Challenges and comparisons: The monsters that hunt Alien Isolation

Xav de Matos
X. Matos|03.20.14

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Challenges and comparisons: The monsters that hunt Alien Isolation
The Creative Assembly has been forced to make a number of changes in order to realize the vision for Alien: Isolation. After successful pitches to both Sega and 20th Century Fox, the developer turned to recruitment, ensuring it added new members to its team that were capable of crafting the exact game it pitched, what Creative Lead Al Hope calls: "The Alien game that we always wanted to play." A game completely different from that other Alien game, which his team at The Creative Assembly had no involvement with making, yet keeps coming up, just the same

Its pitch demo for Isolation was built in four weeks and featured two identical medical bays: one with its environment and objects in pristine condition and the other obliterated by an unknown menace. The juxtaposition led to immediate questions: "What happened? What did this?" Soon, an answer invaded the screen as a large xenomorph falls into frame, ending the demo. Sega was immediately interested, Hope says, as was Fox. Adding new talent to execute on the project was necessary. For the better part of a decade, The Creative Assembly has focused its attention on the RTS genre. Once its pitch was green lit, Creative Assembly brought in talent that contributed to a host massive franchises, including Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed. Its team assembled and its concept approved, the developer began its work over three and a half years ago on Alien: Isolation – a survival horror game based on a beloved movie from the late 1970s.

"This is exactly the game we want to make," Hope says.Though Aliens: Colonial Marines was explicitly introduced as official canon to the franchise's established story, Isolation makes no claim.

"We think about it more as a game that's inspired by the first film. Ultimately fans decide what is canon," Hope says.

Hope reiterates something the developer has already publicly mused about, namely his delighted surprise that 20th Century Fox allowed his team to use Ellen Ripley's daughter as its protagonist in Isolation. Hope is quick to point out he doesn't believe Alien: Isolation contradicts established story in the universe, something Aliens: Colonial Marines did by reviving long dead characters from James Cameron's film.

"I don't think we are [rewriting Amanda Ripley's history]. In Aliens, the Director's Cut, the information you receive [about Amanda's life and death] is from Burke, who proves not to be a particularly trustworthy character, anyway. He needs [Ellen] to return. In a way he needs her to not think she has anything to live for, or any reason to not go back with them."

"Also, because we're taking place 15 years after the first film, even if what he says is true, Amanda still has a life. So, we don't think we're rewriting anything." In the game's narrative, Amanda – who works as an engineer for the diabolical Weyland-Yutani corporation – sets off to find answers about her mother's disappearance.

Whether it be playing within historical fact in its RTS titles or with the licensed story of the Alien universe, The Creative Assembly must fit its games and narrative within universes that have limitations. Amanda Ripley cannot eradicate the xenomorph threat, for example; the alien race continues to plague humanity far into her future. The developers' stories must adhere to the restrictions of its selected universes, but Hope finds solace in the constraints.

"I quite like constraints. You can get really creative when you're actually given constraints. Just personally, starting with a blank sheet can be pretty terrifying. Having some constraints can, in some ways, be reassuring because you have something to work against," he explains.

Alien: Isolation comes with other challenges. At full-retail price, The Creative Assembly enters a growing space occupied by independently developed games, typically priced in the sub-$20 range. Hope feels there is sustainability for Isolation itself to survive as a $60 experience: "I think it comes down to the large amount of variety in the world, variety of gameplay and it's got a large amount of replay value. Every playthrough is slightly different. I think there's actually a high value proposition and it's quite unique as well."

The variety in Alien: Isolation seemed directly linked to the artificial intelligence of the game's xenomorph antagonist. Scenarios themselves are part of a narrative, and therefore scripted, but the alien's actions are programed to react dynamically to the given situation and surroundings. The alien is sense and perception driven, reactive to the player's actions; it is attracted to sounds and movement and will ambush players if it knows it has an advantage to ensure its own survival, Design Lead Clive Lindop says.

"There is no problem-solving script. Survival is based on granular choices you make moment-to-moment," he adds. The Creative Assembly wanted to ensure an experience without patterns, which Lindop says makes horror titles less scary and therefore destroys its replay value.

Though initial reaction is The Creative Assembly is building a game that fans of the franchise will respond favorably to, the studio is in the middle of a murky situation between fans and its publisher. There's trust to be mended between Sega and fans of the Alien franchise after the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was critically panned throughout the industry. Hope looks at the reaction to the Gearbox-lead game as a stepping off point to what fans really want.

"When we saw how people responded to Colonial Marines we verified that there was a very vociferous, intelligent fan base out there that really loves this franchise. But it seemed like a lot of the comments were saying 'Can we have a game where there's one alien, and it's dangerous?'" Fans want something more what they've already seen, games different from the concepts featured in Aliens, which Hope describes as "Jim Cameron's Vietnam in Space," a film he says he also adores.

"What they seem to want is a survival horror game. Well, it's coming."
[Images: Sega]
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