Survival horror is a game genre that has been popularized by games of the past such as Clock Tower, Alone in the Dark, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil. In fact, before such videogames were created, it was a genre defined by film. Films such as Night of the Living Dead, and Alien. It is a genre that draws attention from film-goers and video gamers alike to this day. The science of it involves chemicals in the brain that respond to “potentially” dangerous situations that can result in a small high and an adrenaline rush providing an extra amount of energy and alertness (Cooper-White, 2014). For some, this results in fun, hence the popularity of the above mentioned classics. Which brings me to the game that will be the subject of the study of survival horror, Alien: Isolation.
So what is it that makes the survival horror genre work? What is it about it that makes it entertaining enough to make gamers want to play and experience such games? The game must be broken down into categories to focus on what makes it work. The first is on the number of bugs the game has, how often glitches arise, and how badly they hinder the experience. The second is on what makes it work as a game. By that I mean how interactive the game is, how well it makes the gamer feel like they are within the world of the game. If a game fails to draw the player into its world, then the player won’t feel any sense of danger or fear that the game may provoke. Third, and last, is how the gameplay causes that fear within players, and why they would keep coming back for more.
Just about every major and minor game release is bound to have bugs in it, and Alien: Isolation is no exception (Reisinger, 2011; Gilbert, 2014; Hernandez, 2014). However, the number of glitches I have found on each of my playthroughs have been minimal. About 2 glitches per play of the entire main game. Even Patricia states, “I haven’t found any bugs like this in my game—I don’t think they’re that common,” (Hernandez, 2014). Because the game manages to keep the number of bugs minimal, they are not a significant factor when it comes to breaking the player immersion. Because the immersion is broken rarely if ever due to a glitch on the average playthrough, the suspense level can be maintained based upon the pacing, atmosphere, and overall design of the game.
Which brings me to the game’s interactivity. For the first hour or so within the game, the player doesn’t have much to do except walk from point A to point B to listen to dialogue conversations, or just to progress to the next point to progress the plot. The player starts on a safe space vessel called Torrens where the in-game character named Amanda Ripley just talks with the other crew members. From a pacing perspective, this allows the player to get comfortable with moving the character around, learn that doors generally open automatically, certain items can be picked up and used for crafting later on, can access computer terminals for more information, learn how save points work, and feel comfortable and safe in the game.
Eventually, the player finds themselves on-board the space station named Sevastopol. There the player options open up some more. Now the player has to learn to crawl through vents, how to open doors that require passwords or hacking tools, how to use flares, flashlights, and other items, that blueprints can be picked up and provide instructions on how to use loot-able materials to craft useful items such as a medkit that can heal the player if damaged, a molotov cocktail to toss at enemies, etc. At the same time, the game is kept in a linear state during the first couple hours. Many paths are blocked but can be opened up later with tools that the player currently does not have, such as an Ion Torch to open up vents and other doorways, which allow access to other passageways and rooms. In other words, the player is shown that as they are now, they are ill-equipped, but can become better-equipped later in the game, which gives them something to look forward to, which is a small incentive to keep playing in addition to how much “fun” they are having.
Regarding “fun,” while no monster has shown up yet in the game during the first couple hours, there is still enough happening for first time players to be on edge. The lighting of the levels is kept minimal to make the player unsure of what else may be in a room with them, if anything. This is in stark contrast to the start of the game where they are kept in a well-lit ship with other friendly crew members. In addition, there are a few small petty jump scares to make the player think for a split second that they are being attacked by something, only to realize a split second later that it was nothing. For example, a burst of steam comes out the side of a wall, or the floor gives out beneath the player to cause them to slide down a level. Eventually the player will come across another threatening crew member, who warns her about other crew members aboard Sevastopol Station who have no problem shooting others on site. In addition to the environmental dangers, now the player knows that other people on the station are a threat and are to be avoided. All of this is made to set the player at unease, to be on edge about the environment, and on edge when near other people, unlike those found at the very beginning of the game. Whether the game is doing its job or not when it comes to putting the player in a state of unrest depends on the players themselves.
When it comes to sustaining that state of unrest, pacing is key. In addition to having potential options open up for the player in terms of gameplay and exploration, something new needs to be thrown in after progressing so far. Eventually, the alien creature does show up, but through use of a cutscene. Once the cutscene ends and the player is back in control of Amanda Ripley, they can hear the alien’s screeching beyond the walls, in the ventilation system above the character. Once the player makes it to a transportation system and hits the call button, they have to wait for at least 30 seconds. During these long 30 seconds, the occasional alien screech is heard, and the music track elevates, giving a rapid pulsing droning sound that replicates a fast heartbeat, emitting the feel that the creature will inevitably show up and devour the player before the transit arrives. But the transit does arrive in time, allowing the player to escape.
This is intended to scare the player. If it did its job right, which in my case it did, then this would activate the player’s (in real life) fight-or-flight response. Biologically speaking, this is a general term that references the body’s arousal system when it activates and triggers an abundance of neurotransmitters and hormones such as endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline, which is meant to cause the individual to react to a threat more quickly (Cooper-White, 2014). But when in a safe environment, which the player hopefully is while playing the game, this can become a positive arousing experience for the player (Cooper-White, 2014). If that is the case, then the player will want to continue to have such an experience again.
Later on in the game after the gameplay opens up more for the player (gaining more blueprints to craft more items, gaining a hacking tool to open more doors on the space station, etc.), the player will encounter the alien again, only this time without cutscenes. The alien creature itself will stalk the player around certain sections of the station, usually staying in the ventilation system, but occasionally come out at random or when the player makes a noise. Noises that would draw it out include running, throwing an item, or shooting a gun such as a revolver. And the player will be powerless against this creature, as it can move faster than the player, and will instantly kill the player character if it sees them and rushes in closely. Plus, the creature can’t be killed by anything. This creates a feeling of helplessness. The only way to deal with the creature is to hide from it. Which brings up one of the core gameplay elements, stealth. In my experience, I was crouching most of the time, using the motion tracker device to keep tabs on the creature’s location (though only useful if the creature is moving). Additionally, I was also discovering and using hiding spaces. There are an abundance of places to hide in each section of the game, from closets to beneath desks, going through ventilation shafts, and so on.
This gives the player options when going through a level while trying to avoid the creature. Which path to take, which hiding places to stay near if the alien shows up, ventilation shafts to crawl through as shortcuts, etc. However, if the player stalls for too long and continues to go back to the same hiding place over and over again when the alien gets an indication that the player is nearby (i.e. it spots the player, but not long enough to confirm that it was a potential victim), and the alien continues to look for the player in the same general vicinity, it will start to take a closer look at potential hiding places. If a player is hiding under the same desk too often, the alien player may take a close look below the desk, spot the player character, and kill her. When it comes to closets, and the alien decides to take a closer look at those, a small mini-game happens. The player will have a small amount of time to “lean back” and “hold their breath” for a certain amount of time. This causes the player to lose a small amount of health if they time this right. If they time it wrong, the alien will hear them and open the closet door and kill the character. There is plenty of strategy and planning that goes into playing through these sections in addition to the constant threat of being spotted and killed, which should once again bring up the player’s adrenaline levels.
In addition, there are sections where other Sevastopol crew members are around who will shoot the player on site. The player has options when dealing with them as well, such as sneaking past them, or making noise loud enough for the alien to hear, sending the alien down to kill off all the crew members in the vicinity, or killing them herself if she has the ammunition and/or crafted items to do so. There will also be androids called Joes in some level sections where the only options is to sneak past them or kill them. The alien won’t attack Joes, and vice-versa, because the alien only goes after live humans.
So as a game with interactivity, it works because the player will have many paths and options when it comes to getting through sections of the ship to progress to the next objective. The player can craft items that can kill other humans and/or androids, or items that lure the alien to a position to either kill off other humans in the vicinity, or to lure it away from an area the player needs to go through. The threat of failing by being spotted and killed by the humans, androids, or the alien, especially the latter, is what evokes fear from the player. For gamers who respond positively to fear, in that they have fun being scared from a game, this will encourage them to continue to play until the very end.
It should be noted that there are several difficulty settings in the game. During my first playthrough I used Normal difficulty. During my second playthrough on Nightmare difficulty, the most difficult setting in the game, I noticed changes that made the game more difficult. There is no map to use to guide the player through the levels, they will just have to memorize the levels on their own, and rely on the motion tracker to determine the general direction of their next objective in addition to enemy positions. In addition, the motion tracker is less reliable and more glitchy (intentionally by game design), flamethrowers use up fuel faster, the player character takes more damage from attacks, the health bar is not displayed, there are less materials to scavenge for crafting items, less ammunition to find for guns (pistols, shotguns, flamethrower, bolt gun), and the alien is more responsive and intelligent. On this level of difficulty, the alien is more likely to closely inspect hiding places compared to how often it would search for the player in the same room on Normal difficulty.
It was on the more difficult setting that I had to get much more conservative with how I used the items in the game, to the point where fighting was no longer an option. If a player hopes to get through the game on that level of difficulty, just about every fight must be avoided, and crafting should be limited to only a few select item types. This allows for strategy-making more interesting for players. Generally, when a player tries to get through a level using one strategy that doesn’t work, they try to get through it using another strategy. The more difficult the game and therefore the more difficult the levels, the more diverse a player will have to be when it comes to getting through each level. This encourages thinking of methods and tactics that the player hadn’t thought of before. When a player would normally want to shoot at some androids to get past them, but has no ammunition left, they would eventually figure out ways of distracting them, such as throwing flares down one hallway so they can move through another. When a player would normally run to hiding spots, in Nightmare mode they are more willing to try alternatives since the likelihood of the Xenomorph wising up and breaking into the hiding spot is increased, plus the holding breath minigame which does some amount of damage to your health; and there is no observable health bar in Nightmare mode, not to mention less health than normal. Even running out of fuel for the flamethrower isn’t the end for the player when being chased down by the alien, as I learned that just aiming the flamer at the alien makes it flinch and stop chasing me momentarily, because it remembers the other times I burned it. Each time a player tries any of these tactics, there will be a lingering fear on whether or not they will work.
And this is ultimately why this succeeds as a survival horror videogame. It scares players, but at the same time is highly interactive because of the abundance of decision-making it allows them to have. It is also paced well, in that the player gains new items at an acceptable rate to add a little more to the options and gameplay; plus levels where the player is sneaking by the alien, or the crew, or the androids, or all of the above; sections where the player is forced to fight androids; or sections with no combat or stealth at all to give the player a breather. There is a storyline, of course, which is told well enough in my opinion, but that is not where the focus will be for this critique. I will say that the story gave me enough information as to why I needed to get from Point A to Point B, and why it’s beneficial for the character in the long term.
I should clarify as to what makes this game more effective at scaring players than other games. After all, it can’t just be the threat of the player character getting killed, as that happens in just about every action/adventure game as well, from Tomb Raider, to Uncharted, to Metroid Prime, to the Call of Duty franchise, none of which are considered to be terrifying games. I would say the biggest difference between Alien: Isolation and the above mentioned games is the presence of an un-killable enemy whom you can only hide from, along with the use of sound that lets the player know the creature is lurking nearby. Because you want to react to hearing the creature rather than from seeing it, because if it sees you, you will probably get killed. The other main difference is limited resources. The player will only have so much access to items and materials throughout the course of the game that he/she must be careful on how they use them. In the action/adventure games, the player will almost always have enough ammunition to destroy anyone and anything in their path, giving the player a sense of being a one-man army that can handle just about anything thrown at them.
In other survival horror games, such as the early Resident Evil entries, and the early Silent Hill games, the player has limited resources, making it impossible to kill every enemy they come across. In a game like 5 Nights at Freddy’s, the player can do nothing against the enemies except observe them and try to keep them out of the room they are in, while carefully managing their usage of electricity to observe the enemies and close the doors; in other words, careful and efficient management of limited resources. Lastly, what these popular survival horror games have in common is atmosphere. It is always dark, and the music is always brooding to fit with the paranoia the game projects onto the player. There also tends to be an excellent use of music to destabilize the player. Or even a lack of music to make the sound effects more pronounced, such as the moans of a zombie in the Resident Evil franchise, or the hissing and footsteps of an alien menace, or the beeping of the motion tracker, the movements in the vents, etc.
Good survival horror games will make the player feel helpless at times against the sinister forces that threaten their character(s) in the game. Which is why players usually feel joy and breathe a sigh of relief when they eventually conquer these forces, as if they have conquered their fear. Of course, the game itself is just a fantasy normally experienced within the safe confines of a home, as is any game. Their adrenaline surged at the sense of danger, they ran and fought with their in-game character, and shared in their character’s victories. It’s a different type of adrenaline high achieved from action/adventure games. It’s the reason why games like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Amnesia The Dark Descent have gone down as horror game classics, as this game may do as well. Because players will eventually either come back for more, or encourage other friends and family members to experience what they have experienced.
Cooper-White, Macrina. (15 October 2014). This is Why We Love To Scare Ourselves Silly. HuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/15/science-of-fear-why-we-love-to-scare-ourselves_n_5976266.html
Gilbert, Ben. (24 November 2014). Why are so many video games broken at launch?. engadget.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.engadget.com/2014/11/24/broken-video-games/
Hernandez, Patricia. (8 October 2014). Alien: Isolation Isn’t As Scary When The Alien Glitches Out. kotaku.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://kotaku.com/alien-isolation-isnt-as-scary-when-the-alien-glitches-1644006514
Reisinger, Don. (8 February 2011). Treyarch: There are no ‘bug free’ games. CNET.com. Retrieved 9 May 2015. http://www.cnet.com/news/treyarch-there-are-no-bug-free-games/
Oh, and one other thing. If you’re playing the game on PC, this mod for the game is worth checking out. It makes the alien’s patrol area more spread out as opposed to staying in your general vicinity. Improves the game in my opinion.