What is Alien: Isolation? More Importantly, Will It be Any Good?

What is Alien: Isolation? More Importantly, Will It be Any Good?

Fox files the trademark for what appears to be a new game, but can it overcome the malaise that always seems to drag down Alien-based properties?

Siliconera has uncovered a trademark filed by Fox for "Alien: Isolation," a brand designated for video games, mobile games, software, screen savers, decorative magnets, and eye glasses. Excited as we all may be to decorate our refrigerators with fossilized space jockeys and uncomfortably phallic H.R. Giger-designed monsters, I'm much more curious to see what the game side of things reveals.

The Alien license has not had good luck in the video game space in recent years. WayForward's Aliens: Infestation was pretty solid, but it was a DS game, so just about everyone ignored it. Meanwhile, the big-budget Colonial Marines turned out to be a colossal flop (allegedly due to the developer skimming off the budget to fund their own project), while a promising-looking RPG by Obsidian withered on the vine. Some gamers are speculating Isolation may be the mysterious Creative Assembly Aliens project that's been in the works for years, but nothing has been heard on that title in quite some time.

Whatever the story behind this new trademark, there's still reason to hope the Alien license can give birth to a great video game -- though as one NeoGAF poster put it, "What's there left to tell about Aliens?" It's a fair question; James Cameron's Aliens has been strip-mined by video games. Contemporary Alien-based games inevitably revolve around that specific film and its scenario; and even beyond the official titles, Aliens references, homages, and rip-offs dot the gaming landscape, from dialogue quotes ("Game over, man!") to wholesale theft (e.g. the Contra series). Is there really anything new left to be done with Alien?

The trick to making a great video game in 2013 is actually not to simply recreate a movie from 1985 wholesale.

Absolutely. The secret, I think, will be in a developer having the will to step away from the well of the obvious -- Aliens -- and exploring some of the other elements of the franchise. Wise-cracking space marines with rumbling pulse rifles, power loaders, and automated defense turrets have become a cliché over the past 25-plus years since Aliens debuted, but in truth those elements only belong to a single film of a four-movie series. Heck, even if you disavow all knowledge of Alien 3 and Resurrection, Aliens is still only half the story. What games have failed to explore is the creepy sense of terror and isolation that made the original Alien a landmark fusion of horror and sci-fi films. Personally, I've always found Alien a far more compelling film than its sequel, even if the sequel makes for an easier video game conversion.

The fact that the new trademark covers the term "Alien: Isolation" bodes well. For one, the subtitle hearkens back to the sense of solitary terror the crew of the Nostromo experienced as they were stalked by a murderous monster through the chambers of a vast mining vessel at the edge of space. Secondly, the trademark for is Alien -- singular -- not Aliens, which would seem to suggest it specifically ties into the first film or the general franchise, rather than being yet another iteration on the second movie.

Even the best Alien games tend to retread the same old territory.

The original Alien would make for a brilliant survival horror game, and for proof we need look for further than a classic by Creative Assembly's parent company, Sega. Enemy Zero, developed by the late Kenji Eno's studio WARP for Sega Saturn in 1996, basically took the concept of Alien (a mostly defenseless woman struggling to survive in a spaceship full of deadly aliens) and added a new wrinkle (the enemies were invisible) to great effect. But it needn't be survival horror; the Alien concept lends itself to plenty of other game types beyond that or the usual shooters and arcade brawlers we've generally seen with the property.

In truth, the most important element we need from an Alien game isn't to explore new genres but rather new ideas. I get that Alien is a cool license, and both the licensor and licensees want to give fans lots of familiar touchstones, but the net result is that Aliens' 50 minutes of intense action set pieces tend to be rehashed over and over again as developers lean on fan service without offering anything different than what we've seen before. The tension of the first two Alien films came from uncertainty, the fear of the unfamiliar, something that's been lost as we've become comfortable with the capabilities and habits of the marauding xenomorphs. Even James Cameron didn't really get how important this dread was; his director's cut of Aliens reveals the presence of the aliens and the fate of Newt's family in the opening moments, changing the marines' mission from a journey into the unknown and making it more of an inevitable venture into an expected trap.

My hope with every new Alien game is that the developers will look to some of the franchise's extracanonical material, such as Mark Verheiden and Mark Nelson's Aliens: Book One comics. Originally penned as a direct follow-up to Aliens, Book One was eventually stricken from canon by Fox when Alien 3 turned out to contradict the fundamental concept of the comic (which focused on Newt and Hicks -- who died at the beginning of Alien 3 -- trying to reintegrate into civilization). Aliens: Book One focused less on space marines and combat and more on the psychological horror of the xenomorphs and the tragedy that could ensue in the event of an infestation on Earth.

Now this is more like it (image © Dark Horse comics).

Between its eerie black-and-white artwork and its fascinating story concepts (such as the aliens being capable of subtle mass mind-influence that caused some humans to become fascinated with their arrival -- a twisted take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Alien: Book One succeeded at telling a unique story in the Alien universe that drew on familiar elements but cast them into a chilling new scenario.

That, I suspect, will be the secret of a great Alien game. It'll take a developer willing to lay off the wise-cracking marines and familiar catchphrases, who will focus instead on exploring new story concepts with the deadly, parasitic, acid-blooded monsters from space. Maybe it's too much to hope that any big-budget video game would stray from the safety of familiar precedent... but if any property begs for a venture into the unknown, it's Alien.

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