It can be easy to say the time for the Alien saga has come and gone. While the success of the first two showed potential for a lucrative series, every film since has proven either divisive or underwhelming, and diminishing box office returns do little to spark confidence. However, it was not three years before the release of Alien: Covenant that the series produced an entry of such pulsing life that it has since gone on to be considered one of the finest installments the franchise has ever produced. This entry however didn’t come on the silver screen. Instead, it came in the form of a video game.
Alien: Isolation is a survival horror game released in late 2014 by Creative Assembly. Taking place during the 57 year interlude between the first and second films, it tells the story of Amanda, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, as she tries to uncover her mother’s fate.
15 years after the events of Alien, Amanda is informed that the Nostromo flight recorder has been found, and is being held far from home on a station named Sevastopol. Seeking answers to her mother’s disappearance, Amanda enlists in what she assumes is a routine mission, but when they arrive on Sevastopol, things quickly go wrong.
An unexpected explosion separates Amanda from the others and she finds herself on the station alone. As Amanda tries to navigate Sevastopol’s decaying halls, she can’t help but sense an ominous lurking presence. It seems Amanda has found the answers to her mother’s disappearance; answers more frightening than she could have ever imagined.
While only a moderate financial success, Alien: Isolation received rave reviews by critics and fans alike, appearing on numerous best-of lists for 2014. It has since gained a reputation for not only one of the best Alien games, but one of the best survivor horror games ever made. Not since Aliens has an entry garnered such universal acclaim. Just where did it succeed where so many other entries had failed?
Setting is an often overlooked element in crafting an effective horror story. Sevastopol Station with its narrow corridors and failing lights is as much a character as Amanda and the Alien. It follows a proud tradition established in the first two movies of a used future. Sevastopol isn’t a bright and stable environment like the Starship Enterprise. It’s a run down derelict that seems more welcoming to the beast than its human inhabitants. It is very much a haunted castle in space.
Unlike the sophisticated technology seen in the prequels, Isolation returns to form with the more low-fi look seen in the original series. Sevastopol Station is filled with old-fashioned green LED screens, chairs patched with duct tape, magnetic cassette players, and hallways filled with rust and grime. Like the Nostromo before it and Hadley’s Hope after, Sevastopol is a relic of a used future.
Sevastopol also has a rich history, revealed through emails and audio logs found throughout the station. They tell of a slow, methodical invasion suffered by the station’s inhabitants, and serve as a constant, chilling reminder of what the player is up against. The player will often go for long stretches without any human contact, with only mangled corpses and that curious thumping in the ceiling to keep them company. Even without the Alien itself, Sevastopol is a truly frightening place.
A NEW ENSEMBLE
The Alien series has always been known for its colorful characters, and Isolation features one of the series’ most well rounded and developed ensembles 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. Amanda has a clearly defined arc throughout the game. During her early encounters with the beast, she’s afraid, her missions relying on the player’s skills of stealth and avoidance. As the game progresses however, all that changes. Amanda is moulded from a frightened victim to a hardened fighter, able to fight off her otherworldly foe. Strength, it seems, runs in the family.
But Amanda is only one of Isolation’s many gems. Every character lives and breaths, no matter how brief their involvement. Characters like Weyland Yutani executive Taylor, Marshal Ricardo, the paranoid Axel and the grief stricken Captain Marlow, all are memorable. The cast is so well rounded, even characters we never see leave an impression. Seegson Executive Ransome never appears in the game, but his audio logs help us piece together the disaster on Sevastopol, as well as his greedy ambitions.
Alien: Isolation taps several Alien alumni to round out its cast. One such addition is Marshal Waits, played by William Hope. Hope is well remembered amongst fans as the incompetent and ill prepared Lieutenant Gorman in Aliens. Here, he plays a different kind of leader, who is determined, ruthless, and willing to sacrifice anyone if it means destroying the beast. Though he plays a very different character here, Hope’s presence is nonetheless a welcome one.
Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Samuels, an android who almost serves as a counter-point to the technophobic stance of 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.
Isolation has both a moody setting and an exquisite cast of characters, but perhaps its biggest challenge was how it handled the beast. Fortunately, it 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, the game builds up enough anticipation so when the Alien finally does appear, we’re afraid.
Charging forth with guns blazing no longer works like in the Aliens vs. Predator games. The player can’t kill the Alien. All they can do is ward it off with Molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, and a flamethrower desperately low on fuel. When Samuels asks Amanda how to deal with the beast, her one word response sets the tone for the rest of the game.
For the first time in a while, Alien: Isolation doesn’t put a lot of focus on the Queen Alien, instead focusing more on the creature seen in the original film. The Queen is never seen on Sevastopol, which lead many to believe the game ignored her in favor of the ‘egg morphing’ birth method seen in the original’s deleted scenes. In an interview with AvP Galaxy, writer Will Porter dismissed this. While they didn’t show the Queen for fear the player would expect a battle, Porter did confirm she was “there but unseen.”
There were many meetings in which we discussed having vague hints at her presence but, to borrow a Dan Abnett phrase, it was too ‘on the nose’. She’s down there somewhere, in amongst the cacophony, but Ripley was lucky enough not to bump into her.
While I love the Queen, keeping her out of the player’s experience does a lot to empower the original beast. The game builds the creature into such a colossus, we’re eventually afraid to use our pistol on the numerous other enemies on the station for fear it will attract the Alien. A gunshot may bring a rampaging colonist to a swift end, but it will call the Alien just as swiftly. That a single creature is able to generate so much fear is a testament to this character’s lasting power, and proof that it still has many nightmares left to give.
RETURN OF SIGOURNEY WEAVER
By far one of the biggest and most unexpected virtues of Isolation was the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. Weaver had last portrayed the character in 1992’s Alien 3, and last appeared in an Alien film since 1997’s Alien: Resurrection. Just what was it that brought Weaver back to the Ripley character after 22 years? The answer was the same as what brought her to return for 1986’s Aliens. That reason was Amanda Ripley.
Amanda Ripley had appeared in the series before in the director’s cut of Aliens. She’s mentioned briefly when a distraught Ripley learns her daughter has passed away in the 57 years since the first film. Weaver felt this was crucial to her character as it solidified her bond with the Newt character, who similarly lost her loved ones. The actress was outraged when the scenes were cut for time, so when news reached her of a game focused on Amanda, Weaver expressed immediate interest. 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.”
Ellen Ripley’s presence is every bit as important to the game as the creature itself. As the central quest of the Amanda character, it’s her message on the Nostromo flight recorder that powers the plot, leading to something of an emotional reunion, and a heartbreaking final goodbye. Ellen Ripley is the one who creates the story for Amanda.
But Alien: Isolation doesn’t stop there. With Weaver on board, developers went the extra mile and signed on fellow Alien alumni Tom Skerritt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright and Yaphet Kotto, making this their first reunion since the 1979 original. Audio logs by Captain Dallas, Parker, Brett, Lambert and Ash can be found throughout the game, further explaining the history of the Nostromo. Additionally, the player can take control of these characters in various downloadable content, allowing them to play through key events from the original Alien.
Still, it’s Sigourney Weaver who 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. More than a mere cameo, Ellen Ripley is the glue that binds the story together.
A QUEST FOR CLOSURE
On their own, each of these things is appealing. Together, they form one of the strongest, most compelling narratives the Alien series has produced. Rather than simply being a gory monster romp or an over the top action story, Isolation is an emotionally powerful tale of one person’s grief, and the horrors they encounter on their quest for closure.
Amanda’s goal isn’t simply to survive Sevastopol or kill the monster. She’s a person seeking answers about her mother’s fate. The Alien isn’t just a monster. It’s the very culprit of Ellen Ripley’s disappearance, and represents the lingering dread Amanda has about what happened to her. The Alien is the very grief she must finally come face to face with, and facing grief is difficult.
Grief and closure are central themes in the game. The character of Samuels doesn’t understand human emotions, but Amanda’s need for closure intrigues him so much that he specifically requests her for the mission. His desire to help her eventually leads him to risk his life to shut down the station’s hostile AI. Captain Marlow is likewise consumed with grief and guilt, as it was he who brought his infected wife to Sevastopol, inadvertently unleashing the Alien on its inhabitants. In an effort to avenge his wife, and erase his own feelings of guilt, Marlow attempts to destroy the station, his grief consuming him to the point he becomes a danger to everyone else.
The Alien is the source of everyone’s grief, thereby giving their suffering a face. But unlike Marlow who simply wants to destroy it or Samuels who wants to understand it, Amanda wants to face it to get the answers she needs. When she finally hears her mother’s voice, perhaps for the last time, Amanda doesn’t let grief consume her. Instead she fights her way through the monster, and her sorrow, in order to survive. It’s rare to see a horror property instilled with such powerful emotions, but Alien: Isolation goes above and beyond genre requirements, spinning a tale of subtle terror, overcoming grief, and one person’s story of confrontation, recovery, and perhaps triumph.
Many, including Ridley Scott himself, have said that it’s time to put the beast to rest and let the series move in a new direction, but this game shows that with the right skill and dedication, it’s still possible to give the Alien some bite. Alien: Isolation represents the realization of decades of unused potential, and shows that in the right hands, this series can be just as fresh an innovative as the films that started it all. Like Aliens, it’s similar enough to the original to be recognizable as Alien, but different enough to stand on its own. It gave audience the opportunity to step through the screen, right into a beautiful nightmare.
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