I like horror games. This might come as a surprise given how infrequently I talk about them, but that’s because I do not deal well with horror. I need lots of tea breaks, pauses where I try to get my heart rate out of the thousands and comforting reassurance that the big scary monsters are JUST A GAME.
See, I like horror because they live or die on their atmosphere and regularly rely on story, both of which are things I like in my games. You can have the most awkward gameplay mechanics imaginable and I will be more inclined to overlook that if I get completely immersed into the game world. The thing is though that the best horror games are therefore ones which I get so immersed in that I get so worked up playing them I can only get through them about an hour at a time.
Alien: Isolation is, I think, the best horror game I’ve ever played. And it proves that in the time it took me to beat it. It was a game I really wanted, but couldn’t run, at its release way back in 2014 and it wasn’t until I built my first genuine gaming rig in 2015 that I started to play it. It is then a mere hop, skip and a jump later and I finish the game in the first few months of 2019… So, if my Steam playtime is to be believed this means I completed the game at the blistering speed of 30 minutes played per month.
That alone ought to be testament enough to exactly how terrifying the game is. I would spend a few hours playing it in one sitting and just get so shit-my-pants scared that I’d need to turn it off and would just avoid playing it. Admittedly coming back to it was more a psychological warfare thing than anything else, as your mind just makes it out to be so much worse than it was. But with A:I it would then seemingly repeatedly deliver on this mystique I had surrounded it with.
And my mummy always did say that I was very easily affected by horror because I have an excellent imagination, so if you didn’t find it scary then that’s on you, you unimaginative so-and-so!
The game is ostensibly set 15 years after the original Alien film with you taking the roll of Amanda Ripley, Sigourney Weaver’s daughter. Now, my knowledge of the Alien canon is actually very limited but I also didn’t really feel like the lack of this knowledge in any way impacted the experience. Likely there will have been Easter eggs for the bigger fans of the series, but it was still stellar without it (literally, hurr hurr).
Due to the technology of the Alien Universe being a sort of 1970’s-esque level of CRT monitors and punch cards, the recovered data from the Nostromo (the ship from the film) needs to be physically collected and so Amanda has to fly off to the Sevastopol space station to do so along with a Weyland-Yutani representative and an android. When they arrive though they find that life aboard the space station has all gone a wee bit sideways, with everyone aboard either barricading themselves into as small a space as possible, gibbering to themselves about surviving the monster, or they’re already smeared across several bulkheads.
Naturally, your retrieval mission immediately goes tits up and you become stranded in hostile territory where you now have to deal with all remaining denizens, including people and rogue androids. The first few hours of the game are crazily slow as you gradually need to regroup with your team, break through security protocols and bit by painstaking bit, work towards finding the flight recorder and then escape from the ship.
Even in these early sections before the alien reveals itself its absolutely uncanny just how bloody atmospheric and scary the game is. Admittedly the androids are not really particularly effective when it comes to actually delivering on a scare, but as things advance and it becomes unclear when exactly you are safe and when you aren’t every single potential sound is an enemy. And having to run away from a yelling robot is the equivalent of smearing yourself in delicious barbecue sauce.
In fact this is a common theme later on where the bloody androids and enemy humans are certainly a threat to you if you’re not careful, but the real threat is that they attract the monster from the vents by being too noisy. So, you end up sneaking around them, almost begging them to stay fucking quiet so that you don’t have to also avoid becoming lunch.
When the alien itself does finally appear it’s so unpretentious. It simply uncoils from the roof as you cower under a table and then it stomps off and it’s up to you to get the fuck out of there as carefully and quietly as possible.
As an aside, the sound design of the game might just be some of the best in gaming. There’s a lot of the atmospheric notes with many clattering, hissing, clunking sounds all serving to drive you absolutely insane, accompanied by some seriously nerve twanging music. The gradual collapse of the station absolutely perfect for keeping you on edge. However, the real star of the show is the alien sounds. The deep, bass thuds of its footsteps as it hunts for you, often seeming to be literally inches behind your head, with its tail clattering loudly over the floor behind it.
It happened more than once that I would leap into a locker to hide and this would then become something of a prison for me. The reverberating footsteps of the alien such a terrifying reminder of its presence that I would become paralysed and have no ability to leave my locker, so I’d just stay put with my thumb firmly stuck in my mouth, for stupidly long stretches of time.
The devs also made a pretty big deal of the fact that the alien AI will actually learn from your behaviour, so in theory if you spend a lot of time in the lockers then the alien will begin to check those more often. Whether this is true or not and just a way of psyching players out though, I’ve no idea.
This same affect is achieved in another way with the ingenious gift of the motion tracker: a core aspect of the game, once obtained it shows everything moving within a relatively small radius. On the surface this seems like it would make a game like this trivial, just go the opposite direction to the big blinking green dot, but the thing is that if its visible on the tracker then its already pretty damn close to you. So all it does is fuel your paranoia because either the alien isn’t visible on the tracker, but could appear AT ANY TIME or it is visible in which case its basically right on top of you, or worse its actually just chilling in the vent system so that means it could be LITERALLY right above you. So back into mouth my thumb goes…
It’s actually such an integral part of the experience that one could be forgiven for missing large chunks of the game simply because a third of your screen is obscured by this tracker as you wield it like a teddy-bear that might save you from death. Which it won’t…
The game really shines is in this unscripted and constant presence. After the Alien has appeared, even the ostensibly “safe” sections still feel dangerous, like it could appear at any time and one finds oneself wincing at every loud noise. As it is unscripted though, there are admittedly fewer jump scares and in fact I’d say that even as things progress, the xenomorph catching you becomes almost more of a relief.
This is because there is just such a constant thrumming build of tension in your mind, scurrying around like the vulnerable, little delicious snack you are, thumb in your mouth, cuddling your motion tracker. So, if you do finally get spotted it feels like you can suddenly breath again… For the five minutes before you restart. This is not to say there aren’t good “jumpy” moments, where you are liable to let out a shriek, but the point is that this isn’t what the game is trying to deliver.
The story of the game mostly centres around trying to escape the station, in fact after a couple of hours, your initial objective of trying to find the flight recorder is more or less completely forgotten in the scrum of trying to survive. You encounter a few other characters along your way, mostly driven to insane paranoia by the presence of the alien, who will give you tasks to try and help with that eventual goal.
For the most part though, I have to rather guiltily admit to missing most of the story. I remember being given objectives, trying to save crew members, find escape vessels and prepare them, but really for the most part this just leads to another excuse for Amanda to spend a couple of hours darting from locker to locker. I’d say that’s sort of that point almost. The game’s story is solid, but it’s secondary. Simple and straightforward so as not to distract from the bed-wetting terror.
I think in the past few years there have been two horror games which will regularly appear at the top of everyone’s lists which I have also played: Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, two names which really go without saying. Personally, I feel A:I has them both beat in fear factor. The scripted natures of the scares in both games makes the individual terrifying highs a bit higher, making you leap out of your seat with terror. But I don’t think either of them really can match the constant, heart-wrenching tension that Alien succeeds in creating.
I will say though that towards the end as the action ramps up towards a conclusion, it does feel like some of the tension vanishes a little bit as it turns into fighting and running. But as this is only in the latter hours of the game, it feels earned that you are now fighting your way out of the station. You also are only ever able to ward the alien away briefly, and your ability to do so is limited, so it’s not devoid of fear either.
Another aspect I feel deserves special consideration is the graphics. Even 6 years down the line, A:I actually looks fucking incredible. There’s a use of lighting on display that makes for truly stunning moments (like the bit from the trailer where you raise the shutters and let in the golden light of a star into the cold metal of the station). Combine that with the oldie-timey retro-futurist aesthetic (green CRT monitors, no holograms, lots of flashing buttons and dials on analogue computers) and it just is super enjoyable to look at and admire. I will add though, not for the first time, that the retro-futuristic aesthetic is now starting to wear just a little thin.
If I were to make a real complaint, I think the biggest would be the crafting system. Throughout the game you are encouraged to explore and there is even a minor metroidvania aspect in that you will revisit previous areas and unlock new sections of them. The latter is primarily story driven, but you can explore around to try and get crafting materials for various sorts of bombs and explosive devices, mostly with the purpose of distraction or confusion rather than damage. However, throughout the entirety of the game I may have used one of these once and the rest of the time had a full inventory of everything else…
Now, this might be more exclusive to me and my style of playing these games, as I am what I describe as a “hoarder”, where I will save items and equipment for later “when I really need it”. But also my refusal to use even things like the noisemaker was due to my very real fear of accidentally summoning the alien to my position by accident rather than distract it away. Admittedly it probably does not help that I can’t hear a number of these devices in the game. For example, I was extremely horrified to discover towards the end of the game that the motion tracker apparently makes a noise, which might have explained why I kept getting yanked out of my hidey-holes…
Whatever the case though, the whole crafting system felt like it simply did not need to be there. It felt like something that was added it because that is what games have these days, and it wouldn’t be right without it, but it really contributed nothing.
The other real biggest drawback is one I’ve already touched on, and is a relatively common argument, in that it feels like there isn’t much in the way of character growth on display. Amanda does have a bit of a bad habit of just accepting that it’s her duty to go around seemingly acting as bait for the alien (although admittedly she’s also definitely the most capable). But, once more I have to say that I feel like this just allows you the player to step into her shoes a little more easily.
Even if the overall story maybe leaves something to be desired, Alien: Isolation is worth playing if nothing else than for the genuinely incredible atmosphere and horror design. For anyone who likes scary games, this ought to be at the absolute tippy-top of their list.