Facing My Fears with Alien: Isolation

The hunt begins

Played on: PlayStation 4
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows, Nintendo Switch, Linux, OS X
Genre: Action-adventure, stealth, survival horror
Developer: Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Release: October 7, 2014

I am not the biggest fan of horror games.


Not due to any bias or perception of quality that comes from the immersive genre, but more so that I simply don’t have the nerve for them. Barring the Dead Space series, which I love dearly, I’ve started and immediately stopped countless standout examples of great horror games. As it came closer to Halloween this year, I grew more and more frustrated with the fact that I have missed out on some stellar games and defining franchises.

After digging deep and finding the courage to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve through gaming, I finally installed Alien: Isolation—a release whose reputation precedes it. A game purchased some time ago, relegated to gathering digital dust, with the occasional hopeful thought that someday I might experience it.


This year was different—I started Alien: Isolation and I fully intend on completing it.


This is how I’ve faced my fear using Alien: Isolation, and why I will never forgo dread-inspiring titles like it again.


***SPOILERS for ALIEN: ISOLATION***


Fear has found me


The classic 20th Century Fox fanfare at the beginning instantly appealed to the Alien fan in me. As I moved swiftly along to the title screen, the tone is immediately set—moody, ambient sound with minimal yet telling visuals.


Before jumping in, I reckoned with my decision for a few moments, anticipating what my experience would be like. After some internal debate, I threw caution to the wind.


This was it.


The basis of the story is set up in a quick manner. Our protagonist is Amanda Ripley, daughter of heroine Ellen Ripley, set 15 years after the original 1979 movie. The flight recorder from the vessel Nostromo (the setting for Alien) has been recovered. Amanda, unaware of her mother’s fate, joins a team setting out for Sevastopol Station to recover the aforementioned flight recorder, to finally uncover the truth of what happened to her mother and the crew of the ill-fated movie.


Within a few moments, your journey to the station is underway. I appreciated the efficiency in which the story framework was established. The premise is simple and easy to understand, and the kickoff matches it.


Arriving at the station, I knew things were imminently about to take a sinister turn and my anxiety swiftly started amplifying. Inevitably, things go wrong upon arrival and with that, your mission has begun in earnest. As soon as you become, well, isolated, my uneasiness peaked. This is establishing the tone for the rest of the game—your back is against the wall, repairing critical systems and helping in other important tasks. Survival is key.


The opening scenarios are slow to build, ramping up agitation with each passing moment.


In dribs and drabs, you come across other survivors—some friendly, some not so much. It’s clear something has gone terribly wrong on the station, and you’re not getting a clear answer. Meeting with other human characters, regardless of their nature, actually provided me with some relief from the perpetual tension-laden atmosphere. Regardless of whether Amanda was being attacked or not, I wasn’t alone.


With an unearned sense of calm, I ventured forth.


Primal instincts


The environments you traverse become increasingly hostile, adding a few more direct scares along your path.


Enemy androids known as Working Joes start cropping up, placed cleverly as obstacles, encouraging the use of stealth. These automations are slow but quiet—watch your back around them, because at a moment's notice they will be upon you.


The slow build to encountering the titular extraterrestrial was starting to affect me. At an increasing rate I was making mistakes, being forced into restarting sections due to my human error.


Then finally, it showed it’s horrifying face.


Panicked at the sight of it devastating another human character, my immediate instinct was to hide. Cowering in a locker, I waited. I was patient yet fearful, as I didn’t know what could happen if I were to leave the safety net of my hiding place.


My heart rate slowed, my breathing abated and I collected the courage to continue on.


Cautiously moving forward, I continuously heard sounds from the vents which often felt right on top of me. While nervously checking every possible nook the xenomorph could burst forth from, I maintained a good progression. If I didn’t know any better, I was starting to get the hang of this! A quiet confidence grew within me, while maintaining an apprehension around making noise.


While fulfilling a seemingly innocuous objective of collecting a key item, things changed rapidly. Emerging from a vent directly in front of Amanda, was the monstrous creature itself. After a short interaction, the hunt was actually on. So far, the cyclical terror repeating in my head was just that—in my mind. Every careful peek around a corner and time spent hiding was self-inflicted, caused by my own anxiety. The game has now changed.


The next missions were hard. So far, it’s the key sink or swim moment in the game. Once again tasked with collecting a key item, you’re forced into a large area—you don’t know where the item is, and our antagonist is prowling somewhere. I could recognise this watershed moment as it was being revealed, and decided to use it to my advantage.


In a bid to desensitise myself to the xenomorph, I began gameplay experiments and seemingly nothing was working. No matter where I hid, it found me and killed me instantly. After the first few deaths at the creature’s hands (and tail), frustration was mounting. So I did what any self-respecting gamer would do, and said “f**k this” and rage quit. Disappointed in my defeatism, I collected my thoughts, gathered my strength and faced the Alien one more time.


This time, lo and behold, I was successful. My impatience gave way to me learning another valuable lesson—you can’t hide forever. My luck had changed, and I was able to progress to the next horror-inducing missions.


A few notable lessons learned here—patience, preparedness and awareness will see you become victorious.


The essential cogs of a fierce machine


Based on my experience so far, what did I learn about the Alien, the atmosphere and why is it so nerve-wracking?


First and foremost, the audio design and execution is absolutely stellar.


Fundamentally, this is a rather quiet game and that is a cornerstone of the palpable atmosphere. The absence of sound is a blank canvass, and every suspect noise you hear around you is a brushstroke added to it. Moment to moment, you will hear metallic clinks and beastial noises—close to you, far away, everywhere in between. More often than not this is to empower the already-potent sense of paranoia. You don’t get to feel comfort however, as when you least expect it you’ll be impaled from behind.


At times, the music intensifies tenfold. While normally it’s quiet and sets the mood, as soon as the Alien begins to prey on you, this changes. Tense string arrangements replace the unsettling mood music, gaining more volume and vigour with each step your predator takes. These arrangements tend to crescendo in one of two ways—with Amanda’s death or with a successful evasion of your hunter.


The Alien itself is an intelligent creature, and I give unending kudos to the team at Creative Assembly for how they implemented your foe. It will learn your tricks. If you like to hide in vents, it will start checking them. The same goes for under tables, lockers, etc. It’s job is to sniff you out and it doesn’t seem to have a predefined path as such. It’s common to see it pull a complete u-turn while seemingly in the middle of one route. While frustrating at times, it’s a wonderfully realised AI system, one of the best I have ever encountered in gaming. It’s a true testament to the love and care coursing through the game.


That’s not even to mention the visual aspects, which perfectly evoke the spirit of the classic original movie. While I don’t find Alien scary exactly, it’s the sense of creeping, impending disaster is what’s important, and it’s faithfully recreated here.


Tools of the trade


In the early missions, you’re completely helpless against the beast for the most part. You’re only equipped with a few tools and your ability to hide.


As things progress however, you pick up some new tricks and skills which help make your measures of avoidance a little less laboured. Deceiving your enemy becomes easier.


To make this clear, you cannot kill the xenomorph. You can only distract, avoid and sometimes directly cause it to run away.


In the more formative levels, you’ll gain the use of useful instruments such as noisemakers and flares—core pillars of your deceptive techniques. These will allow you to gain a moment to escape or even lure your hunter to some unsuspecting human assailants. Sometimes this just simply isn’t enough, and you will feel the need to go on the offensive—as much as possible anyway.


Later, you gain access to pipe bombs, molotov cocktails and even a flamethrower. Do not let this mislead you, you still cannot kill the Alien, but now you can more forcefully remove it from a situation temporarily. I’ve used these vicious implements to great effect, especially when forced into a position I didn’t anticipate and death is seconds away. I ensured I made liberal use of the many crafting materials I came across, because without the tools available to you, things are going to be a lot more difficult for you.


More importantly, using your weapons and devices successfully instil a powerful sense of achievement. When I use a quick flamethrower blast to fend off my stalker, my confidence surges, heartening me to continue further. There is nothing more satisfying than defending yourself with impunity, in order to reach a much-needed save point.


To quote one of the greatest heroines in all of film:


“Get away from her, you b***h!”


Conviction in spades


I’m still playing the game, but at this point it feels different.


I have nearly fully overcome the anxiety of simply exploring. Going from room to room doesn’t feel like as much of an exercise in torture as it once did, even bearing in mind I’m liable to die at nearly any moment. I now have faith I can fully complete this once-intimidating experience.


What has changed?


While the sudden appearance of the xenomorph will always be a sight to behold, I simply don’t find it frightening anymore. This is due to desensitisation, my growing ability to actually play the game well, and the tools available to me. While always a threat, I’m equipped to deal with these situations a lot better now. There are still moments that shake me, especially the exemplary audio work, but I’m significantly more poised now.


I certainly have a few more levels to go, but I now know that I can actually be triumphant.


In learning to overcome my formerly overwhelming fear of horror games, Alien: Isolation has been an invaluable tool. Just like everything else I write about, ultimately, it is a game. Games have rules and mechanics that are used to see yourself win, and this is much the same, just displayed and designed in a far more harshly visceral way. If I can surmount the psychological facets at play (the sound, being hunted down, being ill-equipped etc.) and just play it as a game, then I cannot fail.


Sometimes things are easier said than done though, right? I’m sure there are more than a few more curveballs headed my way and soon before I’ve completed the campaign, and now, I’m actually excited about that.


Covenant


In playing Alien: Isolation, and even writing this article, I’m making a promise of sorts to myself, for which I will also hold myself accountable.


From now on, I’m actually excited to experience horror games. The excellent craftsmanship in every regard found in this title has unveiled a way of me appreciating these immersive nightmares. The only obstacle between me admiring their twisted beauty, is my own mind, and I know now that can be changed with some effort and mental fortitude.


I actually feel like a fledgling horror fan now, which is something I’m excited to explore now—both older titles and forthcoming ones for the new console generation.


This is Mason, survivor of plentiful fear of the horror genre, signing off.


All images taken from the Alien: Isolation press kit here


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