film.Antrikshy | Thoughts on film and games

Alien: Isolation - Distant Sequel Perfection

Earlier this year, I played through Alien: Isolation, a very well regarded horror game set in the universe originally created for the Alien film franchise. Horror isn’t my favorite genre, so I had mixed feelings about the experience as I was playing through it. Looking back, I have some very good things to say about it, but in a different context.

Important context: I played this game on the second-hardest difficulty level. I get the feeling that difficulty levels in Alien: Isolation change the gameplay experience quite a bit.

This post is spoiler-free.

My Experience

This post is not really a review of Alien: Isolation. It’s my review of playing Isolation followed by a rewatch of the 1979 Alien movie, which places the game into a whole new context.

I know there are die hard Alien fans out there who are super familiar with the movies. I, on the other hand, had only watched Alien and Aliens once each in the early 2010s.

A couple months before writing this article, I spent over a month playing through Alien: Isolation, then rewatched both Alien and Aliens in the week following my completion.

And boy, was it a great package of fun.

A Horror Gem

For those unfamiliar with Isolation, it’s a long-time-later sequel to the Ridley Scott film, Alien from 1979, in the form of a video game. It was developed by a British studio named Creative Assembly, of Total War fame and released in 2014. Movies set in the Alienuniverse often explore various other characters, time periods and locations in space. Isolation is no different. However, some plot elements from that original movie tie deeply into the plot of this game, arguably making it a direct sequel from the prespective of an original protagonist.

As a horror title, Isolation does a stellar job of setting the mood, keeping the player on edge through most of the gameplay, and slightly adjusting both those things as necessary to maintain pace.

There are many articles all over the web that go into detail about the game’s AI system, involving an alien and a director AI working in tandem, so I won’t go into too much detail. All I’ve got to say is that the AI works really well throughout.

However, I must note that some deep-dive articles I saw on this topic oversold me on how good the AI was going to be.

I saw at least one article claim that the alien can truly appear anytime, anywhere, even when the player feels completely safe. This is untrue. The game is not 100% unadulterated stealth gameplay. There are some scenes where the protagonist regroups with other characters, and other scenes where the alien backs off for plot and pacing reasons. Those scenes are actually alien-free, as they should be, or the game would not work as the cinematic experience that it is.

Additionally, I expected to be blown away by the creature’s lifelikeness. Well, it’s pretty good… for a 2014 game. Occasionally, the alien’s movement was slightly glitchy, and I noticed reused scares (ex. the alien slowly walking past a locker that the player is hiding in), pretty early on. It was also possible to slightly reverse engineer what the alien would be likely to do based on what the director AI knew about my actions in some circumstances, although not to a great extent. Perhaps the hardest difficulty level makes this game truly unpredictable, but I didn’t play it at that setting so I can’t be sure either way.

Stress And Unease

Isolation had me on the edge of my seat almost throughout. The AI system actually does modulate the gameplay pacing as articles and reviews online led me to believe. It tries to interleave moments of high and low stress during each encounter with the creature.

Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the horror genre is not usually my thing in video games.

I didn’t know that Isolation was an ~18 hour experience when I started. I thought it’d be shorter. I frequently looked up walkthroughs, not to get help with the game, but to see how far down the list of chapters I was.

The game was so stressful at times that I regretted starting it. But I don’t like leaving a story hanging, and there were enough intriguing elements throughout to keep me going.

What made my experience even more uneasy is that the last few chapters had multiple scenes that felt like the climax, only for things to get even more dire. This game had at least 4 scenes that seemed like the finale before the actual one.

When the story was finally over, I remember looking back at the experience and liking the game a fair amount. But at the same time, I remember thinking that I would only recommend the game to people with several asterisks:

Ok, my opinion on this is still largely the same.

Carrying The Legacy

About a week after finishing the game, I rewatched Alien from 1979. With the game so fresh in my memory, this rewatch is what actually blew my mind.

I was floored by how true this game was to its source material.

When I started Isolation, I enjoyed the 70s-80s era aesthetic they used from the original movies on the ship design. I was amused by the VHS distortion effects used in the game’s UI and film grain during gameplay.

It wasn’t until I rewatched the movie that I realized how meticulous the game’s designers were in matching the interior decoration of Sevastopol Station to that of the Nostromo towing ship from the original movie. There is a sequence of exposition shots right at the start of Alien where I noticed the bulk of these similarities. Basically everything matches, from the design of the doors and hallways, CRT computer monitors, beige keyboards with cryptic symbols on them, all the way down to some smaller details such as knick-knacks that the employees leave all over, medical room equipment, and emergency door lock release buttons.

While it might be no surprise to fans of the franchise, I was particularly amazed at how many elements of sound and music they carried over from the movies right into the game. The faithfulness does not end there. My Alien rewatch was rife with familiar beeps and boops from the 18+ hours of playtime in Isolation. Even the emergency alert sirens in the game’s space station seemed like they were copy-pasted straight from the movie.

Creative Assembly really put in the effort to match the look, feel and sound of the classic film franchise into their game, and I really appreciate it.

Distant Sequel Done Right

Hollywood studios do distant sequel or spin-off films every once in a while. Sometimes, they are received well (Blade Runner 2049, Toy Story 3). Other times, they end up spending too much effort pushing nostalgia buttons to deliver in other areas that matter (Zoolander 2, Shaft).

Alien: Isolation hits just right. It works well as a narrative continuation to Alien, yet stands on its own in terms of plot and gameplay. Experiencing it in context of the old movies gave me a new, unexpected level of appreciation for its design.

What Makes A Good Distant Sequel?

I think this is highly subjective. I get the sense that not everyone even shares the same preferences for sequels. And I have previously established that opinions about movies are complicated.

When it comes to my own taste, there are some tenets I like to see in continuations like Isolation, which release a long time after the original.

  1. Either meaningfully expand on the original storyline, or follow an interesting and creatively different plot from the original.
  2. Respect the original. Even if the new production does not expand on the world building of the original, it should not diminish or undermine what came before.
  3. Don’t make aesthetic changes in production design simply for the sake of using new technology.
  4. Don’t mess with the timeline, at least not without reasonable explanations (time travel in a sci-fi setting is reasonable).
  5. Don’t exist simply for your audience’s nostalgia.

Alien: Isolation hits all these and gets even more bonus points from me for staying extremely respectful to the original film.

It doesn’t compare with some of the best single player gaming experiences I’ve ever had, mainly because I prefer other genres, but it’s a commendable one.

tl;dr: Alien: Isolation on its own is good, and even better if you enjoy stealth and/or horror games. Alien: Isolation played just before or after watching the original Alien movie is excellent.

Talk to me via Twitter and check out my stuff on GitHub.