I Guess I Asked For It…
I think I’ve finally met my match. I’ve played quite a few horror games – survival and otherwise – over the years: of course the classics Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Dead Space and all their various sequels; as well as some one- or two-offs: Siren, The Suffering, Obscure, Extermination, Alone in the Dark, The Thing, The Last of Us, Doom 3 (which I consider solidly within the realm of horror), Alan Wake, Condemned, Dead Island, and F.E.A.R., to name a few. I like horror games. But I didn’t expect that when I walked into my local game store a few weeks ago and put my cash on the counter to pre-order Alien: Isolation that I would finally be biting off more scares and screams than I could handle!
And I didn’t even think it would be that scary of a game! Sure, I knew the potential for a chilling atmosphere was there in spades, and my fingers were definitely kept crossed that I wouldn’t be let down. But The Creative Assembly managed to put their fingers right on what made the original movie such a frightening experience: a slow burn leading up to utter shock, followed by unrelenting paranoia and a fear of the menacing unknown. Until now, when it came to horror games, my money has always been on Fatal Frame II, Siren, maybe the Dead Space series for its bizarre jigsaw puzzles of flesh, as receiving top billing, but the terror I’m feeling now playing Alien: Isolation eclipses even those games.
So what makes this game so horrifying? I could give credit to the gradual build-up of suspense and uneasiness that the first few missions start out with. But while that is undoubtedly an important facet of the overall atmosphere, it’s far from unique to this game. Of course the environmental design – poorly lit, at times disheveled, abandoned, full of smoke and dotted with pitch-black vent openings gaping in the overhead ceiling every few steps – makes a bad situation even worse, as I’m expecting a nightmarish apparition to detach itself from the wall or ceiling every few steps, and am always feverishly searching for the nearest wall locker or desk I can hide inside or cower underneath, should I hear any (and I mean any) suspicious sound!
And what a fearful vision the xenomorph presents! Full disclosure (and slight spoiler ahead): I took a break from the campaign somewhere around the third mission mark to play the downloadable bonus episode, ‘Crew Expendable’. I knew it was only reiterating a portion of the original film, so it wouldn’t spoil anything about the game proper, and it was just too enticing to pass up any longer. I chose to play as Captain Dallas, picked up my trusty flame thrower, and descended through a hatch into the utility bowels of the Nostromo. By this point in the story, I hadn’t yet encountered the creature, not really, so when I first spotted it unfurling itself – almost languidly – to glide up into an air shaft across the room from me, my blood literally froze in my veins.
Even at a distance and well out of harm’s way, the damn thing looked beyond terrifying! As it disappeared from view into the vents, I thought myself safe for the time being. My only indicator – only seconds later – that it had made its way behind me and was now coming for me was the sudden frantic swell and cacophonous screeching of string music and brass instruments, then two or three thudding footsteps close by. In a panic, I turned this way and that, sure that it was coming from somewhere ahead of me; how could it have seen me?! Then – for the first time that I can remember, ever – I screamed out loud, once, twice, as my camera view was forced to the ground as Dallas’s legs were ripped out from under him. The alien, which had exited a vent somewhere behind me and charged undetected, turned my body around, slowly, before its snapping proboscis tore my face off.
The Alien creature has become a part popular culture over time, and I’d be most surprised to learn of anyone playing this game that hasn’t already seen it somewhere before. And, to be honest, the alien in the game looks just like what you remember from the movies; it’s not some new, horribly mutated version of the original. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t come across like a whole new experience, watching it pace back and forth outside your hiding place or tear you out of whichever air duct you thought you were safely hidden in. It’s the same with the agonizing “blip, blip” of the motion detector, once you acquire it in the game. You think it will make life a whole hell of a lot easier, and it does, but at the cost of taking a year or so off your lifespan every time you hear a noise and whip up the detector, praying it’ll show blank but instead having just enough time to catch a big-ass dot barreling toward you, and knowing have only moments left to whimper in fear before you’re torn in two.
I don’t think I’ll ever watch the movies the same way again…
I died many, many more times after that first encounter, both in the bonus mission as well as the main story (I’m on the fifth mission at the moment, and yes I’m playing on Hard difficulty). I would have thought that at some point I’d get desensitized, that the shock of seeing my demise stalk slowly toward me, taking its time, or sneaking up behind me unseen to impale me on its bladed tail would wear off. But not so. My fists clench and my body tenses up from shock each time, and it isn’t until several agonizing seconds have passed that I realize I’ve been holding my breath in helpless anticipation. It’s now to the point that I can’t play this game for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time. Yesterday, my heart started thumping and I felt a growing sense of inevitability when I so much as considered turning on my PS3 for some “fun gaming time”. For the past few years, my doctor has told me that my blood pressure isn’t anywhere near an optimal level. I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t at least considered whether playing Alien: Isolation might be hazardous to my health. Who would have thought that this was the price to pay for that truly terrifying gaming experience, or that such a game was possible? I wouldn’t have thought it could happen, but despite all the tension and terror, it’s great to know that such a pinnacle has been reached.
The bar has been set; now to see whether I can stick with it long enough to see it through!