Brendan Keogh on Alien: Isolation
A third of the way through Creative Assembly’s recent video game Alien: Isolation, playable character Amanda Ripley (daughter of the film Alien’s protagonist, Ellen Ripley) is told a story by the scavenger Marlo as to how his crew came across the flight recorder of the doomed mining ship Nostromo. The game is set years after the conclusion of Alien saw Ellen Ripley lost in space and decades before Aliens found her again; Amanda wants answers, and believes the person who discovered the Nostromo’s flight recorder might have them. For the player, Marlo’s story is an out-of-body experience: we are released from the confines of Amanda’s flesh, removed from her presence aboard the Sevastopol space station, and transported through time and space to inhabit Marlo’s body as he steps out of his spaceship and onto the surface of the planetLV-426, where the Nostromo landed to investigate the alien distress call all those years ago—eleven years for the Ripley women; up to 36 for the Alien viewer-player.
What follows is at once one of Isolation’s most straightforward and strangest scenes. There are no real challenges for the player, no real choices. The player, as Marlo, just plods across the wasteland of the planet with his crew. It’s slow, heavy, methodical. Eventually, we come across the same alien spaceship that is stumbled upon in both Alien (by Dallas, Kane, and Lambert of the Nostromo) and Aliens (by Newt’s parents). Playing out the scene, like much of Isolation, we get a sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen this scene before. The trek across the wasteland; the bewilderment at the massive craft; the trepidation when curiosity gets the better of us and we discover the huge vat of waiting alien eggs; the inevitable face-hugger attack. The game assumes the player’s familiarity with this scene; we know what happens when curious humans enter here.
In Isolation, however, the context of the scene is different. By the time the player-as-Marlo performs this scene, the player-as-Amanda has already encountered the alien lurking around Sevastopol. We have already come face-to-face with the alien. Chances are we have already been killed by the alien several times over. We already know what is out there, so the scene is unnecessary in terms of setup. Instead, this is a flashback twice over: not just for Marlo but also for the Isolation player familiar with the Alien films. Rather than reveal an important plot point, Marlo’s flashback exists so that a player, already aware of all the plot points Isolation is likely to hit, can indulge in a nostalgic performance of the original text. Isolation’s ingenuity as a work that adapts a film to a video game is in its tacit acknowledgment that the player knows what is going to happen in this universe. It’s a retread of the original film, but one that is aware it is a retread, putting the player in the shoes of those that followed after the characters of the film: Alien: Isolation follows Alien; Marlo’s crew follows the Nostromo crew; Amanda Ripley follows Ellen Ripley.
Few film franchises have had as large an influence on video games as Alien. The impact of James Cameron’s Aliens in particular can be seen in a range of different science fiction and military franchises, such as Halo’s militarization of space exploration (and the explicit homage to Sergeant Apone through the game’s Sergeant Johnson). Alien’s creature is a common silhouette in a range of video game franchises, such as Metroid. There is no shortage of games set in the actual Alien universe, too, such as Aliens: Colonial Marines, four different games called Alien vs Predator, or the Alien 3 adaptation for Super Nintendo. Yet, in the thirty-six years since Ridley Scott’s first film, few Alien franchise games could be said to be successful adaptations of the films. They all include the right tropes (scary alien, guns, spaceships, etc.), but as Maddy Myers has already observed in her excellent essay, they rarely manage to truly capture the atmosphere and tone and sensation that make the films—especially the first film—so memorable through the engagements afforded by video games.
Isolation is different. The overarching story—Amanda Ripley seeking for clues about her mother’s disappearance, and the player-as-Amanda spending hours hiding from a lurking, horrific alien—is nothing special; it goes on for far too long and concludes entirely unsatisfactorily. But it’s not in its storytelling that Isolation is so successful as a film-to-game adaptation. Rather, it’s in the game’s ability to evoke the feeling of scenes from both Alien and Aliens. At different points you are hiding in vents, pressed against a wall with a flamethrower, or simply cowering in a locker as the alien stomps by. The entire game functions almost as a procedural generator for events that could happen in an Alien film.
There is a long, not particularly stellar history of video games adapted from films. Typically, they are timed alongside a film’s release, and thus are developed on strict, rigid timelines set by a film studiowith little appreciation of the developmental process of video games. This is exemplified by one of the most notorious video game flops, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, developed in five weeks in 1982. That game is frequently cited as a main contributor to (or at least, a forewarning of) the great video game industry crash of the following year.
Two broad issues can be pointed to for the critical—if not always commercial—failure of many video game adaptations. The first is that they are often, like E.T., conceived of as little more than another merchandise product barely different from the action figures thrown into Happy Meals. Put simply, many video games adapted from movies are not good because no one had any real intention to make a good video game. A conventional video game genre is chosen (platformer, shooter, racer, etc.), and the assets of the film are mapped onto the typical challenges of the chosen genre.
The second reason, which also plays into this, is the difficulty of translating a creative work from the engagements afforded by one medium to those offered by another. Few films map perfectly onto the rhythms demanded of conventional video games, with their progression of levels, the learning of skills, and constant need for action. Simple transition scenes in a film become goal-and-challenge-focused obstacle courses in a game. For instance, there is a scene in Star Wars where a giant vehicle and its alien inhabitants come to Luke Skywalker’s farm to sell droids. In the platformer Super Star Wars, created for the Super Nintendo console, Luke Skywalker must chase after the sandcrawler in his (now well-armed) landspeeder, blasting away Jawas as he goes, and fights a giant lava monster deep in the bowels of the sandcrawler to rescue the droids. It makes for a good video game challenge, but it hardly captures that part of the Star Wars story with any accuracy.
The better video game adaptations—or at least, those most successful at capturing something about the film—are those that don’t try to replicate the film directly, hitting each and every plot point, but those which expand upon or flesh out the universe of the film in new and interesting ways. Enter the Matrix for PlayStation 2, produced alongside the Matrix film sequels, presented as central the interweaving story of two supporting characters from those films. While not the greatest video game, it remains noteworthy for the consideration given to its production. Scenes were shot during the film’s production by the actors for exclusive use in the game, ensuring that the act of playing Enter the Matrix would give a real sense of filling in the films’ blanks. In a similar manner, the Chronicles of Riddick games Escape from Butcher Bay and Dark Athena don’t attempt to retread the Riddick films, instead filling in the gaps of Riddick’s past.
Of course, each of these adaptations is helped by being based on a film that already speaks the conventional language of video games. The Matrix, about people having superpowers within a computer simulation, is easily transferrable into a video game about combat and shooting and driving. Riddick, meanwhile, is a lone, super powerful, completely flat character driven by violent actions—practically already a video game character. Either of these is easier to imagine than, say, a video game adaptation of a romantic comedy—not because this would be impossible to make, but because video game design is predominantly concerned with actions such as shooting and driving and fighting.
This is exactly where most Alien video game adaptations falter. Alien and Aliens are about a strong, capable woman using her skills to just barely survive against ruthless, invincible, unstoppable killing machines. In those genres favored by the video game industry, the player typically takes on the role of a ruthless, invincible, unstoppable (usually male) killing machine. Thus, while the universe of Alien has resonated widely with video game developers, the fundamental disconnect between the central role of the protagonist of the films with the perceived required protagonist of most video games is rarely resolved. Instead of a strong, capable, smart woman like Ripley, Alien video games are often cast with the macho, well-armed, ultimately impotent marines of Aliens. Game after game has the player blasting away hordes of aliens. In some, the player even is the alien. Such adaptations fail to comprehend that that is not what the films are about. They seem to mistake Private Hudson for the protagonist of Aliens. This points to the broader stubbornness or anxiety in the video game industry in its historical avoidance of non-male protagonists.
Isolation, on the other hand, rejects the power fantasies most video games include by default. The player-as-Amanda never successfully kills the alien. The player never has a real sense of vengeance or empowerment. The alien lurking the halls will kill you the moment it sees you. Whereas the enemies of other games are entirely learnable by the player with clear tells and predictable behavior, the alien of Isolation is always unpredictable. It might jump out of an air vent without warning and trap you in a dead end with nowhere to hide. Isolation is unabashedly unfair to the player. It’s frustrating and ruthless. It’s ultimately disempowering.
Isolation, then, instead of trying to trace the surface level aesthetics of the films onto a known language of video games (shoot-’em-up or platformer or racing game or stealth game), begins with the sensation of the films (horror, dread, inevitability, unpredictability) and works from there. It works so well as a work of adaptation because it ignores accepted game design norms to more adequately capture the tone and atmosphere of the film. It starts with a notion of Alien as being about a strong woman avoiding a ruthless hunter, and builds the game up from there.
But it also has the privilege possessed by few video game adaptations of not having to exist alongside a new film. Our familiarity with this older film is also echoed in the game’s remarkable and inspired retro-futuristic technology. This is a science-fiction world conceived in the late seventies, and the computers clank and churn and sputter as they did in the film. (The way the developers achieved this “low-fi sci-fi” aesthetic through actual VHS recordings is fascinating.) There is a synergy here between your disempowerment against the unpredictable monster and the audiovisual design of the Nostromo’s terrifying, haunted-house mechanical creaking that creates an overwhelming and persistent sense of dread.
Finally, you die a lot in Isolation. This frustrates a lot of players and, as has been argued by other horror game developers, damages the game’s tension. But even these countless deaths capture something about the films. Pulled into an air vent or ripped into from behind while at a terminal or dragged out from under a desk or taking a brave but futile last stand with your back to the wall captures the experience of nearly every character who isn’t Ripley. In video games, you can be those who die and the one who survives, and Isolation gets them both. Just like in the film, the player will view a great many deaths, and then get out alive.
As audiovisual media, video games share a lot of common ground with cinema, but the great number of subpar works of adaptation demonstrate that one is not as easily transferable to the other as it may seem. Whether the player is retracing the footsteps of the crewmembers of the Nostromo on the planet’s surface, sneaking around Sevastopol’s halls,or being killed by the alien over and over and over again, Isolation works not just as an accomplished video game in its own right but also as a powerful work of adaptation that captures and translates what made the films so memorable through the form, rather than the norms, of the video game.