Last night, Creative Assembly revealed how it is bringing Ridley Scott’s Alien to life in the upcoming Alien: Isolation during our first Develop’s An Audience With event.
More than 50 attendees headed to the Ray Dobly Theatre in Soho, London to hear lead designer Clive Lindop, lead UI artist Jon McKellan and lead gameplay designer Gary Napper share an insight into one of this year’s most hotly-anticipated games.
These are just the highlights of what was revealed last night.
Creative Assembly’s McKellan (left), Napper (middle) and Lindop (right) were on hand to answer the audience’s questions about Alien: Isolation
1. 20th Century Fox gave Creative Assembly a goldmine of Alien data
20th Century Fox, which produced the original film classic directed by Ridley Scott in 1979, provided three terabytes of behind the scenes photos, videos and assets of the movie to help Creative Assembly authentically recreate the atmosphere of the original.
This included notes on props and work-in-progress set design to give Creative Assembly an insight to how the sets were constructed.
“It was a proper gold mine. We saw angles of things we’d never seen before," said lead UI artist John Mckellan.
2. Some in-game videos were filmed off VHS and Betamax
Throughout the game, players will encounter videos on screens from the companies that run Sevastopol Station. Rather than spending time and resources on post-production that would still look too clean and modern, Creative Assembly dug out some old video recorders and Betamax machines to give the game that authentic retro feel.
The team created the initial animations – company logos, for example – on computers. Some of the video-style artefacts like wobbly lines were added during this initial stage, but all animations were then converted them to movie files that could be put onto VHS. Then they filmed those sequences playing on an old curvy portable TV, messing around with the tracking settings as they did so and experimenting with different types of distortion.
“It was a lot of fun being in a dark room doing this stuff,” said lead UI artist John McKellan. “We looked back at the footage and thought ‘wow, that looks awful – we’ve nailed it’.”
In fact, the entire user interface has been inspired by worn out VHS footage, with menus and maps flickering while players view them.
3. The HUD is very subtle
To create that authentic feel and immerse the player in the world, Creative Assembly has avoided cluttering the screen with the traditional HUD that often displays health or a radar. Instead, the developer has chosen to implement tangible items, such as the motion tracker, to display the Alien’s whereabouts and keep the amount of game information that is permanently on screen to a minimum.
All elements are displayed in a way that keeps them ‘in world’, and even tie in with that retro distorted video aesthetic the team explained. For example, the health bar appears similar to the battery indicator from a video camera.
“Tools are lo-fi, not only in aesthetic terms, but in game play too. The motion tracker isn’t an advanced HUD element with magic capabilities, it’s a clunky box that feels broken and has to be aimed. It’s an active UI element rather than passive – the player has to use the tool.”
The motion tracker isn’t an advanced HUD element with magic capabilities – it’s a clunky box that feels broken and has to be aimed.
Jon McKellan, lead UI artist
4. Technology will not save you
Creative Assembly has put a lot of work into recreating the original film’s setting and feel, right down to the late 70s vision of what the future would look like. Rather than the high-tech sci-fi look of modern games like Mass Effect, Alien: Isolation will offer a lo-fi vision of the future with clunky machinery, such as that motion tracker. As Clive Lindop says, “technology will not save you”, colourfully describing the Alien universe as "more at the council estate end" of sci-fi.
“While high sci-fi gives you a handsome Han Solo or phasers in Star Trek, the motion tracker doesn’t give you an edge. Technology will not save you. There is no magic weapon that has ‘I Win’ written on it that will save you.”
5. Creative Assembly compiled a ‘70s sci-fi style guide and dabbled in ‘kit bashing’
Determined to maintain the look and feel of the original Alien film, as well as other notable ‘70s sci-fi flicks, the team recreated the processes used by Hollywood 40 years ago. Concept art was designed in the style of Ron Cobb and French artist Moebius, two of the most influential artists behind the look of the first movie, and sets from Alien were recreated on a one-to-one scale using blueprints provided by 20th Century Fox.
Once this was done, the team pulled out different aspects of each set – panels, doors, pieces of furniture – and used them to create a style guide that they would follow when creating levels for Alien: Isolation, composing new locations out of familiar elements.
Creative Assembly also experimented with the old Hollywood technique of ‘kit bashing’: taking pieces of ordinary objects such as radios, toasters and so on, mashing them together and giving them a new paint job to make them look like a futuristic tool. For that extra level of authenticity, the team limited themselves to only using objects that were made before 1979.
6. The game builds on the viewer’s perception of the Xenomorph, not the film
You may not always see the alien as much as you think in Alien: Isolation. Lead game designer Gary Napper said that in the original film, the alien is only on-screen for roughly three minutes of its 117-minute run-time.
Despite its lack of screen time and perhaps true characteristics of being slow and attacking characters when they aren’t looking (Unlike in its sequels), the viewers’ takeaway was still often of an imposing, aggressive, intelligent, unpredictable and ruthless monster. It’s building up to that perception through the game’s world that Creative Assembly is looking to recreate.
"There’s a reason you only see the alien for three minutes in the film. It’s not because it was a guy in a rubber suit, it’s because it was really scary," said Napper.
7. The Xenomorph learns from each encounter. Sort of.
“Something we learned very early on is we couldn’t make an enemy that was scripted,” said lead gameplay designer Gary Napper. “We needed something that would be different every time you played it. You’re going to die a lot, which means restarting a lot, and if the alien was scripted, you’d see the same behaviour. That makes the alien become predicatable, and a lot less scary.”
The solution was to create a complex behavioural design where the Xenomorph adapts its tactics based on the situation. Each encounter will end one of two ways: either the player will die, or the alien will retreat. If it’s the latter, obviously players will have learned from that encounter but so will the Xenomorph. Depending on how the player defends themselves, the alien will know what to expect and change its strategy accordingly, so using the same trick to scare the beast off won’t always work. It might even try to ambush you in the later stages of the game.
“It’s a tricky thing,” Napper admits. “We say it learns, but that’s not quite true. It has a set of behavioural designs that unlock as encounters occur.”
There’s a reason you only see the alien for three minutes in the film. It’s not because it was a guy in a rubber suit, it’s because it was really scary.
Gary Napper, lead gameplay designer
8. The Alien will sense and investigate ‘secondary’ sources
The clever AI behind the Alien won’t just react to the player themselves. If it hears a noise or sees an object move but misses you, it will understand that things don’t just happen on their own.
“The Alien perceives secondary sources,” said lead designer Clive Lindop. “When you fire an air lock, the Alien will think that’s unusual. If it sees a locker open but not you, it will still wonder why the door opened. That doesn’t just happen on its own.”
9. You’ll have to listen carefully
Much of the Alien’s intentions will be expressed to the player through the noises it makes. A hysterical scream will relay to the player its intention to attack, while it will audibly make different sounds when it’s seen something, is searching for you or has lost all trace if its prey.
The team has focused on the Alien’s sounds itself rather than music to tell the player what its intentions are. As Lindop says, a lot of the audio cues from the original film are now well known, and they must ensure the game’s music doesn’t ruin the tension and immersion.
“You have to have a lot of very carefully planned dynamic audio layers. If you pump it out too much, you’re saying to the player ‘hello, he’s over there!’ So we had to be really careful with that,” said Lindop.
10. Creative Assembly has re-recorded cues from the original Alien soundtrack
Among the source material provided by 20th Century Fox, Creative Assembly also had access to the original soundtrack. Some of this iconic music is included in Alien: Isolation, but not necessarily how you remember it. The team re-recorded several of the original cues with a full orchestra, including some of the musicians that worked on the first film’s soundtrack.
“The trouble is the soundtrack is so well known that people will know exactly what each cue means,” explained Lindop. “So we created new score elements that sit within this score system. We had to layer it carefully – if your survival is based on what you hear, hearing the strings section at Shepperton is really not that helpful.”
The game’s music is actually based on what the player sees, not what the Xenomorph is doing – it won’t just build up when the alien is somewhere near by.
“We didn’t want players to use the music as an alien detector,” Napper said.
The fact that the head turns and looks at you was a massive thing for us. We wanted players to understand the alien’s intentions by the way it’s moving.
Gary Napper, lead gameplay designer
11. The Xenomorph has almost 80 sets of animation
Creative Assembly didn’t want the alien too look like a man in a rubber suit: it wanted this creature to be believable and move appropriately for each encounter. Between 70 and 80 sets of animation were created for different states the Xenomorph might be in: running, attacking, sneaking up on the player, or searching for them.
Crucially, the head layer of the beast has separate sets of animation, something that was very important to the Alien: Isolation team.
“The fact that the head turns and looks at you was a massive thing for us,” says Napper. “We wanted players to understand the alien’s intentions by the way it’s moving or by its expression – but of course the alien doesn’t really have a expression. So physical movement was very important to communicating the alien’s behaviour.”
12. Alien: Isolation is based on a brand new engine
The team behind Alien: Isolation had to create a new engine from scratch in order to accommodate the technology being used, both in terms of the Xenomorph’s behavioural design and the lighting and atmospheric effects.
This also allowed level deisgners to quickly and efficiently make new environments out of a bank of modular assets – doors, chairs, tables, panels and so on – based on the aforementioned lo-fi ‘70s style guide.
“Building a new engine is a really scary thing to do but it allowed us to build the technology around what we wanted to do,” McKellan explained. “The lighting behaves the way we want it to, for example.”
13. The team has designed a new motion tracker
The famous motion tracker will make a return to the game, but this time Creative Assembly has built its own version of the famous tech. Like in the films however, the device will still only display the Alien’s proximity, and not its specific location, meaning the Alien could be in the room, hiding or in the vents.
As with its name, if the Alien is not moving, the player will not see it on the tracker. When using it, the player was also lose focus of the environment around them. The team said it was focused on making sure the device functions in a believable way to carry through that immersive feel so important to the survival horror.
And as a nod to the original, fans will notice the motion tracker still has ice cube tray stuck on the side.
14. Creative Assembly introduced hacking to the world of Alien
In Alien: Isolation, players will encounter computers and other devices that they can hack to access information or trigger in-game actions. It’s a common gameplay mechanic these days, but the developers faced a slight problem.
“Hacking wasn’t a thing in the ‘70s, there was nothing to hack,” McKellan said. “So we had to come up with something different.”
Taking inspiration from the VHS-style presentation of the game, the team focused on the idea of signal tracking. Players will tune into a computer’s signal, selecting icons on their gadget’s screen, which retains that retro flicker and distortion. This way Creative Assembly are able to introduce something gamers are used to without it feeling out of place in the Alien world.
If your survival is based on what you hear, hearing the strings section at Shepperton is really not that helpful.
Clive Lindop, lead designer
15. You’ll be able to make your own weapons
While Creative Assembly didn’t go into specifics, there were references throughout last night’s presentation to a crafting system that allows players to make their own defensive tools and weapons out of objects they find around Sevastopol Station. Players will also have ‘abilities’ that can be used to either evade or scare off the alien.
These will tie in with the Xenomorph’s behavioural design: as the alien learns what players can do with each item, it will be more prepared to counter it when faced with the same tool in future encounters.
And to ensure the game feels more unique to each player, crafting objects are never in the same place. If you find a handy tool or component in a cupboard, there’s no guarantee your friends will find the same thing, if they find anything at all. This will encourage thorough exploration of each level.
16. Level design is open and littered with alternative routes
The concept of facing an alien that could be anywhere challenged Alien: Isolation’s level designers to create environments with no closed off areas, no linear corridors, nowhere for players to be inescapably trapped. Environments needed to be big enough for the Xenomorph to stalk through and attack from any angle, while also giving players a possible means of escape.
The result is a lot of open areas, with multiple entry and exit points to every room, as well as alternative routes for both the alien and the player to use, such as under the floor. There are also lockers to hide in.
“Sometimes it’s best to hide,” said McKellan.
17. This is what happens when you die
Alien: Isolation is built on a checkpoint system to save the player’s progress. To ensure players aren’t aggrieved with losing their progress or thrown straight into the Alien’s path upon each load, the game will detect the whereabouts of the player and Alien is to decide where to save. This means that occasionally saves will be frequent; while at other times the length between checkpoints may be longer.
“We’ve tried to make sure it’s quite forgiving,” said Napper.
18. Yes, the blood is still acidic
At the end of the presentation, Napper teased that the Alien’s iconic acid blood would return in Alien: Isolation, and would indeed form part of the game’s mechanics.
He didn’t go into further detail on the matter, but said there would be more information revealed on what part the Alien’s special blood will play in the game during the coming months.
Alien: Isolation is slated for release on Xbox One, PS4, PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in late 2014.