Going to do a brief journalism here.
Alien Isolation, or ‘A.I’, is a video game reliant on it’s Artificial Intelligence, or ‘A.I’. O ho ho ho ho, see what I did there.
Terrible start aside, I want to ramble a bit today on this game for several reasons.
I know I am a book person primarily, but everything comes down to writing and Alien Isolation not only has good writing, but the written computer code that tells it how to perform is equally worthy of note for how it is built and used to deliver both narrative and experience – core parts of storytelling.
So with that said, I hope you will indulge me talking about a game I really love.
Let’s start with the easy part.
Alien Isolation was written by Dan Abnett, Dion Lay and Will Porter.
The plot is simple: You are Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley from the 1979 movie. A space station has recovered the flight log from your mother’s missing ship, you go out to find it and get some answers about what happened to her. When you reach the station, everything has gone to hell, and there is a certain black nightmare monster stalking the halls. Hunting you. Good luck.
Dan Abnett is an author I genuinely love, and whose work I intend to review in the near future. I know him best for his work in the sprawling Warhammer 40k universe, including the peerless Eisenhorn books, and his wrenching Gaunt’s Ghosts saga.
I’m going to drop a controversial opinion here, but it is only that – an opinion. Personally, I feel Dan Abnett kills characters better than anyone else and a certain Mr. Martin could do well from emulating Abnett’s pace and point whenever he commits serial trauma by paperback and kills his characters off.
Gaunt’s Ghosts is one of those few book series that has made me physically cry and feel genuine grief, and I love them for it. I can certainly feel Abnett’s hand at the helm in similar regards through Alien Isolation, though the execution doesn’t do his written work justice.
More importantly, Alien Isolation has a difficult task to fulfill – doing justice to its original source material, Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie, Alien. I spoke a little while ago about handling other people’s intellectual property, but there I was mostly talking about non-published ideas.
In the case of Alien Isolation, the source material is not only extremely widely known, but also widely adored. And it’s been handled very poorly in the past in some places (for example, among its many sins Aliens: Colonial Marines made the critical mistake of changing the canon of the movies by bringing a dead character back.)
This left the work on the knife edge of telling a new story in an established universe, bringing people back to elements they loved from the movies, without breaking the canon, changing established lore, making the game fun and managing to please a rabid fan base all that the same time.
Needless to say, it did it. I’m very late on the bandwagon in reviewing this, but I’m not trying to sell it, merely dissect why it is so good and what it teaches me about writing. So…
The plot is a bit predictable. This isn’t unusual in video games, as the point is to give the player activities to run through and overcome, and the challenge is expected to ramp up as the game goes on.
Additionally, this is an Alien story, so it was always going to involve people dying and you needing to be on your own (the Isolation part) to maintain the horror atmosphere. This means you can almost guess what will happen at various points, but that’s ok.
The dialogue is well realized, the characters have arcs through the story, it sounds believable, and despite the ‘flaws’ in the game, I only noticed them afterward when I sat back to dissect it. At the time, engaged in the telling, I didn’t notice any of it, which means it maintained a very good suspension of disbelief for its duration.
I love that the main character both has her own personality so that she can develop through matters, but it isn’t overdone. You are given enough ‘quiet’ time with Amanda Ripley to imprint your own thoughts into her head, your own reactions to events. She also doesn’t characterize herself by spouting two-lines of establishing dialogue at you, which is a sin video games often utilize, especially in action games.
Amanda is instead characterized by her motions, actions, responses to what others say to her, and the cut scenes and events in which control of her is taken away from the player, she acts appropriately (by this, I mean she doesn’t let herself get beaten up by people she was slaughtering two minutes earlier in your own hands. Pet peeve, right there.)
Data logs and audio files in games have become very popular in recent years too, usually used to deliver plot exposition in a way about as natural as trying to drink a beer through your nose.
Alien Isolation uses them well, though. Data logs can only be found on computers around the space station you are on, instead of lying about all over the place, and you have reason to access these machines – usually looking for a door code. In looking for something you actually need, you will see mail and logs not related to your interests, to read if you so choose.
It is a credit to the writing on many of these that despite knowing there is a vicious alien life-form hunting you two rooms away, you want to read these texts to know more about whats going on, how everything has gone wrong on the station (and no, the game doesn’t pause while you are reading).
For those files which have an audible component, the voice acting is great. I could tell who was who by tone alone, even on different recordings featuring the same characters, and they sounded believable. Great writing and execution all around.
The game also ends a little differently to how I expected and doesn’t give a clear resolution. In many works, I would call this a massive flaw, but in terms of Alien Isolation, it works well. I don’t want to spoil it, as some people may not have played the game yet, but I liked the conclusion to matters on Sevastopol station, and it felt very… Abnett… to me, which in my case is like putting on a warm comfy sweater.
So. Good writing.
Alien Isolation is a horror game. It tells a scary story and tries to make you tense with tough situations, putting you between a rock and a hard place. Choices are everything in horror, as is knowing how and when to reveal the threat, to push the menace forward, then back it off.
Horror writers play our expectations and fears like an instrument, laying out a symphony with crescendoes and silences, all deliberately paced to keep you on the edge of your seat.
And that is really, really hard to do.
Horror in recent years has had a tendency to fall back on gore and shock value to get our attention. And, I suspect, because gore is easy. Movies like Saw, The Human Centipede, and anything under the ‘Grindhouse’ moniker rely on shock value to get people interested, but I find these works tend to fade from memory as quickly as they come and go, while older horror tropes tend to stick with me more.
I love Dracula for its quiet reflection on the human condition, and how we react to that which is not normal or familiar. I love Frankenstein for its rhetoric on the dangers of science – all of which come from how people use the tools we have mastered, rather then the tool itself being evil. Jekyll and Hyde romps about wearing the duality of human nature on its sleeve, and Alien is very much a part of these more ‘classical’ horror narratives, focusing on the fact our intellect does not alleviate us from the savagery of the natural world.
Yes, Alien is a slasher film – an enemy with a body count. But it is a hunting organism that doesn’t recognize mankind as anything other than an item on the menu, and while the Xenomorph has a cunning intellect like that of a wolf, it is not intelligent in the same way we are, nor does it ever speak. It is a thing above us in the food chain, a stark reminder that evolution does not favor us in anything save survivability. Adapt or die.
Gore, then, simply wasn’t going to carry an Alien game, if the producers wanted it to be good, and to appeal to the fans of the films. It needed instead to carry all the threat of the Xenomorph – cool, cunning, a hunter, a persistent threat, able to learn, terrifying… and nigh unkillable.
Oh, and it needed to act on its own and react to what the player is doing. And not be unfair or cheat.
No pressure, then.
Yet, they managed it. Alien Isolation was lauded by critics for it’s immersive AI when it launched, and even now we are several years on, the AI is still some of the best out there for how well written it is.
I am not a code junkie. I can just about understand how to use ‘if X, then Y‘ strings to get established assets to do what I want, but even that is pushing it. All I’m going to talk about here, then, is my dumbed down understanding of how some terribly clever programmers managed to make the single most terrifying threat in gaming to date, in my humble opinion. While also praising them for the psychotic amount of effort it must have taken.
As I understand it, the team broke the horror genre down into its core parts, and essentially assigned a director to watch over the whole game and lovingly move things along from above the stage, like a Dungeon Master controlling a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
The AI Director has several assets in its bag. 1 – It always knows where you are at all times. 2 – It always knows where the alien is at all times. 3 – It has a ‘menace meter’ to track how much points 1 & 2 are interacting.
The AI Director’s job is to send the alien into locations near you to maintain tension and threat, but critically it does not tell the alien where you actually are. It is up to the alien itself and it’s sensors and instructions to try and work it out, like a game of hide and seek.
The Director monitors interactions between the player and the alien using its ‘menace meter’. The meter goes up when the player and alien are near each other, especially in line of sight, or when the alien can very quickly get to the player. It goes down when the two are further away from each other, or there are walls preventing the alien getting to the player fast.
If the meter gets too high for too long, the Director instructs the alien to back off, so the player has a fair chance of progressing in the story. If the meter gets too low, the Director instructs the alien to move closer in it’s hunting behavior, so it is searching a relevant set of rooms. The alien must then cross that distance in real time to the new locations.
There are only two occassions in the entire game where the Director has the alien teleport to an area if it was far away, and these are only so it can appear in cutscenes. Considering the length of the game, this is a remarkably low number and a serious credit to the team.
The alien has its own bag of tricks. 1 – It can one hit kill you. 2 – It cannot be killed. Period. 3. It has multiple sensors to detect noise and movement around it, including a sensor on its back. This means that while the alien technically has no ‘feeling’ in its very long tail, you still don’t want to step on it – the alien will detect you regardless!
It also follows its own set of routines to hunt the player. At no point is the alien ever ‘aware’ of your goals or where you might go next, but it does know the key areas in all sections of the stations, and roughly where you may be, thanks to the AI Director. It starts in ‘backstage’ mode, in the air vents above you, and only enters the game when the menace meter causes it to become active.
Once active, the alien will enter the node of rooms the player is exploring from an overhead air vent and begin it’s searching pattern. This is a pattern that allows the alien to mark a path from its current location to all important spots in the areas, though it rarely uses the path of ultimate efficiency. It meanders between them based on a priority order, which often means it backtracks through areas it has already been in, almost as if it is unsure.
It will follow its search patterns dedicatedly unless a higher priority task presents itself, such as the AI Director overriding it, or the player making noise within sensor range. At that point, the instructions for investigating sensor input takes over, and the alien reacts accordingly, based on what you just did. Or, sometimes, based on what other NPC’s may have just done in reaction to you (example: other survivors shoot at you, which attracts the alien due to the noise. It will then kill the NPCs.)
Finally, the alien also has variability in its routines for reacting to sensor inputs. At the start of the game, it reacts in a few set ways. As you progress and use various tactics to avoid it, other reaction commands are unlocked organically to combat you. This allows the ‘challenge’ to ramp up as the game progresses, as is expected of the medium. If you reach certain key points in the game without having unlocked some routines in the alien AI, they will activate regardless, so that the alien never becomes too predictable.
The final element in all of this is you. You have a bag of tricks, too. Tools to distract and scare off the alien, such as noisemakers and flares and molotovs. Environments to hide behind, in or under. Context clues are given to you to react to (do not go under that ceiling vent with saliva dripping out of it. Trust me.) and of course, your own great big human brain that can do so much more than any AI can yet dream of.
Really, the game is designed to react to you as you plumb it for the story, and that’s what makes it so good.
Replayability is maintained in this game because none of it is scripted. There are no ‘jump scares’ at set moments to shock you, which will only work the first time you play. The Xenomorph is different every time you pick up the game because it reacts to dynamic inputs. Just because hiding in that closet worked last time you played, doesn’t mean it will work this time. If you have played differently to the last game, you may also have unlocked different subset routines in its behavior this time around, rendering tactics you used before less useful.
In terms of maintaining a horror atmosphere, and making the story worth picking up a second or third time… it’s a level of genius the gaming industry rarely sees.
In closing, I wanted to review Alien Isolation because I admire it. It has a great story. It suspends disbelief. It brings you into its world and masterfully plays your emotions just like a really good book can. It has well-written characters, a level of realism that makes everything feel right and not at all discordant, and a great setting. It takes only the most minor liberties with its source material, respects its origins and had a team of people working on it so dedicated to the vision of what it should be, they resisted the urges to take the easy way out, the simpler solution to their problems, and thus made something amazing instead.
It is a game that feels like it was made by a passionate team of professional fans of a franchise who gifted their vision to those of us who bought and played it.
It has all the elements of good writing I wish I could display so adroitly myself. And it did it all in a genre I consider to be very hard to get right – horror. Hopefully, I learned something from it!