Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality… I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.
This apt description by Ash, everyone’s favourite hobbity murderbot, very much fits Alien: Isolation‘s recreation of the alien originally conceived by H.R. Giger and brought to the screen by Ridley Scott and crew. The creature is deadly: it is single-minded and has no conscience. Accordingly, it lacks yet another quality, one that most people would consider essential to good video games – whatever else the alien is, it isn’t fair.
Roughly one third into Alien: Isolation I had a streak of dying over and over on the way to my next objective. I hadn’t yet fully understood the creature: when it would appear, how it would move, how it could be distracted – but never defeated, in keeping with the original. The game’s superb blend of tension and fear gave way to frustration, with me thinking that my fate was to be hiding in lockers forever. Sneak into a room (always sticking to the sides), hide from sight behind a table, use the computer to restart the generator, hear the familiar slither and metallic stomp! stomp! STOMP! as the creature sees me and moves in for the kill. Rinse and bloody repeat. And then something fell into place: whether consciously or not, I started to become attuned to the rhythms of the game, the alien became, well, perhaps not predictable but a calculated risk. Still frightening, still the last thing I’d want to be stuck on a derelict space station with, but no longer the source of frustration.
And then came the game’s final hour or two – and Alien: Isolation again became hostile and remorseless, more so than before. Where previously the environments were made for hiding and eventually I was at least equipped to scare away the alien once or twice, I hadn’t found any flamethrower fuel in hours. Other weapons only served one purpose, to attract and annoy the creature, but fire scared it: I mean, most animals retreat from fire, yes? Without fuel, though, my on-screen deaths started to add up, going into the double digits. Alien: Isolation had never been fun as such, but it had been enjoyably tense and scary. At this point, though, it started to feel like I was Sisyphus, if Sisyphus was a gamer and pushing that rock up that incline was the same as your virtual avatar getting her head bitten off by an alien’s extendable mandibles. The whole thing was starting to get depressing and predictable, and I knew that I’d have to bring something different to the table if I wanted to finish Amanda “My mother looks like Sigourney Weaver” Ripley’s space odyssey.
Reader, I cheated. To explain this to non-gamers: cheating in this case means downloading a program that temporarily modifies the game, giving you the option of infinite life points, making you invisible or able to walk through walls. I went for infinite ammunition. The alien could still kill me, facehuggers would still impregnate me in the most invasive, lethal way, and androids could still throttle the life out of me while reminding me, in measured, British tones that “running causes accidents.” I wasn’t invincible – but I was a cheater. My eventual survival and victory wouldn’t be deserved, they’d be fraudulent.
Obviously none of this matters much. My self-worth isn’t defined by my ability to complete Alien: Isolation without resorting to cheats any more than by reading The Lord of the Rings without skipping large swathes of elven poetry and page after page of “Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!” But the alien’s – and therefore the game’s – lack of fairness does mar my experience. Especially with a game that puts me through the wringer like this one, I want that moment of relief that comes with just about making it. Instead I’m very much aware that I did the video game equivalent of doping myself before a competition. Perhaps if I’d just run that particular gauntlet one more time, I would’ve made it to the next save station. If I’d hidden under that desk for five more seconds, or five seconds less, I would’ve had a window of opportunity, giving me just enough time to get to the elevator without being killed. Instead, I won’t know, because I used a crutch that comes with an infini-flamethrower.
Design-wise, it’s an almost impossible task: Creative Assembly wanted to be true to the film, so the alien had to be exactly as described by Ash – hostile, remorseless, pure – and accordingly the player’s chances had to be slim. At the same time, players had to have a chance of understanding the creature’s behaviours and environment to maximise their chances of survival: random, unavoidable death, even if virtual, simply isn’t very enjoyable. In addition, the game provides tools that make the alien less of a threat, at least temporarily: noisemakers to attract it to the opposite side of the room, Molotov cocktails that force it into the vents for a while, and the aforementioned flamethrower. At the same time, the necessary items, such as crafting components and fuel for the flamethrower, are largely randomised: you might search boxes and corpses for hours without finding any of the useful stuff or you might find that everyone aboard the Sevastopol was wise enough to stockpile incendiary ammo without remembering that they couldn’t just throw flammable fuel at the creature with their bare hands. Me? I ended up with a flamethrower but nothing to throw.
In the end, the dilemma is this: games are largely about empowering the player, giving them options and tools to solve problems and succeed. How do you design in a hostile environment and a murderous creature, maintaining an oppressive atmosphere of constant threat, stressing that the player is never, ever permanently safe? In creating the perfect, pure Alien game, Creative Assembly mostly succeeded amazingly well – yet the roll of the virtual dice drove me into the welcoming arms of a cheat program, the tempting antithesis to the glistening, silvery alien whose arms are almost as welcoming as its jaws. I guess I’m no Ellen Ripley.
Then again, Ripley’s ordeal lasted just under two hours; I spent something like 15 hours on the Sevastopol. I’m sure she would have activated the cheat mode after three or four hours. In fact, she kinda, sorta did: she surrounded herself with Space Marine cannon fodder and started blasting those aliens to bits with a pulse rifle. Everyone knows you can’t send a flamethrower without fuel to do a pulse rifle’s job.