For years now, I’ve been frustrated by games’ fixation on an anointed hero saving the world through mass slaughter; I’ve been talking about that most frequently recently in the context of Dragon Age: Inquisition, but of course anointed murderers are all over the place, the only reason why I bring the issue up in the context of that game is because of the possibilities it and its series show of the good that can come from being is specific, personal, grounded, moments that I love.
And while Alien: Isolation is specific, personal, and grounded in a very different way from the best parts of the Dragon Age series, it very much shows those virtues in its own ways, and the virtues that come from stepping away from the standard anointed murderer tropes. No other game has drawn me in this much over the last year, and Alien: Isolation has accomplished that despite being a stealth horror game, combining a genre that I actively dislike with one that I respect but don’t enjoy.
To begin with, putting Alien: Isolation up against the “anointed hero saving the world” concept: while your character is hypercompetent in a video game way (or a “modern action media in general” way, really), and while she is framed that way right from the beginning as the daughter of a famous movie protagonist, the scope of her hypercompetence is ultimately managing to survive in a very hostile environment, doing so by staying out of the focus of others who are more powerful than her. (Though she manages to accomplish some few tasks beyond bare survival necessities while doing that, to be sure.) There’s not even a world for her to save, just a space station; and while, all things being equal, she would like to save that station, she’s more focused on her survival, and gets plenty angry when one of the other characters prioritizes the survival of the station as a whole (or, on a more selfish vein, his survival) over hers. In the one place in the game where she has a choice to eliminate the threat at the expense of her own life, she actively scrambles to prevent that from happening; it is admittedly not only her own life that she would be sacrificing, so I don’t want to present this as purely a choice of saving her own skin at the expense of the greater good, but it is also not a choice that I can read as heroism.
And, as for mass slaughter: I didn’t keep count, but my guess is that if you wanted to go all-out with killing, you could maybe kill 50 beings? That would certainly be enough to qualify you as a famous serial killer in normal circumstances, but most video game protagonists reach that body count by breakfast; furthermore, most of those potential victims are robots of dubious sentience, who are probably better seen as tools of a malevolent, possibly sentient computer whom you can’t kill. I don’t particularly like the lack of gravity with which the game treats killing other humans or the way in which those other humans generally insist on seeing you as an enemy who must be killed, but even so, the low body count is remarkable; and not only can you make it through the game without killing another human, it’s not even an expert-level playstyle, I managed it myself without particular trouble. (Admittedly, I was playing at the very easiest difficulty level, but I imagine the harder levels would have made the killing paths more difficult as well as the stealth paths.)
So it’s a game at an individual scope rather than a world-dominating scope, in terms of how it presents you, how it presents your mission, how it presents your fellow beings; that in turn translates into how you approach your environments, as human-scale locations that you play close attention to instead of the more traditional world-scale environments that are mere backdrops to casual slaughter in support of a hamster wheel of leveling up. Alien: Isolation‘s world is a station, with hallways and rooms where people have spent time, where you spend time and return to, despite the linear motion that the game forces you through.
The environments in games that I remember most strongly are those that I return to often at leisure: Dragon Age Inquisition‘s Skyhold or Mass Effect‘s Citadel, or all of Kirkwall in Dragon Age II. Or, indeed, places I’ve built or walked through over and over in Minecraft. Whereas the most forgettable environments are ones that I go through only once, that are solely instrumental in nature, and that have me focused on enemies instead of my surroundings.
And I won’t say that I connected to the environments in Alien: Isolation the same way I connected to the Citadel or to Kirkwall: from the very beginning, the environments feel anything but leisurely, and while you frequently end up going to an environment twice, that’s the limit, and it’s not a return under your control, it’s a plot-driven propulsion. And yes, you are focused on enemies: in particular, no matter what else is going on, there’s always the fear that the alien is going to drop own from a vent and kill you.
But those enemy interactions don’t get in the way of your connecting with the environment. That’s a big advantage of stealth games: the environment is a key ingredient in your interactions with enemies. Admittedly, those interactions have you appreciating the environment on an instrumental level rather than a narrative level, but still, it’s something, and it’s a richer interaction than, say, the questions of which parts of the environment form cover in a shooter. Also, part of the stealth learning curve is replaying areas after you die in order to learn the mechanics; again, not as rich an interaction as you’d get from revisiting areas on your own term, but it has an effect.
And Alien: Isolation isn’t just a stealth game, it’s a horror game: and, in a horror game, absence is key. So you spend large amounts of time without any enemy interactions at all, just making your way through the environments and trying to understand them. I loved the restraint that the game showed by not showing any enemies at all until at least two hours into the game; later pauses in enemy interactions aren’t nearly as long, but they’re still substantial. Again, this isn’t an unalloyed benefit in terms of environmental interactions: even when enemies aren’t there, or when you haven’t even met your first enemy, half your attention is trying to pick up signs that enemies might be lurking behind a wall. Still, it’s a huge difference in environmental interactions compared to more action-oriented games.
All that added up to environmental interactions that worked as well for me as in any game I’ve played that’s focused on enemy interactions. I’ve been getting pretty tired of System Shock style audio logs, but even those worked for me in this game. Heck, I’ll put the environmental interactions up against some purely narrative games: I liked Gone Home a lot and I liked it more as story than Alien: Isolation, but wandering the space station of Alien: Isolation connected with me more than wandering the house of Gone Home. (Not that it’s particularly fair to compare the two, given the size of the respective teams!)
The bigger surprise for me, though, was that: by the end of the game, I kind of enjoyed the stealth aspects. Which definitely wasn’t true for me in the first third of the game: the first stealth sequence in particular drove me up the wall, and I’m glad that I looked up a walkthrough when I did. (And I kept a walkthrough accessible throughout the game, and it’s one of the few games I’ve played where that was an actively good choice: it blunted my frustration without taking away from my involvement with the game.) Part of that was definitely me not reading what the game was asking: if I’d played that section later, I would have immediately realized where I needed to go and I wouldn’t have waited too long before just sprinting through the door, accepting that I would be getting winged in the process. But, having said that, I don’t think I behaved too unreasonably in assuming that the environmental mist that you could turn on would help me, and in unsuccessfully trying to use that to get me past people; whereas it turns out that you can just wait in an extremely shallow wall niche when the enemies show up, then they’ll walk right past you without even turning their head to the right, leaving a clear path to the door.
So I don’t think that was a very well-designed encounter; and while I didn’t mind the first long interaction with the Alien in the medical ward too much, I felt that the game was telling me that I should spend my time looking at the tracker and hiding in closets, which isn’t a very rich experience. Eventually, though, I got beyond the tracker, beyond looking for patterns (which the Alien didn’t follow anyways!), and beyond hiding: I found that I enjoyed stealth situations more and more when I could see the Alien, when I was even in the same room as the Alien, as long as it wasn’t looking at me.
Because that ended up flipping the whole power dynamic: once the Alien is out of sight, it’s potentially anywhere, and any misstep is potentially fatal. But if it’s right there, then I can crouch behind tables, I can creep around, and I can react to its actions without it being able to react to me. Maybe it’s an artifact of playing on easy that I was able to do that successfully, I’m not really sure (and I assume there’s a much richer game out there if you actually use the tools that you’re cobbling together to distract the Alien), but whatever the reason, it’s the first time stealth games have given me that feeling of power.
Or, indeed, arguably the first time any game has affected me that way. I gather it’s actually a potential strength of the stealth genre, that it’s about using the environment to your advantage to get your enemies to do what you want without being aware of you. But, in the past, with the (significant but idiosyncratic) exception of Mark of the Ninja, stealth games have never worked out that way for me: I’ve spent too much time being bored watching enemies to learn their patterns and then waiting for the right time in their pattern (and then getting it wrong anyways and having to do it over), and my inventory loss aversion means that I don’t want to use my items because maybe I’ll need them later, so I don’t even learn how to use them well, leading into a negative cycle. Playing Alien: Isolation on easy made the item issue more or less irrelevant (especially given the inventory caps, because hitting those relieves my loss aversion), and the lack of patterns and the way interactions are structured nicely dealt with the former. I won’t say that the game has turned me into a stealth fan, but it’s nice to be able to appreciate the genre.
I’m very glad I played Alien: Isolation; there is a lot in here that I would like to see in other games.
This post has not been revised since publication.