One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
When I was a kid playing pirated games on my beloved “breadbox”, the C64, games based on movie licences tended to be ubiquitous, largely interchangeable and mostly dire affairs. Whether they were mediocre shooters or bad action adventures, if it wasn’t for the title screen and (if we were lucky) a bit tune rendition of the movie’s theme, it’d be well-nigh impossible to know that what you were playing was supposedly an adaptation of Licence to Kill (yes, those two dozen huge pixels represented Timothy Dalton) or Platoon (a surprisingly enjoyable action game, albeit one that dropped the film’s anti-war angle in favour of some more mass market-friendly Vietcong shootery). Whatever connection there was to the films that purportedly inspired the games ended up being mostly imaginary.
Cut to almost thirty years later, and you’ve got Alien: Isolation, a game that doesn’t just kinda, sorta look like Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror if you squint at it in just the right way. No, Alien: Isolation pretty much looks, sounds and feels like being in the original Alien – that hokey advertising phrase of ‘being there’ finally feeling like an accurate description. Computer hardware is finally up to the task of recreating sights and sounds to an amazing degree of fidelity, and Isolation makes highly effective use of this.
The game doesn’t just reproduce the production design of Scott’s film, although even as a sincere, well-crafted act of imitation it would be impressive. The corridors of the space station Sevastopol, which you walk (or, more often, sneak through) as Amanda Ripley, daughter of the original films’ heroine, represent a smart extension of the movie’s fictional universe. Giger’s classic alien stalking a Ripley through a mostly abandoned space station: this may sound like fan fiction of the least imaginative kind, and at least in terms of plot and character writing Isolation stumbles somewhat, but these things don’t matter when I put on my surround sound headphones and dim the lights. As I peek around the corner, get out my motion sensor and wonder whether that onscreen blip is one of the androids (which would be bad enough) or the alien itself (which would be worse), I’m there, in Alien, as I dreamt after I first saw the film on TV.
One ingenious touch in this respect is the game’s faithful recreation of Alien‘s retro-futurism. The screens on the Sevastopol, just like the ones we remember being on the Nostromo, aren’t Ultra HD LCDs, they’re cathode-ray tubes, and their blurry, pixellated displays look one step away from Pong consoles. Similarly, the sounds emanating from those screens are the bleeps and bloops of the future of yesteryear. Isolation‘s low-tech hi-tech may not be logical, strictly speaking, seeing how an average mobile phone vastly surpasses the Sevastopol’s computers from the look and sound of it, but it gives the environments the same lived-in, faintly outdated feel that the Nostromo had. For want of a better word, there’s an analog rather than digital quality to the Sevastopol, a materiality that is still rare in video games.
The flipside of all of this is that Alien: Isolation may just succeed too well at putting you inside the world of Alien. Slowly walking down a dark corridor, starting at every flickering light and mechanical hiss, in the knowledge that a biomechanical horror is after you, isn’t fun. I’ve previously described some of my favourite game spaces – such as GTA V‘s Los Santos – as dreamlike versions of real places; the Sevastopol is like a nightmare version of the Nostromo, already a pretty nightmarish place to find yourself. And just like the doomed crew of that vessel, I find myself looking at that blurry blip on the motion sensor, getting closer. And closer. And closer.