The Alien franchise is as amorphous and adaptive as the black goo from which its nefarious creatures were birthed. Throughout the six mainline entries in the film series, each one has its own aesthetic and thematic goals, all while moderately adhering to the general structure of the first film. Aliens is Alien but MORE. Alien 3 is Alien but with David Fincher’s nihilism. Alien: Resurrection is a clusterfuck of artists Joss Whedon and Jean Pierre-Jeunet. Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, while still Ridley Scott films, still contain the director’s new-age ferocity and operatic grandstanding, and each one finds distinct approaches to controversial material. No two films provide the same experience.
Alien: Isolation doesn’t so much present a different cinematic experience as much as it delivers the experience of the definitive Alien game.
Picking up threads between Alien and Aliens, Alien: Isolation involves Amanda Ripley searching for her mother while working for Weyland-Yutani, the totally-not-nefarious corporation, as Amanda is recruited on a fact-finding mission. The Nostromo’s black box has been picked up by a backwater galaxy space station named Sevastopol. It’s a fruitless vista, like an outlet store on a drive to Vegas; not meant to sustain human life, just plastering corporate slogans meant to turn profit. Delivering the best of all worlds. Physical and digital capitalist propaganda reading: “Tomorrow, Together“
On my initial play-through, I was mostly grabbed by the production design. The claustrophobic territory previously perfected by the original film, extended to a run time of over a dozen hours (I clocked in around 20+ just from exploring). Padded white walls, retro computer hardware, bulky space walking suits; it’s all on board the ships, Torrens and Sevastopol. How characters operate surrounding their environments have not been the central priority of the franchise since Ripley first died back in 1992. The films still have characters like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and a handful of the cast from Covenant whose confrontations in the dark vestiges of space influence their personal journeys in distinct ways (again, adaptive to the a director and their independent styles).
Amanda Ripley is a shell of a character. A vessel for the players to directly share experience with. It wasn’t something I was initially happy about, given the series’ penchant for women-driven narratives. But I eventually found myself on board with why Amanda didn’t have a drive. She’s not a soldier. All she has is her tech, capable of fulfilling her life as a workforce drone in the maw of Weyland-Yutani, never having to live a normal life. Her journey through Sevastapol, a literal recreation of areas in the Nostromo, leads her to a haunting truth.
“This is about survival.” says one of Sevastapol’s own survivors, before being quickly ripped away by the titular Xenomorph. After all, it’s what the series is about about. In the work spaces where lives once doled by, startling similarities operate as nostalgic “remember this?” iconography, before burrowing deeper into the depths of the station. As Amanda uncovers the truth about her mother, the dangers of corporate overlords and the competition, the game experience moves from engaging in homage into its own creation.
The utilization of gothic horror rooted in the cinematic franchise was deeply missed by other Alien games. The Alien video game world is dominated by action, more interested in mining material Aliens already perfected and honed. It’s easy to see how the structure of that film influenced so many video games, particularly of the 90s. But Alien as a series is not Aliens. Its roots are defined by horror, and while the action is something that is perceived as bringing in a mass audience, the xenomorphs lose their power if you can plow through them like Grunts in Halo. If nothing else, incorporating this element puts it miles ahead of the competition.
On the action side of things, the survivalist elements are a total treat. Scrounging for parts, counting down bullets as you come across other survivors or god forbid… a Working Joe. Plugging those pasty synthetics in the face as they stutter and lunge towards you. The Xenomorph being invincible is how most Alien games should treat their entity. It’s not that the creature isn’t scary when it can be killed (Aliens is still a great popcorn tosser), it’s that the urgency of a video game requires something more devastating than funneling bullets into space bugs.
Atmosphere and gameplay perfectly aligning to create an experience of visceral artistic and emotional merit. Long shadows and particle dust clutter around the few lamp shaded areas on the station. Machinery curved into the horrifying familiarity of the Xenomorph makes even turning a corner feel uneasy. The most consistent comforts? Tomorrow, Together. Not a beacon of hope. Just a slogan hung above the decrepit cadavers of lives lost.
It’s too bad we most likely won’t see a sequel to this. Not only would a sequel allow us to define Amanda Ripley of her own agency, Creative Assembly are one of the few companies who seem to “get” the series. It’s not about throwing down with bullets and acid. At the end of the day, Alien is about blue collar, working class people thrown into a meatgrinder of capitalist and cosmic terror.
There’s a unique sense of patience to the Alien franchise, one that (when it works) allows us to feel more at home in the world before shit gets dark. It takes more than half an hour for the game to really kick off. The long corridors and air-shafts feel even longer when you as Amanda are having to traverse them at excruciatingly slow pace to avoid detection. An escalating series of beeps driving through your preferred sound system as enemies draw near. The vindicated fight back against the terrors that be are too few to feel victorious, only escaping by the skin of your teeth. Fire and brimstone devouring the blood sweat and tears of people caught in the crossfire of corporate negligence and unknowable monstrosities in the vastness of space. The silence that follows.
Alien: Isolation is the perfect Alien game.