James Cameron’s Aliens is as different from its original as a refutation. Ellen Ripley must now find it in herself to defeat evil with a self-assured grin, rather than endure its dismembering gaze. Where the creature in Alien was a specter of perfect foreignity, of masculine rage, of terrible Other-ness, the same monster in the sequel is a bug squashed by the plot twelve dozen ways. Aliens is empowering in precisely equal measure to its original’s exposition of terror, as enabling as Alien was voyeuristic. This relationship is why the Cameron film is quite possibly the single most prevalent cinematic influence on video games, and why Ridley Scott’s original is only seen from the corner of the industry’s eye.
But how essential are those corners! If you’re one of a multi-ethnic group of muscular marines awakening from cryo-sleep to sass your way through enemy hordes, you are playing the evolution of Cameron’s bullet fragments of plot-directed humor, arranged in new patterns but no more insightfully. If you are breathing atmosphere through your eyes, if you feel your identity as a player challenged by a digital threat, if your video game contains Jungian nightmare mazes with Minotaurs in the middle, you are living in the atmosphere of Alien.
This doesn’t happen often. But in such diverse passages as corridor exploration in Bioshock, as the comedically Elektra-obsessed conversations with the matronly GLaDOS in Portal, video games expose this one all-important filament of their fragile hearts, which they share with Scott: their psychology. Alien is a film about turning subjects of destruction into objects of identification: main characters become props, fleeing down halls, hiding in cabinets, trembling in their beefy thighs. It becomes more than other slasher films when it conflates murder with H.R. Giger’s architecture porn and Ron Cobb’s futuristic apocalypses of uncleanliness. The stars of this film are competent action heroes, not lost campers. Their adversary has no ability to want anything from them or to invite their sympathy or understanding. Ripley slurs with repressed rage the name of the unfeeling computer (“MOTHER!”) and unmistakably recants the guidance that brought her here, to this point in her life, fleeing down shafts with a flashlight and no gun from a monster for whom murdering Player 1 is just part of its program.
Despite revealing some of gaming’s most inciteful passages, disempowerment is not an easy or popular solution to the problem of thematic consistency in video games today. They are made in an industry that would love to be cognizant of player goals and limitations despite adhering only to the holy text of the action film, the “kiss kiss bang bang.” My example of the multi-ethnic marines could describe so many games it goes beyond genre: it’s an industry standard. Gears of War is stuffed to choking on Cameron-esque battle banter; Halo even features enemies that look kind of like the Alien. Destiny owes Aliens the pace of its battles, as does any game with an inevitable propulsion to the lair of a boss. The final fight in Aliens could have health bars for how explicitly it casts the protagonist in a test of battle against the enemy of the film. Cameron always solves his problems with gunfire.
Of course, only games by Bungie would be so creatively barren as to steal Aliens consciously and brag about it in the visuals. Most games probably don’t realize that the biggest bug-hunt in the movies has directed their moves before they were even polygons on the work document. But Aliens is by no means the only film that has influenced video games – it’s simply the one whose breath comes closest to my neck-hairs when I consider the state-of-the-art shooting we pass as art and the art we sometimes pass as video games.
Listening to a briefing, going to a place, and shooting the enemies is a list of interactive commandments, easy to follow, to understand, and to sell. Revolution against this code will always produce difference, and sometimes difference becomes magic. Silent Hill 2 borrows from no icon of horror so much as the Xenomorph when it crafts the perfect phallic tormentor of poor Sunderland’s nightmares: the invincible Pyramid Head, dragging his sword, staring from no eyes. He is Sunderland’s unkempt psychology and rage fantasies. He is a machine of perfect death, not because of what he does, but what he represents.
This kind of symbolic fantasy is too often lost on video games because it requires disempowerment, which is much harder to program than enablement. Appearances of emotions that happen at the player are simple to plan: the death of an NPC in a cut-scene, the movement of the plot through non-interactive story elements of any kind, a text-blurb from your radio contact in the corner. For an emotion to happen to the player, it has to happen through interaction, and this requires balancing the player’s strength with the intended mood, the fearful intent with the interactive result. This is why games that strive to be atmospheric throw away their cut-scenes, why Alien: Isolation, in order to be incisive and scary, bases nothing in its entire program on a James Cameron film.
Scott’s Alien is a film most violent to its audience: the characters are our avatars. We make more discoveries than they do, about human nature, the ethics of violence. What we gain has an immersive quality that puts our life on the line. This is hard to accept for a video game player, who wants to be praised, who wants to achieve, who is coddled by retry screens and playful NPC banter and multiplayer deathmatches and limitless ammo. Someone said once that character is not what you say or do but what you withhold about yourself. This is in video games as in people: the ones with art in their bones have secrets. Discovering them is what makes playing worth it.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: email@example.com