'I could feel my body tense, my brain saying I'm under attack': Virtual reality in Alien Isolation

We talk to Creative Assembly’s creative lead Al Hope about the Oculus Rift prototype that will give you nightmares
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In Sega’s London headquarters, a man crouches awkwardly in front of a chair, leaning to the side, a strange device on his head and a controller in his hands. On ficitional space station Sevatopol, Amanda Ripley peers out nervously from behind cover, watching a solitary by spine-chilling Xenomorph stomp away down the corridor.

The man pushes the joystick forward, turning his head frantically despite the fact that the device blocks his vision. On Sevastopol, Amanda mimics his head's movements, trying desperately to reach the next door without attracting the alien’s attention. She creeps closer, and closer – but an almighty roar from behind signals the end.

The Xenomorph, now on all fours, scurries towards Ripley, jaws wide as it’s rigid tail impales her. Back in London, a man physically jumps with fright.

We’re assured by Al Hope, creative lead at Alien: Isolation developer Creative Assembly (pictured), that few people survive very long in the Oculus Rift prototype of the upcoming sci-fi game – even among the development team.

“We play this game all day, every day and because of the nature of the mechanics, the fact that the alien’s unpredictable, it still catches us out and we still die and jump in our seats,” Hope tells Develop. “It’s fantastic and a really interesting angle for development: the fact that we’re not dull to the experience. It’s another perspective on what we’ve created.”

The prototype is an experiment by the Creatve Assembly team, just to see how well their new game works in VR. Needless to say, the result is impressive.

While he is justly proud of the console and PC experience, Hope says that the fear created by Alien: Isolation is taken to a far more physical level thanks to the immersion of virtual reality.

“I was playing the prototype two days ago, and the alien cornered me and rushed me. I could feel my body tense, my brain was saying you’re under attack,” he says. “That physical response that we’ve seen with people playing this is so genuine, you can’t say virtual reality is a fad. There has to be a future for it.”

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Hope reveals that Oculus Rift support for Sega’s horror game first originated during his trip to GDC 2013 in San Francisco. The creative lead queued for an hour and a half to try out a demo of the new virtual reality device, daring to imagine what it could do for his current project – the then-unannounced Alien: Isolation.

“It seemed like a really natural fit,” he explains. “There was a cool experience to be had there. We were making this really immersive game about being in this base, a game that’s about trying to understand the area around you from moment to moment. With Oculus Rift, there was the promise of making that super compelling.

“Some of the guys at CA had backed the Kickstarter so we got the first dev kit in and put the game through it – and that was cool because it felt like we were really there, experiencing what it would be like to be in this lo-fi sci-fi world we’d created.

I was playing our prototype and the alien cornered me and rushed me. I could feel my body tense, my brain was saying you're under attack. That physical response we've seen with people playing is so genuine, you can't say virtual reality is a fad.

Al Hope, Creative Assembly

“From a game point of view, we haven’t had to add any game mechanics because it all fell out of what we already had. If you’re playing the console version, you press a button and move the stick to look around but in this prototype, you just use your head. All these things we already had in place just dovetailed into what you can do with Oculus.

“On the tech side of it, I think we’re in a pretty good position. The guys worked with Oculus to take advantage of the experience they had – it gave us a leg up, because we’re only just starting out on our VR journey and they’ve got a huge amount of experience. They were able to guide us in some of the techniques and means of making it a really good VR experience.”

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Working in virtual reality also gave the Creative Assembly team the chance to view their lo-fi sci-fi world from another perspective. When played on a monitor, the screen is always distanced from the developers’ and players’ eyes, but with Oculus Rift they can take a much more detailed look than before.

“One of the interesting things for me is I get to explore this world I’m really familiar with and see it really closely,” says Hope. “When I play, I look a bit like a tourist because I’ll be looking around, focusing on light fittings and things that when playing normally I just pass by. Now I really investigate everything that’s in there because I get to see the world in a different way, I get to actually study things.

“I’ve gone round and round this prototype and seen things I hadn’t seen before. Seeing the level of fidelity we’ve brought to this world is fantastic. Maybe virtual reality is the chance you get to really see it because normally you’re eight to ten feet away from the screen.”

When I play, I look a bit like a tourist because focusing on light fittings and things that when playing normally I just pass by. Now I really investigate everything that’s in there and see things I hadn’t seen before.

Al Hope, Creative Assembly

Hope stresses that very little major work had to be done to introduce Oculus Rift support for Alien: Isolation. The core of the game remains the same, with just a few tweaks made for the change in player perspective and control.

He says: “From a code point of view there’s some really subtle stuff the guys had to do to make it a smooth experience, and it’s probably stuff you wouldn’t normally think about – not big features but things like user interface, touches that just make it feel like a more intuitive experience, such as the moving of the head.”

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In fact, the positional tracking afforded by the new Oculus Rift DK2 is Hope’s highlight of the Alien virtual reality prototype. As he demonstrates during our demo, you can physically peer over cover, crouch behind objects and lean around corners, making the game dramatically more immersive and therefore more intense. You will find yourself physically darting back behind corners the moment you spot the Xenomorph.

As mentioned, the flexible controls of Alien: Isolation already lent themselves to more freedom of movement, and assistance from the pioneers of virtual reality has helped the Creative Assembly team realise the potential of positional tracking.

“We started talking to Oculus about what we were doing and they gave us the prototype of DK2,” says Hope. “Through the positional tracking, all the instinctual things you want to do in another world – looking over things, peeking around corners, leaning – took the whole experience to another level.

“It’s a huge leap and really does mirror your movement. It feels like a closer-to-reality experience: it’s running at a much higher framerate. Some of the issues other people may have had previously [with motion sickness] have gone away. It’s a very realistic representation of being inside a world because as you move, the world moves and you don’t have that disconnect. The number of disconnects is rapidly shrinking.”

Virtual reality is a really powerful tool, but it is just a tool – it’s not some definitive answer to making a really compelling game

Al Hope, Creative Assembly

There’s a lot of excitement around virtual reality, but Hope stresses that adding support for a device like Oculus Rift doesn’t automatically improve your game – that has to be developed first. As he reminds us, Alien: Isolation was already a high-quality immersive experience before Creative Assembly started introducing VR.

“Virtual reality is a really powerful tool, but it is just a tool – it’s not some definitive answer to making a really compelling game,” he says. “But if you’re excited by the potential of new hardware and new platforms like this, and that inspires you to create better content, that’s just what this industry needs.”

As the team has developed its skills with virtual reality, you would be surprised if this glimpse into a major pillar of gaming’s future sparked imaginations about future projects. While Hope remains a strong proponent of the technology, he’s reluctant to suggest what else he would like to develop with it.

“I’m probably not going to tell you,” he laughs. “That’s a conversation for me to have with Sega.”