How Alien: Isolation got the horror game formula right

The Alien franchise has had several rough decades. The series has really only had two hit films (Ridley Scott’s original Alien and James Cameron’s transcendent Aliens), and while I would contend that Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection are worth seeing, I can’t say the same about any of the later films.

Many attempts have been made at translating the Alien franchise to video game format, most of them astonishingly poor. But Alien: Isolation stands as a testament to the potential of the Alien franchise as well as the pinnacle of everything stealth horror gaming should be.

Story and stealth

In Isolation you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter (briefly mentioned in James Cameron’s excellent director’s cut of Aliens), who is now an engineer working in the same area of space where the Nostromo went missing. The flight recorder from the Nostromo has been found, and Amanda travels to Sevastopol Station with two representatives of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to recover it.

Of course things go sideways, and Amanda gets stranded alone on Sevastopol Station, which is abandoned except for a few hostile, violent survivors. Making matters worse, creepy android “Working Joes” are wandering the station, ready to kill you on sight. And, of course, the Xenomorph is hunting you and everyone else on the station.

Certain core design elements and setting assumptions of Alien: Isolation solve a lot of my issues with stealth and horror games. The disconnect between story and gameplay, also known as ludonarrative dissonance, destroys most stealth games for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve murdered someone in a stealth game, gotten caught, ran away, and hid in a locker (or whatever) until the alarm turned off. Then everything goes back to normal, with this guard’s buddies walking over his corpse like nothing’s happened. This absolutely destroys my suspension of disbelief. Your base has been infiltrated. You have enemy operatives in your area of operations. One of your number has been laid low. And that enemy has gotten away and is still out there somewhere. And you’re going to go back to guard duty like nothing’s happened? Walking in circles and talking about the weather? How can I take any of this seriously?

Working Joe androids behave exactly this way, but the game makes a point of telling you that the Working Joes are the Zune of androids, unsellable even at clearance. Strong as hell, but with totally worthless artificial intelligence, they’re meant for maintenance and service, not warfare. They have no emotions, and so if Amanda gets lucky and takes one down, they don’t care.

But when one of them does catch you, that’s when the horror begins. These faceless, white androids beat you to death while spouting corporate platitudes and mild warnings. The first time a Working Joe killed me, he literally slammed my head against the floor over and over until my vision went black.

Human survivors gun you down without mercy, and Amanda is not Marcus Fenix. If she gets shot, she’s in trouble. You might be able to take a single shot and survive, but two and you’re almost certainly dead.

The Alien

But the core of the Isolation experience centers around the game of cat and mose between Amanda and the Xenomorph. In the original Alien movie, Ash described the Xenomorph as “the perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility... A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Alien: Isolation’s developers captured the essence of that description. The Xenomorph never gets distracted, never loses focus, and never stops hunting you. You cannot defeat it or directly attack it, only distract it with hastily crafted molotov cocktails and, late in the game, a flamethrower.

The Alien makes few pretenses at stealth. You can hear the deep thud of its footsteps reverberating through Sevastopol’s empty corridors as it searches for you, and the game’s excellent sound design allows you to judge your distance from certain death. This design also serves to emphasize the vast difference in power between Amanda and the Xenomorph - it can stomp around Sevastopol because it essentially owns the joint, while you must sneak around, crouched low, moving at a snail’s pace to avoid detection; it’s an intentional reminder of your smallness and vulnerability.

If the Xenomorph catches sight of you, you’re dead. There is no escape, but the game is well-designed enough to give you a second to try. You can leap into a ventilation shaft to escape, but it will yank you out by the ankles and kill you. While these death scenes are low on gore, they’re high on chilling violence. If you try to run, the Xenomorph rams its tail through your back. You stop dead, look down, realize what’s happened, and collapse. If you run at the Xenomorph, it knocks you on your back and the last thing you see is its hand slowly reaching over your face. I died hundreds of times in my playthrough, and never stopped getting creeped out by it.

Purity of experience

Some horror games combine patrolling enemies with poorly explained puzzles that require multiple attempts to defeat, enough times that the scares evaporate, replaced only with tedious frustration. I remember trying to turn on a basement generator in Outlast, without clear instructions on how to do so, while a mental patient bludgeoned my face in. After a few tries, the game’s great atmosphere vanished and this formerly tense sequence started to feel like trying to accomplish housework while an annoying neighbor keeps hitting you with a stick.

Other games rely on jump scares rather than persistent atmosphere, but if the jump scare has a chance to kill you, you can end up repeating the sequence, and a formerly great scare becomes just another thing to do. Resident Evil 7 kept a Molded zombie in a must-open morgue drawer, which was a great scare the first time and not at all the fourth or fifth time. Alien: Isolation makes no such mistakes. The Xenomorph’s AI is constantly adapting to your strategies, so even moving through the same area multiple times will play slightly differently.

This might seem inconsequential, but the game never memorizes door key codes for you. If you find a code, you have to remember it yourself, get to the door, and punch it in. You can actually use your keyboard’s keypad to do so, and it’s significantly faster and more accurate than using the mouse. I’ve never felt more immersed in a game than when I slammed a hastily memorized code into a keypad and escaped right before the Xenomorph found me.

Even saving your game is tense. There are no checkpoints. Amanda can only save at yellow emergency phones scattered throughout the game. She grabs a plastic keycard, slides it into the phone’s slot, and waits for three lights to turn off. This only takes a few seconds, but Amanda is completely vulnerable during this process. You can look to the left and right while the game saves, but you can’t actually abort the save process to run away. I have shouted “Come on! COME ON!” at it more times than I can count, with the Xenomorph’s footsteps echoing through the halls. It’s awesome.

The art and environmental design maintains the retro-futuristic technology of the Alien world. Computers look, feel, and run like machines from the early 1980s, complete with keyboard-only interfaces and pixellated on-screen text. This is not the sleek future of Deus Ex. It’s not cyberpunk. It’s not even wireless. Much like human nature, it hasn’t evolved one bit since the original films. If you read the computer logs and audio tapes strewn about the game, you get a sense of the story of Sevastopol station and the people who lived on it. This backstory relates to the original films’ themes of corporate exploitation of the working class. Visually and thematically, It’s the Alien sequel that we’ve needed for twenty years.

A modern horror classic

I’ve made a point of emphasizing the power difference between Amanda and the Alien, but she never feels weak. Whereas the Alien films could convey Ripley’s strength through her interaction with other characters, Amanda is almost totally isolated, and reveals her strength through gameplay. She sneaks, fights, and wields an ion cutting torch like no one’s business. She builds improvised explosive devices and noisemakers out of junk. She makes life-saving medkits from scrap and empty syringes. You can even use the Xenomorph against your human enemies by triggering your noisemakers when you know that it’s hiding somewhere in the area. Drawn to the racket, it’ll murder anyone and anything it sees, bringing to mind Ellen Ripley’s words from Aliens, “I don’t know which species is worse.” Yes, Amanda is terrified, but she’s also tough as nails. The Ripley family resemblance is strong.

While the game manages to overstay its welcome by a few hours and the ending is weak, I strongly recommend giving Alien: Isolation a spin this Halloween. Stealth gamers owe it to themselves to play something with internally consistent fiction and ludonarrative. Horror gamers need to experience the unique sensation of being hunted by the Xenomorph. And Alien franchise fans owe it to themselves to dive into the best franchise entry since 1986. 

Check out more spookytacular articles just in time for Halloween.