This article contains spoilers for Alien: Isolation.
Four years ago, a group of hardcore Alien fans—who also happened to be game developers—were given the opportunity of a lifetime: to make a game set in that distinctive sci-fi universe, and with the full blessing of franchise owners 20th Century Fox.
The result is Alien: Isolation, a brilliantly tense and atmospheric horror game, and the first spin-off that’s ever done HR Giger’s creature justice. While most Alien games look to James Cameron’s action-packed sequel for inspiration, The Creative Assembly used Ridley Scott’s original slow-burning 1979 horror classic as its template.
“Alien is unmistakably Fox’s property, but from the moment we pitched the original concept to them, they’ve been completely behind us,” says Alistair Hope, creative lead. “I think because we were trying to stay true in spirit to the original, they felt like it was in safe hands. It’s been a collaboration, but I don’t think we’ve ever come across anything where anyone’s said, ‘no, you can’t do that.’”
While most developers of licensed games are pressured to finish their work in time for a film’s release, The Creative Assembly worked under no such limitation. There hasn’t been an Alien film since 1997’s awful Resurrection (not counting the AvP series or Prometheus), and none are, as far as we know, in the works. “We had the best of both worlds. Something that was super familiar and established and brilliant, but we got to play in that space. There were very few constraints on us.”
To help them, Fox supplied an enormous archive of original production material—a whopping three terabytes of it. “It was like that moment in Pulp Fiction where they open the suitcase,” says Hope. “We were stunned that all this stuff existed. For them to be able to drop that amount of material on us was great. It gave us a really good insight into how that first film was made.”
The archive contained design blueprints, continuity polaroids, costume photography, concept art, and thousands of photos of the sets, all in high resolution. It wasn’t until they delved into this treasure trove that the developers realised they didn’t know Scott’s film as well as they thought they did.
“As fans we would have said, yeah, we know what the costumes look like, but it wasn’t until we got the archive that we could really look at the details in John Mollo’s costume design. We deconstructed them and tried to put that level of detail, care and attention into our costumes.”
Studying the material in depth was essential, he says. “You can think you know it inside out, but it’s not until you actually investigate closely that you get a full understanding of it.”
Developing the game also gave the team the chance to meet a key figure in the making of the film: editor Terry Rawlings. “That was amazing. The man’s a genius. He edited Blade Runner as well, so he can do no wrong. He was able to give us additional insight. He talked about the director’s cut and the famous deleted scene where Brett and Dallas are being turned into eggs. He said that once the alien was hunting the crew, to go to that shot actually just slowed everything down.”
Pacing is something Isolation excels at, mirroring the glacial tempo of the film, but never outstaying its welcome. “We felt like there was a good variety in the game. We wanted to keep changing things up, so that just as you were getting a bit more confident, we’d throw something new at you.”
Some critics found the game too slow and overlong. I ask Hope why he thinks there was such a split in opinion. “We tried to put as much into the player’s hands as possible. Pace can often be determined by your own play style and how confident you’re feeling.”
You can’t talk about the making of Alien: Isolation without mentioning that art design, which is one of the defining features of the game. Rather than go for a shiny, optimistic vision of the future, the artists created a lo-fi and realistic sci-fi world, directly informed by the production design of the film.
Look closely at the character model for Amanda and you’ll see a key around her neck. It looks like it’s from a fi ling cabinet or a lockbox, but this is the future, so it could be anything. It’s never addressed in the game, or in any of the DLC. I ask Hope to shed some light on it and he’s reluctant to answer. “I don’t think we need to explain everything,” he says after a long pause.
“This was absolutely core,” says Hope. “From day one, that was what we were going to do. We’ve always been massive fans of the first film, and this all came about because it felt like no one had ever created that experience in a game. It looks awesome. It’s really beautifully realised and considered. It’s very believable, and that’s one of the great things about that film. It’s very credible, even today.”
Hope describes Isolation’s future as mundane and grounded in reality, and says that this actually supports the horror. “It’s not technology that’s going to help you survive. When you watch Alien, there’s no sense that there’s a locker somewhere with a big gun that’s going to be the answer to the crew’s problems. Despite all this technology—which is downplayed in the film—it’s about using your instincts to survive.”
Survival is what sets Isolation apart from other Alien games, but there was a greater focus on weapons early in its development. Weapon crafting was planned, but ultimately discarded. “We thought about what people would want to do in order to survive. We explored different ideas, and one of them was fashioning weapons to defend yourself. That was quite early on, but then we realised that this game isn’t really about pulling the trigger.”
Even though it was cut, Hope says this was an important experiment. Trying things like this made them realise that the core survival concept was powerful enough to stand on its own. As well as crafting, they also experimented with viewpoint. “At one point we were exploring a thirdperson camera. It was interesting, but it was a different experience. We preferred the immediacy and intimacy of first-person. In thirdperson it became a game about jockeying the camera and looking after your avatar. But in first-person it’s you that’s being hunted. If you’re hiding behind an object and you want to get a better view of your surroundings, you have to move.”
To imagine what it would be like to have the alien hunting you, The Creative Assembly used the surroundings of their Horsham studio as a starting point. “At the very beginning, we thought about what it would be like to encounter and survive against that original alien. If we released one in the studio, what would we do? That was a really interesting exercise.”
There were no heroes. “No one said they were going to find a gun and shoot the thing dead, because that wasn’t part of the universe we were playing in. It wasn’t about using strength, but real-world instincts and experiences to help you survive. Some people said they would throw something to distract it, and we wanted to bring that instinctive desire to manipulate the world and change the odds into the game.”
We thought about what it would be like to encounter and survive against that original alien. If we released one in the studio, what would we do?
One thing that was notably missing from Isolation was the alien’s famous acid blood, which in the films can melt through metal like it’s polystyrene. “We had some cool ideas around it,” says Hope. “But it felt like we were starting to make an alien simulator, rather than something that would be a fun experience. Having holes appearing in the world starting steering the game in a weird direction, and so it seemed like it would be a better idea not to make a feature of it.”
But this creative licence aside, the game sticks remarkably close to the film—sometimes to the point that some story moments, to me, felt too obviously signposted. But even this, it seems, was intentional. “We wanted to tell a story that was really closely associated with that first film,” Hope tells me. “Amanda being Ellen Ripley’s daughter… the Nostromo’s flight recorder… and positioning the story to take place fifteen years later.”
One chapter, titled ‘Beacon’, sees you switching roles to play as Marlow, a scavenger who ends up on LV-426, tracking the same ‘distress call’ the Nostromo did. This gives you a chance to see the derelict up close, and is a real treat for Alien fans. “We thought that if you’re going to put an alien on a remote space station, you need to explain how it got there. Having Marlow and his crew visit the planet and rediscover the derelict did that, and just seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.”
Then, later, the game throws its biggest surprise at you: two aliens. I ask Hope why they decided to do this, after marketing the game so heavily as starring a single creature. “We wanted to turn the tables on you a little bit. If you’re starting to feel a bit more confident around the alien at that point, we make things doubly worse. I did wonder what the response was going to be.”
They always intended to introduce another alien, and built the AI around having two of them working in unison. “They’re gonna kill me for saying this, but it was as easy as just placing another alien in the level. But only because they did such a good job with this creature that it can look after itself.”
The reveal that there are multiple aliens on Sevastopol made me wonder if all the encounters preceding it were with different creatures, rather than—as you’re led to believe—just one. I ask Hope, but he seems reticent to answer. “I’m happy for players to interpret that for themselves. No one on Sevastopol knows all the answers. Amanda doesn’t, and neither does the player.”
And neither do the developers, at times. “The thing I really didn’t expect was the fact that, as a team, we’d all still be getting caught out by the alien. Even towards the end of development we’d still die and jump and yell and be surprised by it. Even now I can play it and my heart will be thumping away.”
As if delving into that amazing archive wasn’t enough, Alien: Isolation also gave The Creative Assembly the chance to work with, and even write new dialogue for, the original film cast. This started with their reconstruction of the Nostromo. “When you start a project like this you have all kinds of crazy ideas,” Hope tells me. “Because the first stage of development was deconstruction of the film, our creative team was tearing the Nostromo apart to find out what makes it feel like the Nostromo. This was so we could build new environments that were true to that style.
It was really exciting that they said yes. Sigourney Weaver would be playing Ellen Ripley for the first time in a videogame.
“We ended up thinking, man, I’d love to walk around the Nostromo. Then you wonder what it would be like to face the original alien in there. Then you wonder if you can get the original cast together to reprise their roles and play out some of those scenarios again.”
Which, incredibly, they did. “We told them the game was about survival, not killing. They saw the care and attention we put into the atmosphere. It was really exciting that they said yes. Sigourney Weaver would be playing Ellen Ripley for the first time in a videogame. That was something really special.”
Hope says the actors had ideas about the script and their characters—especially Weaver. Ripley has been a crucial part of her career, and she doesn’t treat the character lightly. “We really got a sense of that. She did a lot of work reprising her role.”
Playing the game, I couldn’t help but think about the scene in the director’s cut of Aliens where Weyland-Yutani stooge Carter Burke tells Ellen that Amanda died of cancer at age 66. I ask Hope if this was ever in their mind as they made the game. “If there’s one thing we know about Burke, it’s that he’s an extremely untrustworthy character. The one thing he needs to do is get Ripley to go back to LV-426, and there’s a chance he’s going to tell her whatever he thinks he needs to say.”
Isolation is an incredibly brave game. It goes against everything that defines a mainstream, big budget release, relying on steady pacing and systems rather than instant gratification and broad appeal. “It did feel like a risk,” says Hope. “But when we first pitched it the response was really positive. It seemed to be in line with what we wanted from an Alien game. Something different. Four years later, having finally released the game, it’s great to see there’s a large audience out there that’s open to something like this. Who knows what we’ll do next?”