AI, atmosphere and an Alien combine to make a memorable horror game

2014’s Alien Isolation is a masterpiece, a survival horror game that manages to near perfectly recreate the aesthetic and tone of 1979 horror movie Alien. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to stop and admire the scenery all that often though, on account of the Alien, unleashed upon the play area to keep things interesting, nearly completely free of scripted behaviour meaning that you can never be entirely sure of what it’s going to do next, only that it’s likely going to involve killing you.

Known by fans primarily as xenomorphs, they’ve long been popping up in video games, but this was the first time that the perfect organism had felt intelligent. In Isolation, you feel like you are being hunted.

According to Alistair Hope, the creative director of Alien Isolation, the team wanted to create the Alien game that no one had ever made before, dropping players into Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space, tasking them not with vanquishing the Alien menace but instead merely trying to survive.

TIGER IN THE OFFICE

“We wanted to create a game that really gave you a feeling of what it would be like to take on and survive that original Alien,” says Hope. “I think games in the universe and in that IP had really focused on the Aliens experience, which is about using firepower to deal with the Alien.”

The best way to make a single Alien terrifying is to empower it, he continues. “It would need to be something that you respect, and that demands your respect because if you’re not careful it will soon punish you. There are consequences to your actions.

“We used to talk about predators in the office, and we were imagining if we were in the studio and someone had unleashed a tiger into the studio, what would we do? We found it was fascinating to talk about how we’d do it: ‘We’ll get behind the desk and try and look for an escape, and try and peek, and try to see where this tiger was’. Then we got serious: ‘Okay well you need to get to the fire escape at the far end of the studio, how are you going to do that?’, which would sometimes involve people talking about picking things up and throwing them to distract it, or crawling from desk to desk.”

“No one said: ‘Well I’d just get a big gun and shoot it down!’. Because there is no big gun.”

There isn’t a lot in the way of firepower in Alien Isolation either, and the team instead tried to create an Alien that felt a little like the team’s metaphorical tiger in the office.

“I think that’s kind of what Alien [Isolation] is,” says Hope. “You need to survive on your wits and your cunning, and you need to really think about what your next move should be.”

Once they had the core ideals nailed down, things started to fall into place.

“The Alien was kind of driving its own decisions based on what it knew about the world around it. It was listening for the player, it was looking for the player, and responding accordingly, based on what its sense were receiving, so sometimes it would become curious about a sound or a glimpse. It wasn’t binary, but if it saw you it would instantly attack and kill you.”

THE PERFECT ORGANISM

The xenomorph has a systematic AI that has free rein to track down and slaughter the player, with a macro/micro AI system that tries to ensure they have a chance. The AI has two separate levels: an AI ‘director’ that knows the location of the player and models the stress level of the player. It then makes a decision on where the xenomorph should go, and passes the information on to the ‘controller’ AI, which moves the Alien around and interacts with the world.

No matter what, the xenomorph is never given the player’s exact location – preserving the terror of the Alien hunting for you without any sort of cheating. The director also tells the xenomorph how menacing it should be, establishing a rhythm so that the player isn’t constantly terrified.

One more thing: it also has eyes in the back of its head. A short range sensor that will catch out anyone who tries to be smart by walking around behind the Alien.

“The one word we used more than any on the project was ‘believable’,” says Hope. “Not necessarily realistic, but it was about believability, because if you believed it then you’d fear it and that would be really powerful.”

A horrifyingly memorable moment occurred when the Alien slowly learnt about how you played and countered that. Players that rely too much on the flamethrower, the Alien will learn that it isn’t as scary as initially thought and, rather than fleeing, it will wait until you

run out of fuel and come in for the kill. This is spectacularly unpleasant, and if a player had already started to rely on the flamethrower, it’s a rude reminder that the Alien is smarter than you think.

“Every action has to have a risk or a cost associated with it,” says Hope. “We use that logic with the flamethrower. You have this really amazing tool which could become this Game Over button for the Alien where every time you use it, it just goes away. Although it’s quite effective to start with, that effectiveness diminishes over time, and so you’re going to have to really think about when to use it. We never really wanted anyone to feel 100 per cent safe, instead having players scared of what was around the corner.”

AN EXPRESS ELEVATOR TO HELL

Hope describes the process of weaving this world of horror and consequence together as tough because it had never been available before. However, while the Alien is undoubtedly the star of the game, it’s a case of the whole being much greater than its parts, as Hope explains:

“When we first started building the game we had a version where the Alien existed early on. it was running under its sensors, you could try and survive against it, it kind of made sense what it was doing but the whole experience felt really flat, and wasn’t really working.

“It was in an early development environment so a lot of grey box assets, it was brightly lit and had no atmosphere, so we stopped development and gave ourselves a couple of days to construct something that felt atmospheric. We put the effects in, some sound, some lighting and put in geometry to look and feel like what we intended the game to look like.

“Then we played the same piece of code again. The Alien hadn’t been touched. When we played that section – and I was with one of the other directors – and the person playing managed to get themselves killed, I saw the whole group jump as one, had that kind of reaction, and we hadn’t changed anything other than all the other moving parts. That was a really big lesson for us: all of these pieces of the puzzle have to be in place and work together to deliver on the experience.” 

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