You Have My Sympathies: Alien Isolation and the Unpredictable Fear in Gaming

I was taking my first spin of Crew Expendable, Alien Isolation’s all-too-brief love-letter to Ridley Scott’s Alienthe 1979 horror opus that launched a thousand chest-burster jokeswhen my wife perfectly summed up the vital place gaming has in the horror firmament. Xbox One controller in hand, I’d just guided Dallas, the doomed space-freighter Nostromo’s equally-doomed Captain, into the bowels of the ship, armed only with a clunky motion tracker and an underwhelming flame thrower à la the movie. Tom Skerritt’s voice, a bit scratchier forty-odd years later, still delivered as he grumbled about heading deeper into the cramped tunnels below deck on a fraught mission to help flush a marauding killer creature into the vacuum of space before it murdered the whole crew. Veronica Cartwright’s pitch-perfect Lambert stressed which way to turn in my ear as distant thumps and shapeless shrieks promised quick death at every cramped turn. Somewhere down here was the deceptively simple objective: seal the lethal intruder out of the ducts with nowhere to go but the airlock.

Fans of the movie will know just how well this plan unfolded for Dallas and his crew.

“Go right,” Lambert’s voice worried into my headset. “Okay, good. Just, just keep going.”

My footsteps echoed way too loudly in the ducts. I blindly puffed my flamethrower into a junction. No movement from either side. But somewhere, I wasn’t sure how far, something hissed.

I trundled ahead, noticing the flamethrower’s fuel was nearly gone.

Lambert gasped. “It’s… It’s moving right toward you!”

“Oh god,” my wife said from her perch at the edge of the couch. “I can’t watch this.”

At the next junction, Lambert started screaming for me to “move, move; get out of there!” I paused. A branching duct crossed my pathway, leaving three options: left, right, and straight on. I figured I’d go straight.

Lambert screamed… something. A warning about me going the wrong way, I expect. That pause was all it took: my field of view spun wildly, turning to see shining black exoskeletal death behind me. Sightless jaws parted, spittle dripping in eager streams from inside a cavernous maw. I wondered at the strange tubes extending from this apex predator’s back for a flickering second before turning back to the mouth. The second, smaller set of jaws leapt forward like a hungry piston, all silvery teeth and menace.

The screen went dark. My wife screamed through her fingers.

It was, I confess, freaking awesome.

A few seconds later, I guided the reincarnated Dallas back down the ladder into the Nostromo’s guts and certain death.

My wife clearly didn’t feel the same rush I didshe was on her feet, hurriedly leaving the room. At least with the movie, it wasn’t happening to me,” she said, closing the door behind her.

I laughed. “You have my sympathies,” I said, quoting a moment I knew she remembered from Scott’s Alien.

The laugh, well, was not returned. Instead, she called out from the next room:

“And at least after the first time I saw the movie I knew when stuff was going to happen!”

“You’re going the wrong way!”

That’s the unique strength of horror in gaming, right there. Yes, the revered classics of horror are uniformly linear: they are books like The Exorcist and House of Leaves (more on that one of these days, believe you me!). They are movies like Psycho and Halloween. They are TV episodes from series like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. But this is largely due to the relative age of these outlets.

The first episode of the Twilight Zone aired in 1959. French, Japanese, and American movie-makers were filming dancing skeletons and murderous aristocrats since the last years of the nineteenth centuries. The first real stab at a scary book was the (now rather hilarious) gothic novel The Castle of Otranto from 1764. Video games are the new kid, relatively speaking, to the horror genre, having arguably begun at a widely-available level with the Famicom release of Sweet Home in 1989. Game-based terror only took off in the USA with 1992’s Alone in the Dark. As such, they remain underappreciated by the broader horror fandom. The gap is closing, however, as games move away from boxy, clumsy efforts into enormous and sophisticated time-sucks for a growing part of the population. And with that familiarity is a stirring sense that some of the greatest scares out there are in non-linear entertainment.

My wife summed up the crux of all that with accidental precision as she fled our living room: horror games bring the scares far, far closer to our direct experience. Plus, they rob us of sound footing, since we can’t always be sure when or exactly how dread-inspiring moments will occur. Imagine a world in which you’re on the Orca and Jaws fails to ram the boat when he’s “supposed” to.  Suddenly, hell is fresh all over again. That’s what a solid horror video game can bring to the table; along with the thrilling, chilling set pieces, there is deeper immersion and, more powerfully, the sense that the terror is evolving. Reacting. At its best moments, it can even feel like the game is playing you.

Wait, that wasn’t supposed to happen yet!

Appropriately, the game I want to highlight as a gold standard of exactly that brand of non-linear horror is the very game I led with: Creative Assembly’s 2014 masterpiece, Alien Isolation.

Now, the plot is relatively simple: we play as Amanda Ripley, the now-adult daughter of series protagonist Ellen Ripley. The game is set during the stretch of years between Alien and Aliens, and so the elder Ripley remains adrift in space, cradling Jonesy the Cat and awaiting an eventual long-overdue thawing out.

Sadly, this will come after daughter Amanda (allegedly) dies in her sixties. Amanda is understandably obsessed with locating her mother. All she and the suits at the uber-corrupt Weyland-Yutani company have to go on are scant clues about the now-destroyed Nostromo’s location when the ship exploded years ago. When Amanda hears that the Nostromo’s black box has turned up on a faraway, backwater space station, she signs up to tag along at once for the recovery of said space-flight recorder.

When Amanda and the crew of the Torres arrive at Sevastopol station, they find it decaying, unresponsive to communiques, and unable to support a landing. One unlucky spacewalk later, and young Ripley is separated from her crewmates, isolated (see how they did that? Huh? Isolation indeed, amirite?), and scrambling to stay ahead of desperate survivors of a system-wide collapse. It isn’t long before the source of the power outages and missing persons notices becomes clear: a xenomorph is loose on Sevastopol, and as the population plunges, chaos has taken hold. Our job is to survive long enough to locate answers about Ellen Ripley and the Nostromo, reunite with our crew, and escape a station tipping precariously toward the storm-wracked clouds of a nearby gas giant.

Fairly straightforward, right?

Wrong.

Alien Isolation is played entirely in the first person. We see through Amanda’s eyes. If things go southand from time to time, they absolutely willwe die through her eyes, too. This raises the stakes, a lot. Any well-designed game invites a high degree of immersion, but first person action is highly effective on a deep, psychologically-rooted level. I mean, what’s more bonding than being the character? Consider how scary it is to watch Laurie Strode cower in a closet. How much scarier is it to be Laurie Strode cowering in a closet? Imagine watching through her eyes as Myers actually succeeded in finishing her off. The mind reels. When we step into a horror game lead’s shoes, we’re getting closer to her than we possibly could to a character on any screen, provided the game in question doesn’t overtly break the experience.

Even better, the designers of Isolation built the marauding xenomorph with a whip-smart and unforgiving AI under the hood. Sevastopol is rife with air ducts, side passages, blind corners, and the sorts of environmental distractions you’d expect from a space station with no one at the helm. Plenty of spaces abound for an apex predator to use as camouflage, and countless places to worry one’s way through. And while several scripted points of the game involve the alien leaping out at, or just ahead, of us, by and large the xenomorph is a terrifying presence lurking behind, above, and below—just close enough throughout the entire game.

Get yourself into a scuffle with some desperate looters? The alien will hear that and, before long, come to investigate. The music will quicken, hammer-blows of powerful thuds will mark its rapid progress through the duct work, Amanda’s motion sensor will ping ominously, and then there it’ll be, unwinding itself from what had appeared to be broken hoses trailing from a vent. Like a grouchy roommate, the alien will put a quick stop to all of the racket.

Lose your nerve a bit, decide to dash past the last few blind turns, and make a mad run toward the level-ending elevator? Game over, man. Game over. Can’t see well enough to spot that vent you were hoping to crawl into? Think twice about flicking on your flashlight: the alien will spot thatand youin a hurry.

Not pictured: Any chance of surviving

And, Amanda is a mechanic. She’s no pulse rifle-toting, combat-drop-loving space marine. If the xenomorph spots her, it’s curtains. Often, we get a scant second or two to find a table to dive below, a cargo crate to squeeze inside, or a locker to cram into. Not that this means we can relax. The creature doesn’t abandon its quarry so easily. Some of the most tense portions of the game for me were spent inside little lockers, leaning the controller back, forcing Amanda as far from the prowling creature as possible. One button is devoted, in these moments, to holding our breath while the hissing monstrosity towers outside our hiding space, checking for any sign of life nearby. The edges of the screen begin to pulse red as Ripley’s lungs threaten to give out. Usually, the alien moved on from these moments before long. Other times, it tore the flimsy door from its hinges and ended me on the spot, but again, it’s horror; death is a permanent item on the menu.

As the game goes on, we do pick up some handy tools to improve our odds of survival. With a few scavenged materials, Amanda can cobble together distracting noisemakers and even crude pipe bombs. At about the story’s halfway point, a flamethrower falls into our hands. But this is no cause to think the fundamentals of the game are shifting: the smartest twist isn’t far off, in fact. Amanda soon finds herself at a bottleneck, with the only path forward being through a restricted area. The nearby automated security system won’t let her through unless she can pass through a metal detector. A conveyor belt system swallows Ripley’s guns into the dark belly of the locked-down station. Weapons gone, Amanda enters the thrumming power core, one of the most enemy-heavy and tension-ridden portions of the game. Translation: Isolation giveth, and then cleverly taketh away, stripping what little confidence we managed to build only to shove us into more dangerous waters than ever before.

But all this is background to the key point of why Alien Isolation and smart horror games like it belong in the discussion of genuinely effective, quality horror entertainment. The xenomorph is designed to hunt us during gameplay, not to simply arrive at predestined moments to fulfill plot points. Yes, it does do the latter, but far and away its primary function is to act on its own. To hunt us. To listen, to watch, and to shadow our movements. That means we can’t be sure exactly when it’ll go from slithering in the walls around and the pipes above to dropping into the room with us, sending us scrambling for someplace to hide. It’s that lack of certainty that takes a creepy game and shoves it into the realm of dread. This time it drops down in front of the computer panel. Next time it might come loping down the hallway behind us. We can’t be sure when we’re safe, and that brings things to a visceral head over and over again, because the parameters keep shifting. Isolation does this extremely well and is set up within a fictional universe where it makes sense for a story to go this way, but it’s not the only horror game to take advantage of the unexpected.

Not one, but two recent Resident Evil games have used a similar stalking mechanic that pushes players to adapt to shifting, unexpected dangers. Several members of the corrupted Baker family in Resident Evil 7 move through various play spaces, invincible and bent on brutally murdering the player. Mr. X in the rebooted Resident Evil 2 is, for long stretches of the game, actively searching for the protagonists, and while Leon and Claire are usually better armed than Amanda Ripley, their adversary is highly aggressive and a major bullet sponge.

Not that unkillable stalkers are a must-have for an unpredictable horror gaming experience; Silent Hill, Dead Space, and Bioshock games have all had success in offering enough variables in enemy placement, behavior, and atmospheric shifts to prevent players from getting too comfortable. This adds up to quite a bit more time being scaredin a good waythan any single movie or television show can offer. Which is why horror games aren’t just one more genre of horror, they’re vital. Yes, they appeal to a younger demographic than say, a book (sad face), but horror in video games articulates fear and manufactures dread in a way unique to the medium. It’s immediately immersive and able to toss away the predictable in ways no other linear style can hope to approach. I suppose it’s possible to write a Choose Your Own Adventure series of horror stories, but even then, the distance between the reader and the subject of the story is way more distant than I am to any game character obeying my commands and drawing me ever closer to the jaws of some creature/zombie/dead-eyed android.

“Hello. Do you have a moment to discuss dread in video games?”

And if that’s the point, if that’s what we horror junkies are afterthe thrills, the increased heart rate, the buzzing aftereffects of feeling utterly overpowered in a way that lets us feel bizarrely alive even as some part of our brains screams at us that we’re about to diethen who are we to turn away from some of the most vicarious terror around? Play horror video games! Feel the terror (nearly) first-hand! And, if youre willing to sweat right onto your controller while you play like this writer, take the time to try Alien Isolation. By the way, should a loved one yelp and rush out of the room, be sure not to laugh. They really, really don’t like that.

Trust me.

– S

Shaun Hayes

Shaun is a writer, English professor, host of the Whiparound podcast, and unrepentant grammar pedant.

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