This article contains spoilers for Alien: Isolation.
Four years ago, a group of hardcore Alien fans—who also happened to be game developers—were given the opportunity of a lifetime: to make a game set in that distinctive sci-fi universe, and with the full blessing of franchise owners 20th Century Fox.
The result is Alien: Isolation, a brilliantly tense and atmospheric horror game, and the first spin-off that’s ever done HR Giger’s creature justice. While most Alien games look to James Cameron’s action-packed sequel for inspiration, The Creative Assembly used Ridley Scott’s original slow-burning 1979 horror classic as its template.
“Alien is unmistakably Fox’s property, but from the moment we pitched the original concept to them, they’ve been completely behind us,” says Alistair Hope, creative lead. “I think because we were trying to stay true in spirit to the original, they felt like it was in safe hands. It’s been a collaboration, but I don’t think we’ve ever come across anything where anyone’s said, ‘no, you can’t do that.’”
While most developers of licensed games are pressured to finish their work in time for a film’s release, The Creative Assembly worked under no such limitation. There hasn’t been an Alien film since 1997’s awful Resurrection (not counting the AvP series or Prometheus), and none are, as far as we know, in the works. “We had the best of both worlds. Something that was super familiar and established and brilliant, but we got to play in that space. There were very few constraints on us.”
To help them, Fox supplied an enormous archive of original production material—a whopping three terabytes of it. “It was like that moment in Pulp Fiction where they open the suitcase,” says Hope. “We were stunned that all this stuff existed. For them to be able to drop that amount of material on us was great. It gave us a really good insight into how that first film was made.”
The archive contained design blueprints, continuity polaroids, costume photography, concept art, and thousands of photos of the sets, all in high resolution. It wasn’t until they delved into this treasure trove that the developers realised they didn’t know Scott’s film as well as they thought they did.
“As fans we would have said, yeah, we know what the costumes look like, but it wasn’t until we got the archive that we could really look at the details in John Mollo’s costume design. We deconstructed them and tried to put that level of detail, care and attention into our costumes.”
Studying the material in depth was essential, he says. “You can think you know it inside out, but it’s not until you actually investigate closely that you get a full understanding of it.”
Look closely at the character model for Amanda and you’ll see a key around her neck. It looks like it’s from a fi ling cabinet or a lockbox, but this is the future, so it could be anything. It’s never addressed in the game, or in any of the DLC. I ask Hope to shed some light on it and he’s reluctant to answer. “I don’t think we need to explain everything,” he says after a long pause.
Developing the game also gave the team the chance to meet a key figure in the making of the film: editor Terry Rawlings. “That was amazing. The man’s a genius. He edited Blade Runner as well, so he can do no wrong. He was able to give us additional insight. He talked about the director’s cut and the famous deleted scene where Brett and Dallas are being turned into eggs. He said that once the alien was hunting the crew, to go to that shot actually just slowed everything down.”
Pacing is something Isolation excels at, mirroring the glacial tempo of the film, but never outstaying its welcome. “We felt like there was a good variety in the game. We wanted to keep changing things up, so that just as you were getting a bit more confident, we’d throw something new at you.”
Some critics found the game too slow and overlong. I ask Hope why he thinks there was such a split in opinion. “We tried to put as much into the player’s hands as possible. Pace can often be determined by your own play style and how confident you’re feeling.”
You can’t talk about the making of Alien: Isolation without mentioning that art design, which is one of the defining features of the game. Rather than go for a shiny, optimistic vision of the future, the artists created a lo-fi and realistic sci-fi world, directly informed by the production design of the film.