Alien: Isolation; the Alien

The Alien itself is the one thing Alien: Isolation unequivocally did well.

This comes with the major caveat that you spend maybe 50% of the game actually engaging with the Alien as a mechanic, and to be brutally honest it's probably more like 25% of the game, given that the middle third of the game has no Alien presence at all, the first third takes a while to actually get to introducing it, and the last third has most Alien encounters completely ignore everything that makes the Alien a compelling component of gameplay...

... but for the portion of the game in which you are genuinely being hunted by the Alien things are pretty good.

One of the most basic, elemental details the game gets right is focus: the Alien's head tracks to where its attention actually is. This has a lot of benefits.

For example, the Alien has no interest in Working Joes. It does not attack them, it does not investigate them, it doesn't even acknowledge them, and this is reflected in how its head tracks. It will look at humans, hiding places, and distractions like the Flare, because they do in fact have its attention, whereas Working Joes genuinely don't matter to it, and you can tell this intuitively.

This also makes a lot of the core hiding gameplay intuitively logical: hiding under a desk or the like protects you from the Alien's awareness because its head is up high and it doesn't usually look down. Indeed, if you hide under a desk at a higher elevation than the floor the Alien is currently standing on, it's entirely possible it will spot you because you are, in fact, level with its head: this isn't like a number of stealth games I could name where hiding places are magical blind spots no foe can see into, or only specialized enemies can see into.

A more experiential, emotional element is that this makes the Alien's 'gaze' a baleful, concerning thing. A lot of games attempt to invoke the notion that being spotted by something dangerous is a frightening experience, but usually it fails for any number of reasons. In the case of Alien: Isolation, though, you are viscerally concerned with not being seen, precisely because the Alien's vision is a real mechanic.

It also does a lot to help make the Alien feel like a real creature, something that is pulling information from its environment through actual senses. Even to this day, it's not unusual for enemies in games to  blatantly know exactly where you are the instant they've been alerted to your general presence, making it extremely obvious they're gameplay pieces that exist for you to kill your way through them, not thinking creatures with actual senses they have to rely on. (That you happen to be killing your way through, but shhh)

Related to the Alien's baleful gaze is the musical cues for when it's very close by. Above and beyond the fact that they're pulling from Alien movie staple musical effects for scary scenes and so a typical player probably has a pre-existing association with tense scenes, the very fact that the tension in the music rises and falls with the Alien's closeness makes it pretty viscerally concerning to hear these tunes at all. This can be contrasted with how often horror games have jump scares that use scare chords and similar in conjunction with a startling event to frighten the player, or games based on horror movies that use (roughly) the music that was used in scary scenes from the movie during gameplay sequences the player is supposed to be scared in: this might be effective initially, but such games misusing these 'scary musics' will rapidly train out such associations, negating the intended effect. In Alien: Isolation's case, I started out rolling my eyes at the game playing the Scary Music when the Alien was in the area, under the belief this was a stock example of playing Scary Music in a carefully scripted scene the player is in no danger from, or only in danger if they make an obviously stupid mistake, and increasingly found it genuinely nerve-wracking, initially without even realizing the music was the source.

In addition to the successful fear factor aspect, it also serves a significant gameplay utility function, making it so that when the player goes hiding under a desk or similar they have feedback on roughly the Alien's current proximity, and therefore roughly how safe it is for them to exit the desk and move on or look for the Alien. Furthermore, while the mechanism in question is strictly unrealistic, this is a surprisingly immersive way of approximating a level of awareness an actual person would expect to have. If you actually were hiding under a desk while an Alien stalked your office, you'd have an idea of not only the Alien's distance but also its direction thanks to hearing its stomping and knock-off effects from eg the sound bouncing off objects in your environment. That the game approximates this information with a musical cue is actually pretty cool, and it's vastly less problematic than if the game were to eg have an arrow point toward the Alien at all times with a distance listed: not only would that be blatantly unrealistic and immersion-breaking, but it would also take out a lot of the tension of the process of hiding by removing too much ambiguity.

Another great touch is the Alien's use of vents. Not only is this faithful to canon materials, it serves multiple gameplay/fear factor functions, with a critical component that makes perfect sense being that the Alien moves through vents far faster than its usual not-in-vent movement. After all, humans and Working Joes largely can't even get into these vents, and even when they can they're slow, loud, and no real threat to an Alien; it doesn't need to move slowly to search them thoroughly, as there's generally nothing inside venting to look for, and it doesn't need to move slowly to be quiet, since there's not really anything to be afraid of. This tremendous speed in vents provides an inherent unpredictability; if you leave the Alien behind you, you can't breathe a sigh of relief, confident it won't catch up. Depending on the local vent setup, it may drop down in front of you, with little warning...

... so carelessness can be death.

Conversely, there are rules you can learn here. If the Alien simply teleported about completely arbitrarily, you'd swiftly switch from fear to frustration. The fact that it uses vents means you can keep an eye on the ceiling to avoid being caught completely off guard, and the Alien has a reasonably generous exit animation where it's basically oblivious if you don't provoke it. Thus, if the Alien literally drops in right in front of you, you have an opportunity to panic and scramble for safety, instead of an out-of-nowhere game over you can't do anything about... but you'll be rightfully murdered if you stupidly take a shot at it, or take too long to get to a hiding spot, so there's still reason to be concerned.

The vents mechanics also frees up the game significantly when it comes to elements of map design one probably doesn't think about unless failures actually hit you in the face. The game can fairly readily justify the Alien showing up in whatever area the player is now running around in, even if the route the player took sealed itself and also even if their destination is locked up; just because you can't go back and need to do shenanigans to unlock doors to advance doesn't mean the Alien making its way in is a plot hole the way it might be in a different game. In general, it makes it more palatable for the game to be pretty linear an environment, in that the Alien can be wherever the game needs it to be without it automatically being unbelievable that it got there.

Furthermore, vents allow distractions to be powerful without completely trashing the game's difficulty. A Noisemaker in a corner buys you time to make your escape, but the Alien can always basically-teleport ahead of you once it loses interest in the distraction, making it a temporary reprieve, not a way to render the Alien moot for the rest of the chapter. That's an excellent balance.

On the topic of speed, it's also great how the Alien defaults to a fairly slow search mode and switches to an extremely fast pursuit behavior if it thinks it's found you. This is a big part of why the Alien's gaze feels so baleful; so long as it doesn't realize you're around, you can often crouch-walk away from it faster than it's moving, and so not have to worry about it rapidly catching up... but if it does spot you and you don't have something to drive it off? You're dead. In many stealth games, enemy proximity is more a factor in how dangerous your situation is than enemy awareness, even when such games don't hit extremes like you being able to simply run way without consequence when spotted. The slow search speed particularly sidesteps an issue I've seen in multiple games where moving slowly is going to get you caught because the enemies are moving in your direction and are much faster than your stealthy speed but speeding up will cease to be stealthy and so either way you're screwed. In Alien: Isolation, if the Alien is actually on approach to you in that kind of situation, it's probably spotted you, or will spot you in just a moment, and massively speed up, and correct play is to not end up in that general position in the first place, which is much better design.

Another thing the game does well is that the Alien is basically always on the move, virtually never stopping. When it does stop, it's only for a few seconds at most. This is reasonably believable in-universe, and critically sidesteps a common frustrating issue in stealth games where you end up with long stretches of nothingness because you're sitting around, waiting for patrolling enemies to move already. You can still occasionally get situations that drag because the Alien patrols a relatively small area for a long time, but you don't have to worry about it entering a closet-sized space you're hiding in and then standing there for five minutes: it will sweep through, and find nothing and leave or find you and kill you.

A particularly surprising bit to be clever is the game's use of the Alien's tail. It trails significantly behind the Alien; this is consistent with the larger canon, but it also largely eliminates the possibility of just missing the Alien entering a room and promptly walking into its back. This quite naturally eliminates a particularly frustrating, unfair-feeling scenario of timing that's not your fault getting you killed. A further benefit is providing additional feedback on the Alien's location when it's right on top of you; if you stop hearing it for a stretch, but its tail is still on the ground in front of you... yeah, now's not the time to be crawling out from under the desk. These benefits can easily be contrasted with the experience of sneaking around human and Working Joe enemies, where the game's horrible sound tuning can make it impossible to tell whether you've stopped hearing a patrol because they've actually left or if they're staring right where you'd exit from and you just can't hear them because the sound tuning makes their breathing and footsteps virtually inaudible.

Taken altogether, the Alien stalking you is a surprisingly vivid depiction of hiding from a horror movie monster.

That said, there are some definite letdowns, even aside the broad letdown that the portion of the game in which the Alien is actually hunting you is frustratingly low.

For starters, I just alluded to a major one: the Alien is hunting you.

Narratively, the Alien has no particular attachment to you. You're not an infected individual it's trying to recapture. You're not a proven danger it's trying to protect the hive from. You're just a random human aboard Sevastopol, no different from any other as far as it's concerned.

In gameplay, though, it is very specifically pursuing you. It will kill other people opportunistically if it happens to spot them, or if they draw its attention with gunfire or the like, but unless scripting is involved -usually fairly blatant scripting, at that- the Alien is quite persistent about chasing you in particular. Particularly egregious is that there's multiple cases where the Alien will, for no obvious reason, change its behavior in response to you crossing invisible lines or hitting certain steps in objective-advancement, with absolutely no attempt to justify this change in behavior. For example, at one point you need to find an ID card in a U-shaped area, which the Alien will relentlessly stalk that area once you've arrived in it until you've found the ID card...

... and turn around and start hunting in the area between you and your next destination the very instant you pick up the ID card. Nothing happens to justify this like a racket drawing the Alien's attention, or a couple of people happening to enter, get noticed, and one gets immediately eaten while the other flees, said fleeing luring the Alien to the area you're going next.

Or, as a more roundabout and subtle illustration of the point, there's a sequence fairly late in the game where you're in an area with exactly one hostile human, no Alien on your tail. The most likely scenario is that at some point the human will spot you, take a shot at you, and the noise cause an Alien to promptly drop into the room and kill the guy. Now, realistically speaking, the Alien has no reason to know you're in the area; it heard a noise, found the source of the noise, killed the source. What it should be doing is making a brief look around just in case there's something obvious, and then leaving, if only because somebody has gotta be making a racket somewhere at some point, the kind of racket that when it happens in an area you're actually in always pulls an Alien straight to you. What it actually does is stay in that area forever, perpetually hunting for you.

You can try to defend this by suggesting that, for example, the Alien can smell you and so knows you're somewhere in the area, but this defense really doesn't work. At no point in the game does anything ever happen that's even slightly consistent with the idea of Aliens sniffing people out; the player doesn't have to worry about managing their scent to avoid being caught, or anything like that. But even if we ignore that point, if the Alien had a good enough sense of smell to be certain you're still in the area, it ought to have a good enough sense of smell to track you more specifically than just haunting the one room, which it clearly does not do. Any other defense one cares to name has the same sort of problems.

Moments like these crush your ability to suspend disbelief and dive into the illusion you're actually being hunted by a horrific monster from beyond the stars. It's just not possible to ignore how the Alien is blatantly a video game puppet pulled by video game strings in moments like this, undermining the entire experience. Normally, I might be inclined to defend these moments as necessary sacrifices to preserve gameplay challenge, but the game itself doesn't consistently make that kind of decision: it's perfectly happy to have you spend long periods of time wandering around in no danger whatsoever, and with no other gameplay elements to interact with, and I've already noted how more than a third of the game unambiguously has absolutely none of the central 'being hunted by an Alien' gameplay in it.

It's just an inconsistent approach, where sometimes the game sacrifices gameplay on the altar of narrative experience, and other times the narrative experience is hobbled by forcing gameplay to happen in a particular way that doesn't fit the narrative experience.

The audio end is another frustrating element, in that voices are arbitrarily exempt from the Alien's hearing. I'm willing to give the game something of a pass when it's Amanda talking to people over the radio, as there's an obvious game design concern there: it would be hugely frustrating for the player to be killed because Waits happened to call them up about their next objective while they were hiding under a desk while the Alien was stalking nearby.

But there's no equivalent reason to have humans yelling at you to back off or they'll shoot be, mechanically speaking, completely silent. It's anti-reality, and it muddies the issue of what the player should assume constitutes 'noise' for the purposes of grabbing the Alien's attention.

Indeed, more broadly the game is wildly inconsistent on what sounds are mechanically noisy. Turning on a generator to advance the plot can be so obnoxiously noisy it's actually physically painful to listen to at any kind of sensible volume, yet the Alien will never respond to such a racket. Your blowtorch is continuously quite loud when in use, but nobody can hear it, and similarly they won't hear anything when you move a big chunk of steel and drop it loudly on the ground with a grunt.

And yet when you start turning on generators in the Alien hive, the game makes a point about having the Aliens collectively freak out over the noise, among other plot-mandated examples of doing something noisy that does actually draw Alien attention.

The overall result is that where the Alien's visual awareness is fairly solidly handled, its audio awareness is frustratingly inconsistent, undermining many elements of the game's design.

I've already harped some on how the hive was almost certainly added in later, but there's one more major problem that's a big part of why I think it came later: the Aliens' kill-happy nature.

In the scenario where one, two, maybe three Aliens are stalking the station, with no access to Facehuggers and all, it's easy to accept the Alien(s) killing basically everything it encounters. It needs to feed itself, for one, and while normally a predator would pace itself in tune with its hunger it's not that hard to imagine that, for example, an Alien being on its own triggers a process to turn it into a Queen. In that case their metabolic needs are going to be tremendous to support the growth, and it remains easy to justify the degree to which they stalk and kill people on the basis of hunger.

As a bonus, most humans in Alien: Isolation that have any opportunity to encounter the Alien are armed and attack it on sight, often before it's clear whether the Alien has noticed them. This means it's surprisingly easy to imagine that the Alien is wandering around, exploring its environment to get the lay of the land or looking for its home hive or whatever, basically minding its own business, up until someone starts shooting it, at which point it attacks to protect itself. This means a decent amount of the killing being done isn't very hard to justify even if one doesn't find the hunger explanation satisfying for the degree of killing going on.

But then we get to the hive. and suddenly this is a lot harder to buy. Your pre-game-over animations shouldn't be death animations: the Alien shouldn't be ripping your head off or driving its tail through your chest or slamming its inner jaw through your head. You should be dragged off into a vent, screaming, and if the game wants to obscure the hive's existence prior to the plot revealing it, it should simply fade to black on that note, such that players are initially left to assume they were killed. The Alien stumbling on a hostile human should lead to it dragging them off, and taking a few minutes to even possibly come back because it's busy taking them to the hive and that takes time.

To be entirely fair, the franchise in general has consistency problems here, where a given Aliens book, game, comic, or whatever will have Aliens killing people they were in a perfect position to capture and capturing people they probably ought to have been killing... but my point here is that Alien: Isolation's conspicuous lack of capture mechanics and scenes fits exceedingly well to the possibility that the hive wasn't an originally-intended part of the story.

Though the game has enough execution issues I can't deny the possibility this is simple incompetency.

Regardless, I've alluded to the late-game breakdown before, but one of the blunter examples of this breakdown is how the late game involves Sevastopol inexplicably setting afire everywhere, which is pretty confusing on its own and also makes it a lot harder to buy that what Aliens you deal with in the late game remain afraid of fire.

This is particularly problematic due to the fact that the late game encounters with Aliens are pretty heavily biased toward being designed so you almost have to drive them off instead of sneaking around them, and the flamethrower is the fastest, most reliable means to do so, making it all but guaranteed a player will ram straight into this inconsistency, no possibility of overlooking it.

Since the fires everywhere don't make a lot of sense... why was this done, exactly? It's all downside.

A different example of late-game breakdown is this sequence, where you're automatically spotted by an Alien, in tight corridors that are difficult to hide in, with no other humans or Working Joes to mix things up. There's some design problems right there, but the actual problem I have with this sequence is how heavily scripted it is, when much of the fear factor of Alien: Isolation comes from the spontaneous nature of the Alien interactions.

And I don't mean how it automatically spots you. No, I mean...

... this moment. This room? The Alien's presence in it? When you walk in through the only usable door, the Alien teleports to the partially-blocked off other door and leaps in.

The first time this happened, I thought it was a cool moment, because I assumed it was another case of the Alien revealing an unusual behavior it always has access to but doesn't readily turn to. In regular play, the Alien repeatedly surprised me with behavior I'd come to believe it was incapable of, so this was believable.

Then I died about a dozen times and it became really obvious this is a scripted encounter with a carefully-constructed right answer, and you're just supposed to trial-and-error your way through it, sucking all the fear out of the encounter. The reason I'm holding a molotov in the screenshot and the Alien is on fire is because I already knew this moment was coming and tossed a Molotov before it even jumped in. That's not scary. That's boring.

(Makes for a cool screenshot, at least)

The Alien hive is about as bad, I should note. It's a tight space with little room to hide and that forces you to trigger Alien spawns by having Facehuggers come after you in the form of teleporting somewhere ahead of you, which requires noisily killing them to avoid dying yourself. My first couple of attempts at the hive felt tense, particularly since the Motion Tracker is useless, giving you a bunch of ghost signals and not properly showing the actual Aliens. As I died more and more often, it became increasingly obvious this was a carefully-constructed, artificial experience. Some parts of the hive, you can be literally as noisy and destructive as you like, and an Alien will never come to investigate.

Meanwhile, the second generator you're forced to approach automatically has an Alien drop into the room when you walk over a magic line in an adjacent corridor, 'coincidentally'. No, it doesn't come investigate the corridor you're in: it didn't hear you. It really is supposed to be coincidence, even though it will happen every time you cross that magic line for the first time.

This is tremendously disappointing, as the Alien hive really ought to be the scariest part of the game, full stop, but the use of simple artifice coupled with how easy it is to die in the hive means it's actually very difficult to not discover that the experience is an illusion.

A badly constructed illusion.


There's so many solidly-executed ideas, the game comes so close to making something truly great, that it's incredibly disappointing how it ultimately fails to deliver. That the game invests so much effort into its inane story and its uninteresting art compounds the disappointment, as they quite clearly had the resources, but their focus was in the wrong areas.

On the note of wasted potential...

... well, see you next post.


Popular Posts