(Note: This analysis of the narrative of Creative Assembly’s ambitious game does not feature any spoilers until the final few paragraphs. I note in the piece at which point these spoilers begin, so those who have yet to play the game and don’t want to have the story ruined can still follow along until then. Bear in mind that I do speak obliquely about events in both Alien and Aliens, but then if you haven’t seen those films already then you should unplug your internet until you’ve done so.)
There is a moment, towards the finale of Ridley Scott’s Alien, as Ripley is making a last-ditch effort to escape the impending destruction of her ship, that she rounds a corner to find the titular creature blocking her only means of reaching the lifeboat. Frantic, Ripley abandons her plan, returns to the command deck and attempts to override the auto-destruct sequence. A moment too late, Ripley realizes in a furious panic that she must risk the corridor or die. The moment is one of utter terror and dread, complemented by the dazzling mise-en-scene of the spaceship in its turbulent death throes. Now imagine if Ripley had gone back to the lifeboat to discover its door sealed, and imagine also that she improvises a new plan, one that takes her down an elevator shaft, which leads to a new section of the ship, in which a maintenance android patrols the grounds, and she must run around turning off switches and logging into terminals to override doors, before getting into a spacesuit and walking along the outside of the hull to manually force her way into the lifeboat, which is carrying an alien that she then has to defeat. The scenario would be absurd, overdone, and would exchange the viewer’s panic and terror for tedium and frustration. Nonetheless, this contrived scenario roughly approximates the exercise in excessive paces that Alien: Isolation puts the player through.
I am not the first to note these narrative excesses in the game, numerous reviewers were quick to criticize this aspect of an otherwise commendable game, yet they often did so with a brief rhetorical flourish about the length making the game dull and repetitive. While I agree with their conclusion, I think this problematic aspect of the game is worth taking a more sustained and critical look. Before I begin I should say I found the game design exemplary and the graphics terrific, but like some other gamers and reviewers, I too was dismayed at the interminable length of the game. I often wondered while playing whether the game was designed to be completed over a series of weeks, in two-hour blocks perhaps, but while playing it seems quite clear that the game clearly isn’t designed to be consumed episodically. The entire story unfolds almost uninterrupted, some chapters fold into the next without ostensible interruption, and the game makes no attempt to sequester its various acts into an episodic format. Reading the positive reviews of gamers, I noted a recurring tendency for them to disagree with the consensus that the game is too long. For them, the game’s length was an asset rather than a problem, and they saw the complaints of the game’s length as haters trying to find fault where none existed. The script even received a nomination from the Writer’s Guild of America, so who are we to bitch? Well, in a way they have a point, it’s not that any of the scenarios in the game are in themselves ridiculous or entirely out of place in the Alien franchise, and it’s certainly a step up from Gearbox Software’s cash-grab Aliens: Colonial Marines released the year before. But if I may be so bold, non-gamer that I am, I want to offer a critique of the game’s length from a narratological perspective, that is to say, to examine the logic of the game’s story. I want to argue that the narrative flow of the game suffers as a result of the writers inability to craft a concise narrative to guide their unabashed love for all things Alien.
Though the writers are clearly fans of the franchise, this love balloons into obsessive compulsion by the end of the game, as though they wanted to create a virtual romp through every major plot point of the Alien franchise, with Ripley’s daughter substituting for Ripley. Now, if the writers were trying to do an ironic critique of the narrative of the films, which always begin contemplatively, lead to a succession of cliffhangers and always conclude with a startling return of the titular foe for the hero to vanquish, the results might have made the length of the game more palatable. As it stands, the first twelve hours of the game follow roughly this formula. But the length seems more a product of three writers unwilling to cut any idea they’d developed for the plot. Worse yet, pacing is almost non-existent in this game. Climaxes lead to yet more climaxes, which might then include long stretches of isolation, followed by more climaxes, before ending, unbelievably, with a series of deus ex machina anticlimaxes. The events of the game’s final four hours blend with all the nuance of ingredients thrown into a high-speed mixer.
Since the plot of the game invites comparisons to the films in the series, consider how crucial the arrangement of plot was in the success of the first two films. Aliens especially is an exercise in patience. It takes nearly 70 minutes before an alien even rears its ugly little head; the lead-up is spent using all the tools of the cinematic craft to evoke an atmosphere of dread and foreboding, which complements the relentless pace of the film’s final 70 minutes. The first ten or twelve hours of Alien: Isolation roughly follows this template: it takes nearly 3 or 4 hours before the creature appears, and by the end of this first half the tension is almost unbearable, until the alien is finally dispatched and the game seems ready to guide the player to its conclusion, but then the game continues after this ostensible end. And continues. And continues. For another 10 hours. To give you a sense of how interminable it all becomes, imagine that after the finale of Aliens, Ripley then found herself on-board an overrun Sulaco, and had to move floor by floor towards the lifeboat for safety. And then, after that, there was another ship to run through, and then another, each with an increasing degree of danger. Indeed, save a few details, this is roughly what occurs in Alien: Isolation, and after roughly 14 hours of gameplay. Had any of the films attempted this, their structure would have collapsed under the weight of their narrative digressions, but it’s as if the game’s writers never stopped to consider when enough content was enough.
The ironic failure of the game then is that it offers too much gameplay. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t offer new gameplay so much as it rearranges the mechanics of an otherwise sound game. Towards the later half of the game you’re playing a series of challenge maps tethered together by a loose story. “This time you’re in a series of rooms and there are multiple aliens!” “Now you’re in a series of narrow corridors and there’s only one!” “Now there’s robots!”. It becomes a game of permutations rather than a story.
Part of this absurd length seems mandated by the game’s style, which offers an unbroken flow of narrative. Ripley only arrives at a new location because the player brought her there–the game never cuts to the chase. Yet that cutting is what becomes so vital in film for establishing and maintaining pace. We don’t need to see Ripley run all the way from the hive in the bowels of the ship to the lifeboat in Alien Resurrection, we get roughly 5 shots totalling 30 seconds punctuated by a rather absurd, death-defying leap over a yawning chasm (I never claimed Alien Resurrection had an intelligent story, ok?). However, because the game style dictates we can never break from the uninterrupted POV of Ripley, the same moment from the film would dictate that the player must navigate through every room, past every obstacle, and thereby turn what would otherwise be a burst of cinematic energy into a gaming slog.
Another gameplay factor that contributes to the interminable length of the game is the sometimes questionable decision to limit the player to whisper-quiet crawling for much of it, since any sudden noise (especially running) triggers an almost immediate game-over as the acoustically sensitive baddies come running after you. This is understandable in moments of quiet dread, but somewhat perplexing during the more climactic moments. Even when sirens are blaring, lights strobing and things are falling apart–moments when the game seems to be demanding you to run for the nearest exit–the design often mandates that you crawl from hiding spot to hiding spot, just as you did when there was only a hyper-alert alien stalking you.
This disregard for pacing hobbles any sense of narrative momentum. Alarms continuously warn you to escape, but the level requires you to expend 20 minutes in the process. Even Ripley’s escape at the end of Alien mercifully ends after 8 minutes, and that’s even with her backtracking. Interestingly, the studio mandated director’s cut of the film gives us an example of pacing injured by the insertion of extraneous material. In the new version, Ripley’s escape is delayed by her discovery of the alien nest, and the sordid fate of her crew. Scott once explained his reason for the deletion was that the scene hurt the pacing of the film: Ripley’s trying to escape and then the scene becomes needlessly complicated and extended. Even though in the intervening years Scott changed his mind and decided to reinsert the scene, astute viewers will notice slight differences between the original cut of the scene included on the original DVD and the new material added to the film. The newer cut runs significantly shorter, Ripley’s indecision at the end is replaced by quick determination. The new cut is a detour, but Scott keeps it mercifully short. Based on the substantial excess in story, Alien: Isolation seems to think more of everything is necessarily better. It seems eager to provide you as lengthy an experience it can provide, even if that means returning to old areas just for the sake of running through them again with flame effects added.
Here below there be spoilers to the ending of the game:
All of these design mechanics would not prove so problematic if the game kept the core of the story in stark focus throughout. Unfortunately, this game’s narrative is a mess of subplots and digressions that diminish rather than enhance the main goals of the game. At its core this game features one main character with one thematic goal: Amanda wants to discover the truth about her mother’s disappearance. Any player aware of Alien canon knows that this goal is doomed to end in tragedy for the hero, and the game satisfies this end as best as possible. The game also features a literal goal, one implicit to the very genre it belongs to: survival-horror. The weakest parts of the game for me occurred when the game abandoned the thematic goal in favour of the mere literal goal, while the game succeeded brilliantly when its thematic goal drove the narrative and survival served only as a game mechanic. Survival as a main goal is too broad to anchor any narrative exclusively. Yet this game tries, offering hour after hour, level after level, in which the only goal (other than to go from point a to point b, sometimes throwing a switch in-between) is to survive. After Amanda accomplishes her main goal, a quasi-reconciliation with her dear old mum that is bittersweet and altogether too brief, the writers should have given some serious consideration to ending the game shortly after, maybe with a quick denouement that has Amanda escaping to safety. Instead, the game continues for another several hours, tacking on more needless subplots until finally achieving this obvious resolution. The length is pointless because the main goal has been satisfied and the remaining goal is weak, it functions only to keep the game going. The length becomes boring because it no longer functions on narrative, but on plotted moments, as if forgetting it featured more than 20 hours of such things.
A further note on the reconciliation scene seems useful, for here again the game design betrays the potential for a truly cathartic pay-off. Rather than show us Amanda’s reaction to her mother’s farewell message, we instead maintain Amanda’s point of view listening to an audio recording of her mother. The entire scene is conducted exclusively through sound then. Some might consider this an interesting design mechanic, and I’m sure there’s an argument to be made for the style of this mechanic, but I for one wonder if the game makers didn’t trust themselves to adequately render the necessary emotional nuance on Amanda’s face. After all, the game provides cutscenes at the beginning and during the middle which show Amanda’s face, but this moment is left curiously inert. I can’t imagine how much more satisfying the scene would have been had the gamers been privy to the devastating range of emotions Amanda would have been put through listening to this message: excitement, grief, elation, and finally frustration for a hopeful reconciliation that can never be. I would’ve gladly traded 10 hours of gameplay for the makers to give us that single shot. For all the months they must have spent planning, programming and debugging those hours, they might have better spent their efforts on perfecting those two minutes of facial animation in the game.
How then is this game supposed to be played? How is it intended to be enjoyed? Even played piecemeal, over several days, the game is still exhausting. The style robs the drama of its impact, the length does the same. The narrative is overstuffed with continuations, as if a child were rambling about a story and beginning each new idea with the coordinating phrase “and then…” And yet… Less is often more, especially when there’s nothing left to say.