by Julian Spencer
I don’t think there’s any genre that’s as hard to pull off as horror. The percentage of horror films, games, and books which are critically acclaimed (or, for that matter, even well reviewed) is uncharacteristically low. It’s not that these works have an issue with actually scaring the viewer; even the most experienced filmgoers can’t help but feel an adrenaline rush when a monster suddenly appears with an obnoxiously loud sound. Rather, it’s the fact that not all types of fear are enjoyable. When the shock of a jumpscare dies away, we’re left feeling like the subjects of a middle school “gotcha” prank, more frustrated than interested.
The distinction is in creating a horror which is enjoyable — one which inspires dread, doubt, and uneasiness — rather than immediate fear. This is exactly what the Alien franchise does so well. Recently, I dedicated a weekend to the original 1979 film and the tangentially based 2015 game Alien: Isolation. On a surface level, the two mediums are remarkably similar; as I explored the Nostromo, I was continuously stunned by the accuracy with which everything from the doors to the weapons to, of course, the alien, were recreated. On a surface level, they are practically indistinguishable. Though it was wonderful to relive these aspects of the movie, what brings me here today is how well the unique sentiment of the original picture is captured in the game.
In order to get a better understanding of how the franchise is able to transition so seamlessly between formats, let’s focus first on the film. Though the movie (and, occasionally, the game) don’t shy away entirely from jumpscares, they are much more interested in creating an environment of tension. This is, of course, not unique to Alien; most critically acclaimed horror movies follow a similar method, in which the ability of off screen space to hide potential horrors is critical to the intended effect. Typically, 6 areas of off screen space are cited: the four directions around the frame, the space behind the camera, and the space behind occluding objects in the frame. What keeps Alien relevant nearly 40 years later is the unique way in which its monster plays with this screen space. Despite incredibly minimal screentime, the alien is constantly present, slowly and deliberately moving in on the crew.
When the crew aboard a commercial spaceship receives a distress signal, they realize they are legally obligated to investigate. Here is our introduction to off screen space: somewhere, in a specific quadrant, there is something to be investigated. This scene could be described as tense, but it is difficult to justify as scary; we simply have not been given enough information. However, this is a crucial moment for the story, opening a larger atmosphere of off screen space which will be built upon for the rest of the film.
As we move closer to the distress signal, our fears become more realized. Kane, a member of the crew, stumbles across an enormous egg hatchery filled with unknown creatures. In a traditional horror sense, the eggs act as occluders, hiding from us a creature we simultaneously want to inspect and flee from. Yet, at the same time, Ripley Scott uses them to add to something much scarier. Though the camera lens is focused on the egg itself, we begin to build a different understanding of the larger world surrounding our frame. Eggs must mean that there are living creatures on this planet, ones which might choose to protect their young. Where before our threat was vague, both in location and form, it now takes a living form and a set location: the planet itself.
After an attack by a recently hatched creature, Kane is returned to the ship while a creature clings to his head. Shortly following, the crew departs the planet and the faceclinger disappears. Again, the distance between us and potential danger shrinks. When the crew discovers the creature’s shedded skin, a frantic search ensues. The vain attempt culminates as a trashcan clangs noisily to the ground, causing a cheap jumpscare as it falls into clear view of the camera. For the first time, Ripley Scott brings the threat’s off screen presence to the forefront: no longer can we take solace in having an entire planet of potential locations for these creatures. The space our unknown pursuer could occupy is now alarmingly small: the ship itself.
As crew members are picked off one by one, the sense of constant approach continues. In the final sequences of the film, we are left with Ellen Ripley’s final attempt to outsmart the alien as she primes the ship for self destruction and activates the escape pod. Here is our final level of off screen space: a single escape pod whose entire interior is visible with one camera shot. In this climax, off screen space has shrunk entirely, and the only choice is confrontation. Any monster can loom out of sight; it is this ability of the xenomorph to approach without ever being seen that makes the Nostromo so uniquely chilling.
With this new understanding of Alien’s atmosphere, let’s shift back to the video game. There are some immediate difficulties in this transition between mediums; the new level of freedom the viewer has means many common tropes no longer work. Rather than cringing as we watch a character make rash decisions, the player controls which rooms to enter and which corners to turn. There are no hidden spaces behind the camera nor close shots which constrain our view, but a first-person player who can look and move freely.
Instead, video games often derive their atmosphere from a quest of sneaking and hiding. There’s a similar element of adrenaline as you move from closet to closet, but the type of scare is vastly different from witnessing an otherwise intelligent character make an irrational decision. This is precisely why I was so taken aback by Alien: Isolation’s ability to recapture the xenomorph: in my mind, video games and movies are supposed to feel different. Yet, 40 years apart, both renditions of Ripley Scott’s xenomorph felt all too similar. Looking back on the hours I spent with both mediums, I realize it precisely the original film’s innovative use of a “seventh” outside space that allows for the alien’s flawless transition into the world of video games.
The game certainly earns its name; using the same techniques the film pioneered, the world outside slowly begins to shrink until you are left alone with the alien. The first scenes open with plenty of humans and androids, some of which may even decide to help you out. Objectives are often focused on retrieving items, completing tasks, and avoiding conflict with other survivors. Yet, as you march further and further into the darkness, the only human contact left becomes eerie audio messages and faded, hopeless graffiti. As fellow survivors dwindle, hope of rescue fades, and bright, open lobbies become dark, claustrophobic vents, the story quickly becomes a helpless cat and mouse chase. It is this unseen approach that makes the alien the same patient, inescapable predator it was in 1979.
As the alien’s presence grows stronger and stronger, so too did my sense to look, to dispel the darkness and learn something about what is going on. As you know, this never goes well for the crew in Alien; the game is certainly no different. That doesn’t mean the developers never provide you with materials to tempt you in dispelling the unknown; early in the storyline, you’re given a motion tracker and a flashlight which can drastically improve navigation. The catch? Using either of these tantalizing items immediately draws the alien’s attention. Like any horror movie, we are driven so strongly to look (just for one second!), but are terrified to actually press the button. I quickly learned: the best way to survive is to put my head down and plunge into the unknown.
It seems obvious, but there is an underlying assumption in this take on off-screen horror: to scare you, to make you want to look, the approaching monster must be… scary. On a physical level, the xenomorph certainly accomplishes this: a tail which functions to impale prey, a detachable jaw with humongous fangs, and some horrifying death scenes can’t hurt. However, physically recreating the alien is only a small element of the game’s terror; after all, so much of these two plots is based around not seeing the alien. In the movie, a large part of the beast’s effectiveness as an off-screen presence are the constant hints at its intelligence. We are constantly reminded that our pursuer can not only overpower and outrun us, but outsmart us as well.
In the cinematic world, this is simple enough to accomplish; the characters’ decisions are predetermined, and the director can simply film a tactical response from the alien. While the Alien grows to full strength, it hides from the crew. When Ripley activates the escape pod, it seems to recognize its only escape and stows away inside. When the crew begins a violent search, it confines itself to a maze of air vents. However, this causal relationship goes out the window in a video game. When the player’s actions are not predetermined, it is far more difficult to create a predator who can respond unpredictably and intelligently.
Instead, Creative Assembly endows its alien with a brilliant AI mechanism, programmed specifically to avoid predictable routines. I have played too many thrillers where the star monster follows a preordained path. Once you begin to recognize the routine starts and stops, a threatening enemy is quickly reduced to a line of computer code. This creature, on the other hand, is more than an obstacle to avoid. By quickly reversing its direction and emerging almost randomly from various vents and passages, our pursuer becomes an intellectual force to be reckoned with. Oh, and the best (worst?) part? As you move through the game, it learns your hiding places… and it has no shame in ripping open doors to pluck you out of them.
This intelligence is central to the alien’s role as an antagonist: it is why his off screen presence is so terrifying. When I decide to step out of cover, quickly and quietly crouch-walking to the next available occluder, I am not simply terrified of whether or not I may simply bump into his walkspace in the room immediately ahead of me. Rather, I am aware of a hidden system at play beyond the immediate boundaries of my view: even if he has just left the room, nothing is to stop him from turning back immediately or reentering from the ducts above. These unpredictable movements give the alien a feeling of omniscience, an ability to disappear and reappear as he pleases. The progress you make through the game is never linear; the spot you just left may be just as dangerous as the one you are about to enter.
As far as recreating the xenomorph goes, Creative Assembly has nailed it. With some creative twists, Alien: Isolation is a beautiful take on the off-screen space techniques that makes the original movie the classic that it is. Even if you can’t see him, the alien’s presence constantly lingers over you. As the world of the Nostromo shrinks, this presence grows exponentially, leaving you in a frenzied, destinationless escape from a cool, collected creature who can outwit and outrun you at any point. Though the game takes a vastly different approach, it creates the very same nerve-grinding combination of terror, hopelessness, and relentless isolation.