[Before I begin, I’d like to bestow hearty congratulations to Davey Wreden, whose magnificent Stanley Parable has sold one million copies.]
I do not know if I will finish Alien: Isolation, but I’m not sure that I need to. I’m probably 7-8 hours into it by this point, and a rather large percentage of that time has been spent hiding in lockers and under desks, and, I mean, I get it.
For all its flaws (and it has a bunch, of which I’ll get to in a second), A:I has triumphantly succeeded in a very specific and important way; instead of aping the frenetic shoot-em-up action of the sequel (which would really just make it your standard sci-fi shooter), it understands what makes the first movie so great, which is to say that it’s captured the feeling of helplessness and pure dread better than anything else I’ve played in recent memory.
You have to hide in this game, because you cannot fight. This is not to say that you’re powerless – you do have weapons, and you can certainly use them to kill, if you must. But firing a gun will almost always draw the attention of the Alien, and once the Alien spots you, it’s more or less “game over, man.”
And if you’re playing this game with a good set of stereo headphones, every single goddamned noise you hear will set you on edge, ducking for cover, holding your breath and quickly opening your motion tracker to figure out where the sound is coming from. I’m not sure I’ve experienced ambient noise design this effectively creepy since the first Bioshock.
Unlike other “horror” games, it does not revel in grotesque imagery – indeed, while the game’s environments are graphically impressive, its humans are surprisingly weird-looking, and while there are plenty of dead bodies strewn about, they’re never disgusting or gross – if anything, they’re kinda just sad. Nor is A:I’s horror mostly based in jump scares; I’m almost never startled. I mean, I’m in a constant state of worry anyway, because of the sounds in the vents, or because my motion tracker will occasionally beep with alarm, or I’ll see the glowing, super-creepy eyes of the Working Joes off in the distance. And if I am surprised, I am also then immediately flooded with more worry and anxiety, because the monster is right there, and if I can’t hide in time then not only will I die, violently, but I’ll also lose the last 20-30 minutes since my last save, and ugh.
Now, about those flaws I mentioned.
The save system has been frequently mentioned in reviews as a negative design flaw; there’s no checkpoint system, and because the Alien (almost) never appears in the same place twice, you can either lose 20 seconds or 20 minutes if you’re not careful. I’ve been a victim of this problem, but I can’t really call it a design flaw; it seems like a deliberate choice, and it’s one of the few ways that a horror game can actually make you feel that there are stakes involved. That said, it’s a system that can also be abused; if you find a save point, you can also just forge ahead loudly and un-stealthily and see what there is to see, knowing that if you die, you won’t have lost very much, and that you’ll know how to better achieve your objective when you try for real.
The objectives, though? Those things that you have to do in order to progress? Ugh. So dumb. So inelegant. So basic, artless, arbitrary, forgettable, cliches that were tired a dozen years ago. The reason why I don’t care if I see the end of this game is because I barely care about what I’m already doing. I need to find medical supplies to aid my colleague; but they’re on another level of the ship, because of course they are. I get to that level; I find a doctor. The doctor agrees to help, but only if I help him first, and I’ve already forgotten what it is I need to do for him, and in any event I have to do everything myself because of reasons. Meanwhile, the Alien is near, and while there are lots of people on the ship, the Alien seems mostly interested in chasing me.
Whatever – I find the medical supplies and return to my fallen comrade. And the head of the ship’s security system is there, too! How fortuitous! Except he’s also sending me out on security missions, which is not my job.
It’s great that the player character, Ripley fille, is a tough, no-nonsense woman who holds her own as well as anyone else in the game. She is nobody’s princess; nobody needs to rescue her. It’s just a shame that the stuff she’s being asked to do is so mundane.