Tag Archives: Alien: Isolation

Winning Desire

Winning Desire

Who doesn’t love winning. It’s crazy to think there’s someone out there who needs to be motivated to want to win. There is, in fact, a veritable cadre of psychological studies regarding the impact on winning and losing. And guess what: it’s super important.

With that as a baseline of knowledge, now consider that video games are designed around the concept of succeeding. There is at some fundamental level in every game where there is a goal and it is to be accomplished. Even the most abstract or non-game-like products like Proteus have (equally abstract, non-game-like) goals, like explore or relax.

This makes it seems totally nutso when designers make the assumption that they have to go out of their way to make you want to win, as if it were their responsibility to instill the basics of human psychology into your brain. It’s as if they feel a need to remind you that being happy feels better than being sad, and then also telling you what it means to feel happy. It’s a level of handholding that isn’t necessarily insulting but certainly questionable.

Alien Isolation

Most of this came to mind recently when I was going back through last year’s backlog of games I either didn’t finish or didn’t play at all. One of those was Alien: Isolation, which I never fully got around to despite liking what I had played at E3 and doubly despite hearing from some of my horror-loving friends that it was good for a scare. And after getting a little into it, I realized they were right: this game is scary!

But then I kept playing. And it kept doing the same thing. The scares became annoyances. It wasn’t that I started to hold my breath because I mimicked the character out of sympathy fear but I started sighing because I knew I was about to die. Not only had I failed at the game’s and my own objectives to survive, but I also had at least 20 minutes of crawling over the same stretch of vents and tile floor ahead of me.

Certainly, I am not clean of the blame. I should have been more patient and I should have been more alert to the Working Joes around me. But there is a construct of the game which mechanically defeats the your own desire to not be defeated, and that is the save system. There absolute, discrete points in the game where you can save at, though more accurately I should say they are the only places you can save at.

Alien: Isolation

In the diegetic nature of the game, this makes sense. But for the gameplay, it’s highly problematic. I can’t be sure without talking to someone who worked on the game or seeing some design docs, but it seems to me that this is very specifically for heightening the tension of each stretch of non-saving. It should make your innate desire to win even stronger and fervent.

The problem is that it does exactly the opposite of that. It only serves to increase frustration when you die, leaving you with a bad taste of directed anger instead of personal regret. It forces you to redo the entirety of something that only ever existed to raise the stakes to a more interesting realm instead of an indignant one.

Following the repeat attempts, it further sucks out whatever tension that may be left with a knowledge of what to expect. This foresight combines with a deadman-walking, fuck-it kind of attitude that invariably leads to rushing from one door to the other until some confluence of luck and skill leads you to a success in a matter of seconds rather than minutes or hours. And when you can’t brute force your way, with the game aggressively guiding you to its draconian path of winning, it then becomes a controller-throwing affair.

Alien: Isolation

We, as players, inherently want to win. This idea that a game has to further our wired need for success is patently absurd. Instead, the consequence of failure should be born from an intermingling of mechanical and narrative needs. Let’s say, for a second, that the save system in Alien: Isolation was replaced with a modern auto-checkpoint system. How do you put back that design intent of heightened tension?

To answer that, let’s take a step back. The fear of the game itself comes from not knowing where the xenomorph is at any given time. Hearing and seeing the clues colliding with the less opaque threats of the world are where the drama comes in. So instead, the design intent should draw from that. Even with a more frequent set of checkpoints—let’s say at every doorway—a randomized but informed placement of the xenomorph and other localized threats should be enough to inspire inklings of anxiety.

This restates the primary desire to hide and remain hidden with every death, rather than putting some meta fear into the player that extrapolates some systemic assumption of raising stakes and ire. None of this is to say that any of this makes Alien: Isolation a bad game or that it is a bad game (I actually am enjoying most of my time with it), but it certainly brings to mind many questions of modern game design.

Alien: Isolation

Obviously liberal checkpoints aren’t a panacea nor should they be (see: Dark Souls), but the idea that we need to be coerced into wanting to win is troubling. Instead, the reward of succeeding should be heightened, even in the punishment of losing. What person would ever want to be pushed by the stick instead of led by the carrot?

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Trailer Roundup: Gods Will Be Watching, Dreamfall Chapters, and More

Trailer Roundup: Gods Will Be Watching, Dreamfall Chapters, and More

It sure has been a while since we’ve done one of these. E3 happened, which is safe to assume you kept up with by streaming the press conferences or checking out our highlight reels. And then those previews just kept pumping out. And then, well, I kind of forgot. Sorry!

But here we are again. Dear friends once more and ready to watch some clips of video games you can’t quite play yet but can discuss endlessly online with strangers, nemeses, and potted plants. This will stretch a bit beyond the last week, but hey, who’s to say when these trailers actually came out?

Oh yeah, the timestamp on YouTube. Well, let’s do this!

Gods Will Be Watching

If this trailer doesn’t intrigue you, then you’re probably dead. Or you had your eyes closed. Either way, try again, you heathen. You can actually try a bit of this game right now. Gods Will Be Watching was the result of Ludum Dare 28 where the theme was minimalism. And then it got crowdfunded on Indiegogo and is becoming a full-fledged product, coming out July 24.

Escape Dead Island

While not being the biggest fan of the Dead Island games—or at least not a fan of what they ended up being, but certainly appreciative of what they almost were—this looks to be a far enough departure that I consider its potential a blank slate. Escape Dead Island focuses more on stealth and the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the zombie outbreak than trying to keep limb slicing interesting for upwards of 30 hours. Find out more when it comes out this fall.

Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey

Fact about me: I loved The Longest Journey. I have no idea if it holds up or if it even really was as good as I remember it (boy is the past a tricky thing), but I’m fairly excited for the Kickstarted Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey. Talking with people who have gotten hands-on with it, it sounds like its writing is wicked sharp and its poignancy pointed like a dagger to the heart. The first chapter of five comes out this fall.

Alien: Isolation

Boy does this trailer bring back awful, sweaty, vivid, terrifying flashbacks to a darker time in my life. Namely when I was playing the hands-on demo at E3 this year, quite literally in the dark save for the monitor’s glow in front of me. If we did that sort of thing, you could add our name to the Best Of nominations list. Get ready to flop sweat October 7.

Godzilla

I just have so many questions, though most of them can be summed up with just this one: why? This game seems to, like, barely exist. The video itself isn’t on either the US or UK Namco Bandai YouTube channels but the last 20(!) seconds are dedicated to pimping subscriptions. It’s also odd that bumper is in the video distributed to outlets as well. And it’s only for the PS3. Most of all, though, I’d love to know how they plan to make a good Godzilla game, because it sure as hell isn’t by making a self-serious 3D Rampage. I guess we’ll find out what happens.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

It’s interesting that one of the studios responsible for the Call of Duty franchise is named after a heavy blunt instrument. It feels an awful lot like they just bang out these games now, slamming the slate down and printing it out when the clock strikes November. But strangely enough, it also seems like Sledgehammer Games is trying some new things with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. I thought I was done caring about the series, but if they keep trying to inject fresh blood into the games, I might be willing to pay attention once more. I just hope it’s not more scripted nonsense. Comes out November 4.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark

Ha, Linkin Park. Who knew they still made music? Who knew they still made music and for Transformers? This game is currently out and apparently isn’t all that great, but I just wanted you to know that Linkin Park is always there. Watching. Waiting.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Okay, this actually is from E3 and somehow manages to reveal less than its original announcement trailer, but I like what this game has going for it and I want to remind you that it exists.

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Alien: Isolation – Hands-on at E3 2014

Alien: Isolation - Hands-on at E3 2014

“How was it?” He asked eagerly, already knowing the answer this his hilariously nonchalant query. He stood guard over the curtained hands-on demos Sega was showing off at this year’s E3 convention, watching as people went in slowly, cautiously and came out…different. I had just spent the past half hour playing Alien: Isolation and I knew there was only one answer.

Alien: Isolation is intended to be the Alien game we always wanted. While there have been decent games based on the storied sci-fi franchise (see: 2011’s Aliens Infestation and 2010’s Aliens vs. Predator), many have gone the way of last year’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, which is to say terribly. Granted, Colonial Marines is deliberately more Aliens than Alien and thus more action-oriented, but it’s still pretty awful.

Isolation is, as its name suggests, about being alone against both the Xenomorph and other unsavory threats. In it, you play as Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, searching for her mother in the time between the films Alien and Aliens. The alien cannot be killed, forcing you to hide as it begins to learn how to more effectively hunt for you.

However, in this demo, instead of playing any of the game that we were treated to in a hands-off theatre demo just prior, I am dropped into what appears to be a challenge mode. Or at least that’s what it most likely is. In the upper left corner is a clock tracking the time it takes you to complete your objective, and it starts off by listing off three optional goals to take 20 or so seconds off of your final time. This includes collecting ID tags and locking down a stairwell and not using your motion tracker.

That last one seems absolutely ludicrous. Taken directly from the films, the motion tracker is a little handheld device that plots moving objects near you which you can pull up by holding down R1, forcing your focus to slim down to the tracker itself, reducing everything else to a fuzzy shroud of danger and darkness. It’s a neat little addition to the mechanic that really highlights how empowered the Xenomorph is and how little knowledge can do to stop the inevitable.

Let’s talk about the inevitable. The challenge starts off in a single room, completely devoid of anything save for a few supplies and a flamethrower. I end up seeing this room a lot. Like, a lot. Towards the end, as sweat simultaneously fuses my hands to the controller and slips the sticks from my thumbs, I skip picking up even a single item. It’s a fruitless exercise.

Alien: Isolation

Your goal, as far as I could tell without completing the challenge, is to make your way from one area to another, start a generator, and then escape as alarms sound and lights flash all around you. It is a wholly terrifying experience. On cue, every time, the alien crosses your vision as you first exit the safety of the starting room. Immediately, I always crouch behind a crate and wait for it to meander away, intently watching the dot on the motion tracker flicker this way and that way as I unintentionally hold my breath.

The way the first area was laid out was such that it formed something like a squared-off tennis racquet with two small air vents connecting small alcoves around either lower corner and the interior expanse taking the form of a room filled with towering server-like structures. My go-to move here was to dash to one of these air vents (which eerily and automatically open aperture-style when anything moves near it, including the Xenomorph), wait for it to settle into an area, and dash along either side to the middle room.

This worked about 80% of the time with the other 20% resulting in the alien catching sight of me, letting loose a bloodcurdling scream, and smashing and clamoring its hardened claws against the clattering and tinny metal ship interior as it sprints straight for me. It is no less scary the twentieth time than the first. It’s pretty great.

Alien: Isolation

In the room, there’s a chance for you to dash to the next area, but the safer bet is to hide in one of the nearby lockers, offering you one last moment of solace before embarking on the next half of the challenge. Oh, did I say solace? I meant regret. When the alien comes by and you see it snarling—dripping its gloopy drool from its shimmering fangs—through the vents, you can pull back on the stick to move further away, implementing an in-game representation of a natural reaction, one akin to leaning in a shooter to dodge an incoming headshot.

More than that, you can also press a button to hold your breath, something we see in the hands-off demo just before, with your vision blurring and your heart thumping with a vengeance as you keep holding. Unfortunately, there is no tutorial prompt telling you how to do this in the challenge, so I just pull so hard back on the stick that I fear I’ll snap it right off, holding my own breath instead of this unfortunate Ripley’s.

Luckily, the one time the alien chooses to hover around, incessantly crossing back and forth before me, he doesn’t quite smell the probably fragrant human fear emanating from my and Amanda’s body. But crossing into the next area does little to reduce my constant paranoia. There is just about no time to which I am not crouching and not seeking a table or locker or something to hide behind or beneath. It’s a largely open corridor with slightly segmented rooms making up its length, the one furthest away housing the generator (obviously).

Alien: Isolation

Needless to say, I never quite make it to the end. I manage to turn on the generator quite a few times, but then the whole place seems to go into Freak The Fuck Out mode, where every alarm and every light ever made in the history of the universe goes off and draws the alien into what I can only assume is an increasingly soured mood. First he spots me under a table. Then he catches me trying to make a run for it. And then he somehow sneaks up behind me. And then and then and then…

I set the controller down, truly impressed with what I’ve played of Alien: Isolation, which comes out later this year on October 7. The overbearing threat, though singular in its number, is entirely unsettling. You can thrive on the only tools you are given and nothing more, though the supplies will probably come in handy in other encounters. The sound design is crucial, shaking every part of you when you hear that shrill cry and the floor-crunching stomps coming your way.

As I step out from the darkened area, I manage to reply to the sadistic fellow.

“Brutal.”

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Expressions and Aliens

Expressions and Aliens

Here’s an obvious, imprecise statement: I like video games that let me do things. It’s obvious because I’m saying I like video games for doing what they excel at, which is doing things since they are an interactive medium. It’s imprecise because it’s both “do” and “things” cover an incredibly wide and diverse swath of verbs and nouns in the world, and they’re all important.

The things I do in The Walking Dead, for example are drastically different and more simplistic than the things I do in Gears of War. In one, I press buttons to make a character say some words. In another, I press buttons to put bullets into Locusts and chainsaws into heads. The differences of what they achieve onscreen are easy to see, but the differences in each individual moment’s portent is drastic.

One could lead to a whole percentage point decrease in the humanity left on Earth and simply means I’m one body closer to another room full of bad guys to kill. And yet both are enjoyable. They satisfy opposite ends of a spectrum of pleasure to be derived from video games, and the both do it well.

The Walking Dead: All That Remains

They do, however, both limit themselves to their respective maximal values. Games generally seclude themselves to single portions of that sliding scale, and when they do move, they do it in discrete segments. This part is the player expressing their desire to kill, this part is the player expressing their desire to control the story, etc.

Graham Smith over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently wrote a piece about Receiver, a delightfully expressive game that’s pretty much all about how you’re too stupid to ever operate a real handgun. It breaks out the real life motions of removing a magazine, inserting new bullets, taking off the safety, and so on into keyboard inputs.

That’s just a jumping off point, though, as he goes on to use it as a plea for more expressive video games, games that allow players to show how exhausted they are by leaning against a wall and sighing or show how angry they are by clenching their fists. The point that stood out to me was when he said the “look at gun” button in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was an expression of affection.

Receiver

It’s true. It’s not an action for other players. It’s an action for the player looking at the gun. He wants to appreciate this weapon they’ve customized and made their own; it is a product of their own creation. The chances someone sees or cares they’re looking at them looking at their gun isn’t important. What’s important is that they can do it because it gives them a way—any possible way—to dote on their mechanical progeny.

Which, after reading some previews and watching the trailer for Alien: Isolation, made me think. Isolation, if you haven’t heard, is a new Alien game that will attempt to wipe the sour taste of Aliens: Colonial Marines from the industry’s wrecked, disrespected palette. Coming from The Creative Assembly, it features Amanda Ripley, film protagonist Ellen Ripley’s daughter, being suckered into visiting an abandoned space station by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.

This is a game which aims to fall into the horror zeitgeist; it’s a first-person with hide-and-seek scares, a bit like the Amnesia or Slender games. Instead of being armed with a pulse rifle and taking cover from corporate soldiers, all Amanda has is a motion tracker and the inability to focus on more than one thing at a time.

And despite promising myself I wouldn’t do so, I’m optimistic about Isolation. It looks like The Creative Assembly has 1) proof (and a model) of what made Alien so scary to begin with, and 2) the right idea of how to make it work for their particular product. I’m interested in seeing where the crafting goes. (I really hope it doesn’t lead to me making a power loader.)

With such limited interactive mechanics—switch focus, pull out motion tracker, and, I assume, walk—there is a great opportunity here for an injection of expressive mechanics. When you watch Alien and you see Sigourney Weaver stagger or scream or close her eyes in some fantastical, nonexistent reprieve from the waking nightmare surrounding her, those are largely meaningless in the face of a tower Xenomorph intent on ripping her in half.

Instead, those things are meant to express her feelings, and they’re instinct. As Smith writes, we like the innovations of sticking hard to cover and blind-firing because they’re personalized variants on dry tactics. The rock solid hit of your back to a wall or dumping round after round into the empty space in front of you express feelings: you care about surviving more than a bruised back, you have some shred of optimism left in an overwhelming situation, and so on.

Alien: Isolation

So when we see Weaver slump against a wall or tremble as she approaches a door, we see more personalized variants of the stock action of “do nothing” and “exit room” and whatnot. Now think if we could do the same in Isolation with Amanda (boy, space trouble sure does run in the family). What if we had dexterous control over our hand when we reach for something, our physical tremors manifesting in the game? What if we had control over our rapid, panicked breathing, able to ramp it up or down as we tend to or ignore our rising heartbeat?

The idea of expression in video games is an interesting one because, on the outset, they are mechanically worthless. What do they achieve in regards to the game? Receiver made meaningful actions expressive, as sprinting caused by being scared shitless is different from the sprinting caused by wanting to get somewhere a little faster, pounding W into oblivion when your life is on the line.

But now it’s time to find out when ostensibly non-interactive actions like “look at gun” become personally meaningful. Now we’ll explore why the map in Far Cry 2 and the visor in Metro: Last Light are so immensely interesting. And maybe Isolation will be the one to do it.

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