‘Alien: Isolation’ Is Still the World’s Best Anxiety Simulator
On this ‘Alien Day,’ remember the game that best exemplifies life with extreme anxiety.
Alien is my favorite movie of all time. I mean, I'm not alone in that, and there are plenty of reasons to love it: the production design, the bleak but too-real vision of a grim corporate future, everything about Ripley—a woman hero who gets by on her smarts and savvy.
But I especially love it—and Alien: Isolation, the 2014 game that Mike touched on today, for its faithful adaptation of the original film's spirit—because holy god, is it ever terrifying, and terrifyingly faithful to the experience of living with anxiety.
Playing Alien Isolation, I, like Daniel Link at The Robot's Voice, found the game to be positively therapeutic. Hiding from the titular, terrifying creature as it stalks you across a brutal, 24-plus-hour runtime is exhausting, scary, and ultimately, triumphant.
He writes about the game as a form of exposure therapy:
My anxiety will be with me for the rest of my life. Unlike in fiction, psychological disorders don't vanish after some tearful breakthrough in Robin Williams' or Judd Hirsch's fatherly embrace. To get rid of it, you'd have to go back to when I was gestating in the womb and make sure my neurotransmitters were in proper balance. Like a bad knee, it's always there. You have to fight each battle with it, look for it at every turn so you can avoid it.
In the game, you are tasked with surviving each encounter with the alien, as well as the soulless, hostile androids and occasional bands of desperate human survivors. You are Amanda Ripley, an engineer, valiantly trying to fix a dying space station that's falling apart at the seams through it all.
It's such a pure horror experience, requiring you to slowly walk towards and deal with problems even when you want to cower in a "safe" corner, and, well, survive while a horrifying creature stalks your every move. It's an externalization of what panic disorder and general anxiety actually feels like to live with, and playing it, being able to act it out and effectively work through those feelings, was a revelation.
I won't get too personal here, but in the midst of a panic attack, the simple act of sitting up, let alone walking, let alone going to deal with a problem (or any facet of everyday life), can feel positively heroic. That there is a game that allowed me to play through that loop, over and over again (hiding from the alien, finding a window of "safe" time to deal with a door code or what have you, rinse and repeat) was incredible.
This is generally the power of good horror media for me. It's a genre that allows me to put a nice, ugly face on the miasma of even uglier feelings that stir in my head, and lets me deal with them in a way my lizard brain understands. It speaks to fight or flight.
Playing a great horror game—this one in particular—takes this a step further.
The game is far from perfect. It really does overstay its welcome and, holy shit, some of the events of the last third of the game are horribly cheap. But for all of the reasons it is praised—for its true-to-the-source aesthetics, its brilliant AI, its surprisingly resonant B-storylines—playing through my own anxiety is the one that will always personally stand out the most.
Happy Alien Day!