As a Veteran Dead Space player, I actively pursue games that will instil fear in me; I remember when I first got a copy of Dead Space, it was a gift and I was completely unaware of the content. When I finally got around to playing it, I did not expect to be jumping regularly, backing my character into a corner, being too afraid to move and progress with the game or just avoiding playing the game altogether. Numerous play-throughs and sequels have dissolved the fear completely – even the jumps have fizzled out as I’ve become familiar with the game and the location of necromorphs. Suffice to say, despite the fear wearing off, no game so far has measured up to Dead Space.
Until Alien Isolation.
As a passionate fan of the Alien Franchise, I and I imagine many others have felt severely underwhelmed by the games involving Xenomorphs that have come out on consoles. Alien Vs Predator was good but not great and Alien: Colonial Marines was a combination of poor plotline, outdated and shoddy graphics for any modern game, endless glitches, new and pointless species of Xenomorph… the list goes on. It was a bad game. So when the adverts started appearing for Alien: Isolation I was excited.
I’m sure some of you may be wondering as to why I’m discussing this particular game on VargaMor – well as we are celebrating the dark arts, the theme of horror falls firmly into this category and importantly – the character you play as is female. Women are not represented well, if at all, in games. Even with the rise of RPGs allowing for both male and female characters, women are continually sexualised and objectified with skimpy outfits clearly pandering to the predominantly (or so they would think) male audience. We don’t have to look very far to see examples of this – iconic female heroine Lara Craft, despite being badass and able to take on a range of enemies from people to dinosaurs, is still running around in vastly impractical short shorts and a crop top with a bosom that seems to grow as games and graphics improve. Dragon Age’s Morrigan is impeccably dressed and showing a surprising amount of side boob for such vigorous spellcasting, old school fighting games like Dead or Alive weren’t really about the fights but rather about focusing time and energy on making the female characters boobs bounce around as much as possible, even my favourite game of all time, Skyrim, still involves an equivalent of a chainmail bikini. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all female characters in games should be covered up, that’s silly, what I’m saying here is that it says a lot that I sincerely can’t think of female characters in games that aren’t unnecessarily sexual among other things. Suffice to say, I don’t feel represented and I know I’m not alone in this; female gamers have a hard enough time being taken seriously as it is.
SO! This is why our protagonist Amanda Ripley is important. The game continues on the female empowerment created in the original Alien by protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the form of her daughter, Amanda. The character Ellen Ripley was pivotal for challenging gender roles in film – particularly in the worlds of Sci-fi and horror which had been and still are predominantly male. As Alien is still arguably one of the best horror films ever made and was hailed as groundbreaking in sci-fi, having a female protagonist was incredibly important. Set fifteen years after the events of Alien, Amanda goes in search of her missing mother after hearing that the flight recorder from the Nostromo has been found and is being held on Sevastapol space station. On arriving, Ripley and her team run into complications while spacewalking and become separated and Ripley is forced to enter the station alone. But things have gone wrong on board Sevastapol; synthetics have become violent towards humans, fellow human beings are potentially hostile due to the short supply of resources that could mean life or death and their desire to escape the station and there are rumours of…something else on board the station. A monster.
Alien: isolation is a first person survival horror which makes it much more visceral and tangible than a third person; seeing through the eyes of the character is so powerful and makes it much more terrifying and easier to imagine that you are the one on that space station. A large part of the fear element in the game is the sense of powerlessness; Amanda is vastly – but SO realistically – underpowered. When the Alien first makes an appearance properly, your only weapon of magnitude is a wrench (and possibly a revolver, I can’t recall but I’ll come back to weapons) it was like watching Alien for the first time all over again; you hold your breath and freeze alongside Amanda and you’re unwilling to make any sudden movements just in case. Seeing it climb out of ceiling vent is sincerely one of the most terrifying things I’ve witnessed in a game.
The fear doesn’t stop there either – I am accustomed to shooters, the closest I come to sneaking in games is sneaking about with a bow and arrow in Skyrim – but despite the various weapons you find throughout the game which almost lead you into thinking that maybe, just maybe, having a few weapons will make a difference, most conventionally powerful weapons are a hindrance. When you do encounter hostile humans or androids and sneaking past them isn’t an option, disposing of them quietly is tough and using firearms will attract the alien. So much of this game forces you to resort back to using your instincts and a good portion of time will be spent peering out of the grills on lockers or cupboards or hiding under tables and listening intently for the alien – is it in the vents? Is it outside? OH GOD WHERE IS IT?!?! The Alien’s heavy, ominous footsteps, hearing it tumble noisily out of the vents and it’s irritated shrieks combined with your vague motion tracker will be your only means of surviving well and it is a truly petrifying way to game.
The AI is incredibly clever and evolves to your style of gaming and this is where the real terror comes in – places that you convince yourself are safe, aren’t. If you hide in cupboards a lot, it starts checking them and there are some truly horrifying moments when it starts to look in the cupboard you’re hiding in and you’re forced to make Amanda lean back and hold her breath – and realise you’re holding your breath and leaning back with her. No game has made me physically recoil from the screen or act as if it is real life and that in itself should be a good indicator of how good this game is. If you hide under tables, it bends down and looks and the vents…oh the vents. The game warns you to not think the vents are safe but for 80% of the game they are and I’d lulled myself into a false sense of security that they’d stay that way… when the alien first got me when I was in a vent, I physically clapped a hand over my mouth in horror (I will add – I do not scare easily). As the alien’s movements are completely unscripted and can vary immensely between playthroughs and deaths, you always have to be alert and conscious of the Alien’s location and you are never allowed to feel comfortable whilst playing – the fact that this remains consistent throughout is incredible. Many games start to lose the element of fear as the game progresses and Isolation most certainly does not. The death scenes are disturbingly good and Isolation is the only game I have encountered so far that ensures that literally no-where is safe – even the save points which are slow and noisy WARN YOU when a hostile is nearby because the alien can and will kill you whilst you’re using it. The same can be said for the various minigames you have to undergo to unlock doors and progress in the storyline which involve lengthy volumes to of time using tools which leaves you vulnerable to being attacked from behind…
So much of the game closely resembles the original Alien film; it’s a slow burner and builds up to the Alien’s initial appearance and after watching the film and watching each crew member wander off alone to be picked off one by one and then being in the position of Amanda and being forced to wander off alone into the darkness in order to survive – the trepidation is exhilarating, just as good as the original fear in Alien. You encounter several both blatant and subtle references to the original franchise which were quite wonderful, details of which I won’t disclose but I will say you encounter a body that has been smothered with a rolled up magazine. Sevastapol itself closely resembles the Nostromo (it looks deliciously crisp and stunning in HD) and there is a wonderful moment when you finally get a full window view of space – which is probably one of the best and most beautiful representations of space I’ve seen in a game – and you get the chilling trumpet notes from the original Alien soundtrack which had the inner fangirl in me shrieking. The game in itself instils the original Isolation (heh) of the film and it is just glorious.
Amanda is a brilliant heroine but made a million times better by her humanity; she doesn’t become an ultimate badass just because she has a few weapons and faces a few androids. She remains an engineer just trying to survive using the limited tools available to her; she gasps when the alien shows up, her responses are honest and real. There’s no Hollywood nonsense, she is a normal young woman trying to survive in dire conditions. She is sensible, quick-witted, determined, tough and has more than lived up to the lasting legacy left by her mother; Amanda as a character has more than surpassed my expectations for what Ellen Ripley’s daughter should be like. Even her body shape is important – unlike Lara Croft, she is sensibly dressed and not unrealistically proportioned; she is curvy and this is important because it represents a body type outside of purely ‘thin’. I came to love Amanda surprisingly quickly; I thoroughly enjoyed going on this horrific journey alongside her and felt so strong and satisfied that at last, at last, here was a female character I could identify with and admire.
It has been quite a long time since I have felt truly and thoroughly addicted to a game and the terror was a big part of what kept this game addictive; the plotline is impeccable and full of unexpected twists and turns and as mentioned, it’s a delight to have a strong female character in a game and I look forward to a playthrough in the future. When I have worked up the courage.
10/10. Must play. Pants-shittingly good.