They Will Destroy Her

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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.

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In Space, No One Can Hear You Sloth

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If I were to sum up Aliens: Colonial Marines in a single word, it would be “lazy.” Not just the weird graphics and sound glitches that permeated the game (Did anybody really expect that hands-off demo to actually represent the game? Come on, now), or that Gearbox farmed out quite a bit of the work to a second developer. Nah, Colonial Marines‘ biggest act of sloth was ignoring Aliens’ greatest themes.

It’s not something technical that directly ruins the immediate, visceral experience of playing a game. The atmosphere of primal, sexual violence and predation that defines the xenomorph’s existence isn’t related to whether or not NPCs move when the script requires them to be running for a ship with Corporal Winter; the subversion of traditional gender roles in all five of the Alien movie quintet doesn’t effect the ability to maintain sound during something as basic as a cutscene. What the recognition (or not) of these things does do is show how thoughtful a developer is to their own work. So, when female characters are relegated to objectives for their testosterone-fueled counterparts in constant need of protection (Reid, a cypher who exists purely on quest logic) or sacrifices on the altar of angst (Bella with her chestburster), we see a regression from the gains made by the development of Ellen Ripley. Such a philosophy infects the entire production.aliens-colonial-marines-powerloader

The version of the Colonial Marines from Randy Pitchford’s crew are superficial fascimiles of Cameron’s Vietnam-era camaraderie and arrogance, not unlike what’s found in Halo or Gears of War, lionized rather than deconstructed (hence Colonial Marines as subtitle). Cameron, pre-Titanic, showed his Marines, the spitting image of masculinity (“Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”), breaking down in the face of real danger and the knowledge their actions were in service not to country but indifferent corporate interests. It’s a human approach that doesn’t conform to rah-rah, “Support the Troops” bumper sticker culture (see also the excellent Spec Ops: The Line). Gearbox replaces thematic depth with jingoism: characters repeat “Oorah to Ashes” as if in prayer, while Captain Cruz (a character resembling Stephen Lang’s Avatar villain) gives a platitude-laden speech before an assault on Weyland-Yutani and the xenomorphs. As a result, what was a last stand for Aliens’ Hicks, Hudson, and Vasquez gets bowdlerized into Colonial Marines‘ run ‘n’ gun hill-taking set-pieces (notably, Reid and Bella are the only Marines shown to crack under pressure when one pulls a gun on the other; The Line‘s squad completely breaks down by game’s end). Only the multiplayer “Escape” mode has any focus on tactics, survival, and desperation Aliens had, though I suspect it’s because the developers lifted from Left 4 Dead. Everything else, including the incurious, hole-riddled story, isn’t even in the same universe.

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This isn’t an unexpected development. Gearbox’s biggest projectsthe bloated yet empty Borderlands and the lurching corpse of Duke Nukem Forever they helped across the finish line–are born of the insular culture video games have fostered for years: male-dominated sex fantasy at one end, sterile boys-seeking-treasure at the other. Even when the women are permitted to kick ass, as with Lilith in Borderlands, they are void of personality or femininity; this extends further in Colonial Marines‘ case, to the multiplayer mode, where female Marines are given fewer customization options (only two faces with variable skin tones and two voices), as if their inclusion was the begrudging compromise to fans it was. That’s all the game is, really: Gearbox/TimeGate dragging their feet at the thought of actually making an Aliens game, and instead churning out leftovers from other shooters.