The generic AAA design killed the horror genre: the best we get today are horror-themed action games. Against those, Alien: Isolation slithers onto the market as a masterclass of tension and atmosphere. Every fog-addled corridor and murky CRT monitor emits the grungy low-tech future that Scott corkscrewed into our hearts in 1979. We join Amanda Ripley as she ventures out to the space station, Sevastopol, which intercepted the flight recorder from her mother’s destroyed ship. When Amanda arrives, she discovers that there’s a greater threat than the dollish robots and angry Libertarians populating the Bioshock-esque interior.
The game is structured area-by-area with an overarching objective laid out Metroid-style on a map. Often, that area will require a new skill or weapon to access. You read terminals, check the map, wander corridors, backtrack, and sift through drawers for bits of rubber and balls of string. Occasionally a quick-time prompt will ask you to unlock a door or hack a computer. Even more rarely, you’ll have to shoot something.
But this game isn’t about shooting or crafting. The titular Alien turns seemingly tedious elements into an interactive synergy of light and sound. Its ruthless AI clambers after your scent, appearing and disappearing without a predictable pattern. It carefully sizes up your rights as the protagonist of its game and devours them. You cannot treat it like an enemy in a game: only by thinking of the experience as PVP can you hope to survive. It will only take the Alien tricking you into an ambush one time to come to this conclusion yourself.
A unique control scheme integrates the tension to the instincts of your fingers. The buttons are mapped to such actions as leaning, holding your breath, and focusing your vision on the fore or background. You will need all of these as you navigate the slick halls lit only by slivers of light stabbing through the slats of a beige-paneled service door. The team at Creative Assembly re-orchestrated the original film score into a haunting five-hour atmosphere generator. Their modeling of the human faces leaves something to be desired. But the Alien has never been more visceral. Playing takes a physical toll on you, in the way great horror always does.
Many people can’t enjoy Alien: Isolation. It doesn’t let you destroy worlds as a one-man army or offer any solutions in cheats or guides that can get you through the experience. Typical horror games like Five Nights at Freddy’s are great for YouTube reactions, but from a design standpoint they are to horror games what a jack-in-the-box is to toys: an anticipated shock of the senses. At a certain point I realized that the divisiveness of Alien: Isolation stems from the fact that it isn’t actually a video game, as we understand them. It’s a fear simulator that you won’t understand until you take on the beast emergent in its program for yourself. If you’ve never played it, prepare for Alien: Covenant with a flawed and beautiful experience that you owe yourself. It’s long and frustrating and scary and strange but the best relationships always are.