This post is partially a positive review for the 2014 game, Alien Isolation. But it’s also partially my personal account of a rather negative and concerning experience with it.
When I first played Alien Isolation on PS3, it was in winter of 2015 and I had rented it for the week. It also happened that this week I had a cold, which would turn into a drastic fever around the middle of that week. It was an especially physically exhausting sickness even before the fever, but if I took some symptom-reducing meds around noon, then my I would have enough physical and mental enthusiasm to play the game from a nearly normal state of mind, and that’s what I did. I did this about four nights in a row. The game had gotten me in the mood to appreciate the original film, Alien, so I watched the movie after my play on the forth night. With the Alien visage swirling in my head from multiple sources that night, that is when my sickness decided to ramp up into cold sweats and stomach aches, and my mind came under the influence of some terrible corruption. I laid in my bed trying to go to sleep, but I couldn’t get Alien out of my head and all the corridors and sounds associated with the movie and the game. The chemicals in me were causing lack of cognition and seemed to turn these things into my personal menace. I was hallucinating, replaying moments in the game over and over. The image of the alien itself refused to leave my head, and I felt crushed by it. I couldn’t tell if I was asleep or awake, but felt trapped regardless… The next day, my sickness had become a full-blown fever, and I suffered the next two days, bed-ridden, watching Home Alone and Shrek 2 trying to keep the Alien image at bay. I couldn’t sleep, but was afraid of sleep at that point anyway. The fever-induced Alien nightmare was so unpleasant, that I couldn’t help but associate anything Alien with it. Thus, I returned the game and did not even consider playing it for another year.
Now, it’s winter 2016, and I had been thinking about it… My very negative association had finally worn off, and I remembered what a technically great game it is. I thought I would like to give it another shot. So I picked it up used for a great price; this time on PS4. Four days ago, I started playing again from the beginning and found it to be no less great. But then something stopped me, which is why I did not let myself play it tonight… I’ll talk more about that later. But first, about the game:
Alien Isolation (PS Systems)
There are different ways a game can be scary. Some games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame are the type of scary where you’ll be looking over your shoulder, suddenly believing in ghosts, and preferring the lights on. Alien Isolation is not that kind of scary… The lights being on or off, the visual of the monster, and the environment design isn’t really what makes it scary. Alien Isolation is the type of scary where you don’t want to take a single step forward out of fear of what might happen if you do. But you have to take steps in order to progress, which is the psychological pain of this game. In order to do anything in the game, you have to make a lot of steps, each one as terrifying as the last, and you have to string together these many steps in a way that hopefully keeps you and the creature at a distance. Along with constantly swallowing the fear these steps involve, you also have to think critically to try and accomplish your objective in the safest, smartest way you can you think of, all the while knowing that your death could hinge on the slightest of circumstances.
Once you reach the point in the game where you know the Alien is potentially near Ripley (the player character), navigating the environment is extremely uncomfortable. There is a lot of hand-holding in the beginning of the game, but this is a critical aspect to prepare you for the torment of the later situations. It introduces you to stealth evasion by confronting Ripley with human and synth enemies that are a bit simpler in their processes. It even gives you a sidekick to roam around with for a brief time, just so you aren’t alone. But the core gameplay here is alone, and you are completely alone through almost the entire game.
As if the fear of progression wasn’t enough, the environment is constantly poking you with scary noises. Is that the sound of the derelict space station creaking and twisting… or is that the sound of the alien in the walls? You don’t always know. Sounds are vague enough to seem threatening in almost any situation.
But possibly the biggest thing that makes, and keeps, this game a dynamic, confusing, un-tameable experience is the programming of the alien creature. For decades, gamers have stealthily evaded human enemies. But in this game, we face an enemy that thinks and acts in a way that is completely bizarre to us. And not only are its base actions very different than those of a human enemy, but its extremely difficult to get a foothold on because there is no rule book with this guy… The alien does things and goes places in a way that makes sense sometimes, but don’t ever think you have it figured out, but that’s the perfect opportunity for it to rewrite itself. It honestly feels like you are dealing with a creature here, rather than a sentry that follows its programmed guidelines. The way the alien was programmed is as intricate and delicate as is learning how to deal with him.
For example, I learned last night that it will begin to stalk if it thinks it’s not being watched; I was watching the alien from a locker as it moved past a hallway, and it was moving so slowly that no noise was produced and it wasn’t setting off my motion detector. I felt like I was seeing something I wasn’t supposed to… Usually you’ll know if it is in the hallways with you because you’ll hear it stomping around, but now I know that it must know I can hear that. The developers did say the alien will learn as the game progresses. I also learned last night that the alien will circum-locate you. I found this out the hard way, twice. While evading the alien, the player tends to start thinking of the vents as safe-zones, and we jump in there to avoid stress for a little while. But now I know that if you are hiding out in the vent and using the motion detector a lot to get a read on the alien’s position, you’ll begin to hear the alien moving around on all sides of you. It’s because it can hear your motion detector, and it’s trying to hear it from multiple angles to pinpoint your location. Last night, I was in the vent hiding for a while with my motion detector out, then suddenly I hear banging around in the vents and I looked down the shaft that was behind me. Sure enough, there was the alien in the vents with me. I didn’t even know the alien could reach me there…
Future players of this game, watch out for that. It’s a very clever trick that you should not give the alien the opportunity to use.
The only thing that makes this evading-the-alien experience remotely comforting is the lack of time-limits. I haven’t finished the game yet, but if there is a sequence down the line where I have to navigate alien-lurking territory within a time limit, I’m going to shit a brick. The only thing keeping me sane is my ability to take a needed break and hide under a table for as long as I want… Just make sure you aren’t using the motion detector during this break.
These factors make this the single scariest game — by this particular definition of scary — that’s ever been made, in my opinion. And what’s also impressive is that they’ve managed to build a game where memorable moments are impossible to avoid. Taking those dreaded steps always leads to some interesting and exciting organic moment in addition to whatever scare it produces.
Clearly I have fondness for the game and what it does. I think it’s technically magnificent! But getting back to my problem, I think this game is bad for me on a mental level. After my third night playing in my recent run with the game, I started flashing back to the fever dream from a year ago. It was weird. Senses were transporting me back to that night. And when I tried to go to sleep, I found it really difficult because the sound of the motion detector beeping and the image of the alien dropping out of the ceiling vent was playing over and over in my head. Once again, I was unable to control it, unable to think about anything else for too long before my mind went back to that. I even started to feel a bit sick, possibly just out of association. I was definitely feel less stable than I usually do — like the support beams of my mind were shaking. It’s not as simple as to say it’s the scariness that does it, though my heart does pound a lot when I’m playing. Maybe that stress combined with the hypnotic sensory experience of the game is what causes the effect. Whether it’s something explainable, or just a phenomenon that only affects me, there’s clearly some aversion there keeping my mind from being healthy once I’ve give enough of myself to this game. So I need to take it in strides and take breaks often to not become overwhelmed. It’s a shame, because I really do like this game.