Unless you've been living in a space locker for the past three months, you're undoubtedly aware of Alien: Isolation. This latest attempt at a satisfying Alien videogame by Sega and Creative Assembly is set to be a spooky blend of sci-fi horror and first-person gameplay. Strategy Informer's Chris Capel has already given his thoughts via his preview article, so we sat down with Alien: Isolation's creative lead Al Hope at EGX Rezzed 2014 to find out more.
Strategy Informer: What has the reception been at Rezzed so far for Alien: Isolation?
Al Hope: It's been absolutely phenomenal. You never can be totally certain how people are going to respond to what we've shown people today, but the response has been absolutely amazing.
I think because of the nature of the game where the alien is dynamic and reactive and really responding to what the player's doing, it's absolutely fascinating for us to see how people behave and respond. And just seeing-- standing at the back of the booth when people come out and they're smiling and they seem relived, and thrilled, and excited, and scared, and they've had some kind of emotional experience. An absolutely fantastic response.
Strategy Informer: I've seen some of the photos [of players] you've been showing up on Twitter.
Al Hope: It's really nice because one of the things I really love is that groups of friends will go into the booth and they'll all play -- obviously playing their own way -- and then they wait at the end of the booth for the other guys to finish, and then they excitedly talk about their experience and the different approaches that they've taken, and that's just fantastic. And also, the comments about “I really felt like I was back there, I was really back in that universe, the alien's genuinely scary” – all the key things we set out to try and achieve, they [the players] seem to be really responding to, and getting a lot out of it -- it's absolutely fantastic.
Strategy Informer: The demo you've got here this weekend, is that content that will be in the full game?
Al Hope: Yeah, yeah. The hands-on demo we have here is a really small part of the game which takes place about, coming up to half way through. I think we really wanted to show people what as a first look, first hands-on what it is like to experience just being in space with the alien and having a motion tracker and that basic kind of foundation level for what that core expedience was like. And yeah, people seem to be really into it, so...
Strategy Informer: So in Alien: Isolation it's just the one alien, is that right?
Al Hope: So I think when we started it was all about “okay, we think that games in the past, within the franchise, really looked at other aspects of the franchise and particularly James Cameron's 'a few versus many aliens'” and for me, I felt it was an incredible opportunity to make a game that actually went back to the source where, in the film, one alien can destroy an entire crew and a complete ship, and I felt like “wow, what would that be like as a game?” and giving the player a different interaction with the alien than just like, a bullet sponge that you shoot a lot. That was definitely the intension.
Strategy Informer: As there's just one Alien, I assume its AI would be far more developed than what we've seen in previous games? How predicable is the AI and how will it interact with environments?
Al Hope: So I think one of the key elements of the Ridley Scott alien is the unpredictability -- about not knowing where it is. And so that was something we were definitely going to try and achieve.
We realised early on that if we scripted the alien that you'd sort of see that, and it wouldn't be scary. So we took this kind of different approach which was “hey, lets just let the alien use its senses to try and track you down”, which has been a really interesting challenge creatively and design wise, and we kind of build the game around that approach and that means it's looking for you, it's listening for you, so it means that what you do as a player has a big impact on the world around you and specifically on the alien. So yeah, I think what's kind of interesting for us is that we've been working on this game for a long time, and we play it every day, and yet we still get caught out -- we still die -- and that's kind of interesting because we know what's going on, we know what's going on under the hood, and we understand the [alien's] senses and this creature works. And yet it [the alien] can catch us out, which I think, for me, is pretty amazing. You know, the fact that our heart rates go up when we're in the tense encounter, that's really fantastic.
Strategy Informer: The alien, at least in the original Alien film, was a silent predator, so how are players aware of the presence of the alien?
Al Hope: So I think the game is about choice and choices, and that kind of puts the responsibility onto the player. A large part of that is about information: at any given moment what do I know about the world, what do I know about the resources I have, what do I know about obstacles around me. Making these kind of A-B choices -- there's options in the game -- so if you're exploring you find stuff and you put things together that can help change the odds. So it's a case of everything from location, “do I stay here or do I feel-- is it worth the risk?”, it's a constant checklist of actions versus risk.
We have the motion tracker that gives you some information, but I was really keen for the things that players do, that the choices the players have, have a risk, so we changed it so the motion tracker actively moves instead of being a magic radar in the corner. And then, when you do use it we've blurred out the background. So there's a cost associated with using it.
It's really interesting to see people play and see how people manage these options. We really wanted to make the player always feel on the back foot, always feel not necessarily totally prepared, make them feel underpowered, because I think that's part of that Alien experience.
Strategy Informer: Thinking about the alien in the first Alien film, the model/puppet/suit itself didn't actually move that much. Did you encounter any challenges in making an enemy based off that film [Alien], even though the limitations of the time meant it couldn't move as they might have liked to?
Al Hope:Alien's a masterpiece in film technique and editing -- it's about what you don't see, really. But of course we're a game, and you're going to see this creature, so I think our alien has to be-- has to deliver people's perception of what the alien is: an intelligent, deadly creature, but is also one that is quite fluid, able to navigate the world, and understands the world around it.
One of the choices we've made is that the original alien creature was very much a guy in a suit and we built that, and we kept working on that, but it was really hard to get away from it feeling like a human, like a person, just because it has the same physical structure of a person.
One of the things about Alien is in the name: It feels mysterious and unknown. So one of the reasons we've decided on the form [of the new alien] was to try and give it that unworldliness, something that isn't understood and actually it also helps make him traverse the world in a way that has a bit more flexibility to it. That's one of the interesting things -- we've got this huge alien but it's in a human space. One of the things we've had to do is let the alien know about the world around it, so the doors are human size, but it's nine-and-a-half feet tall, so it has to duck under doors, but it gives the sense that it really understands the world around it.
Strategy Informer: it's not the sort of alien we see in later [Alien] films, which is just cannon fodder.
Al Hope: Yeah. It's really considering what it's doing, what it's going to do next and where it's going.
Strategy Informer: You had access to the FOX archives, is that right?
Al Hope: Yeah, yeah.
Strategy Informer: I'm just curious as to what you got from FOX and how you used it.
Al Hope: FOX have been incredibly supportive right from the start and they sent us a huge archive of material that I don't think is in the public domain. That was everything from blueprints of the layouts of the movie set, to continuity polaroids and notes, lots of behind the scenes material.
One of the key phases for us was right at the start -- a sense of deconstruction -- I mean, the film is about 116 minutes long, and we need to make hours and hours and hours of content, so obviously we need to expand on it. So the first phase was the deconstruction, breaking all these different archetypes down and to really understand what makes an alien space feel like “Alien”. When we did build new environments, they actually kept true to the spirit of it [the film] and actually felt like it.
And so I think that's part of the interesting thing about the hands-on demo at EGX Rezzed is that I think it's fair to say that there's nothing that's kind of-- there's no rooms or spaces that are a one-for-one clone of what's in the film. It's kind of all new content, but it feels familiar, it feels like you've gone back. So I think the guys [at Creative Assembly] have done a fantastic job of creating these spaces, but making them feel familiar.
Strategy Informer: And the FOX archives were helpful with that?
Al Hope: Yeah, yeah, that's really fortunate. It was in the visuals as well as in terms of audio-- really fortunate to be able to find. You know, the film was made in 1979, way before digital archives, and I guess there's a chance that a lot of the material had been lost, but they [FOX] managed to find-- I really wanted to try and find the original sound material, and so they managed to find an old eight-track reel which had some of the -- I couldn't believe it -- the original, raw source of some of the sound effects, and it's just been-- listening to that, I imagine it was sitting is some dusty box beneath FOX studios, and it feels like a really lovely opportunity to take that material -- and it's been literally lying dormant -- and put it in the game, and put it in front of an audience that really loves it, and give it a kind of second life...
Strategy Informer: Give it what it deserves.
Al Hope: Yeah.
Strategy Informer: Players will be taking the role of Amanda Ripley. She was mentioned in Aliens, the second film, in the special edition or an extended cut. Does that mean players are to consider Alien: Isolation as canon?
Al Hope: So this all came out of, when we started. I really wanted the game to take place as close as possible to the first movie, because one of the things that we wanted the experience to be was about Ridely Scott's original alien: massive, terrifying, lethal. We love, love, love, love the environment, the 70's view of the future, that was what I wanted to make.
So in terms of story I wanted something that was kinda connected to that first film and we kept thinking about it and asking questions, “okay, the Nostromo has gone missing, who would care?” Weyland-Yutani would care, they said they cared in Aliens -- it was an expensive loss for them -- but we felt we needed something that had an emotional connection. Then realising that Ellen Ripley had a daughter that was revealed in the director's cut of Aliens, that meant that there was this person out that, when Ellen went missing, wanted to know what happened. It seemed like her story had never been told and this was “wow okay, this was amazing, she'd wanted to know!”. So in our story, when Weyland-Yutani believes someone's found the flight recorder, they send a small team to go and collect it; Amanda is one of the volunteers to go to the station.
Strategy Informer: That was one of my questions as an Alien fan: The Nostromo was destroyed, so what is Amanda looking for?
Al Hope: I think that's one of the interesting things, that between Alien and Aliens it's very cloudy as to who knows what. And then what makes it doubly hard to work out what's going on is you have a character in Burke who proves to be very untrustworthy, so how can you trust anything he says? He tells her [Ellen Ripley] that her daughter's died. He could be telling the truth, or he could be telling her a lie to convince her to go back, so she's got nothing to stay for so [she] might as well come back. So it's a really grey area that we're taking advantage of.
Strategy Informer: Another burning question: Aliens gives the impression that the eggs on LV-426 are dormant for most of the time Ripley had been in hyper-sleep, so how does Amanda come into contact with a xenomoprh?
Al Hope: That's a great question, and that's part of the mystery of the game...
*I'm asked to wrap up the interview*
Strategy Informer: You've got the console version here?
Al Hope: We've got Xbox One, and PS4, and PC.
Strategy Informer: Regarding the PC, are you considerate about different PC specs? Is [Alien: Isolation] going to be optimised for high end only?
Al Hope: As a studio we're big PC fans, so making a good PC version is important to us. So in terms of specs -- it's not something we're talking about today -- but we want a great experience on every platform.
Strategy Informer: One last question: What does “combat” mean in the context of Alien: Isolation, are we going to see guns, firefights?
Al Hope: So there are some conventional weapons in the game, but it really is down to player choice as to how, or if, they even use them. You've got an alien that is based on sight and sound, so if you're going to start making a lot of noise, that's going to attract the alien. So again, we're putting a lot of those questions into the player's hands.
Many thanks to Al Hope for taking the time to chat. Of course, Creative Assembly announced Alien: Isolation's October 7 2014 release date later that day at EGX Rezzed. Between now and then we'll undoubtedly be shown more tantalising tidbits, but for now check out our preview of Alien: Isolation and let us know your thoughts by dropping a comment below.