I return to the elevator lobby, having repaired the security hacking tool that will get me into the lift, and up to the Sevastopol’s comms room, where I hope to get a ride out of this space station.
I’ve just had my first personal experience with the Xenomorph. It was scripted, but horribly tense, its demonically barbed tail uncoiling between my legs. It wasn’t aware of me, and that made the encounter all the more tense. It stalked off in the direction that I also need to go. I give it a head start — if I can’t see it, then it can’t see me, right… RIGHT?? — and head up to the lobby too.
Returning to the elevator lobby, I am simultaneously gratified and terrified to hear gunshots and screams. It’s obvious that the monster is having its way with the aggressive scavengers that I’d left behind. Soon, I won’t have to deal with the scavs. Of course that means that I’ll be alone with the Xenomorph. I spy a terminal. Maybe I can reroute power to some sort of distraction and then run for the elevator. Unfortunately the thing doesn’t have enough juice. I look up, realising that the noise has started to die down. Oh shit. What’s that bursting out of my stomach?
My vision blurs and then dims as that demonically barbed tail tells me that somehow it had got behind me. So, who was distracted?
Okay, so I’m over a year late to the Alien: Isolation “party”, but who cares? Survival horror like this is a very personal experience. I have that particular psychological quirk that reacts very well to the horror genre — insomniac for nights after a particularly “good” movie — and yet keeps coming back for more. I indulge myself infrequently at best, so I generally go for the best experiences. I did try Amnesia: A Dark Descent a couple years ago, but managed to freak myself out so thoroughly in about 20 minutes that I had to walk away. In fact, Steam claims that I haven’t even purchased the game. Probably for the best.
I’ve sunk about three hours into Isolation, and am still within the third mission, and only at my first Xenomorph encounter. It’s slow going, and that’s due to a combination of both wonderful and terrible factors. The setting is inherently tense. The Sevastopol is a decrepit backwater space station. It’s being decommissioned, and its remaining inhabitants are small groups of scavengers, desperate for any resource or way off the station. It’s dark, empty and delightfully creepy.
The protagonist, Amanda Ripley, is not your typical gun-totin’, alien-stompin’ space marine. Instead, she’s a competent engineer, with virtually no combat training at all. This contrast in character background directly informs gameplay. Ripley is confident in technical tasks: building, repairing, hacking; but she does not shoot often, and the maintenance jack feels so slow and clumsy in her hands that its use as a melee weapon can only be used when the attack is a sure thing — or a last resort. Instead of the run-and-gun of the second Aliens movie, this game is the furtive creep from shadow to shadow of Ridley Scott’s original classic.
This is all wonderful: the setting, protagonist and character are all true to the original film, and capture the survival horror genre in a way that rarely happens in video games. So what’s so terrible?
The pacing is painfully slow. I recently rewatched Alien, and remarked to friends at the time that the overall pacing was far too slow for modern sensibilities. It spends the first 40 minutes with absolutely zero action and almost zero suspense. That’s a long time for the audience to sit still. Isolation doesn’t quite make this mistake (games have to have action), but it almost goes the other way: there’s too much suspense. Even the tutorial level is too empty, and too dim and the sound and music design conspire to make you nervous from the moment you step out of the stasis pods.
The Sevastopol is so well realised, with its poorly maintained lights and creaky metal superstructures that I couldn’t help but jump at every distant bang, crouching behind every barrier and peeking around every corner. Safe spaces around save points never feel truly safe, so it’s hard to know when you can relax. The music design flows into the environmental sound effects so well that you sometimes don’t realise it’s there. I had to turn the music down so that I wouldn’t confuse drums with footsteps.
Alien: Isolation is obviously very good at its achieving its intent of building tension through immersion. I guess, it’s a matter of perspective. It’s probably too successful at this for my taste. I’ll try to finish it, but it’s going to be slow going, and I’ll probably have to sandwich short bursts of the game with other, more sedate titles like Doom. While I go buy that, maybe you should read about playing Alien: Isolation in VR. Or at least watch hilarious reaction videos.