Compared to its contemporaries, Alien: Isolation isn't your typical first-person shooter. While the genre has been stereotyped as home to the biggest, loudest, and most action-packed experiences in gaming, The Creative Assembly's latest creation veers far from the expected.
Just as Ridley Scott's 1979 film put its heroine at an extreme disadvantage, Alien: Isolation forces players to work with the few resources available to survive (rather than fight against) the ruthless pursuit of one of the most terrifying movie monsters in existence. And Al Hope, the game's creative lead, fully understands the appeal of the Alien series' debut: the sole installment that focuses on quiet, creeping terror over pure Hollywood action.
"We take a lot of our values and key measures from the first film," says Hope. "And one of those things is believability—that we can watch the movie today and get an emotional reaction out of it, even though it's 35 years old. It's really grounded and it's not far-fetched—it's a really '70s view of the future. It's sort of saying technology's not the answer to the problem. You're not watching that film and saying, 'Go and get the gun! Go and get the gun!' It's mundane and grounded, and [Ripley] needs to use [her] instincts to survive. That's what we're asking the player to do—you're going to have to use your senses, moment-to-moment, to make the best decisions as to how to survive."
Alien games have rarely focused on the tone of the first film, simply because the sequels to follow contain elements perfectly suited for our medium—the ancient Commodore 64 version might be the only prior adaptation that strives for pure suspense. And Alien: Isolation seeks to redefine what an Alien game can be, after decades of seeing H.R. Giger's creations smashed apart like acid-filled pinatas. "Wanting to re-Alien the alien, to try and re-establish it as this fearsome killer, something to be actually scared of, something to really fear—that was very important," says Hope. "The role of the alien had changed—diminished—through the series, and games of the past had really focused on the James Cameron experience. It felt like no one had turned their gaze towards that first film. I used to joke that the best Alien game was Metroid, because it was really inspired by that. There had to be a really cool, really amazing experience that hadn't been captured before."
Some of Alien: Isolation's core concepts feel more at home in an indie game than a big-budget, Sega-published interpretation of an extremely popular movie. Rather than taking on swarms of the deadly creatures, Isolation pits you against only one—which can't be killed. Despite the first-person-shooter context, this unique premise wasn't hard to sell to players, as Hope explains:
"What's been really reassuring is when we talk about what we're trying to do, people seemed to get really excited, as if there seemed to be an audience out there who wanted this experience. It is doing something different within the universe. Every time we put the controller in people's hands, the result has always been fantastic. We've taken it to game shows and had thousands of people play it—gamers of every flavor—and you see people having a really positive time, a really satisfying time. They might start playing it like an action game, but the game soon tells them to try a different approach, and people really seem to respond and adapt. It was really reassuring seeing people's reactions to that—maybe the audience is smarter and more open than we might think.
"I came at this from the idea of 'What's the kind of game that we want to play?' And thinking, this creature's so amazing that this kind of one-on-one encounter, cat-and-mouse, could be incredible. There had to be other interactions with your character that involved more than the end of your gun—that the game was about more than pulling the trigger. And the response has been fantastic—as if people wanted something different."
It should be noted, though, that Alien: Isolation wasn't always a first-person experience. The Creative Assembly toyed with many different camera views, before realizing that placing the player inside the protagonist's head served an extremely important role in providing the game's laser-focused sense of tension. "We experimented with different camera views," says Hope, "and, for a while, we experimented with the game in third-person. It was fine. But in first-person, you had this completely different relationship with everything, with the world, with the alien—it wasn't hunting this character, your avatar, it was actually hunting you. Just that fact that if you're hiding behind a box, you're actually hiding behind a box. You don't have this floating camera that you can jockey and get extra information. When you're up against a box, that's all you can see—and it actually felt so powerful, and so intimate, that the game had to go in that direction.
"I think the game is about information. It's about 'What do you know right now?' Everything from 'What's in my inventory?' to 'What's my most immediate threat?' And it's about 'What actions do I have?' and the risks or consequences of those actions. 'What am I prepared to do to find out more to make that next step?' It seems really quite powerful. Just enabling the player to be able to lean and peek around the world to get a little more information is really, really important. We tried to strip away the need for too much HUD elements, and we didn't really want to start sticking exclamation marks above the alien's head. We tried to do more with just audio, and I think that does make it feel much more instinctive, that you're using the senses you would normally to understand the world around you, instead of interpreting a UI."