Six Years of Alien: Isolation

Jake Theriault
Oct 5, 2020 · 10 min read
An encounter with the xenomorph in Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation

I love science fiction — if that wasn’t obvious from a great many of the Spotlight videos I’ve made for Subpixel. And since October 2020 marks the 6th anniversary of Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation, I knew I needed to to make something celebrating — I would argue — the best videogame adaptation of Ridley Scott’s seminal horror film. If you thought I was going to say “seminal science fiction film” — go watch Blade Runner. Alien is horror with sci-fi elements, just like Ghostbusters is comedy with sci-fi elements.

Now those of you familiar with the name Creative Assembly probably know the UK-based studio for their unendingly popular real-time-strategy series Total War. A studio that made its name on real-time-strategy may have seemed like an odd pick to helm a first-person, survival horror game set in 20th Century Fox’s Alien universe, and when Alien: Isolation was announced, I’ll admit I was one of those people. But once Alien: Isolation landed on store shelves in October of 2014, it quickly became obvious that Isolation was not only one of the best interpretations of Scott’s universe, but also the most authentic. So how did Alien: Isolation come to be? Well the road to Isolation was a long one, in no small part due to the projects that preceded it, which I will do my best to summarize now.

Gamasutra reported on December 11th, 2006, that Japanese videogame developer and publisher SEGA had acquired the videogame rights to then-Fox’s-now-Disney’s Alien franchise, announcing days later that Obsidian — of Fallout: New Vegas fame — had been tapped to develop an Alien RPG and Brothers in Arms developer Gearbox would be developing a first-person-shooter based on the IP. Fans would have to wait a while for SEGA’s Alien tree to bear fruit, as Obsidian’s Alien RPG would wind up on SEGA’s chopping block in 2009, and Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines wouldn’t face-plant onto store shelves until early 2013.

Almost two years after the cancellation of Obsidian’s Alien project, an off the cuff May 2011 tweet from former UK Tech and Culture Minister Ed Vaizey revealed to the public at large that the United Kingdom’s own Creative Assembly was working on something based in the Alien universe. Clarifying details on Creative Assembly’s addition to the Alien canon wouldn’t come until 2013, when a trademark was registered for the name Alien: Isolation, and screenshots of the game leaked onto the web that December.

So, in summer of 2011, almost five years after SEGA acquired the rights to Alien, all fans knew was that Creative Assembly — stewards of the Total War series — were making something with the Alien IP, Gearbox was still maybe working on some sort of Alien-related FPS, and that — as of a July 2011 announcement — WayForward and Gearbox were soon to release a 2D Alien title for the Nintendo DS. This 2D title, Alien: Infestation, was released in late 2011 to mostly favorable reviews — despite outlets like The A.V. Club saying it “petered out by the end”.

But whatever optimism in SEGA’s acquisition of the Alien rights was sparked by Alien: Infestation, SEGA’s next outing would all but destroy it. Aliens: Colonial Marines was, to put it lightly, an amazingly catastrophic dumpster fire. Game review aggregate site Metacritic groups games reviews by platform, and of the three platforms upon which Aliens: Colonial Marines was launched, no version of the game scored higher than 48.

Less than a year after Colonial Marines floundered onto the last generation of consoles, SEGA formally announced Alien: Isolation, mere months before it was set to release in October of 2014.

Alien: Isolation was a dramatic departure from every previous Alien game. Most of the Alien videogame canon riffs not off of Scott’s Alien, but James Cameron’s more action packed sequel. But the team at Creative Assembly didn’t want to do that. Lead game designer Clive Lindop said of these previous games that, “They all metamorphosized into action adventures; but, Alien is classic horror survival. The film is the template of horror survival.”

The team pitched to 20th Century Fox a game more true to the spirit of the original 1979 film, and Fox loved it. Isolation creative lead Alistair Hope put it this way:

“…from the moment we pitched the original concept to them [Fox], they’ve been completely behind us. I think because we were trying to stay true in spirit to the original, they felt like it was in safe hands. It’s been a collaboration, but I don’t think we’ve ever come across anything where anyone’s said, ‘no, you can’t do that.’”

As a gesture of their support of the team at Creative Assembly, Fox supplied the devs with a treasure trove of material — over three terabytes of high res original concept art (including never before seen works from late Alien production designer Ron Cobb), on-set photography, notes on props, costume photography, and design blueprints. Fox also allowed CA the rights to Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, which the team expanded out to two hours of game soundtrack and even re-recording certain cues with a full orchestra to re-contextualize them within the world of Isolation — adding even more to the authenticity of the game. This bounty of production materials were more than welcome by the team at CA, and many of them were surprised to discover that as they began sifting through the material supplied by Fox, that they — all self-proclaimed Alien superfans — didn’t know Scott’s film as well as they thought they did. Hope talked more about this feeling in an interview with PC Gamer:

“As fans we would have said, ‘yeah, we know what the costumes look like’, but it wasn’t until we got the archive that we could really look at the details in John Mollo’s costume design. We deconstructed them and tried to put that level of detail, care, and attention into our costumes. We learned early on that you really need to study the source material. You can think you know it inside out, but it’s not until you actually investigate closely that you get a full understanding of it.”

Hope said that this deconstruction of the source material extended to the creation of new props and environments, and the team didn’t use any reference material made after 1979. They even went so far as to have Alien — the movie — playing on a screen in the studio 24/7 during development.

Jon McKellan — founder of Scottish independent studio No Code and artist at Creative Assembly during the development of Alien: Isolationdidn’t even watch any of the other Alien movies during this period, saying:

“I was fully immersed in Alien and deliberately didn’t watch the other films during that time. The look of Alien and Aliens is remarkably different, and it’s easy to muddle them in your mind and end up creating assets and looks that are a jumble of ‘the franchise’ and that’s not what I wanted to make.”

McKellan was also responsible for much of the game’s user interface and video effects, which — in lock step with the design philosophy of not using any reference material post 1979 — required some creative problem solving and design solutions. McKellan had this to say about his process:

“I’d record UI elements onto old beaten VHS tapes, deliberately magnetise the screen and the cables, and just generally destroy things whilst playing the recorded footage back on screen. As well as being 100% authentic, the effects you could achieve were more varied than what any of the previous software-driven tests achieved, and generated effects you would never really have thought of manually authoring.”

He also recently posted some bonkers design details about the pipeline for many of these analogue effects. Here’s a breakdown of the depths of madness involved with creating such pitch perfect user interfaces:

First McKellan would design an interface in After Effects, then export that interface to a camera memory card. These files would then be played on an Xbox 360 via SCART cables (a 21-pin predecessor to the now much more widely used HDMI). The Xbox would run that to a video recorder which copied the effect onto an actual Alien VHS tape, which was then played back on a CRT monitor. The CRT screen would be captured with a Canon 5D, and the 5D footage would be imported back into After Effects. Rinse and Repeat.

McKellan knew the process was successful when, as they looked back on all the footage, said, “Wow, that looks awful — we’ve nailed it.”

Even the lighting, designed in Creative Assembly’s proprietary engine, was built to match the lights built into the Nostromo set in the 1970s. Creative Assembly Art Director Jude Bond told Edge Magazine that, “There are no LED lights in our game. We’ve appropriated a lot of the production methodology of the original film, so this feels like the real place. Not the real place, but the reality [you see] onscreen.” This applied not only to the style of lighting, but also things like the color temperature of the on-set lighting and the color grade of the actual film. Everything served to replicate as accurately as possible Derek Vanlint’s cinematography; Ron Cobb, Chris Foss, H.R. Geiger, and Mobius’ production design; Jerry Goldsmith’s orchestration; and Ridley Scott’s original vision of the universe of Alien — even prompting the team to meet in person with Alien film editor Terry Rawlings to talk about the pacing of Isolation’s narrative.

But all this we’ve talked about so far is philosophy and aesthetics — we’re still missing a key piece of the puzzle. What would any Alien world be without, well, an alien? Creative Assembly had a monumental task before them. As we’ve noted, most of the Alien games proceeding Isolation were action-oriented: the player vs. a horde of aliens. But from the start, CA knew their Alien game would not be that. Back in the earliest days of the project, before they’d even pitched the game to Fox, Creative Assembly had developed a prototype where the titular xenomorph was actually controlled by a second player. Hardly more than a tech demo, this version of the game was essentially just a fan project amongst the team at CA, but according to Alistair Hope, this tech demo soon went “viral” within the halls of SEGA’s offices, prompting the developer/publisher to more actively pursue a realization of that initial vision — of a player vs. one alien. Soon the alien would no longer be controlled by another player, but a complexly designed AI — guided by observations of how those first players controlled the alien, and Creative Assembly’s meticulous study of the 1979 film.

Game designer Gary Napper said the team learned early on that they couldn’t make the enemy scripted. Looking at the landscape of survival horror games, the team at Creative Assembly anticipated the player dying a lot. Napper noted that if this were the case in Isolation, players would soon begin to see the alien repeating the same scripted motions over and over, which he said would make the xenomorph “predictable, and a lot less scary”. So instead of scripting paths for the xenomorph to travel or goals for the xenomorph to achieve, Napper and company created behaviors for the alien, which would unlock as encounters with the player occurred — creating the illusion that the xenomorph was learning from its encounters with the player. This extended not only the encounters with the player, but also to what the designers were calling “secondary sources”. Lead designer Clive Lindop said that “When you fire an air lock, the Alien will think that’s unusual. If it sees a locker open but not you, it will still wonder why the door opened.” Further creating the illusion of the omnipresent, lurking monster.

Over 70 different animations were created for the xenomorph, including animations exclusive to the xenomorph classically phallic head. It was important to the team that the alien be able to physically communicate with the player. Gary Napper put it this way:

“We wanted players to understand the alien’s intentions by the way it’s moving or by its expression — but of course the alien doesn’t really have an expression. So physical movement was very important to communicating the alien’s behaviour.”

A lot of that extended from the original intent of Scott’s vision of the alien in his film. Alien actor Bolaji Badejo said that Scott’s intent for his character “was that the creature was supposed to be graceful as well as vicious, requiring slow, deliberate movements.” Originally three actors were to be used for the alien, including a mime and a karate expert, but eventually all that training and responsibility fell to Badejo. This philosophy of the physical characterization of the alien is deftly interwoven into Creative Assembly’s vision of the Alien universe.

So, what did all this attention to detail mean for the team at Creative Assembly? Well, Isolation earned itself Game of the Year accolades from numerous outlets, including PC Gamer; the team earned multiple 2015 BAFTA nominations in Music, Game Design, Game Innovation, Best Game, Best British Game, and took home the 2015 BAFTA award for Audio Achievement; Isolation won best audio at the Game Developer’s Choice Awards, and earned a nomination for the Game Developer’s Choice Awards Game of the Year. The Writer’s Guid of America nominated Isolation for Excellence in Game Writing, and was The Daily Telegraph’s top game of 2014. The back of my physical edition of Alien: Isolation says “Over 40 E3 2014 Awards and Nominations”. Not quite The Last of Us’ “Over 200 Game of the Year Awards”, but Tim Rogers already did a better breakdown of that than I ever could.

Six years later, Alien: Isolation stands as one of the best survival games of all time, and can easily claim the title of best Alien videogame adaptation. Since its original launch on Playstations 3, 4, Xboxes 360 and One, and personal computers; the game has since been ported to Linux, OS X, and Nintendo Switch — meaning there has never been a better time to dive back in to the world of Alien: Isolation.

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