Alien Isolation interview: We wanted it to be really scary
Creative lead Al Hope reveals how his team built a game that recaptures the terror of the original film
THE story of videogames is the story of mass slaughter. From Call of Duty to Super Mario, hundreds or even thousands of enemies die in the name of entertainment. It’s you versus a cavalcade of more or less anonymous foes.
But Alien: Isolation is different: there is only one adversary – and you can’t defeat this sleek, deadly killing machine. It’s like an elongated boss fight you can never win.
According to Al Hope, creative lead developer on Isolation, this is a “one-on-one struggle”, a game of “cat-and-mouse, hide and seek”.
For those of you already shuddering at the mention of “Alien” in proximity to the word “videogames”, don’t panic. Isolation is light years from the sloppy predecessors that disrespected the chilling brilliance of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.
It incorporates the signature tropes of that bleak movie: the nerve-jangling blips of the motion tracker, the hissing, groaning passageways and the frankly terrifying sight of the invincible Alien.
Isolation finally releases on PC and consoles next week after four years in development at the Creative Assembly studio in Sussex.
Hope is somewhat dismissive of the latter movies in the series and won’t go near talk of the previous games.
“We started by saying ‘The other movies didn’t exist’,” says Hope. “The goal was to let the player for the first time explore what it would be like to encounter and try and survive against Ridley Scott’s Alien.”
In contrast to recent Alien games, Hope was on a mission to reclaim the creature’s mystery and terror.
“That’s where we really started,” he explains. “We wanted the Alien to be scary. We wanted to re-establish it as the ultimate killer. We wanted to re-Alien the Alien, to restore it to be something that seemed really incredible and extremely terrifying.
“To do that we felt like you couldn’t predict what it would do moment to moment. It’s that tension that drives the fear.”
Al Hope has spent four years working on Alien: Isolation
The Alien’s AI is what lends Isolation its tension, with little or no scripting involved. It’s on a relentless mission to hunt you down. But though it can be fooled, the illusion of its intelligence is such that even the dev team can be surprised.
“We play the game more or less all day every day,” says Hope. “I could play it right now and my heart will be thumping away. I would have to play it just as you would. I’d have to concentrate, make choices moment to moment. I can’t predict what’s gonna happen next.
“I’ll jump and yelp when I get outsmarted or caught. And that’s crazy because we built it, we should know everything about it and ninja my way through and complete it unharmed.”
With the blessing of 20th Century Fox and built by a development team that reached 100 people at its peak, Isolation explores a new strand of the story set after the first film. Amanda Ripley, daughter of the character played by Sigourney Weaver, goes looking for her mother 15 years after her disappearance.
Naturally, she is led to a near-abandoned space station populated by a few human looters, some androids – and one terrifying predator.
“This all came about because I was a massive fan of the first film and I felt there was an amazing experience to be had,” says Hope. “If you could distil the movie into a videogame form, it could be awesome. I knew that Sega had the licence to make an Alien games, so there was now or never chance to approach them and say this could be incredible.
“We put together a pretty brief technical demo over about four weeks – about four years ago. It was supposed to be a technical demo but it very quickly became a mood piece, very much steeped in the Alien world and it ended with this enormous Alien confronting the player.”
Hope and the team quickly realised they were on to something distinctive, a game apart from what many other developers were churning out.
“It’s a game about survival, not about killing. What would that game of cat-and-mouse be like? We used to talk in the studio: What would it be like if we released the Alien in the studio right now – what would you do?
“People would say I’d try and get under a desk and make sure he can’t see me, just be quiet. OK, that’s cool, now you need to get to the fire escape, how are you gonna do that?”
“We thought, that could be amazing, that could be really different. It’s also really instinctive, really real-world. When you pose that question, you don’t think: I’m gonna get a gun and shoot it. Well, there is no gun, you can’t shoot it.”
“There are no weapons that allow you to kill the Alien, so you’re gonna have to find other means to survive. That seemed like a really exciting opportunity to take that franchise back to its roots."
Of course, the games industry is notoriously risk-averse and would instinctively prefer another Call of Duty clone to a nail-biting, slow-paced crawl through dimly lit corridors. It must have been a struggle to get the project green-lit?
Wrong, says Hope. “Every time we showed people that demo, they pointed to the screen and said, can we have that please? From a concept point of view, it just seemed to offer something people hadn’t experienced before.
“It felt reassuring for me because I felt like I wasn’t on my own about the idea that this could be awesome. Going to Fox, they were massively excited that we were taking the franchise in a different direction.”
The studio hewed close to the vision of the Ridley Scott movie so they rarely feared Fox saying no to some of their ideas.
“We had the movie, that was our main source of inspiration,” says Hope. “We never came into any kind of disagreement with Fox about the content because we were trying to stay very true to the spirit of the original.
“We worked closely with Fox on many aspects of the game, it’s their universe. I’m trying to think of a situation where they said, No, you can’t do that. Our goals were the same. The one thing for me I thought we never get approved was Amanda Ripley, Ripley’s daughter, having her as our main character.
“I thought she was such an amazing character that existed in the universe that for all the reasons that we loved her and that she’d be perfect as our main character, they’d be the reasons we couldn’t use her. She’s Ripley’s daughter for goodness sake. Her story hadn’t been told.”
It would have presumably been easy to throw a bone to the marketers by including multiplayer in Isolation – another tick on the back of the box to appeal to a wider audience.
But Hope and the team stuck to their guns in making a pure experience – you cannot, for instance, play as the Alien (though some DLC enables you to take on the role of other characters such as Weaver’s Ripley).
Ripley is playable as a pre-order bonus character
“We had some neat ideas around multiplayer, it’s worth investigating these kinds of things,” admits Hope. “We kept coming back to the idea that is about a one-on-one struggle and it it’d be our focus, that is the game. That was its strength, keeping the focus on what we were trying to create. We decided not to pursue that.
“We did think about allowing the player to play as the Alien but that wasn’t really what we were trying to do. One of things I was trying to do was give back the Alien a sense of mystery. I wanted the Alien to be this thing that was unknowable and otherworldly and not something you could get your head around.”
* A quick demo playthrough supports Hope’s vision – the game is a complex interaction of crafting, creeping and plain old patience. Played with an Oculus Rift at London’s EGX games show last week, it was an immersive, claustrophobic and - yes – frightening experience.
But whether it can hold up over the course of many hours of the story’s run-time, only a full review can tell. Stay tuned to Independent.ie.
Alien: Isolation is released on October 7 on PC, PS3, PS4, X360 and Xbox One
Read our first impressions here: Alien Isolation - First Impressions