It's no huge stretch to say that Creative Assembly's Alien: Isolationsaved the Alien gaming franchise from self-destruction. Released in the wake of disastrous shooter Aliens: Colonial Marines and Ridley Scott's wayward Prometheus, it captivated gamers with a lean premise backed by sophisticated AI.
As in the original movie, there's only one Alien to worry about in Isolation, but that Alien is indestructible—and very adaptable. Fend it off repeatedly with a flamethrower and it'll lose its fear of fire. Create a distraction and it'll realise it's been duped. Plenty of games, movies, comics, and books have drawn upon Alien's production values, but this is one of the few tributes that gets under its skin.
Who better, then, to talk about game adaptations of classic monsters than Isolation's lead designer Gary Napper? Now working on virtual reality projects for PlayStation 4's Morpheus headset, Napper is naturally a bit of a horror buff. We asked him to imagine how he'd make games out of his favourite silverscreen bogeymen.
One franchise Napper would love to take a swing at is Alien's musclebound cousin Predator, a technological terror steeped in allusions to the Vietnam War. "Have you entering a jungle, surrounded by marines, feeling all tough and capable, then gradually they get picked off one by one, and you're left alone," he envisions.
Having completed Isolation, I can certainly see how the Predator's invisibility cloak, thermal vision, and limb-removing shoulder cannon might support a similar approach—imagine crawling down a stream bed as Arnie, eyes peeled for the flash of that trademark laser sight. But for Napper, the fascinating thing about the Predator isn't what it's armed with but how the creature thinks.
"One aspect that appeals to me here is that Predators hunt for sport," he says. "Don't pick up a weapon, and you won't get attacked. So the difficulty would be introduced by the player needing to use a weapon to progress or defend themselves, and risk the wrath of the Predator."
Sticking with the jungle theme, Napper also entertains dark designs about Jurassic Park—another movie franchise that's in sore need of reinvention, with last year's update a cavalcade of sexist stereotypes and dismal banter. It all comes down to one word: velociraptors.
"I would love to take the AI systems from 'Alien' and make a 'Jurassic Park' game"
"I would love to take the AI systems from Alien and make a Jurassic Park game," he says. "Find a graphics engine that does jungle and wildlife really well, put some flocks of smaller dinosaurs in there, and then bam—cut the power, kill the phones, make it night-time and try to survive. Have them hunting you in packs, reacting to your footsteps and movement, just like the Alien did in Isolation. It would be great to develop those systems further and see what sort of experience you could create."
One aspect of the Alien fiction that Isolation skims over is the creature's famously Freudian reproductive cycle, with newborn xenomorphs exploding from the chests of unfortunate hosts. The Thing films—most notable among them John Carpenter's 1982 reboot—also deal with the concept of an enemy within, the difference being that The Thing can assume the form and behaviour of a victim. Result: a feverish witch hunt and some enduringly unpleasant shape-shifting sequences.
Computer Artworks released a Thing game in 2002 for Xbox and PS2, but opted for a scripted action experience with few genuine surprises. Napper suggests a multiplayer version, drawing on Dmitry Davidoff's Mafia party game (for which a Thing variation already, in fact, exists). "Playing with paranoia Mafia-style, where players do their daily duty in a research facility, and at some point, one player realises that they are the Thing," he explains.
A number of recent multiplayer titles have experimented with in-game aliases—take Ubisoft's Watch Dogs, in which players can invade each other's worlds as civilians and steal resources. Horror game developers usually avoid multiplayer because the participants tend to be more aggravating than scary, but perhaps all that's needed is the right motivation. In The Thing the creature is easy enough to destroy once exposed, so monster players would need to take their time and ambush the others one by one.
David Cronenberg's The Fly shows us the process of transformation from the inside: its star accidentally exchanges DNA with a housefly after inventing a teleporter, and undergoes a gradual, grisly metamorphosis. "I was always interested in why it took so long for his DNA to morph into that of the Fly," comments Napper. "Surely it would be instant, like when the pig-lizard thing in Galaxy Quest teleports back to the ship and is turned inside out."
"However, this does allow for an interesting mechanic curve, as different abilities appear and other abilities get lost," he adds. "The player suddenly needs to take large amounts of sugar to survive, but can climb up the walls. I understand that it's the same with toddlers."
Not every movie monster is designed to create suspense, of course—some, like Godzilla, are built for the spotlight, though last year's wobbly remake managed to generate a degree of uncertainty by hiding its monstrous antagonists in clouds of rubble. "I would love to make a 3D Godzilla rampage game in VR," confesses Napper.
"The player then has the moral dilemma of whether to attack the army or the other monster"
"Use PlayStation Move controllers to box the enemy monster, play as Mecha-Godzilla and fire finger missiles and arm rockets. Breathe that huge fire breath and torch the enemy whilst trying to protect buildings and the population. The more destruction you cause, the more tanks and helicopters arrive to attack you. The player then has the moral dilemma of whether to attack the army or the other monster. 'Hey! I'm trying to help here damn it!'"
Such antics aside, the prevailing theme of our chat is simply the element of surprise. It's an area, you could argue, in which games will always outstrip films as horror experiences, driven as they are by choices and systems rather than plot alone, though shocks naturally lose their power with repeated play. The star of Alien: Isolation is appalling to look upon, with its dribbling silver incisors and serpentine tail, but what makes it truly unpleasant is that it can't be predicted, as familiar as we all are with the creature's cinematic antics. Here's hoping a few of Hollywood's other long-serving beasties undergo the same treatment.
All in Your Head is a series that takes a scientific look at all things spooky and scary. Follow along here.