I’ve been hiding in a locker for ten minutes, leaning back with the left analog stick, begging under my breath for a gunmetal gray, nine-foot tall insect with a reptilian snarl to go away. It passes by my hiding hole two or three times. Sometimes it seems to leave, only to charge right back to my location. Finally, it leans up to the locker, and I’m prompted to press L2 to hold my breath. Red flashes at the corner of the screen. Lines appear to blur my vision. My fingers ache. The Alien snorts smoke into my face. Then, it rips open the door and murders me.
Creative Assembly have made moments like this the defining experience of Alien: Isolation. Slowly built and frustrating, with the slightest wrong move rewarded in death, each level does everything to make players feel helpless and unprepared. We’re dropped into the role of Amanda Ripley, daughter of franchise heroine Ellen. Jumping at a chance to find answers regarding her mother’s disappearance, she flies off to the space station Sevastopol, only to find carnage, decay, and an Alien prowling the halls and vents. Like with Metal Gear Solid, movement is forced by necessity into an agonizing crawl. Players begin to think less of reaching objectives, more of reaching the next hiding spot–and hoping no one finds them. Even the most incremental gains become regarded with suspicion and dread. IEDs and gadgets can be constructed to tip the scales, but the openings they provide are fleeting at best. A flamethrower proves to be only a Hail Mary, burning itself out rapidly if one isn’t careful with the fuel.
The developers, and publisher Sega, have touted the connection to Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, particularly the cobbled-together industrialism and a handful of similar plot beats. Silence is used as much as sound to denote mood. Structurally, however, the game more resembles Alien 3 by way of the System Shock games. The Alien in the original film was patient in the pursuit of its victims, sometimes waiting for them to come to it. Isolation‘s Alien is aggressive: it savages bystanders and sets off security protocols with its very presence, but fixates specifically on late arrival Amanda, pursuing her, seeking new conquest. A sexual predator as natural disaster.
The Alien also isn’t the sole threat: the bodies in its wake and the malfunctioning support systems aboard Sevastopol have caused the dwindling survivors to revert to tribalism. Found scavenging, looting, and killing–Ripley is seen as a potential thief, so they mainly try to kill her on sight. Android “Working Joes” constructed to be helpful, compliant workers grab for her throat as they utter bland pleasantries. Sevastopol itself is designed to impede evacuation, with crumbling hallways, doors locked by Colonial Marshals and an AI system which shuts down transit to key areas. Even allies regard Ripley as bait, a petite piece of meat to entice the Alien into a trap. Amongst these factions, women are few, seemingly going with their groups out of fear for their lives. Halfway through the game, players encounter a lone woman sitting on a waiting room sofa, staring out a window into space. Tired, she wishes to Ripley for this whole ordeal to be over. With the Alien prowling about the level, her end is almost foregone. For Ripley, she could be a portent. She’s alone, surrounded by forces which seek to dominate, exploit, or control her, and if they can’t, they will destroy her.