I am amazed at how difficult it is for me to talk about my thoughts on Alien Isolation without talking about Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Perhaps that reflects negatively on the game since it fails to stand on it’s own, but I don’t really think that’s the case. I think that Alien Isolation is simply the first AAA horror game to take direct cues from Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In that regard, it is somewhat successful in recreating the tension found in that game. And somewhat unsuccessful in many other aspects.
So what do Alien and Amnesia share at their core? They are both horror simulators, games which put a disadvantaged player in a spooky environment with a deadly monster. Perhaps you could call them the antithesis to the power fantasy. Unlike Amnesia, in Alien you do actually get weapons as you go through the game, but they are extremely ineffectual. You always encounter enemies in groups, so even if you can bash one over the head with a wrench then another will be sure to shoot you in the head while you are doing so. And of course the Alien is pretty much invincible, much as it should be, so direct confrontation is just a no-go in that department.
I have been playing the game on the hardest difficulty level, which is the suggested way to play the game. In this mode, all enemies can spot you fairly quickly across the map. If you can see their eyes, they can see you. Or, in the case of the Alien, which has no eyes, if you can see it at all, it might see you. The game is brutal and death comes quick. You can still sometimes outrun a pursuer, unless that pursuer happens to be the Alien.
Though I found myself tempted to lower the difficulty upon hitting a wall early on, I still think it is the proper way to experience the game. Since Isolation is a horror simulator, it only makes sense to have a low chance of survival when sneaking around through a facility that is full of threats, including a 9 foot tall murderbeast. Hard difficulty creates the greatest opportunity for frustration, but it ups the overall tension of the game tremendously.
As terrifying as the classic monster design is, when viewed too closely, it appears as a goofy off-balance looking video game creature with imperfect animation. Knowing that you cannot get a good look at the Alien without being murdered allows the monster to retain at least a modicum of mystery and horror. When only seen from afar, it does better at remaining what it was designed to be: a lightning fast death machine. The mind is the greatest tool for terror.
Unlike Amnesia, Alien Isolation is a game that is so much better at tension than it is at elucidating genuine panic. The build-up to inevitably being spotted is intense, often unbearably so, but after being spotted, there is usually not much to do other than just watch yourself die. Amnesia had several sequences in which the player runs as fast as they can away from a monster and narrowly escapes with their life.
However, the downside to attempting these types of sequences is that they are rarely repeatable. If the player slips up and is killed by a monster, frustration occurs almost immediately if they are asked to repeat the same flight of terror sequence. Amnesia got around this in some ways through its unusual treatment of death. When the player died, they would be teleported somewhere else in the level, and something about the game world would be subtly changed. This definitely alleviates some of the possibility of fear turning to frustration, but there is only so far you can go. It is likely that Alien Isolation, with it’s rigid save structure, would’ve been more likely to spend undue amounts of time in the frustration spectrum.
There are several different types of enemies to encounter in Alien Isolation, but the best part of the game is the encounters with the titular creature. This is good, as it would have been easy to have had a game that failed to deliver the goods, but Isolation may suffer from the opposite problem: too much of a good thing. I think that the game would’ve benefitted from some heavy editing, leaving a much shorter game with more downtime between the appearances of the Alien. Giving the player a breather is a quite important tool for pacing a horror game properly. Amnesia did much better in this department as well, although it slips somewhat towards the end.
Ludonarrative Dissonance has become the sort of term in games writing that induces eyes to roll out of people’s skulls, across the hall and down the emergency stairs. However, I think it is important to recognize that game mechanics which do not match up with their narrative trappings is pretty much the status quo for video games. Therefore it is also notable that Alien: Isolation does not follow this trend. All of the verbs afforded the player are explicitly designed to play into the horror fantasy. You can hide in closets or under tables, you can lean back into the shadows and hold your breath. Guns are all but useless except for drawing attention.
I think some players misunderstand the intention of the mechanics. The “mini-games” that you play to open doors or otherwise progress through the game are not designed to be fun or exciting. They are designed to facilitate a specific experience. Yes, they almost always take excessive amount of time for a simple action, involve pressing an obscure button combination in a very deliberate way, or matching things that are stupidly easy to match. But when you are scampering across a hallway and attempting to unlock a door, your heart pounding because the Alien could come back at any moment it creates a tense moment that echoes the classic “struggling with the keys” moment from many slasher flicks. That is what it is designed to do and it is undeniably successful at that. Calling it “work” or “boring” is simply missing the point.
I think there is room for “soft rules” in computer games. Rules not explicitly enforced by the computer, but which by following, the player will be most likely to enjoy the game. We already have to concede that we will never be able to fully deal with “asshole players,” but the vast majority of players actually do want to play along and have the intended experience. I think Alien Isolation made a big mistake in not aping Amnesia in this department. A simple message at the start along the lines of, “This is a horror experience, do not play to win. Try to let the mechanics of the game fall out of your mind and instead focus on role-playing as if you were actually in the scenarios depicted. Play in short sessions and take breaks whenever you are tired.”
It might seem condescending to suggest to your players that they might be playing the game wrong, but the fact of the matter is that games have trained people over decades that the best way to play them is to approach with an analytical mindset; dive deep, deconstruct their systems and look for exploits. Alien Isolation, simply put, is a bore to play that way. Even Amnesia, which I consider to be the scariest video game ever made, falls flat if you play it like other games. So I think that through soft rules, we can at least in some part counteract the possibility of players who will choose to play the game “wrong” and thereby negatively impact their own experience.
There is certainly an argument to be made that any computer game that can be played wrong is, in fact, designed wrong. However, I think by accepting that some players will have a bad experience because they have disregarded a suggested method of play, we open up the possibilities for the experiences that games can deliver immensely. I would argue that without soft rules, games cannot truly be scary, since they are inherently built upon systems which can be deconstructed, picked apart, and ultimately understood. Irrational emotions require an irrational mindset to experience. Terror requires its object to be vast and unknowable, so by deconstructing enemy AI routines, we ruin the fun of being terrified.
Some people read books back to front. We don’t need to worry about those people, or hang out with them. They sound dreadful.
So yes, Alien Isolation is not designed to entertain, it is designed to recreate a certain type of experience. Crawling through a ventilation duct with a glaring flashlight and a loudly beeping motion detector, with nowhere to turn and the possibility of dying at any moment. Alien Isolation lets you live out these moments. Does the overarching story or characters rival the Ridley Scott classic? No, of course not. In fact, they suck, but it doesn’t matter. The story in the game is basically just an excuse for the gameplay experiences.
Alien Isolation is a true horror game. It is a simulation of powerlessness, of helplessness. Survival is optional.