When the highly anticipated Alien: Covenant was released in 2017, reaction to it was not what the filmmakers hoped. It underperformed at the box office, proving very divisive amongst longtime fans who felt it was almost unrecognizable as a part of the long-running science fiction/horror series. It left many to wonder if now is the right time to put Alien to rest. Is there really any life left to explore?
Perhaps there is, as only three years prior to Covenant, another instalment in the series perfectly encapsulated everything that made the earlier films so effective. It didn’t come in the form of a movie, however. It came in the form of a video game named Alien: Isolation.
Alien: Isolation is a survival horror game by Creative Assembly. Taking place in the 57-year gap between Alien and Aliens, it tells of Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda as she tries to uncover her mother’s fate, fighting a familiar monster along the way. While not the massive hit Creative Assembly hoped for, the game was very well received by fans and critics, appearing on numerous best-of lists for 2014, the warmest reception any entry had received since Aliens was released in 1986. How exactly did Isolation succeed where so many others failed?
One of Isolation’s many perks is how well it captures the mood of the first two films. Both Prometheus and Covenant, in spite of being prequels, boast technology and a look that feels more advanced than the run down ships of the original films. Isolation represents a return to form, opting for the more low-fi look that Alien made popular. Sevastopol Station is filled with old-fashioned green LED screens, chairs patched with duct tape, and hallways filled with rust and grime. Like the Nostromo and Sulaco, Sevastopol is a relic of a used future.
The game features long dark corridors leading to dimly lit rooms and mess halls, perfectly capturing the almost haunted house feel of the original film. The player will often go for long stretches of time without any human contact, with only mangled corpses and that curious thumping in the ceiling to keep them company. Even without the Alien itself, this is a frightening place. When the monster does appear, the atmosphere the game builds makes it all the more terrifying.
A NEW ENSEMBLE
One thing that made the series so popular was its rich characters, and Isolation features one of the most well rounded and developed ensembles the series has produced to date. Capping off the cast is Amanda. Amanda is incredibly relatable as a protagonist with a goal as identifiable as it is tangible. She wants to find out what happened to her mother. While on her quest, she comes face to face with the famous beast. Earlier in the game, Amanda spends much of her time clinging to the shadows and hiding in cabinets. As the game goes on, she acquires more and more gear, transforming her from a frightened victim into a capable fighter who stares down the slobbering monster without hesitation. Strength, it seems, runs in the family.
But Amanda is merely one of Isolation’s many interesting characters, from the obsessed Marshall Waits who hunts the creature, to the grief-stricken Captain Marlow who inadvertently unleashed it, to the inexperienced Ricardo who’s forced to take over a command post after the deaths of his superiors. Even Taylor, a Weyland Yutani executive who would normally serve as the villain, has a redemptive arc where she rejects the orders of her employers and aids Amanda in her fight against the beast. Normally the villains of this series, to have a company bigwig act heroically was a breath of fresh air.
One of the most interesting characters is the android Samuels, an almost a counter-argument to the technophobia found in Ridley Scott’s prequels. Unlike Michael Fassbender’s David, Samuels cares about the human characters and their journey. Though the character is without emotion, he puts great value on the emotions of others, so much that he goes above and beyond his programming to not only help protect Amanda but help her find closure about her mother’s disappearance. He doesn’t hesitate to combat his fellow androids along the way, showing that while synthetic technology can be misused, it can also be used for good. Alien: Isolation leaves no character unturned. Everyone has a face, a presence, and a purpose.
What would Alien be without the beast? In this regard, Alien: Isolation delivers the most effective portrayal of the titular antagonist in decades. Even before it appears, the deterioration of Sevastopol Station and the state of the survivors leaves us wondering just what horrible thing could do such damage. Even though we as fans already know the answer, when the Alien first appears, we are afraid. That it was all seemingly done by a single beast makes the creature all the more intimidating during its shocking debut.
This Alien is unstoppable. The player cannot kill it outside of its scripted death, only being able to fight it off with a flamethrower running desperately low on fuel. This creates a feeling of genuine fear whenever faced with the monster. Charging forth with guns blazing no longer works like in the Aliens vs. Predator games. Now whenever the beast appears, a player’s first instinct will be to crouch down and hide. If the Alien finds you anyway, all that’s left to do is scream.
The beast forever keeps the player on their toes, even when it’s not present. Numerous other enemies appear in the game from murderous humans to malfunctioning androids. While fighting them would be typical in most other games, here it’s a last resort. A gunshot may bring a rampaging colonist to a swift end, but the sound will call the Alien just as swiftly. The Alien in this game is a colossus, a titan that seems so invincible that we’re afraid to defend ourselves from lesser threats on the off chance we might attract some unwanted attention. That a single creature is able to generate so much fear is a testament to this character’s lasting power.
RETURN OF SIGOURNEY WEAVER
By far one of the biggest surprises of Isolation was the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, making this the first time she’d played the character in the 17 years since Alien: Resurrection. Weaver was initially attracted to the second film due to her character being a mother, which served as the basis for her performance in subsequent instalments. It was Isolation’s focus on Amanda, who died offscreen in 1986’s Aliens, that captured Weaver’s attention. She elaborated on her choice to do the game in an interview with Yogscast.
“I was very intrigued by the idea that Amanda, the daughter that I never saw again, would actually be in space following her mother’s footsteps, and the sense, because it’s outer space and science fiction, there’s perhaps a chance of some sort of communication. I was very touched by that. I was surprised by how much that resonated for me, actually.”
Ripley’s presence can be felt throughout the game, almost as much as the creature itself. As the central quest of the Amanda character, she’s repeatedly referenced in the story and various conversations. More than that, the player can actually control the character in various downloadable bonuses that put you in the events of the first movie. Re-joining Weaver were fellow Alien alumni Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto all reprised their roles, making this their first reunion since the 1979 original.
Sigourney Weaver bookends the game, appearing in the opening credits where she recites her famous monologue from Alien, and at the end when Amanda is able to finally play a secret message intended just for her. Her role in this game is not merely a cameo, but rather the glue that binds the story together.
As appealing as these things are, none of them would matter without a good story. Fortunately, this is another area where Isolation succeeds, delivering one of the best narratives the series has to offer. Rather than simply being a gory monster romp or an over the top action story, Isolation is a subtly frightening tale of a daughter seeking closure. Amanda’s number one goal, after all, isn’t to kill the monster, but to learn her mother’s fate. The Alien is the obstacle she must overcome to find the truth. Like Aliens before it, it’s similar enough to the original to be recognizable as Alien, but different enough to stand on its own.
The game repeatedly toys with the player, practically dangling Ellen Ripley’s final message in front of us. It can be seen on computer consoles throughout the game in locked rooms or areas filled with toxic gas, forever close yet just out of reach. It’s only after Amanda finally listens to Weaver’s famous last words in the original film that she is able to find the strength and defeat the monster for real. Only when closure is achieved, can the beast finally die. Does this mean the Alien was intended as an externalized representation of Amanda’s sense of loss or fear of what happened to Ellen? Perhaps. That it’s done with such subtlety makes it all the more impactful.
Alien: Isolation has everything that made the series popular, from a low-fi future to a fleshed out cast of characters, topped off with a monster that to this day is the stuff of nightmares. Many, including Ridley Scott himself, have said that it’s time to let the beast rest and let the series move in a new direction. If Isolation is any indication, the creature still has some bite. Alien: Isolation was created by people who were deeply passionate about the original classic. It was that dedication that made this game not only the best game based on Alien but one of the finest entries in the entire series. It is by far the most worthy entry we’ve seen since 1986.