Last month, Creative Assembly revealed their next project, a survival horror game based on one of the most beloved film franchises of all time. Aliens.
Alien: Isolation is the product of a developer that’s unhappy with the state of AAA horror. Like many fans of the genre, myself included, they’ve noticed a growing lenience on action, as more developers try to make their games appeal to wider audiences. Creative Assembly isn’t afraid to show off Isolation. We’ve seen a fair amount of screenshots and gameplay footage already, and all of it looks remarkably similar to the film that started it all — the original Alien. It looks terrifying.
We were able to chat with Gary Napper, lead designer on Alien: Isolation. We learned a lot. Read on so you can too.
Interview by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
How did the concept for Alien: Isolation’s story come along? Is it the sort of thing you have been kicking around for some time, or did the particulars of the plot come about after the tech demo?
GN: We knew that we wanted to set the game near the first film. We have a real passion for that original design aesthetic and also the tension and fear of that original Alien. When we looked at the timeline we put ourselves in the universe and thought about the disappearance of the Nostromo. We simply asked the question: “who would be looking for it?”. Aside from Weyland-Yutani, we thought it would be the families. This led us to Amanda Ripley and the story naturally evolved from there.
I’ve seen elsewhere that the crew at Creative Assembly are making an Alien game they would want to play. How does this particular franchise tie in to your design philosophy?
GN: Our design philosophies at Creative Assembly revolve around creating new, believable and understandable mechanics that the player can relate to and understand easily. That approach of easy to understand, tricky to master informs a lot of what we do from our hacking interactions to the advanced design of the Alien. I think the Alien is a natural fit to this because we want to stay true to the original feel of the film, we are not creating any holographic markers or in world pointers to give you clues on the Aliens behavior. This means that all of its actions have to be understood through its behavior, sounds and animation.
How has Creative Assembly’s production background affected the way people approach asking questions about the game. CA isn’t necessarily known for horror, so have people brought that up, and how do you respond?
GN: Creative Assembly originally started by making sports games! So the question back then would have been, “how can a sports studio make an RTS?”. However, we are in a slightly different situation as this team is a separate team to the Total War section of the studio. A lot of us came to this studio from places like Crytek, Ubisoft, EA, Rockstar etc. to make this game. Creative Assembly also took on some seriously talented people from across the film industry. Between us we have a lot of experience and passion for this game.
Most of the coverage makes a point of distinguishing between Alien and Aliens. How has that helped to clarify your vision of the game you wanted to make?
GN: That distinction was something that we made right from the beginning. No one has ever really made that feeling of being hunted by the Alien. Being unprepared to deal with the creature in a strange environment and feeling total fear. This was always the goal for the game and was a clear aspiration for us. That being the case, it was always going to be Alien rather than Aliens that we took our reference from.
It seems as though games like Outlast and the Amnesia games have helped horror developers move away from pure action and combat to more eerie, mood-based experiences. How has that shift affected your own perspective on moving forward with Isolation?
GN: Whilst we have a similar feel, atmosphere and mood that you mention to games like that, we have a deeper gameplay with regards to the abilities of the player and also the complexity of the Alien’s systematic AI. It has been interesting to see the comparisons to games like Amnesia and Outlast and from the parts of the game we have chosen to show, it is easy to see how people would make that connection. If you look at some of the original survivor horror games that we love like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, all of them have guns or weapons so for us, having an ability to defend yourself or at least construct something useful from the environment was a must.
How solitary will the gamer’s experience be? Will he or she encounter many NPCs throughout?
GN: There are other threats aboard the station other than the Alien. These include civilians; not all of them are a threat though and some are just innocent survivors trying to escape. It was important to us to make the station feel lived-in and like a real place that could exist, and part of that was the inhabitants. We didn’t want to make a “run and gun” combat game where everyone was trying to kill you, but there will be the odd group of humans who are definitely not friendly towards Ripley.
What survival horror games inspired you? Or, if there aren’t games that provide you with a creative direction, what moments from horror – beyond the film – make you excited about this project?
GN: It is difficult to answer that on behalf of the team as we all play so many games and have a wide variety of influences. Speaking personally, I play so many different types of games it is hard to narrow one down that has inspired me. I am a huge fan of Dead Space and as mentioned, the Resident Evil and Silent hill games but I would say that probably games like the Half-Life Series, Bioshocks, Zeldas and Metroid-vanias, have been an influence at least.
The idea of an alien as the lone enemy makes for an interesting concept. What are some ways you plan on maintaining tension?
GN: As mentioned before, we chose to show a very small part of our game experience so that people could get to grips with the core idea of a single Alien and how that would play out. We have a very strong narrative flow to the game that is supported by some great level design and interesting world mechanics. Match this against our advanced AI systems and as a designer, you are left with a large toolset of abilities and combinations that you can introduce and balance through the games missions and levels.
Can you talk a little bit about how the non-scripted, dynamic AI will work for the alien itself? What factors will affect its behavior and so forth?
GN: The Alien is a systematic AI entity that has a complex set of behaviors designed around a sense system. The Alien can hear, see light and movement and is aware of multiple targets at once. His behavior is designed to take this information and react accordingly. He starts by exploring an area for any signs of movement or sounds but does not follow a prescribed path. At this point he isn’t even searching for the player, just signs of any target. When he hears or sees something, he then narrows his search to the area that he has detected something within. From then on he reacts to what he is seeing depending on the target and their actions. This of course is just his low level behavior and any more would spoil the magic!
How much of the Nostromo will players be able to traverse? How linear is the path to completion, and how will the dynamic AI affect the player’s route?
GN: The game is set on Sevastopol Station and the player will be able to explore every area that we have built. The Narrative flow of the game takes place in set areas but the player is free to explore the station between and sometimes during missions. Whilst the story is linear in nature, the encounters and routes are not. Each player will have different experiences because of this and this also means a lot of emergent gameplay.
Other than setting traps and crafting weapons, how will players interact in meaningful ways with the world? Will there be puzzles, for example?
GN: We have several world based interactions such as hacking and some other interesting mechanics but we also have world puzzles that are area based and use several mechanics together. We have power balancing and technical or mechanical puzzles but we don’t have any dungeon style pressure switches or push blocks!
What other kinds of obstacles will be present, beyond the Xenomorph?
GN: As mentioned above, we have other threats aboard the station and several environmental mechanics and situations to solve. Plenty to do and plenty that can kill you.
How long will the single player experience be? I know that you’re not working in multiplayer, but are there plans for any sort of DLC?
GN: We have found this number tricky to nail down! As the player has a lot of choice in how to play the game, we are seeing a lot if variation in the timings of playthroughs. The small demo slice of the game that we have shown has had people play it and complete it in twenty five minutes, and others spend well over an hour playing it. We are not announcing any plans for DLC currently.
Is watching the film over and over again a kind of mandatory homework for anyone associated with the project? Is there a particular scene that became shorthand for the tone you wanted to achieve with this game?
GN: The film is pretty much on loop on the large screens in our studio each day. I also have it on my iPad and Blu-ray versions at my desk. No one is forced to watch it but everyone does because it is so great. One of my favorite stories from the team at the moment is that one of our programmers was watching the movie on one of the big screens here, and couldn’t work out if it was the game or the film for a good minute or so.
Why has the Alien franchise remained such an influential one? What, for you, demands that you make a game 35 years after the first film’s release?
GN: Alien was such a huge film and has had a massive impact on horror and sci-fi. Its influence has been clear and can be seen in the visual design of things like Duncan Jones’ Moon and even games like Halo. It has been described by Danny Boyle as one of the “holy trinity of serious Sci-fi” along with 2001 and the original Solaris by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is in the top 50 movies of all time on IMDB and everyone who has seen it remembers the fear from seeing the crew face that single Alien. We wanted to make this experience simply because, we haven’t played it in any other game.
Alien: Isolation arrives later this year for PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4.