There are many reasons why Alien Isolation is the bravest and most groundbreaking game of last year. From top to bottom, it is staggering that it exists in its current form. At so many points, I expected it to dive into comfortable mediocrity. I thought perhaps it would not follow through on its initial promises of game design and story and fall victim to some studio executive’s demands after they glanced at quarterly financial reports. But before I get into further detail, let’s talk about something else. The reason we’ve arrived here. Let’s talk about the alien itself.
To this day, in the Alien lore, nobody knows where this terrifying race of creatures came from. Obviously, you could argue about tangential explanations in comics or half-prequels but in the core three films, the alien remains a mystery. The derelict ship found by the crew of the Nostromo on the planet LV-426 doesn’t belong to the alien nor is it their home. Kane, Dallas and Lambert stumble across the eggs early in the 22nd century and the alien has been tearing through the human race ever since.
It’s a fascinating creature that is unlike anything else. The blood that courses through its veins contains highly corrosive acidity and its double jaws are powerful to puncture human skulls. Lethal is not a strong enough word to describe this creature. Fatal would be a more suitable term. Everything about it, from its physicality to the sheer psychopathic philosophy, is fatal to anything that it comes in contact with. In that respect, it is complete and brilliant.
In the films, there are characters who remark upon this. Ash, the android, says that he “admires its purity” and in his opinion, it is “unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”. Ripley, when she confronts the coward employee of the company, Carter Burke, talks about the alien in a way that elevates it above the petty squabbling and betrayal that human beings are prone to repeat. She says “I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.” The general viewpoint is that the alien creature couldn’t be more singular. It solely exists to eliminate everything in its path and generate more of its kind. More than that, we just don’t know.
Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation bears so much similarity to the alien itself, I have to believe the developers thought the same thing while they were making it. The game is devout in its belief to never stray from what it wants to achieve. No matter what. The tension it produces never goes away and despite toying with guns, other humans and some light puzzles, the mission statement to create a consistent stealth experience ruled by a single antagonist doesn’t waver.
Not counting the Predator-related efforts, there have been approximately twenty attempts to capture the Alien movies in video game form. Apart from an extremely underrated experience developed by WayForward, Alien games have never achieved anything more than average to poor. This reputation culminated in 2013 in what can only be described as an extinction level event of awful in Aliens: Colonial Marines. This was seemingly the final nail in the coffin for games based in the Alien universe. Which in turn, makes Alien Isolation all the more shocking. Coming from the same publisher as Gearbox’s trainwreck, I can only imagine Sega gave Creative Assembly full responsibility and creative carte blanche. Because who cares, right? What difference does it make? It can’t possibly get any worse.
Whoever made that decision was astoundingly correct. The crippling fear of the creature practically drips off the walls in Isolation. More than once, I remember hiding in a vent or under a hospital bed while the alien stalks the halls, searching for sign of life. I dare not move in these moments. The alien’s senses are sharp as a razor blade and the slightest noise or action will send it right into your face. In one section of the space station Sevastopol, I hid beneath a desk after detecting the creature moving around. In surrounding rooms, other human survivors wandered. All of them oblivious to the impending danger that headed their way. In my (hopefully) safe refuge under the desk, I couldn’t see anything that was happening but my ears were up and at attention. The thumping footsteps of the creature followed by gunshots from the survivors. And then, chaos. Screaming and running. Hissing followed by rapid sprinting from the creature. Then a survivor entered the room I was occupying and I heard him yell for his life as the alien tore him apart. I stayed under that desk for quite some time afterwards. I don’t mind telling you I was shaken.
Ten, twenty, maybe even fifty years from now, I will still be amazed by Isolation. It does everything right so often, it feels like it was always meant to be rather than an out-of-nowhere absolute mega-bomb of courage on the part of the developers. Which it completely is. Of course this was the Alien game that needed to be made. How on earth did everyone go so long without realising it before now? On some level, Creative Assembly have made everyone look like an idiot. It was so obvious and yet so insane.
I’m prepared to call Alien Isolation a seminal masterpiece. In the future, I hope its influence is felt throughout the video game industry. Not only as a masterstroke of games design and storytelling but as the best example yet of being able to transport the player into an already-established movie universe. Isolation opens the door for developers to walk through and leave behind the days when movie-based games were nothing more than another bullet point in a contract alongside cereal and plush toys. This wasn’t a game rushed out to meet a box office deadline. Creative Assembly made it their mission to put everything in place to ensure whoever played their game felt that same raw terror they felt when they watch Ridley Scott’s Alien. Only on a heightened scale because this time, you couldn’t get away.
Bravo to everyone involved. You have made this Alien fan very happy for years to come. Thank you.