How Creative Assembly designed Alien: Isolation’s terrifyingly clever xenomorph

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Alien: Isolation burst out of Creative Assembly’s chest yesterday, splattering previews all over the internet and making us spill our collective cereal — here is my Alien: Isolation preview, in case you’re interested in finding out more. The game plays, in the parts we’ve been shown at least, like Amnesia in space, with only a solitary, highly intelligent and free-roaming xenomorph forming the game’s horror centrepiece.

Gary Napper, lead designer at Creative Assembly, and Jude Bond, lead artist, spoke to me about how to create a truly terrifying artificial intelligence, what they thought of recent games in the franchise and how Alien: Isolation hopes to sustain a level of tension from start to finish that doesn’t result in heart-stopping fatalities. Come have a look at the words we said to one another.

PCGamesN, Steve: During the studio tour you showed us a really interesting flow chart of the alien’s behaviour, which included some branches to do with ambushing and trapping. Is that something the alien is capable of?

Gary Napper, lead designer: Ah yes, so we have several layers of behaviour we can add to the alien. We can make things available to the level designers so they can tweak his behaviour in certain ways. So if the alien’s going to be more of a threat up in the rafters or behind the scenes, they can do things to make him burst out of vents in places and then attack the player – and it’s those sorts of traps we’re talking about. So he’s not “laying traps” so to speak, he himself is laying in wait.

We kind of wanted to go from the first film where he’s kind of hiding in the pipes and you might not notice him as you walk past, then the steam comes out and he leaps out at you – stuff like that we’re looking at, yeah.

PCGN: Traditionally in Alien games there are a lot of scripted scares. Did you guys find it difficult predicting how this autonomous alien AI would act and react, and whether it would deliver the “right” type of scares to the player?

GN: Well, there are things we can do balance the behaviour, because although we do have an alien AI that ultimately utilises its senses and does what it wants when it’s hunting, we can tweak the amount it hunts and the amount that the player sees it, and we have various values for these settings. We’ve almost got him in like, different flavours; this one’s mild, this one’s aggressive, “moderately intense”, you know?

And we can also create individual versions of that for a specific scenario. So we may say “okay, this level feels absolutely great when he’s in your face the entire time” – and none of our four flavours will fit it – so let’s add three more and we can ramp up and down those according to various factors in the level. So we can say to the level designers: “when you’re building this experience, try and systematically think what the alien is going to do. But if you need to ramp up his behaviour, you can script a change in his behaviour.” So it’s ultimately working with the systematic behaviour set, and tweaking it to what you need him to do, rather than saying “jump out of this door and kill the player here” you know?

PCGN: How about things like environmental scares, are there any dynamic elements to the environment? For instance, is a pipe more likely to explode during a very tense moment rather than a not-so-tense moment?

GN: Well it’s kind of one of those things where we wanted to leave it up to the level designers. If they’ve got a specific encounter in mind, we’ve said rather than every time you cross that threshold this explodes, try and make that as unpredictable as the alien itself, because if that’s going to happen every time, everyone’s going to have that exact same experience. So we’re trying to encourage them to – say, if you’re trying to find something in an area, it could be in one of three places, or if there’s going to be an explosion it could be at the end of this corridor or down another place and it might not happen where you expect it to.

Jude Bond, lead artist: To use the example of the exploding pipe, yes a level designer could provide variety like that to the player, but the environment itself is reactive and dynamic, so if a player does do X then there is a systemic response that can be delivered by the environment. I don’t think there’s anything in that demo that really shows that we’ve got some amazing stuff up our sleeves, things to create a different playthrough every time.

GN: And what’s amazing for me today has been the difference between some of the playthroughs that you guys have. A couple of journalists here have died once or twice and I’m like “wow, that’s really, really lucky”, most people are dying like eight or nine times. One guy died something like thirty times, and he just put down the pad and was like “that was the most incredible alien!” And he was just getting killed by it on purpose, just to see what it would do and learn from it.

PCGN: Yes! I noticed when I died and I got back to the same spot that the alien’s behaviour was different, he’d appear in a different spot or from a different direction. So dying and seeing him behave in an entirely different way was very interesting.

JB: Yeah, it’s very rewarding. Coming back to what you were saying about if it was harder to work with a dynamic alien rather than a scripted alien, I think that really this just wouldn’t work if it’s scripted. It’s like “right, I’ll go around here, then I’ll get jumped by the alien and get killed – back to the checkpoint, I know what’s going to happen.” We needed that sense of unknown things to deliver horror that was actually horrific. You need to be able to go “what’s in those shadows around the corner? I don’t know” – and you’re right, you don’t know, we’re not going to tell you and you’re going to have to go and find out.

GN: I think the only time it’s been difficult is when it’s got the jump on us! I remember one time we were testing through a level we made, and we changed some of the door behaviours, so they’d gone from being manual to automatic. We’d had the Alien prowling around behind an area behind some locked doors – so I thought I was safe – I opened the door, PSSSST, and there was this alien just looking back at me and I’m like “arrghh shit!”. I just had to put down the pad and take off my headphones, heart racing, hah!

Alien: Isolation

PCGN: Thesection that we played in the playtest, we’re told that’s about halfway through the game?

GN: Just over halfway, yeah.

PCGN: Obviously that level of tension can’t be sustained over the course of the entire game. Can you describe how you’re pacing the experience outside of this demo?

GN: Well, it’s all peaks and troughs when you’re working with tension building. You have an event and then it goes off and then you gradually introduce it. What you played today actually… it had a lot more mechanics in it, originally. We had a lot more of the things you collect later in the game, a lot more abilities of the player. We made a decision to show you guys the pure experience of you with nothing, the alien at a base level, and just seeing how that plays, so you’ve got an idea of exactly what we’re aiming for.

So when you take a step back and look at all the abilities that a player can have and learn, and all the things the alien can do to react to that, then when you tie that to the level design, you’ve actually got a huge set of behaviours and a toolset to use. And it’s not just that we build up abilities in a straight line, we remove some of them in some circumstances and see what happens. We’ve got some really nice areas of the game where we kind of play with the mechanics and throw the alien at you in different ways. It’s been a question we’ve had a fair amount of – how can we maintain that tension? – but I think it just comes down to your core game design and how you tie it in with the story and the atmosphere and the flow of the game as a whole.

PCGN: Can you describe some of those player abilities that you mentioned?

GN: Well, most of them are based around things you find in the world. So you can find things like you can maybe use to distract the alien or construct some things that would help you defend yourself against the alien. And like I said, all of these things are things that the alien reacts to and then ends up learning from. So if you can imagine… I don’t want to go into too much detail and spoil it but imagine you’re on this space station that was designed for like, five thousand people, it’s in its last stages of operation, it’s kind of failed and there are only a few hundred people left – imagine what you’ll find in that environment and use and that’s the type of thing that we’re aiming for.

PCGN: Are there parts of the game that play… let’s say more like a traditional shooter? I noticed a reload button in the controls layout, so there’ll be guns?

GN: Well spotted! Well we wanted to leave little hints at what we want for later on in the game – we said before the game was about surviving and scavenging, and you do find ammo, small calibre weapons and things you can craft and build. So there are other threats on the station, but the entire game should be about: if you see a shadow, you’re terrified it’s going to be the big alien.

JB: Because it could be.

PCGN:The demo showed some scrap collection, I could pick up some objects in the environment, what purpose do the scraps and the materials you collect serve?

GN: That’s the basis of our crafting system, where you can craft things in the environment to help. Someone said earlier on today that the crew of the Nostromo were basically the original MacGyvers: they had to survive against this alien with just the stuff they had on board, and that’s exactly the same situation on the station.

JB: Our whole mantra throughout the project has been improvise to survive and so we are presenting you with the ultimate killing machine, he is going to hunt you and unless you can improvise, you’re not going to survive. So improvisation is one of our pillars really, and our crafting system partially facilitates that as do other things that we aren’t allowed to talk about yet. It’s about survival. It isn’t like it turns into a more traditional shooter elsewhere, it’s not about shooting at all – you need to survive encounters with the alien rather than defeat him.

GN: Still to this day, the question we get quite a lot is: you put a gun on the screen in first person and people instantly think: “I’ve got to shoot some stuff” and it’s just absolutely amazing when we see people pick up this game for the first time. They turn around with a gun in their hand pointed at the alien and instead of shooting they just put it away, and we’re like “Yesss! They’ve got it!” They understand that this is just something you want to avoid.

Alien: Isolation

PCGN: My reaction to the alien spotting me was neither fight nor flight – I just froze on the spot. If I had been there in real life I would’ve just crouched down and accepted my fate – what sort of reactions are you seeing from playtesters?

GN: It’s a lot like that, actually. It’s been – one of the guys who played the thing was brilliant – he got inside the lockers to hide and the alien walked past him. He just sat there and didn’t get out while the alien hung around outside… and he took his headphones off and looked up and he proudly goes “I’m safe in here!”. A second later the alien ripped into the cupboard and killed him, so yeah! It’s really interesting to see how different people play it, because like you say the thing you predict in a game is how a player is going to play.

JB:It’s brilliant seeing how these things are played differently; as developers we regularly play through these levels. Every day without fail we’re jumping, because even we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s brilliant, it’s like we’ve got this deadly killing thing that’s brilliantly designed, can move around the space believably and is big, is scary and is totally unpredictable – it’s like letting the lead off this thing and jumping into a room with it.

GN: And we like to rotate who’s playing as well, because everyone plays a very, very different style. Our producer Jonathan Court, he always wants to do big explosions…

JB: Hah! He tries to run and gun – “what can I throw at it?!”

GN: Yeah! And when he sees the alien now he’s freezes. We had a great playthrough the other week where our lead programmer was at the controls. He’d died a few times and everyone in the room was quite tense. He was hiding behind this bit of cover and the door was open ahead of him, with the alien just nearby. Someone said “just go, just go!” and someone else shouted “go on, go! Go, go go!” until the whole room was chanting “COME ON! COME ON!” as he sprinted for the door. The alien just came at him from the side and took him down. He jumped out of his skin! So it still gets us…

JB: …and a rapturous round of applause went up around the room! It is like working with a wild animal. They say “don’t work with animals and children”, we’re adding xenomorphs to the list.

PCGN: A lot of Alien games have come before yours, some of them good, some of them bad – do you guys feel like there’s a preconception of what sort of enemy a xenomorph is that you’re now fighting against?

JB: I think before we had to, but as soon as you get someone in front of it, it’s quite clear that it’s something different and not what was expected. We’ve known since day one that we wanted to pit the player against a single alien, to throw them into encounters with this terrifying beast that’s hunting you, and that’s very different from, Aliens or James Cameron’s view of the Alien universe, which is essentially a war film. We knew from the start we were going to take this back to the grass-roots, back to the original movie, which is about horror – it’s not about action and I don’t think we’ve had any trouble convincing people – as soon as we show them, that we’re doing something that’s different.

GN: We’ve been working on this game for over three years, and this console team was built up to make this specific game. So over the past three years we haven’t been able to say anything about it, and we look obviously at forums and comment threads on articles and stuff, and we see so many passionate fans of Alien describing the game we were making as the game they want and we’re like “….mpphh! If we just hit reply we could say we’re doing it!” but obviously, we can’t! So it’s just been incredible today to say “Hey, check out what we’re doing!”

JB: Today and tomorrow, it’s just like a huge release for us, finally we can tell people. To be honest with you I’m really disappointed that there’s an embargo on what we can say until January [the preview event took place in December] – I want to go home and say “come on! Let’s talk about this!” It’s been a huge privilege to be working on this game. Everyone loves the original movie – it’s in the Top 50 IMDB Best Movies of All Time – so seeing the movie and how nobody’s picked up on that and gone “how about a survival horror game?” is beyond me. But somebody did, and that was us and we’re lucky enough to be doing that, and I think it could be the game that people have been waiting for.

PCGN: How did this studio form? Obviously Creative Assembly are fairly well known for strategy games.

GN:Well the strategy game studio is actually upstairs. We’re the specific console team: I actually came to this studio to make this game and during the interview I was able to sign an NDA and just play a small slice of what they had and I was just like “I’m ready to start! Take me and I’ll do this job!” And now we’ve got people from all over the industry, from EA and Crytek and Ubisoft and even Rockstar. We’ve even got some guys from the film industry.

JB: Yeah, as Gary said, this team has been built for this project, there’s a lot of experience, a lot of talent out there and among the team it’s like “this is the game I want to make, this is the best game of my career, it’s the best option and I want to be on this project as soon as possible.” But on top of the development experience that we’ve got out there, we’ve hired people from TV and movies to bring in extra knowledge and skill-sets that we don’t have as game developers. Things like the lighting and all those effects. The team has been built for the project and we’ve thrown our net wider than all of the best studios in the world, we’ve looked elsewhere as well.

Alien: Isolation

PCGN: And clearly Sega’s relationship with Fox is still very strong, you’re drawing on a lot of their resources and materials.

GN: Fox have been incredibly supportive. I think they can see what we see in the game – we show them the game, we tell them what we’re doing, but one of our biggest early worries was the Amanda Ripley thing. We looked at setting the game fifteen years after the first film and one of the first things we thought was “well, who would be looking for the crew?” and we said it would be Amanda Ripley. And we went to them with that very cautiously…

JB: We said Amanda Ripley, and we just didn’t think we’d get away with it. We wanted to tie ourselves as closely to the first movie as possible, we didn’t want to go off-piste and invent this new, never before heard of planet or whatever. As Gary said we identified that there was this character whose story wasn’t really told and we were like “Jesus, let’s try this – let’s chance our arm here”. It so happened that Fox were very into the idea, it was amazing!

GN: It suits exactly what the game needs as well.

JB: Yeah, talking about Fox’s relationship with us as well – our relationship with them has been good from day one and for the last three years. There’s no worries there, they’ve been very supportive.

PCGN: How does it work in a practical sense – is there a committee of people who are saying “you can do this/you can’t do this?” How many things have they said no to?

JB: It’s been really good hasn’t it?

GN: Yeah! We have a very good working relationship with them. It’s like any other third party publisher or license holder you speak with: you have regular email conversations or conference calls. You do converse with them a lot on a lot of issues, and it’s never really a case of them outright saying “no”. They’re more likely to say “instead of that, how about this?” We’re very, very good at working together.

JB: At the end of the day, we both want the same thing. We both want a great game within the IP and they are quite rightly, naturally supportive of that in every regard.

PCGN: But they won’t let you put funny hats on the aliens?

JB: Hah! We’ll have to talk to Fox about that! No, they’re more protective about some things than others, but then rightly so – we don’t want to sully the IP and nor would they want us to sully the IP and we care deeply about what we’re doing; we’re all big fans of the original film and we don’t want to break that – we’re just incredibly privileged to be custodians of that IP!

PCGN: Thanks for your time.