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On Sevastopol, Everyone Can Hear Everything

This happens a lot.

Some Alien: Isolation incidents:

1. I – meaning player character Amanda Ripley, of course – needed to get into a floor vent. Problem was, a guy with a gun was standing on the vent, and he had two friends with him. I hid under one of the may medical beds scattered around the corridors of Sevastopol, a remote space station that serves as the game’s setting, waiting for him to move. Instead, he stood there, staring at me.

Now, this is a game that doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make things easy on you. There’s no indicator indicating whether or not you’re actually hidden, for example. However, given that he was idly chatting as NPC characters tend to do when they’re just going about their everyday in-game business, I figured I was safe.

And perhaps I was, but not for long – soon enough, his chatter changed, indicating he had, in fact, spotted me, and I should probably come out all peaceful like. He also helpfully informed me I was running out of chances to do so.

This is also a game that’s free of power loaders and superhuman bullet-sponges alike (well, as far as the humans are concerned, anyway; synthetics are a different story, as is the xenomorph), so jumping out and blasting away wasn’t my best course of action (unless I wanted to test the game’s quickload feature, but it had been tested enough already and was just fine).

I didn’t move. But this guy was persistent, and he began shooting at me (he did warn me that I was running out of chances, so fair enough), the bullets glancing off the bedframe as his friends began prowling the corridor, weapons ready. I was doomed, and consigned myself to yet another do-over.

But lo, a clang and a screech. The Alien itself – which prowls the station of its own accord, and also has very good hearing – popped out of a nearby vent, attracted by the gunshots. It quickly dispatched the three bad guys in its usual, violent, xenomorphy way. And then, I experienced a bonafide space miracle – it didn’t see me, and wandered off down the hall.

Two important lessons here – first, the Alien doesn’t pick sides. Second, keep quiet.

2. I was creeping down another hallway at another point in the game. Ahead of me, another guy with a gun was on patrol. He left the corridor, entering a room, the door closing behind him. I, hiding under a hospital-type bed, made a (slow) break for it, sneaking up the hall, hoping to avoid him altogether.

The plan didn’t work. Just as I was passing the door, it began sliding open, and the man reemerged. I pulled out my revolver and shot him once, and then began scooting away, eyes on the shadows underneath another bed just ahead of me. There may be others with him, right?

I got to the bed and began ducking underneath. As I did so, I heard the last thing I wanted to hear: an escalating thump-thump-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP – the Alien, tearing around the corner, right toward me. I’m dead. I’m already reaching for whatever button skips those Ripley-death cutscenes, which I’ve seen far too many times already, thank you very much.

But – it charges right past me, stopping at the spot where I’d fired the gun, having been attracted by the bang. I stayed hidden and quiet and watched. It nosed around a bit, paced a bit, and then gave up, heading off down another hall.

3. An alarm was ringing. I needed to get from the room I was in to a waiting elevator. In my haste, distracted by all the whirling lights and wailing sirens, I missed the telltale drool trail that helpfully reminds the player not to walk under the ceiling vent said drool is trailing out of. I walked under the vent. Guess what happened?

This helpful Youtuber can show you (skip ahead to about 1:20 or so):

4. The first time you see the Alien is during a cutscene – this is before it begins randomly appearing and stalking around the levels. Up until then, you’re dealing with hazards of the human and environmental variety.

I won’t spoil the details, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in this particular cutscene, one non-player character is offed, and how. This is an Alien game, after all. Ripley is spared, but stunned, and when the player regains control, you’re given the objective of getting the hell out of there (not in so many words).

One of the many genius design decisions of this game is how it continually forces players to wait. At this particular moment, the wait was for a transit vehicle to arrive and take you somewhere else.

Behind me, down a hall a ways and around a corner, was the place where that cutscene happened. The thing was still back there, its screeches echoing down the corridor. The music swelled. And I had to stand there waiting. I kept checking back over my shoulder, expecting to see the Alien thundering out of the darkness, screeching toward me, fangs glistening, taloned fingers outstretched.

But it didn’t arrive. Meanwhile, the transit vehicle showed up. I got in, and went on to the next mission. Not sure if that was scripted, or if there’s a chance it will come down the hall or what. In any case, it’s an intense moment.

The game came out last year (I just picked it up, finally, in the Steam Halloween sale, which runs until tomorrow). Much has been made of it already – the reviews have been good, and there has been a lot of interesting coverage published, including stories discussing how the Alien itself works, as well as talk of sequels.

The game certainly has more in common with the film Alien than its pluralized sequel, and that goes beyond the fact that you’re playing as Ellen Ripley’s daughter (Isolation takes place between Alien and Aliens in the timeline).

The game is set on the space station Sevastopol, which is coming apart, having been decommissioned just before the player arrives. The remaining humans there are turning on each other as they fight to survive, and to make things worse, there’s a xenomorph on board.

There’s a scene in Alien that everyone remembers, when poor Captain Dallas enters the ventilation shafts as part of a plan to force the thing into an airlock and get it off their ship. The rest of the crew tracks Dallas and the Alien, the beeping dots getting closer and closer together as they frantically tell him to “get out of there.” Dallas can barely move in the tight, dark ventilation shafts. He’s forced to crawl and climb up and down ladders and use a weak flashlight to check the otherwise pitch-black tunnels. It’s an amazingly-tense sequence, and it all leads up to one of the best jump scares in cinematic history.

Like the film, the game is built to cause tension among players. Saving takes several seconds – there’s that waiting thing again – and doing so leaves you vulnerable. Saving isn’t a matter of hitting a hotkey or exiting to a menu; you do it in-game, manually, and in real time, meaning you’re easy prey for any xenomorphs that happen to pass by while you’re standing at a save station (there’s a good writeup on the game’s save system here).

You can’t see below you when you’re climbing a ladder. The motion detector is there, but it’s only accurate in one direction, and if you use it too often, you run the risk of other, less-friendly things hearing the beep. The UI is deliberately clunky – if you’re looting someone or something, for example, you need to press a button to stop, you can’t just walk away and have the window close automatically.

Running? Too noisy. The flashlight? Sometimes, just be careful.

There are weapons, but there’s very little ammo, and if you shoot, there’s a really good chance the noise will attract the Alien. You can craft things like noisemakers to misdirect enemies, or emp mines to help you get rid of those pesky synthetics, but crafting requires materials, which have to be found through exploration, which in turn gives the Alien more opportunities to clue in to where you are.

And that Alien, that’s something, isn’t it? It targets everyone equally (not the synthetics, of course). It’s loud, it’s inconvenient, it’s unpredictable, wandering around and changing directions on a whim. And it has enhanced senses that help it sniff the player out. And it learns – hide in lockers too often, it’ll be more vigilant in its locker checks.

And it’s always around. If it’s not stomping through the level directly in front of you, it’s always nearby – it’s above you, or below you, or beside you in the vents, listening, searching, getting closer and closer.

From that Kotaku article I linked earlier:

“It’s running under its own senses, mainly of sight and sound . . . When it’s in the pipework, in the vents, it’s just navigating around waiting to have one of those senses triggered. If you make a noise, [for instance]. [The alien will] navigate around the world looking and listening. If it doesn’t perceive anything it’ll just drop down and have a look. That could be at any point. It could come across humans and then you hear this gun fight and you see people running past windows.”

Having said all this, despite the constant pressure the game puts on you, I personally find it hard to say it’s scary, per se, and I am not a horror game guy by any stretch.

The reason why is simple: that thing that’s chasing you around? That’s a xenomorph. It’s really, really cool to be hiding under a bed or in a locker and see one of the most iconic monsters in movie history slinking by. It’s exciting, not terrifying. The fact that the game looks so incredibly good – from the environments to the characters to the Alien itself – doesn’t help. You’re experiencing Alien, first-hand, right down to the analog tape recorders and retro-futuristic computer consoles.

In all, it’s a great game, one of my absolute favourites. It’s beautiful to look at and a lot of fun to play (it may require some patience, however). Play it, would you? And then join me in wishing really, really hard for that sequel.

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