Last year I played through Aliens: Colonial Marines. Like many out there I hated the game; as a shooter it was unrefined and boring, as an Aliens game it was awful. It felt like it was made by a team who had never watched the James Cameron classic and who had no understanding of the Alien universe. This was made even more upsetting due to the expectations created by misleading pre-release footage, and the developer constantly professing a love and respect for the franchise.
This year SEGA is publishing another game set in the Alien universe and this time it looks really interesting. Of course, the problem is this was the position we were in last time. Aliens: Colonial Marines looked promising, it looked like the developer understood the franchise and were going to deliver the kind of Alien game we wanted. This didn't happen of course, and it's possible that we will be burned again by the newly announced Alien Isolation. However, ignoring this very valid criticism for now, we will instead focus on why Alien Isolation could be the Alien game we want. The key point being that the direction this product seems to be taking is the one the franchise needs.
Xenomorphs are no strangers to video games, they have appeared in a handful of good titles and a number of bad ones. However the one recurring theme is the focus on meshing the Alien mythology with the Predator franchise, or on following in the footsteps of the movie Aliens. This is a move that makes a lot of sense and that fits in with how video games are perceived.
Video games are commonly perceived as a violent medium, one populated by killing simulators and frequented by teenage boys. To an extent this is hardly surprising, a lot of the more popular and mainstream games are the violent ones. On top of this, the interactive medium of video games meshes very well with action. Action movies work because they get your heart pumping - they are exciting. However, with movies you are only watching. With games you get to interact with the action and be immersed in it, thus creating the potential for a much more exciting experience. Games in the past have pulled this off very well and focusing on this makes for a safe product
Action games sell, the appeal makes total sense and consumers lap them up. Taking this into account makes dealing with the Alien franchise in video games seem like an easy decision to make. It's a hugely popular franchise and conventional action games make a lot of money. Popular genre plus popular franchise equals profit. Therefore you take the obvious route and base your game on the action movie. Aliens.
Aliens is one of most highly regarded action movies ever made. It has been imitated and cribbed from to the extent that the original seems clichéd to a modern viewer, but in reality it has a very special place as a benchmark film in its genre. Basing a video game off it is a very good business decision. It doesn't necessarily make for a great game though, as what is appealing about Aliens as an action movie doesn't tie up with the appeal of popular action games.
One of the taglines of the movie Aliens is 'this time there's more'. This and the pluralised title give a pretty heavy indication of the impetus behind this movie. The original Alien was a masterclass in suspense, it had one enemy and showed how dangerous it was. Just one. One xenomorph is more than a match for a ship's crew, imagine if there were more. This is the driving force behind Aliens, one was terrifying and this time there are several. It's simple escalation and it works. The reason it works though is because the movie goes through with it, it sells the point that one is dangerous enough, a whole army of them is unstoppable.
Aliens is largely responsible for the space marine archetype, big burly soldiers who are almost invincible. However, Aliens uses this to show (once again) how dangerous xenomorphs are. The marine corp are shown as the epitome of 'badass', but not even they are prepared for an encounter with the eponymous aliens. In Aliens direct confrontation is disastrous, the marines are not a match for the xenomorphs, and it is only by retreating and nuking the planet from orbit that they gain some kind of victory.
The actual movie Aliens doesn't match up with the appeal of conventional action games, and this is a major reason for adaptations failing. Losing firefights against a superior foe over and over again doesn't fit in with the expectations of a populist action game. These titles are power fantasies primarily, and certainly don't place you in un-winnable scenarios. Aliens works as a film, but if you make the action parts playable it doesn't make for a great game. The victory part of Aliens works in a film also, but retreating and nuking isn't overly satisfying as an interactive experience. Aliens really isn't the fit for video games that developers think it is.
I think there is room for a great take on Aliens, but you would really have to rethink how you are structuring your game. It's possible to make a compelling product where failure is the likely outcome of a combat scenario, but this is relatively unproven. Putting out that kind of game would be risky and isn't the kind of move a big studio would make while dealing with a big license. A better move is to take inspiration from Alien instead, and this is why Alien Isolation looks interesting.
Survival horror has had a resurgence recently. A number of popular games have shown that a singular foe that you can't engage with in combat can be a great basis for a game. Titles like Slender: The Eight Pages and Amnesia: the Dark Descent put the player in a position where they are the somewhat hunted. They create tension by way of defenselessness and have laid the ground work for a successful video game take on the film Alien.
Alien Isolation seems to fit this mold. It cribs from the original movie and places you in a situation with only one enemy. The xenomorph. You are shown as having no way of combating it and this makes for an immersive experience that captures the spirit of the horror classic. In fact, by doing this in a video game there is room to make this even better. Putting you in the scenario rather than having you as a passive observer heightens the tension and the immersion.
A realistic Aliens game would be frustrating, as you wouldn't survive or the act of survival wouldn't be fun. In emulating Alien though you have a different story, as surviving becomes the sole focus and can be achieved. Of course it is still unlikely, but this is why it works. The unlikely nature of the scenario creates tension, but it still feels winnable. You are not trying in vain to defeat enemies (like in Aliens), you are just trying to avoid a single enemy. This makes for a much more engaging experience and is something that could work excellently in a video game.
At this stage it is way too early to say if Alien Isolation will pull this off. But other games have shown that this kind of game does work, and they have been rather popular. Therefore I think it is safe to say this is the best move for the franchise. This enables a game to truly capture the appeal of the series, rather than devaluing the mythos by shoving it into a conventional shooter. Isolation may not be the game that we've been waiting for, but the direction it is taking is the best one. Aliens is a great movie, but Alien is a better basis for a video game.