On Alien: Isolation and the Theory of Multiple Universes
When I first heard about the video game Alien: Isolation, I said to my wife, “I want to play that, but I’m not sure I’ll actually be able to play it. I might end up just hiding in a closet the first time the alien shows up and never leaving.”
It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was close … I could only play the game for about twenty minutes at a time, because it’s one of the most exhausting, scary games I’ve encountered in my thirty-plus years of playing video games. I was able to finish it on “normal,” but I can’t imagine trying it on a higher difficulty level. Yes, I’m a wuss.
This isn’t a review, though. For one thing, it’s not timely enough. For another, I’m pretty sure you can read up on this game and decide within about forty-five seconds whether it’s the type of game for you or not. You don’t need me to tell you. What I want to talk about is the theory of infinite universes, and the way this game in particular hammers home its possibilities.
The simplified version of the theory goes like this: there are essentially an infinite number of universes, with each universe branching whenever an event could have two or more outcomes, anywhere, often leading to wildly disparate timelines. This is a common Sci-Fi trope (for example, Futurama explores it in several episodes).
It’s fun to think about, and in the context of video games it’s very applicable, because video games are one of the few mediums in which your protagonist (“you”, for all intents and purposes), can consistently make choices, then go back and make different choices, and see what happens. The only other analog I can think of, really, is choose-your-own-adventure books, and they’re tremendously limited by comparison.
Alien: Isolation takes this a step further than most games because a) you die a lot … like, a LOT, and b) you frequently die through no fault of your own, but simply owing to sheer bad luck. Sometimes you have to sneak by the xenomorph, and the only way to do so is to crouch down, scuttle past it, and hope it doesn’t choose that exact moment to turn around. Because the alien is controlled by a combination of AI and random behavior, sometimes it turns around and sometimes it doesn’t. If it does, it sees you, and if it sees you, you die. Period. That’s the conceit of the game. There’s no hope of fighting it, there’s no possibility of killing it, and there’s very little likelihood of running from it. If you’re lucky you might be able to scare it for a bit with a Molotov cocktail or a flamethrower, but ninety-five percent of the time, if that thing realizes you’re there, you’re dead.
Some players have suggested that this makes the game “cheap” because one cannot ever successfully learn to manipulate the system and avoid dying. I submit that these players have too long been exposed to games that have eliminated too much random chance from their mechanics. Master the mechanics in those titles, and you’ve mastered the game, allowing you to proceed indefinitely without dying. Alien: Isolation doesn’t allow that … but that’s not inherently cheap. It’s realistic.
Listen, here’s what occurs when Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley, encounters the xenomorph in real life: she dies. That’s what happens to people when they run into an eight foot tall, silicon-based life form — with acid for blood, razor sharp claws, fangs inside of fangs, and a tail like a scimitar — that exists basically for the express purpose of turning fleshy little humans into so much crimson pulp.
So, in order for Amanda to survive (and in order for Ellen to survive in the original Alien movie, still by a gigantic margin the best of the series), in addition to using all of her wits and skill, she also has to have everything break JUST RIGHT for her. Essentially, the alien has to not turn around, every single time she needs it to not turn around.
That’s the infinite universes theory at work. Basically, as you play the game and reload your saves to try once more to get past the creature, you’re jumping into a new universe. Maybe in this one the alien will walk past you as you’re hiding inside a locker, instead of realizing you’re there. Maybe in this one it will jump up into a vent just as you clumsily stumble into the room (which happened to me several times in the game, saving my bacon). Maybe in this one it will go after some of the other humans on board the ship, and actually clear you a path to your next objective.
… or maybe in this one you die. Probably in this one you die. Because that’s what happens when you encounter the alien. You die! Except in the one universe, of infinite numbers, where you don’t.
That’s what you’re hunting, as you play Alien: Isolation. You’re looking for the one universe of many (how many depends on how many times you have to reload a save) where Amanda Ripley makes it through to the end. The movie Alien can only show us one universe — the one in which everything breaks right for Ellen Ripley and she survives, finally blasting the alien out into space.
What the video game Alien: Isolation can do is show us all of the universes in which things don’t break right. This is a power that no other artistic medium really has, and it’s one of the things that makes video games so tremendously compelling … even as you’re shouting profanities and selecting “reload from previous save” after you’ve found a twelve-inch black dagger protruding from your chest when all you were trying to do was read someone else’s email.
Among the other things you’ll find in his Twitter bio, Christopher Buecheler launched GameSpy.com in late 1999 and CrispyGamer.com in early 2008. He wrote many articles for both websites.
All images for this piece were borrowed from the incomparable Dead End Thrills.