Interview by Nathan Ditum
Aliens has become a touchstone for every action film and game since its release. You can't escape its influence - its in every hiss of steam above every metal catwalk, in every back-lit fan-blade throwing a flickering smoky beam in every deserted space station, in every slick proboscis intent on every act of body-horror. Perhaps more than all of these, the smart-mouthed military patter among Aliens' motley crew of marines continues to echo through film and TV. We sat down with Gearbox Software's Randy Pitchford, to find out how they approached the creation of Aliens: Colonial Marines and fit their ambitions within such a revered franchise.
How did you approach making a licensed game?
Randy Pitchford: I can't believe they trusted us with it. 20th Century Fox gave us the keys to the Aliens brand – what a place to be. When we went into it, when we first started interacting with Fox, we had a plan, we had a goal. You think about a big movie studio with such an important brand, the expectations are there are going to be a lot of controls, a lot of limits on it. But it turns out these guys really get how to work with talent. I think there's a reason why some of the most stubborn but incredible visionaries in storytelling, people like George Lucas with Star Wars, like James Cameron with everything from Avatar to Aliens, the reason these guys work with Fox is that Fox gets talent. Once they committed themselves to trusting us and the intent that we had, they've just been great. They know we love the brand, they know we care so much about Aliens that we would do nothing to hurt it, our intent is to make it stronger and better and add value to it.
How is it working with a property like the Alien films which have already inspired many other games?
RP: You know it's funny, if you work with something as important and inspirational as the Aliens franchise. So many of us have been inspired by this, and you can see things that we've all borrowed or stolen in our games. I always joke, I've been stealing from Aliens my entire career. What's odd about that is sometimes there are people, newer people in this world, that might be exposed to something for the first time with the derivative thing, not the original. For example, let's imagine you never saw Aliens and you played, like, when we put Halo on the PC. And you'd see all the dropships, “Woah, those are really cool designs!” And you'd have no idea that all those dropships were basically borrowed and iterated from James Cameron's designs in Aliens. Or you see the sergeant in Halo, the African-American dude with the cigar in the mouth, “Assholes and elbows, fall in!” That's just a straight up copy of Sergeant Apone from Aliens. I remember when I played Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare, and I'm walking through the ship on the very first level. There's a character called Vasquez, which is of course a character from Aliens. And another character pulls out a shotgun and says “I like to keep this handy for close encounters.” That's just a straight up line from the movie, we've all be inspired by this. To be able to jump into the source is a really interesting opportunity.
What kind of tone are you aiming for with the single-player game? The trailers have shown plenty of action, but there's been some horror in there too.
RP: One of the neatest things about these movies is, if you think about Ridley Scott's original film, Alien, it was really a survival horror film. It was a monster in the house scenario, where everybody's trapped, and the bad guy's going to get them one by one. When you contrast that with James Cameron's take, in Aliens, that was all out war. The tag line for the first movie was “In space, no-one can hear you scream.” The tag line for the second film was “This time it's war.” It was a hardcore action movie. What's great about a videgame is that it's not confined to just a 90-minute single arc, this videogame is an epic. We can span all of the different pacing, we can go from survival horror to hardcore action. Some of it's more exploratory, with more tension, more “Oh, God, what's around the corner?” If you've seen some of the trailers we've done for the game, or if you've had an opportunity to come to one of the trade shows and play the game, you might think “Oh God, are these guys focusing only on the action?” Well no of course. There are other sides to that coin.
It looks like you have the ship from the original Alien and Prometheus in the game. How does Prometheus fit with your game? Should we expect some crossover?
RP: It's interesting you noticed that. We call that the Derelict. It was the original alien craft in the first film, and inside there was the room with the Space Jockey and the giant gun, and the egg chamber and all that. The story in Aliens: Colonial Marines culminates in that ship. And we saw that ship again recently in Prometheus, and we learned there's more than one of them. And we don't have to call them Space Jockeys any more, Ridley told us we can call them Engineers. What's neat is that it all ties together, and Aliens: Colonial Marines has a part to play in this grander narrative, this grander fiction.
The action in Aliens: Colonial Marines takes place after Alien 3. Why choose that moment, after what was seen by some to be a less successful film?
RP: I really liked Alien 3. It was not the sequel I wished for from Aliens, but if I take Alien 3 as a standalone movie – you know it was David Fincher's first film – it was actually a really good film and played back to Ridley Scott's survival horror stuff. But if I go back to that itch I had after Aliens, that itch has never been scratched. The trick for us is scratching that itch, but doing it all in canon. We dove into the fiction, we thought about what took place in Alien 3 and the state of the universe at the end of Aliens. We imagined the motivations and decisions of Whelan-Yutani: Michael Whelan was there on Fury 161 there with Ripley when she martyred herself – what's he going to do next? What's Whelan-Yutani going to do next? What are the colonial marines going to do next? And what's up with the aliens? That whole derelict ship is still there on LV 426 and it was a thousand kilometres away from the atmospheric processor that only had a 40 kilometre blast radius, right? So those eggs are probably still there, and Whelan-Yutani is there on Fury 161 where the Sulaco was – they could board that ship, they knew where it came from, they could go back. We figured out a way to bring it all together. If you love the films, and had different feelings about Alien 3 – after Aliens: Colonial Marines, Alien 3 is better movie. I can't believe the way we cracked the nut on this, it's really fun.
That sounds really detailed. Do you think you have to be familiar with the films to get the most out of the game?
RP: We designed the experience and the narrative such that you don't have to have seen Aliens. I think there's a few factors. I think the Aliens fan is probably in, right? Then there's another customer that loves science fiction shooters, maybe Halo, Gears Of War, Borderlands. We wanted to make sure that even if they'd never seen Aliens, it still works. Now there's a lot of fan service in the game, but it's fan service done in a way where it doesn't depend upon you having knowledge of the films to enjoy that moment. For example, let me illustrate a point. In the movie, there's a moment in the hangar of the Sulaco next to the dropship where the alien queen appears. We thought the movie was over, that we're all going to be safe, and the alien queen appears by punching her tail /through/ Bishop, through the synthetic. You see it burst through his chest, raise him up, and rip him in half. His legs are over there, his torso is over here, and because he's a synthetic he survives, and is alive through this whole experience because he's an android. It's horrific. In Aliens: Colonial Marines, you board the Sulaco, and you're going to walk into the hangar. Now if you've never seen an Aliens movie you're doing to be like, “This room looks frigging awesome, that dropship looks cool.” You get on your headset, and you say “Captain, I see half of a dead synthetic here,” and the captain says “Which half?” And you say “Well, he ain't saying much,” and the captain says “Well find me the half that does.” Even if you've not seen the movies that's a really interesting exchange.