Develop speaks to creative lead Alistair Hope on making the 'perfect organism' terrifying again

Horror in the making: The Alien: Isolation gamble

The Alien franchise has taken some hits over the years.

The average to poor reviews and early controversy surrounding Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, the confusing prequel-but-not-a-prequel Prometheus, the Alien vs. Predator films and the ill-fated Alien: Resurrection have arguably damaged and made light of an IP and horror icon that was created to instil fear. It was, after all, “the perfect organism”.

And so arrived Alien: Isolation in 2014, Creative Assembly’s gamble on taking the franchise back to its roots of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original horror, Alien, but this time in games. Moving away from the guns and bullet sponge Aliens that have appeared in every game based on the IP – as well as a departure from the studio’s own strategy and sports roots – Creative Assembly was both stepping into uncharted territory while also looking to the past for inspiration and the franchise’s rebirth.

But what drove the Horsham-based developer to take such a risk?

“It was a little bit born out of seeing the other games that have been made based in that universe, which have always been focused on the James Cameron experience: marines, the pulse rifles and lots and lots of Aliens,” explains Alien: Isolation creative lead Alistair Hope, a long-time Creative Assembly employee – its eighth hire in fact.

“And that’s a cool experience, but it felt like there was an amazing opportunity to create a game that took you back to that feeling of being on the Nostromo, being hunted by just one Alien.

“And I guess we were in a really fortunate position. I knew Sega had the licence to make games based in the Alien universe, and it was a once in a lifetime, now or never opportunity to pitch an idea.”

The bitch is back

For the pitch, a small team spent four weeks putting together a technical demo to show off their ideas in what Hope describes as a “mood piece”. The demo involved the player working down a corridor, where they would pass a recreated medical lab from the first film, and then onto another area seemingly torn apart by the Alien’s presence. It then ended with the Alien confronting the player.

“It felt like nothing else we’d seen before in that universe,” he says. “You had the sense there was nowhere to run, there’s no guns, you’ve got to respect this thing.”

Hope adds the pitch ended with a sudden silence, followed by the thumbs up for the concept. He says he hopes to one day release the technical demo to the public, to show how close the final product was to the team’s initial vision.

Despite venturing into new territory with a first-person horror game, away from the studio’s roots in Total War and sports, the developer has gained numerous positive reviews of its title and it has achieved over one million sales to date.

Hope says it can be easy to get pigeon-holed, and though to outsiders it may seem like a strange departure of genre, internally there are lots of shared values from its past.

“Authenticity is an important thing to the studio,” he explains. “Whether that’s Total War and recreation of historical reality or the A:I team trying to recreate a feel, look and an immersive experience based on a film, there’s a lot of crossover there.”

After getting the greenlight, Creative Assembly was given unprecedented access to the enormous archives from the original Alien film by 20th Century Fox.

Building better worlds

The goldmine included three terabytes of behind the scenes photos, videos and assets of the movie. As a fan, Hope says it was an unbelievable moment, and describes it akin to the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, the contents of which shines a glowing light when opened.

“That was so useful and they were very supportive,” he says. “And it was a real honour to be given the opportunity to create a new story and expand on the original.”

I knew Sega had the licence to make games based in the Alien universe, and it was a once in a lifetime, now or never opportunity to pitch an idea.

Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly

With such detailed information from the archives of 20th Century Fox on how the film crew crafted the sets of the Nostromo’s interior, Creative Assembly went about closely recreating the movie’s aesthetic on the Sevastopol, including the ‘70s vision of the future and the famous, clunky lo-fi tech.

“So many of our values came from that first film,” says Hope. “It’s beautiful. The production design is incredible; it feels really unique. It’s this fantastic snapshot of the ‘70s and of the imagined future of that decade. I think it’s really been genre-defining in its legacy. You can look at Duncan Jones’ Moon and you can see the massive influence there.”

Hope says the recreation of this mundane, downplayed yet advanced technology fed into the game’s horror. By not going for the more mysterious and hi-tech approach of Prometheus and adopting the original Alien’s take, it was able to tell players in an instant that, through this clunky, seemingly more realistic and grounded take on technology, there was no secret technology or weapon that would save them. Instead, players would have to rely on their instincts, which is something Hope says we can all relate to.

“It’s about believability,” he states. “It’s about you buying into it. If it’s too out there, it kind of breaks the illusion.”

In space, no one can hear you scream

As well as giving players a sense of the world through their visual senses, one of the key aspects of developing the tense horror atmosphere was the audio, which Hope describes as “half the experience”.

“It really is the shortcut to your brain,” he says. “No matter what we’re putting on-screen, we can really influence what you’re feeling and thinking just through sound. That was a really important tool for us to manipulate the player and the experience.”

Play through the game and you can often hear distant sounds or scuttling in the vents, unnerving the player and often causing them to take out the motion tracker to ensure they are safe from the Alien’s presence.

The team took great lengths to make sound a key aspect of the Alien’s interactions with the player. The slippery noise of the creature leaving a vent and a loud hiss that echoes around the corridors warn the player of its presence, while other sound cues alert the player to its intentions.

A gut-wrenching scream and loud, heavy fast-running footsteps tell you the game is up, you’ve been discovered, while slow but audible breathing as you go past an open vent in the ceiling will tell you the Alien is waiting for you should you cross its path.

As Hope says, audio can give a heightened sense of danger for events off-screen, as well as those on-screen.

“Sound is a massive part of any horror experience,” he says. “We had to absolutely support the creature and the sense that you’re never safe. Even if it’s not on-screen, then you know you might be able to hear it. And what does that mean? How are you feeling about that?

“That was an early test we did. We had a very small space and the player just had to get from A to B, but there was an Alien in the way. The feedback we’d get was ‘I was really scared when I could see the Alien because I knew it was nearby and I was in immediate danger’. But then we had the feedback from the same people saying they were equally scared when they didn’t know where the Alien was and couldn’t see it.

“And that was really interesting because in the film it’s not on-screen the whole time, but when it does appear it’s really meaningful and impactful.

“I guess that was again one of the things we wanted to do was to re-Alien the Alien, really give it back its credibility and its position as the ultimate killer, and something you have to respect and take seriously. It wasn’t just a bullet sponge at the end of your gun.”

Sound really is the shortcut to your brain. No matter what we’re putting on-screen, we can really influence what you’re feeling and thinking just through sound.

Alistair Hope, Creative Assembly

One example of the way this sense of fear was achieved through sound, Hope explains, was how the team dynamically mixed sound in real-time. Depending on a certain set of circumstances and parameters, if the Alien approached the player, environmental sounds would often be lowered while the sound of the Alien and the player’s movements would increase.

“The perception there is you’re actually much closer than you are, but it’s actually brilliant because it moves the focus of the player,” he explains. “You’re paying attention more or less solely to the Alien.

“It’s kind of interesting because you can be in a room with an alarm going off, but you’re focused on the Alien. So when we reduce the volume of the alarm, you’re not suddenly thinking, hang on, there was an alarm in here, what’s going on? The Alien is holding your attention so much that we can really start to play with those elements.”

The perfect organism

Perhaps the most innovative element of Alien: Isolation, and its key selling point, is the Alien’s AI.

Its unpredictable nature can make it purposely difficult to prepare for its arrival, which could come at any moment – however inopportune that moment may be. And unlike many stealth games, predicting its movements is impossible. Here is where the game really echoes the tension of Ridley Scott’s Alien, where the crew is being hunted, rather than the player taking on gaming’s traditional role of the hunter.

Hope says the realisation that the Alien needed to feel more sentient rather than scripted came early on in development, with the creature driven by its environment and what’s happening around it, rather than being put on a set path.

“I think that’s the interesting journey,” he says. “You start by going yeah, I want to make this game that really feels like Alien, and then you realise, how are we going to do that?

“I think there was the realisation early on that if you scripted everything and you could predict what was going to happen then it wouldn’t really be scary. You’d just be on this kind of carnival ride where you could always predict that when you went down this corridor, the Alien would go left and you could go right, and that would break everything.

“And so there was this sense that you’d have to let the Alien use its own senses to drive its behaviour, to help it navigate. I think that was the right choice, and that’s the kind of magic for me of the game, is that everyone – now over a million people – got a slightly different story to tell as to how they
survived it.

“One person can go to a certain space and have a completely different experience to another person, and they all in a large part depend on the choices the player makes. That’s the magic of the game, and possibly the magic of games full stop; having the player have that role, make that difference and have that experience.”

Though a gamble, Creative Assembly’s risk-taking with Alien: Isolation, while harnessing the studio’s expertise of recreating history by mimicking the original Alien film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, has arguably paid off. The use of visuals, audio and the unique AI of the Alien has brought something new to the horror genre which others make look to adapt to their own titles in future. And Hope says the team is grateful for the positive reception to the game, and is proud of the team’s work.

“It started from an idea and then a couple of years later we’re winning game of the year awards and people seem to really appreciate what we’ve done,” he says.

“I think it’s quite a personal game, so we’re immensely proud of what we put together. It’s a very special game to us.”

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