their loot: a human with a pistol will have pistol ammo, a human with a shotgun will have shotgun ammo. That's all reasonably logical and straightforward...

... but first of all, you can't actually take their weapon for yourself. You have to acquire a pistol from the randomly laying-around pistol the game wants you to pick up, no possibility of looting it from the group of humans carrying pistols you're forced to encounter before said pistol. Secondly, such enemies can spend ammo all day long without ever running out, but if you kill them the bullets they're carrying on them can be counted on one hand.

What's particularly frustrating about this is it doesn't serve any meaningful gameplay purpose.

When System Shock 2 did the inane, nonsensical thing of having shotgun Hybrids drop broken Shotguns and limited, if any, Shotgun ammo, this was incredibly dumb and unnecessary but at least broadly in line with the game's goal of making it so you spend most of the game carefully hoarding your limited resources. It would've been smarter to just not have shotgun Hybrids, but I could understand the reasoning, however convoluted and unnecessary it might've been.

In Alien: Isolation's case, the game is constructed to make it as meaningless as possible. The Alien is impossible to kill and isn't even particularly bothered by Pistol shots, and the primary reason why you don't just shoot your way through non-Alien problems is not that you don't have the ammo to pull that off: it's that gunfire will draw the Alien's attention. If human enemies dropped sane amounts of ammo on death, this wouldn't substantially change the core gameplay experience, it would just serve to eliminate this bit of nonsensicalness.

Also on the topic of weapons: at one point in the game you walk through some manner of weapon detector and an alarm goes off. There's no security around to enforce anything and the room is constructed so you could easily pass the weapons around the scanner to avoid setting it off, but your character instead inexplicably cooperates with having her pistol, shotgun, and flamethrower vanish off into a hole and walks through to the other side, largely disarmed.

This is frustrating precisely because it's a narrative moment that makes no narrative sense while having concrete gameplay impact that is at odds with what the player would be willing to do. The player character has zero reason to cooperate here, and even if she did cooperate anyway it still doesn't make sense because you're going to be carting around explosives, and no, the game doesn't make you give away your Pipe Bombs or Molotovs. For that matter, your inexplicably lethal 'Stun Rod' is kept on hand.

The entire thing is extremely artificial. My first time through the game I hated it viscerally, though I wasn't entirely sure why the game was doing it at all. The second time made me hate it more, because now I understood the reason this was happening: the game wanted to force me to not just kill my way through a bunch of Working Joes, and at that point in the game the threat of the Alien showing up doesn't apply. So what do they do?


Take away your weapons and introduce 'reactor Joes', which are just Working Joes in an orange suit that inexplicably makes them immune to EMP and also something like twice as tough as a regular Working Joe so a Pipe Bomb doesn't kill them in one hit.


And then the instant the 'stealth' sequence they wanted you to do is over, they not only give you back your weapons but give you a new weapon that can one-hit kill reactor Joes. This is important: the reactor Joes aren't a new stage in the gameplay progression to make the game more challenging going forward. They were made to make combat a strongly impractical option for a very brief section of gameplay, and then they're reduced to effectively being less threatening than regular Working Joes historically were.

It's all painfully artificial and wholly unnecessary. The plot brings back the Alien threat shortly afterward, and there wasn't really any point to delaying that as much as the game does, and your inability to kill an Alien is already a core conceit of the game. Worse, this makes it harder to gloss over that conceit!

In the initial portion of the game, it's essentially reasonable you can't kill or seriously hurt the Alien. Your strongest armament is initially a pistol -that's exactly the kind of weapon that can be stopped by relatively light protection in real life, and an Alien seems to be armored all over. Things get a little shakier once you get the Pipe Bomb blueprint, but it does drive the Alien off and a pipe bomb's yield is unpredictable. It's easy to wave it off as your Pipe Bombs are just low-yield, which given the ranges you're using them at and that you're aboard a space station... it even makes logical sense for the player character to stick to lower yields.

It gets a lot harder to buy once you get the shotgun, though, especially since in AI hands the shotgun behaves more like a single-shot rifle. Pulse Rifles kill Aliens in the movies. The excuse that you don't have real weapons is wearing thin when the game gives you a real weapon, and it wears even thinner when the game gives you the Bolt Gun -the weapon that can one-shot reactor Joes. I could maybe excuse the shotgun on the idea that it's firing something like buckshot that's poor at penetrating armor, but what's the Bolt Gun's excuse? Why can't it do more than temporarily stun the Alien, aside that it's a conceit of the game for the Alien to be invincible?

This is particularly frustrating since they went through the effort of making the Alien produce green blood when hit by certain attacks. It's not that we're supposed to assume all projectiles available to the player simply skip off the surface of the Alien, causing no harm. No, there's damage, it just... doesn't matter, for no logical reason.


Another example of frustrating conceptual inconsistency is how athletic or not you're supposed to be. One early sequence puts you in a room of waist-high obstacles, where you're forced to crawl through a tube thing that happens to lay over these obstacles because there's no jump button and no way to just climb over literally waist-high obstacles.

That's dumb in its own right, particularly since the opening goes out of its way to establish that you're playing a woman comfortable with very physical work: you're not a Barbie doll of a girl who will burst into tears over a chipped nail.

But my real issue with it is that the game repeatedly forces you to make jumps and otherwise engage in dangerous athletics. I could tolerate the game gluing my feet to the ground, however unrealistic it might be, if it was consistent about it. I've played plenty of games with that conceit, and only occasionally found it offensively stupid. But this is that I totally can and will engage in strenuous athletics, just only when the developers force me to do so.

Stop making such blatantly artificial and inconsistent gameplay when you so clearly want me to be immersed!


A related variation is the stupendously dumb point that when you're climbing on a ladder, you can't look down. The above screenshot is as far down as your view will go, and you might notice it's actively looking up.

This is mindbogglingly unrealistic and has the bizarre consequence that climbing down ladders is much more dangerous than climbing up ladders, because there's no way to check if you're climbing down into the Alien or something.

Worse?


The game will happily have your character look way down in scripted sequences, just to once again emphasize how artificial, inconsistent, and nonsensical your gameplay limitations are.

Why would you do this?


By the way, I brought up this fellow last post, but on top of all the pure gameplay problems with this sequence we have the additional issue that he's yet another example of serious narrative dissonance connected to gameplay decisions. Immediately before you reach this room, you've just finished activating a fire suppression system to put out fires caused by an explosion that occurred in your face. This fellow -and his buddy- are, inexplicably, just standing around, oblivious to the explosion that occurred, what, thirty feet away from them? If you listen in to them, their dialogue does nothing to acknowledge the explosion, and is basically just one of them complaining about how he feels like they're waiting to die.

Oh, but wait, once you get spotted by them, one of them says that sounded like an explosion! So which is it? Are they oblivious to or disinterested in the explosion, or is it something they noticed and are concerned about? You can't have it both ways.

On a related note, why do people attack you on sight? In a typical shooter-with-plot sort of game, your character is visibly armed and dangerous at all times and there's no mechanic for obscuring this point from other characters, and anyway combat is often the point of such games so of course they skip past the process of people determining whether they want to kill each other at all right to doing the combat. In Alien: Isolation, there's explicit mechanics where you have to pull out your weapons to use them and people don't interpret you as armed unless you pull a weapon out. Nonetheless, unarmed humans in some parts of the game will run away from you endlessly and armed humans will immediately start threatening to shoot you if they see you. What's particularly confusing and frustrating about this is that the game isn't presenting hostiles as Mad Max-style evil raiders who revel in the lawless situation letting them indulge in cruel urges and whatnot, but rather as scared innocents who nonetheless will attack an unarmed woman on sight for no apparent reason.

A sub-issue of this is that having an Alien wandering around ripping people's faces off never causes humans to decide that maybe you aren't their top concern.


Particularly egregious is a scripted sequence in the late game where you're forced to see an Alien drop into the room, get the attention of all the humans in the room, and the room is designed so that...


... this fellow here is basically completely impossible to avoid being noticed by short of waiting for the Alien to stumble onto and kill him, and he will instantly switch from hiding from the Alien, scared, to calling out that he's found an intruder and prepping to shoot you if you wander near him. What? Why on Earth is it so important to him to make sure this unknown woman dies, even if it's the last thing he does -which it probably will be!

How did this happen? Someone at some point in making this sequence should've noticed that this is completely insane.

A similar issue in the late game is that at one point Seegson Security -whoever those people are supposed to be, but I'll get into that next post- is introduced to the player as being hostile by virtue of wanting to take by force the one way off the station. In broad terms, that's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why they're hostiles, but the actual implementation of this is that the Seegson Security goons are largely patrolling set areas, ready to shoot you on sight because... reasons?

Shouldn't they be busily charging off to wherever they think they need to go to take control of the way off the station? Why are they idly patrolling areas? Why are they instantly hostile to the player, beyond that this is a video game and their actual reason for existing is to be a threat to the player?

None of this makes any sense, and it just kicks the player even further away from any possibility of immersion.


Another issue with the game is it can't seem to properly separate assumed player knowledge from clear player character knowledge. This shows up with a certain amount of regularity, but there's two really obvious offenders to illustrate the issue.

First of all, very early in the game a shadowy figure goes zipping in front of you and the player character gasps in shock or horror or something. The player has a good reason to jump at this: they're going in expecting to have an Alien trying to rip off their face, and a dark humanoid shape moving at speed could easily be the Alien, soon to be ripping off their face.

But the player character has no reason to be freaked out by seeing someone running somewhere ahead of her. She knows the station is having issues and all, but she doesn't have reason to think seeing a person is potentially a bad thing, and indeed she's in the middle of trying to search for people and at some points in this part of the game calls out to people. Her reaction to seeing someone run past ought to be calling out to them, asking them to wait, come back, that kind of thing. Not gasping like something bad is happening and then failing to respond further.

Second, the prior screenshot. This is spoilers, I guess, but the game's plot doesn't really have anything to meaningfully spoil when it gets down to it so whatever. That's your first look at the Alien hive, because of course there's an Alien hive.

Once again, the player has every reason to be reacting with horror. They've probably seen Aliens or played an Aliens Vs Predator game or something and so know what an Alien hive looks like. They're connecting the dots and realizing that the Alien they ejected into space earlier in the game isn't actually the only Alien on the station, and that in fact there's probably a lot more -not to mention that there's probably Facehuggers, and that they're probably instant death.

The player character doesn't. She should be confused by what she's seeing. Even if she does make the relatively obvious guess that this bizarre fleshy material somehow has to do with the never-before-seen alien creature as opposed to being caused by some unrelated problem, that's not actually immediate cause for horrified alarm. From her perspective, with the information she has, this could easily be the equivalent of getting rid of a spider and afterward finding its now-abandoned web. It made a home, and that home is an impressive piece of animal engineering, but the animal is still gone and the home being left behind is only really relevant to someone who might want to study it.

Instead, she immediately reacts to it like it's obviously a nest currently filled with Aliens, and even makes a rather inexplicable remark about this being where 'all the people' vanished to. (Never mind that the game has never suggested there's a bunch of mysterious, unaccounted-for-disappearances...) This is particularly confusing since she doesn't have any of the information that would make it reasonable to expect any kind of connection between 'missing people' and 'possible Alien nest' -she doesn't know about the Alien life cycle, their need for live hosts, etc. From her perspective, a bunch of missing people could just as easily have been dragged into vents, had all their meat stripped from their bones, and it either eaten them then and there or the flesh dragged off to feed hypothetical baby Aliens.

And no, she doesn't say this in response to you finding a webbed-up body, where you could argue it falls under regular everyday insane conclusion-jumping. She says it in response to seeing the Alien hive material on the walls, where there's no way to construct a reasonable thought process with the information she has.


Also, while we're on the topic of spoilers and information compartmentalization, the game is fairly awful about spoiling itself. I've been talking casually about Working Joes being enemies in the game, and this is technically a spoiler: the initial bit of the game spends a while with you encountering non-hostile Working Joes and emphasizing how they're maybe a little creepy and annoying but genuinely trying to help, just limited by not being very good simulacrums of humans. Then you see a dude punch a Working Joe and promptly get murdered by it while the player character gasps in horror at this Shocking Twist...

... but multiple loading screen tips are perfectly happy to explain exactly how to fight off those nasty android foes from the very beginning of the game. It's actually really unlikely you'll manage to reach the scene of a Working Joe killing someone before one of the loading screen tips jabbers about this thing you're not supposed to know yet.

It's frustrating, because the game spends a fair amount of time and effort into trying to set things up so this could maybe work as a shocking moment, and then flushes all that effort down the drain by spoiling you on it possibly the instant you boot up a run. They either should've avoided having the tips spoil it somehow or another, or they shouldn't have put effort into trying to set it up to be a Shocking Twist and put those development resources into things not being sabotaged by their own decisions.

-----------------------------------------

Next time, we cover the plot, inasmuch as this game has one.

See you then.

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