What is a scare? You may as well ask what a fright is. Scientists have been puzzling over what a fright is for hundreds of years, but the best answer we have is that we simply don’t know. The dozens of scare glands scattered throughout our terrorised bodies remain an elusive mystery to us. What are they for? Why do they startle us so?
And what exactly is it about aliens in dark and abandoned space stations that triggers these glands to spunk out their juicy fear-enzymes? Science may never understand, but Alien: Isolation is a thorough and provably effective exploration of the theme of arrghh.
In my latest playthrough of Sega’s first person survival horror game — and following the earlier reveal of the single, independent, AI-driven xenomorph terror — I got to see some more enemies and shoot a few guns.
But can human enemies be as frightening as the alien? After all, if you stop and think about it, humans are just alien aliens, right?
Well no. The human threats in Alien: Isolation aren’t engineered to terrify you. Instead they’re powerful, gun-weilding obstacles to be circumnavigated. You encounter them aboard the game’s space station, which in the demo area alternates between bleakly overlit living quarters to hastily barricaded and powered-down medical bays. They’re looters and survivors who are aware that there’s a spine-stealing monster aboard the station, and as such they’re flighty and willing to open fire on other humans.
That’s what Sega told me at least. In practice I didn’t quite buy the reasoning behind the human-on-human conflict, but as we’d been blindly dropped into a point well into the game’s plot, you can only assume the species-on-species aggression has been well explained to the player by now. Either way, you’re sneaking around to avoid these men.
To recap: there’s a single alien entity in Alien: Isolation, who’s driven by AI-routines to patrol and sniff you out. When you hide from the alien by ducking behind a hospital bed or into a locker, you can’t predict how the creature will respond. There seem to be very few surefire ways of avoiding detection.
The alien can pull you out of lockers or stroll right past. It may attack the locker next to yours. It may wander past your hiding spot, pause, reconsider, and sprint back to where you’re crouched and eviscerate you. That unpredictability is what makes the alien so terrifying. Even after half a dozen resets, your brain still struggles to recognise a pattern in the monster’s behaviour. This alien is alive.
Things get interesting when human AI and alien AI occupy the same space. The human enemies aren’t as adept at hiding from the alien as you are. They’ll carelessly fire their weapons at you, creating huge amounts of noise and drawing the xenomorph towards themselves. You can fire your pistol at them to murder them, but when the alien inevitably arrives as a result, you’ll be the only warm-blooded bag of meat left standing for it to spear on its tail. It’s still best to hide.
In one instance, while hiding under a desk from three looters who’d chased me into a ward, the alien emerged from one set of automatic doors and very quickly destroyed the men in a flurry of ineffective gunfire and loud, spluttering gut-removal. From my cowering pose beneath a table I couldn’t see what had happened, but could only listen as the room of enemies was rapidly reduced to twitching corpses.
You could feasibly use this fleshy fracas as cover to sneak away, but in most cases it’s better to knuckle down, Newt-style, as the horror unfolds around you. The alien works quickly. Quickly enough that it will find the time to cut you down if you popped your head up and made a dash for the door.
Then there are the quasi-humans, the androids, the synthetics. You accidentally activate two of these when restoring power to the medical bay, giving the spark of life to a couple of sleeping medical assistance droids. These aren’t your advanced, Bishop-grade Weyland-Yutani models, so are very apparently unhuman in their appearnace. Their molded doll-like faces are inset with glowing robotic eyes, while a permanent helpful expression has been etched into their bald silicon skulls.
They cheerfully offer assistance as they simultaneously deem you a threat to yourself. “Don’t run, you’ll trip!” they chime as you dart out of their line of sight. Allow one to get close enough to you and they’ll grab you by the throat, contextually slamming you into nearby walls and surfaces. You can break free of their chokehold by twatting them over the head with a wrench, but they’re resilient things and almost impossible to destroy using typical means.
It’s fun to try though. Take a flamethrower to their artifical bodies and they’ll happily erupt into flames, ineffectively melting away their exterior skin while leaving them precisely as capable as before, only now ten times as horrifying. While on fire, they’ll leave behind small footprints of burning rubber as they patiently walk towards you. If the alien is a running zombie, the androids are Romero shufflers.
And like zombies, they seem indifferent to one another. Aliens won’t attack androids unless they pose a threat, and similarly androids don’t seem to mind that there’s a death-machine skulking around the medical bay.
The dynamic interplay between player, human, android and alien can be forced in a number of ways. Scrap materials littered about the station can be combined to create tools, one of which is a noisemaker device. Chuck such a thing into a closed room and you can probably imagine the sort of effect it will have. But just as you can’t predict how the alien will respond in a given circumstance, directing conflicts using sound is an imperfect art.
In an effort to test the limits of the alien’s code-brain, I tried a few different methods of reaching the demo area’s objective. Madly sprinting through the entire level almost worked, surprisingly enough. The alien was designed to always arrive in the medical bay in the same spot, but its movements were allowed to be random after that. So with some luck, you could probably loudly careen through the corridors, surgeries and wards without ever running into the creature, though you’d be presenting a noisy red rag to an alien space-bull.
Being overly cautious seemed to have the adverse effect of accidentally ramping up the challenge, giving the alien enough time to figure out your rough location and refocus its stalking efforts around where it thinks you are. Hiding in a locker forever isn’t the way to win.
Instead, I managed to reach the far side of the medical bay by walking calmly from one end to the other, without hiding at all, only once pausing to allow a human enemy to pass by. It was only by chance that I didn’t cross paths with the alien, and it was through avoiding making excessive sounds that I didn’t draw it towards me.
In practice the walking calmly approach sounds rather boring, but that such a tactic works highlights one of Alien: Isolation’s strengths. The game has thrown together a bunch of different artifical intelligences in what is effectively a semi-open-ended sandbox, a world that never forces those enemies to artifically converge on your position or engineer some sort of pre-determined action sequence. A world in which you could feasibly wander through a spooky ghost house in space without incident.
Of course, Alien: Isolation does engineer some drama when it wants and needs to. At the end of the medical bay level, the alien will appear as part of a pre-determined cutscene. It’s scripted to do that, because while the parts of the game in which you’re in control are an unpredictable sandbox, there’s still a linear story to be told here. I’ll forgive the designers these moments in which they pop a leash on their xenomorph pet, because outside of these moments they’ve made what can only be described as a terror engine, a game to get your fear glands pumping.
I really cannot emphasise enough how frightening this game is.