On playing Alien: Isolation, I always enjoyed watching gamers with little or no familiarity with the movies marvel at the decidedly creepy atmosphere, or storm in with a first-person shooter mentality before quickly realizing how hazardous that is to their survival.
The blame for this lies at the source; Isolation took most of its inspiration from the first Alien movie, which is more akin to a horror flick than a sci-fi adventure. There, the alien was implacable, mysterious, and vaguely malevolent; it was less a hostile creature than an abominable manifestation of our fears, sexual and otherwise. This was Ridley Scott’s original vision, one embodied in the uncomfortable patchwork of rape and ruin iconography that is H.R. Giger’s xenomorph.
On the other hand, most of the media in the franchise take their inspiration from the worthy sequel, Aliens. Like Starship Troopers, James Cameron's spin on the whole thing tapped into another symbolic fear - that of the Imperial Swarm, an antagonistic alien empire driven by instinct to seed and consume any and all worlds it encounters, with whom neither communication nor negotiations are possible. Headed by an intelligent queen and staffed by powerful, bloodthirsty drones, such a “society” waves the banner of endless war: humanity is bound to an eternal battlefield against a relentless and incomprehensible enemy, with destruction - ours or theirs - the only way out.
This dual perception of the xenomorph - of preternatural malevolence vs. the enmity of eternal conflict - is the main dividing point between the first and second movies, and for years most video games followed the Cameron route, pitting the ubiquitous Colonial Marines and their trusty pulse rifles against the Queen’s drooling swarm. I can understand this, since the hard-scrabble battles between bugs and bros as depicted in Aliens is a tad more photogenic than the slow-moving horror vibe of the original film.
And this rarity is what makes the Isolation experience for me that much sweeter. The fear from Isolation is completely unlike the jump scare to firefight set up of Colonial Marines, or any of the Alien vs. Predator games. It is something more primal - the fear of being hunted; and not by some dumb brute, but an entity designed to be smarter, stronger, and more persistent than anything we’ve seen in the franchise for years. And it is completely unkillable, shrugging off shotgun blasts and even spouts of fire that would have killed it dead in any other game, but are now temporary irritations at the very worst. It almost had me believing that the blasted thing really was supernatural in some way. And while I know Creative Assembly didn’t include a Queen for budget reasons, I was glad they didn’t all the same. In Scott’s opus, the xenomorph was a terrifying blank from cradle to grave, with a creepy life cycle revealed only in the Director’s Cut. The presence of a Queen, like that of the Marines, would have veered away from the horror tone and into familiar Cameron territory.
Despite some of the mixed reviews the game received, I for one was quite happy with the mood and feel of the end result, and hope that we’ll get another trip to the more horrific side of the Alien franchise somewhere down the line.