"We want to prepare the audience for what they're going to face," says The Creative Assembly. "But suddenly all this information doesn't seem like enough."
"There's no patrol pattern to discern, and each time you move through an area the alien is going to do something new. But it's not random; it's hunting like any animal would."
"I don't want to spoil anything," Al Hope, the creative lead on Alien: Isolation, told a room full of journalists at GDC.
It was a peculiar thing to say at that point in time, because he and two other staffers from developer Creative Assembly had just spent an hour explaining pretty much everything about how the game works and the unique xenomorph AI.
They didn't really discuss story at all, but in video games, plot points are far from being the only types of spoilers we have to deal with. Going into detail on a game's core functions, when said functions are new and possibly unprecedented, might be just as much of a spoiler as how the story ends to some folks.
The hour-long presentation contained plenty of the type of information you've expect to see in behind-the-scenes special features on a blu-ray. It was all very interesting and exciting, absolutely, though much of it had been discussed at length when the game was first presented to press in CA's studio in Guildford in December. And the effort Creative Assembly is going to in order to create what they believe is an experience that is authentic to the original film is not even close to insignificant.
But the hook - or the "star of the show," as they called it - is that classic xenomorph. Much of the discussion of the game focused just on that Alien itself and the code that drives it, and specifically how CA made a digital entity that does not behave so predictably as we've come to expect video game foes to do. After being killed by the alien and reloading from the last checkpoint, you'll find that what the alien does the next time will be different. There's no patrol pattern to discern, and each time you move through an area it's going to do something new. But it's not random; it's hunting like any animal would, and reacting to even the slightest sounds you make as you move around. And in my hands-on session, that aspect of the creature was on full display.
The vertical slice I played was a pretty simple scenario: go here and get the welding torch, go there and cut open that door, go over yonder and flip a switch, and so forth, while all while the alien lurked nearby. Sometimes, I could see it, and sometimes I could not, and the motion tracker helped with that. But without any sort of weapon whatsoever, I could do nothing to the thing other than try to stay out of its line of sight.
"If the alien sees you, it will kill you pretty much no matter what, so it's about as unforgiving as it should be."
That, in short, was quite stressful. But in the 65-minute explanation of the magic that powers Alien: Isolation, the non-scripted nature of this beast was so effectively hammered home into my head that I felt immediately prepared to sneak effectively. While, yes, I died a handful of times - if the alien sees you, it will kill you pretty much no matter what, so it's about as unforgiving as it should be - I made it through to the end before most of the other journalists who had started playing this demo before I did.
And I really enjoyed the experience, a fact everyone else also noticed because I did scream a few times at some scripted sequences as well as surprise close encounters with the xenomorph. But at the same time I wondered what it might have been like without this thorough knowledge of the alien AI. I mused to Clive Lindop, design lead on the game at CA, that if I played the game without understanding how it worked, the moment in which I finally understand the dynamic nature of the alien could be as much of an "ah ha!" moment as that first meeting with Andrew Ryan in BioShock.
Lindop's response was discuss other folks, including press, they've watched play Isolation over the last year, and he described some of them as not quite internalizing their philosophical instructions on how to think while playing (i.e. remember that it's unpredictable), instead giving into the decades of training that other stealth and survival horror games have ingrained in us. We've all cut our teeth on games that we can just figure out if we look at them hard enough. Isolation is built in such a way as to be indecipherable, and even when told that, apparently it takes some folks some time to play it with that in mind.
"The experience is so fundamentally different," Lindop said to me, before sharing an anecdote about a player hiding under a desk for seven full minutes while trying, and failing, to find the hole to slip through, and becoming crippled by indecision. "So when we talk in so much detail about the game, it's only because we want to prepare the audience for what they're going to face. And even once you get a hold of the controller, we've seen it time and time again, suddenly all this information doesn't seem like enough."
"The problem is words like 'dynamic' are buzzwords for gaming. We use that word a lot."
Indeed, that is the easiest and probably most accurate way to describe the AI running this alien. But in the part of the game I played myself, it was not dynamic in the way that Mass Effect's story or Fable's world are dynamic. It was dynamic in the sense that I had to react quickly to what it was doing even as it reacted to what I was doing, because it was very obvious to me, thanks both to that long preface from CA and what I was seeing with my own eyes, that "trying to figure it out" was not going to get me anywhere. I had to move, and I had to be very careful, but action on my part was required.
While I can definitely see the business sense in trying to make sure players really know what they're getting into beforehand, I'm at the same time jealous of that player who stayed under the desk because he couldn't decide what to do. I want a game to just break my mind that way. For the sorts of folks who take a bit longer to let new stuff sink in, it may still be able to be that game. Alas, we're already past the point of Alien: Isolation being that game for me and many other people.
Even so, sneaking around the alien is a stimulating experience, one that got me quite wound up. And far be it for me to complain about being less likely to get stuck in one part for hours. I just can't help but wonder how the experience of playing Alien: Isolation might be different, or better, had Sega and The Creative Assembly not explained it so well.