The making of Alien: Isolation

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“This was absolutely core,” says Hope. “From day one, that was what we were going to do. We’ve always been massive fans of the first film, and this all came about because it felt like no one had ever created that experience in a game. It looks awesome. It’s really beautifully realised and considered. It’s very believable, and that’s one of the great things about that film. It’s very credible, even today.”

Hope describes Isolation’s future as mundane and grounded in reality, and says that this actually supports the horror. “It’s not technology that’s going to help you survive. When you watch Alien, there’s no sense that there’s a locker somewhere with a big gun that’s going to be the answer to the crew’s problems. Despite all this technology—which is downplayed in the film—it’s about using your instincts to survive.”

Survival is what sets Isolation apart from other Alien games, but there was a greater focus on weapons early in its development. Weapon crafting was planned, but ultimately discarded. “We thought about what people would want to do in order to survive. We explored different ideas, and one of them was fashioning weapons to defend yourself. That was quite early on, but then we realised that this game isn’t really about pulling the trigger.”

Even though it was cut, Hope says this was an important experiment. Trying things like this made them realise that the core survival concept was powerful enough to stand on its own. As well as crafting, they also experimented with viewpoint. “At one point we were exploring a thirdperson camera. It was interesting, but it was a different experience. We preferred the immediacy and intimacy of first-person. In thirdperson it became a game about jockeying the camera and looking after your avatar. But in first-person it’s you that’s being hunted. If you’re hiding behind an object and you want to get a better view of your surroundings, you have to move.”

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To imagine what it would be like to have the alien hunting you, The Creative Assembly used the surroundings of their Horsham studio as a starting point. “At the very beginning, we thought about what it would be like to encounter and survive against that original alien. If we released one in the studio, what would we do? That was a really interesting exercise.”

There were no heroes. “No one said they were going to find a gun and shoot the thing dead, because that wasn’t part of the universe we were playing in. It wasn’t about using strength, but real-world instincts and experiences to help you survive. Some people said they would throw something to distract it, and we wanted to bring that instinctive desire to manipulate the world and change the odds into the game.”

We thought about what it would be like to encounter and survive against that original alien. If we released one in the studio, what would we do?

One thing that was notably missing from Isolation was the alien’s famous acid blood, which in the films can melt through metal like it’s polystyrene. “We had some cool ideas around it,” says Hope. “But it felt like we were starting to make an alien simulator, rather than something that would be a fun experience. Having holes appearing in the world starting steering the game in a weird direction, and so it seemed like it would be a better idea not to make a feature of it.”

But this creative licence aside, the game sticks remarkably close to the film—sometimes to the point that some story moments, to me, felt too obviously signposted. But even this, it seems, was intentional. “We wanted to tell a story that was really closely associated with that first film,” Hope tells me. “Amanda being Ellen Ripley’s daughter... the Nostromo’s flight recorder... and positioning the story to take place fifteen years later.”

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One chapter, titled ‘Beacon’, sees you switching roles to play as Marlow, a scavenger who ends up on LV-426, tracking the same ‘distress call’ the Nostromo did. This gives you a chance to see the derelict up close, and is a real treat for Alien fans. “We thought that if you’re going to put an alien on a remote space station, you need to explain how it got there. Having Marlow and his crew visit the planet and rediscover the derelict did that, and just seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.”

Then, later, the game throws its biggest surprise at you: two aliens. I ask Hope why they decided to do this, after marketing the game so heavily as starring a single creature. “We wanted to turn the tables on you a little bit. If you’re starting to feel a bit more confident around the alien at that point, we make things doubly worse. I did wonder what the response was going to be.”

They always intended to introduce another alien, and built the AI around having two of them working in unison. “They’re gonna kill me for saying this, but it was as easy as just placing another alien in the level. But only because they did such a good job with this creature that it can look after itself.”

The reveal that there are multiple aliens on Sevastopol made me wonder if all the encounters preceding it were with different creatures, rather than—as you’re led to believe—just one. I ask Hope, but he seems reticent to answer. “I’m happy for players to interpret that for themselves. No one on Sevastopol knows all the answers. Amanda doesn’t, and neither does the player.”