Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Alien games (and the only good one)

The 1979 movie Alien is one of the most influential and liked horror movies of all time, and helped entirely reshape and re-define a genre that's almost as old as cinema itself, and has been an enormous influence in subsequent sci-fi horror movies. It's one of those absolute masterpieces that almost completely revamped a much sillier genre, and introduced techniques and tropes that became ubiquitous.

It was followed in 1986 by a direct sequel, Aliens, which is at least as influential and liked, and also introduced many tropes to the genre that greatly influenced sci-fi horror.

Of course any movie franchise that's hugely popular must have video games based on it. Tons and tons of video games. But what kind of video games?

The two movies are quite different. The first movie is almost purely a horror movie. A lone, effectively all-powerful and indestructible scaringly fast and nimble Lovecraftian alien creature stalks the crew of the spaceship along its long dark corridors, while the crew is basically helpless to do anything against it, other than try to hide and evade. The only thing they can hope to do is to escape the ship, and leave it behind to be self-destroyed.

The second film is more of an action horror film. Now there are numerous alien creatures. Tons and tons of them. And the protagonists are professional soldiers armed to the teeth fight against them.

Guess which one makes for a "better" video game. Or at least a video game that's much easier to design and implement, and have some kind of sensible game mechanics. Which is why basically all video games based on the franchise are of the second type, with only one notable exception.

The problem with the majority of Alien games is that they suffer a lot from the "Worf effect". In other words, a character (or in this case, characters, or enemies) that's supposed to be extremely tough and powerful is beaten up again and again... and again... and again... ad infinitum. Often way, way too easily. When you can kill aliens by the dozens by just shooting a bit towards them, it really doesn't give you the feeling of them being so powerful and scary. Heck, in many Alien games it's actually easier to kill the aliens than in some first-person shooters it is to kill human enemies.

So the whole idea of a scary alien kind of loses its effect, when you can kill so many of them so easily. The whole idea kind of becomes lost. There just isn't that same feeling of the first movie.

With the exception of that one recent game, where they wanted to capture the spirit and feeling of the first movie, rather than the second one: Alien Isolation.

This game really is a love song to the first movie, and succeeds in replicating its look&feel really, really beautifully. Alien-style retrofuturistic 80's spaceships and spacestations, full of long dark corridors, and (for the most part) a single, essentially indestructible alien creature that stalks you and attacks you, and the only thing you can do about it is to avoid and flee. While this kind of game is really difficult to pull off convincingly, this game does it quite well.

What I really love about the game is its faithfulness to the source material. It captures the design and the spirit of the first movie beautifully, and it succeeds in being gritty and realistic, rather than corny. It helps that the graphical quality of the game is superb.


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