Justin Keverne crawls through The Creative Assembly’s stealth-horror homage to 1979′s classic sci-fi film, Alien.
Justin Keverne crawls through The Creative Assembly’s stealth-horror homage to 1979′s classic sci-fi film, Alien.
As a hybrid horror-stealth game, Alien: Isolation is superb. It’s my favourite game of 2014, and the tensest I’ve felt since playing Thief: The Dark Project. However, I’m just not sure how well-designed it is. I’m getting my overall feelings out of the way because it’s a complicated game to analyse. The Creative Assembly made a wealth of decisions both obvious and subtle that shouldn’t work, often don’t, and yet – in those moments when they do – the outcome is little short of astonishing.
Playing as Amanda Ripley, you arrive on Sevastopol Station in the hope of finding some explanation for the disappearance of your mother Ellen fifteen years ago. Half-deserted and in the process of being decommissioned, Sevastopol is a classic “haunted house” environment, evoking the likes of Citadel Station or the Spencer Mansion. The threats you face and your available means of dealing with them encourage an indirect approach echoing, if never quite living up to, the classic stealth of games like Thief: The Dark Project.
The threats you face and your available means of dealing with them encourage an indirect approach
At the core of Isolation is a conflict between horror and stealth. Horror’s desire is to withhold information whenever possible, whereas stealth is a genre largely about acquiring and using information. Ambiguity is powerful when players are given a means to improvise out of miscalculations, but Alien: Isolation rarely grants that space. If you misread the signs, then you’re back to the last Emergency Phone checkpoint. There is no scope to experiment, to test the limits of the systems without encountering the binary failure states.
Though conceptually in conflict, these two aesthetic goals are sometimes implemented in ways that serve to reinforce each other. It’s in those instances that Isolation becomes something special.
At the nexus of this conflict between abstract design concept and an in-context implementation is the location-based manual save system. Though guaranteed to cause you to replay certain sections multiple times, a less-obviously-restrictive save system would inevitably drain Isolation of its tension; being able to save at will would undermine the threat posed by the alien and the environment of Sevastopol Station.
Despite being tied to specific locations within each level, the Emergency Phones that serve as the save points in Isolation are better understood as objects not in space, but in time; temporal bubbles of safety. I would find myself circling back to the same Emergency Phone multiple times over the course of half an hour, my experience creating a natural tempo of tension and release. As my advances became longer, I’d find another Emergency Phone and the cycle would start again. This style of progression is reinforced by the level design, which is built to lead you back through areas you’ve previously visited in ways that allow your developing knowledge of the space to be put to use by planning both your path forward and your escape routes. You know there are lockers at the bottom of the stairs because you passed them on the way up, so if (when) everything goes to shit, that’s where you want to get back to.
That’s the underlying rhythm I found in Isolation: move out to complete an objective, then retreat back to save and create another bubble of safety in which to recover and plan before eventually moving again. This was an approach supported by the systems and level design, if not one specifically encouraged by them. There was always the temptation to keep pushing forward in the hope that I would find another Emergency Phone or be lead back into an area where I already knew there was one. Unsurprisingly, pushing forward too aggressively, being impatient or having a sudden surfeit of confident was frequently fatal, violently abruptly fatal.
In the climactic scene of Alien, Ellen Ripley is preparing to enter cryosleep after having initiated the self-destruct of the Nostromo. Moving around the shuttle the camera pans across the walls, all industrial pipes and chunky ’70s industrial design. Only when she approaches one of those walls and begins to use a console does it become clear that what initially appeared to be part of the shuttle’s interior is in fact the Aalien lying on its side, dormant. The alien is visually unique, at once a part of its environment and utterly distinct from it. This aesthetic design is carried through into Isolation, with many parts of the environment that, when seen out of the corner of your eye, or when you don’t focus on them, can look a little too much like the alien.
The eponymous alien is, if not omnipresent, then certainly a frequent companion. There are entire levels where you can hear it moving around and through the air ducts in the walls and ceilings – and yet never see it. I made it through Communications, past the waxy faced Seegson Working Joes, without ever once encountering the alien – but I knew it was there, its presence felt in eerie bleeps from the motion tracker or saliva dripping ominously from an open ceiling vent.
Levels in Isolation are constructed from series of loops; either one large circuit where you have to reach a particular location perform a task and return, or a hub-and-spokes structure that evokes memories of Doom as you move out along one branch to complete an objective that unlocks access to additional branches. Built in this fashion, the levels frequently lead you back through areas you’ve been through before – but now the stakes have changed. The power generators you activated have caused the lights to come on, alerting the survivors to your presence; their activity in turn heralding the arrival of something even less friendly.
In a stealth game, this form of backtracking takes on a different context than it does in a game more focused on direct action. When you can’t render the environment completely safe, returning to a previously-visited location requires using your knowledge of the environment to gain an advantage. Consider that it’s only on the higher difficulty settings of Thief: The Dark Project that you are asked to escape again after completing your main objectives. There’s a challenge in getting somewhere undetected and a greater one in getting back out again. Now imagine having to do that when there’s no way to render the environments safe by judiciously blackjacking everything in your path.
It’s only during Isolation’s overly padded middle third, where the Alien is explicit not present, that you have any time to relax. Unfortunately these sections are some of the weakest in the game despite featuring the greatest variety in terms of mission and environment design. It’s frustrating that your objectives only become more complicated, and the encounter designs more varied, when the Alien is pushed into the background. One particularly tense stealth encounter sees you devoid of weapons against effectively invulnerable Working Joes; I can only imagine how this tension could have been dramatically impacted by the knowledge that the alien could appear at any moment. That said, this is also where the problems with Isolation’s stealth system come to the fore, so throwing the alien into that mix could very well have had the opposite effect.
The stealth model used in Isolation is based on the straightforward principles of of noise and line-of-sight. Despite large parts of Sevastopol lying in shadow, and what illumination there is coming from harsh neon lighting that creates sharp divides between light and dark, lighting doesn’t affect your visibility. When dealing with the alien, this makes sense; there’s nothing about the creature’s physiology that suggests they have trouble seeing in the dark – in fact, the reverse is true. However, given that you frequently have to rely on the use of a torch, it feels inconsistent that the awareness model used for the human survivors you encounter doesn’t take illumination into account.
Audio design is an area where Isolation stands out, and it’s here that it is most evocative of Thief: The Dark Project
Audio design is an area where Isolation stands out, and it’s here that it is most evocative of Thief: The Dark Project. Even when you can’t see the alien, you can hearing it moving, the rattle of its breathing, the soft yet sharp sound of its clawed feet on the metal floors of Sevastopol, even the rumble and scuffle of it moving through the vents around and above you. This last is the most fear-inducing once you realise what you are actually hearing. It’s easy during your first few encounters with the creature to think that these noises are just environmental audio, rather than the sounds made by the movement of a lethal hunter.
There is a brief, and forced tutorial section that suggests it will teach you how the stealth system works, but this section of sneaking across a room to deactivate a generator is rudimentary to the point of being useless as a teaching moment. A much better in-context teaching space occurs later, after you have encountered the alien for the first time. Sadly, this space has been constructed in a way that makes it too easy for the lessons it is trying to impart to backfire and fundamentally miscommunicate how both NPC AI and stealth gameplay function within Isolation.
The problem with the Transit Lobby
After your first encounter with the Alien, you escape on one of Sevastopol Station’s trains and have to face a group of hostile survivors on your way to the Communications decks. You enter the lobby beyond the transit station by moving through a series of smaller spaces, consisting of narrow corridors and low ceilings. These areas are rife with lockers to hide in and the final section before the lobby even includes a vent. These are classic refuge spaces; areas of safety and security away from the main flow of action. Their architecture, and the arrangement of objects within them, causes these areas to read as “safe”, especially when compared to the lobby itself, with its high ceiling, sparse cover and long sight lines. The lobby is a prospect space – a space in which players will be challenged, threatened and will need to use the skills available to them to progress.
Upon entering the lobby, there is no clear secondary refuge; no identifiable safe area to move toward. You have to move forward into the prospect space, leaving your safe space behind and hoping you’ll find another one.
When you eventually move into the brightly lit doorway toward the elevator (a clear point of interest) and trigger the return of the hostile human NPCs, the only visible refuge space – and the only one you might even be aware of if you’ve not explored the lobby’s upper level – is back the way you came, out of the lobby toward the transit hub.
Heading back that way is a natural reaction, but one that causes problems as this encounter isn’t structured to respond consistently to players who leave the lobby. Doing so, and being successful, is possible, but leads to the formation of an unrepresentative understanding of how stealth functions, as the NPCs behave erratically outside of the lobby. It also means players miss out on the reinforcement of the beneficial uses of the Rewire Panels, something that would be gained by using those on the lobby’s upper level to distract and hide from the patrolling NPCs.
The transit lobby is conceptually designed to encourage players to go upstairs where they can explore the use of the Rewire Panels and engage the hostile NPCs on more stealth friendly terms. However, architecturally, it has been built in a way that naturally encourages players to leave the lobby and return to the refuge space of the entrance corridors, as these are the only known safe areas.
As this is the first instance of non-trivial stealth, player’s experience of this section impacts their understanding of how stealth functions throughout Isolation. Simply put, if the first time through the lobby you go upstairs, you will have a much clearer understanding of the underlying rules that govern the stealth systems – but the construction of the space doesn’t encourage this.
Misunderstanding the stealth systems can be the cause of frustration, but there are times when misreading the game’s other systems simply leads to death. Despite providing visual and aural cues for every threat that can cause direct harm, Isolation does little to teach you these cues, or verify that you have understood their significance. Saliva dripping from an open ceiling vent cues you to the presence of the alien, but the only validation that this is the case comes when it drops down and eviscerates you, sending you back to the last Emergency Phone.
Horror and stealth are superficially similar, but one is about disempowerment; the other, empowerment – albeit in a non-traditional form. In stealth games, you are weak when exposed, but powerful when concealed. In horror games, you’re never powerful and are at best less weak. Instead of concealment granting power by enabling you to choose how and when to act, it is instead your means of avoiding engagement with a much more powerful force. In Isolation, your relative “power” is determined by how much information you have about your environment.
The game does have a character that fits the traditional stealth protagonist model in terms of their abilities and behaviour – but it’s not Amanda Ripley. Crouching under a desk while being stalked by a relentless, powerful entity Isolation gives you a glimpse of what it must me like for the City Watch of Dunwall knowing that a supernatural masked assassin is out there somewhere, watching, waiting, able to appear from nowhere and kill in an instant.
Barring some scripted introductions and close calls, the alien’s behaviour is primarily systemic, built on a coherent ruleset that is never fully exposed in a readable fashion. The rules are never presented in a “safe” environment, and this, combined with the structure and pacing imposed by the save system, make experimentation expensive. Given the pre-existing cultural status of Geiger’s classic Alien, it was always going to be a challenge to make it mysterious and scary again, and though The Creative Assembly manage it, they do so in a way that undermines the needs of a stealth game. Isolation is a game that makes the outcomes clear, but obfuscates the causes; saliva dripping from a vent signifies the alien is waiting above, but there’s no way to work out why it chose to wait at all, why it selected that particular vent, and what, if anything, you can do to affect that behaviour.
These issues with readability would not be so pronounced if there was room to react to new information and experiment, but when the primary failure state is instant death, experimentation is costly. Repeating a dynamic Alien encounter can be thrilling, but not so much a puzzle you’ve already solved, or a scripted sequence you’ve already experienced, and all too frequently Isolation’s tensest moments are padded out with such sections.
Not only is Isolation aesthetically outstanding, it also manages to use the graphical technology in functional ways. Air purification systems can be rewired to cause billowing smoke to fill rooms and corridors. Rather than being a purely visual effect, this smoke can be used for concealment, allowing you to bypass encounters.
When you pull up your motion tracker, a depth-of-field effect causes the background go out of focus and you can manually choose to shift focus from the motion tracker screen, to the environment, or back again. It’s a simple trick, but one that plays into the way in which you need to constantly maintain awareness of your surroundings and the challenge inherent in managing the information available to you.
Over the course of the game, you are able to construct smoke grenades, noisemakers and a variety of other items with which to distract or fight back against the threats you face. Without the space to experiment with these items, to learn their relative strengths and weaknesses, it’s unlikely you will ever even use them. Molotov cocktails, and eventually the flamethrower, provide a limited safety valve for alien encounters, though the monster will just come back more aggressive – so in the long term, hiding is still the better strategy, and eventually you will run out of flamethrower ammunition.
When you are granted access to the flamethrower several hours in, you finally have the means of opening up space to experiment, but often that experimentation comes down to exactly how frugal you can be with your fire while still avoiding abrupt head trauma.
Because the behaviour of the alien is governed by dynamic rules rather than special case scripting, it cannot account for everything. The encounters generated by its dynamic systems fit the standard deviation “bell curve” where a small number of instances are a mess of edge cases and broken logic, and an equally small number come together perfectly with outcomes that are sublime and highly personal. The remaining instances, the majority, work out relatively well – the systems don’t work perfectly, but nor do they messily collapse in on themselves.
I’m left with the impression that at some point during development, The Creative Assembly identified the type of environments in which the Alien’s dynamic behaviour operated best, and it’s these spaces that constitute the majority of the opening and closing third of the game. Non-linear environments, sparsely filled with interactive objects and a series of straightforward objectives of the “Reach point X and pull lever Y” variety. Superficially simplistic, these spaces come alive when you’re being hunted through them. When the alien is nearby, there is nothing that is risk free; an attempt to open a door or operate an Emergency Phone can bring about an immediate end as the creature’s tail bursts fatally through your chest. What you are doing might be mechanically trivial lever operating, but the decision of when to act is a fraught one; is that movement at 50 feet distant enough for you to be able to power up this generator, or should you wait until the blip on your motion tracker has moved further away?
When the alien is nearby, there is nothing that is risk free
Unfortunately, for every moment like this of sublime stealth-horror, there is the possibility of hours of frustration as you progress through spaces that are not conducive to the dynamic behaviour of the alien, or are stuck in one area trying to understand why you keep dying and what you might be able to do to avoid it.
If you come out of your first few encounters with the alien and the other NPCs aboard Sevastopol confused, Isolation does little to resolve that. It’s a stealth game that rewards patience inside a horror game that wants you to be tense and reactive. It can work, but it can just as easily all fall apart in a muddle of unclear systems and abrupt losses of progress, as one misstep sends you back to the last Emergency Phone, more frustrated than horrified.