Alien: Isolation has been out for a year, but if you haven't played it yet and intend to, consider this a spoiler warning. Plot points will be examined.
I'm not concerned by gore or blood effects, or any of that kind of visual coarseness. What bothers me about video game violence is it's become something players don't even think about, a mere input, entered time and again, to produce an output. There are permutations—unlock a new item, gain XP, advance to the next level—but you're always, in video games, killing to win.
The dynamic between player and game, most of the time, is an express exchange of violence for progress. And because killing is always bettering and improving of the player and their character, it's not something they have to worry about or consider. It's a blithe obligation, repeated out of an intrinsic desire to continue—it's like drinking water to rehydrate.
Released in October 2014, Alien: Isolation treated violence differently. It's not like the largely critically celebrated Spec Ops: The Line, a didactic, so on-the-nose and hypocritical that it's impossible to take seriously. It doesn't rug-pull the player, rub their noses in what they do, and call them bad people. An official-canon tie-in with the film series, Alien: Isolation, by exacting huge penalties for any violence committed (you fire your gun and what you believe to be the single Alien on Sevastopol Station will hear and come and kill you) encourages players to think more about violence; to take responsibility for their actions, and not treat guns and killing indolently.
It's fitting that the first person killed on-screen by the Alien is the edgy Axel, one of the first station residents that the player, as Amanda Ripley, meets. During a scuffle with another survivor, Axel pulls his revolver and without hesitation kills the other guy. The next minute he's pulled into a vent by the Alien and killed himself, the implication being, right from the off, that if you mess around with guns and don't think about the violence you commit in this game, you won't get far.
"This was never going to be a game about trying to kill the Alien," explains Al Hope, Alien: Isolation's creative director. "It was only about surviving, and that does change the perspective of the player. I really wanted the player to be constantly evaluating the situation, running through a checklist of options down to the very basic, 'Should I stay or should I go?' If movement itself was a risk then everything else could be layered on top. It's a game about information and decisions. I wanted the player to be constantly reviewing the situation."
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We're used to traveling nonchalantly through video games, and making decisions—even and especially ones about violence—off the cuff. But you can't take anything lightly in Alien: Isolation—since you have to be careful of noise, visibility, and, not just the environment in front of you, but also the floors and the ceiling, even walking across a room feels like an enormous commitment. Everything you do in Alien: Isolation requires attention and thought. It's not a game markedly about violence, but whereas using a gun on someone in a game is normally a light decision, and killing is taken pretty much as read, when you pull a weapon in Alien: Isolation, you must consider the consequences.
The Alien itself plays a huge role in that. Meticulously reared by Hope and the team at British developers Creative Assembly, it's a constant threat, a policing presence on reckless video game behavior.
"We wanted the player to feel underpowered and unprepared, to never feel entirely safe or in control of the situation." Al Hope, Creative Assembly
"The Alien's behavior is at the core of the game," Hope continues. "We wanted the player to feel underpowered and unprepared, to never feel entirely safe or in control of the situation. For this to work we couldn't choreograph the Alien's behavior. If the player was able to tell what was going to happen, all tension would just evaporate. So we designed an Alien that would use senses to drive its behavior: It's constantly looking and listening for the player. In fact, one odd but practical step we took early on was to give the Alien a voice in order to telegraph its basic intentions—whilst playing the prototype, the player would hear in the distance 'I'm hunting you' or 'I can hear you' or 'I can see you' as their actions triggered the Alien's senses, all voiced by one of the A.I. programmers. It was creepy and funny, and also very useful.
"We made the Alien unpredictable, and that's where the tension really comes from. We found players were as scared when the Alien wasn't on the screen as when it was in their line of sight—it doesn't need to be in the frame to continue to terrify. For me, this is the magic of Alien: Isolation. In every section of the game everybody starts and ends in the same place, but what happens in between is down to the players' actions. Their experience is created out of their own moment to moment decisions."
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Alien: Isolation never segues into a treatise on video game violence—it doesn't reflect on, or directly address in terms of story and characters, the sometimes discussed problems with violence in games. But its various mechanical conceits, its central set-up of being constantly threatened by a sophisticated and frightening creature, that will likely attack if you use a gun, forces a different mental model, one where you must contemplate rather than simply perform violent acts.
One year on, after I and plenty of other writers have waxed lyrical about Alien: Isolation as a horror game, what I found most interesting—and personally consider the game's enduring legacy—is its subtle demurral against how video games treat killing. It isn't sanctimonious or stagy, and it doesn't retrogress, like Spec Ops and other games "about" violence, into player blaming, or post-modernism. Alien: Isolation, almost without you knowing, because you're so captivated by the images and the sounds and that bloody thing chasing you, pushes you to think about physical actions—and by extension violent ones—in a way you probably never have in a video game before. You can't just do things. You can't just cruise. When games typically reduce even the most morally charged human behaviors to mere inputs, that's a vital distinction.
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