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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: “Alien: Isolation” involves more cowering than killing

Courtesy of Sega
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Alien: Isolation
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Available on: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One

“You look like hell,” a friend of mine said when she visited me on the day I finished “Alien: Isolation.” I didn’t bother to contradict her since I‘d spent the past few days walled up in my apartment with the curtains drawn against the inviting autumn sunshine. In that state of suspended twilight, vanity washed away and I found myself doing things at odd hours, like shaving at 3 a.m. Over the course of the 30 or so hours that I spent with the game, I also missed phone calls and texts because of the earphones clamped on my head.

Those earphones were my best defense against the aliens, robots, and terrified humans caught in between them, all of whom wanted to do me harm. Judging by my frayed nerves, I’d say that The Creative Assembly’s homage to “Alien” — the 1979 film directed by Ridley Scott — is, on a visceral level, a success. In fact, it’s the best use of the Alien franchise that I can recall since Dark Horse Comics published “Aliens,” a six-issue miniseries, between 1988 and 1989, which was pegged as a sequel to the 1986 film directed by James Cameron. (To me and many of my generation, “Aliens” was one of the tippity-top movies of our childhood).

“Alien: Isolation” is a powerful nostalgia stimulator. The game’s 70s-era environmental details – like the metal coil of a public phone, or the chunky plastic buttons of a boombox, or the fiddly nature of an analogue tuner that’s constantly losing its signal – might waft you into your own private reverie.

Apart from these material details, the game also lifts from the maternal themes present throughout the movies. (In the Scott film, for instance, the computer overseeing USCSS Nostromo is named Mother. Then, of course, there is all of that business with the Alien Queen.) In the game, you play as the daughter of the iconic Ellen Ripley, immortalized in the films by Sigourney Weaver, who graces the game with her vocal talents.

(A deleted scene from the theatrical release of “Aliens” reveals that Ellen had a daughter named Amanda who died at the age of sixty-six, while her mother laid in hypersleep onboard a ship.)

Amanda serves as an engineer at Weyland-Yutani, the same company for which her mother worked as a Warrant Officer. She chose her employment because it placed her near to where Ellen’s ship, the USCSS Nostromo, went missing. During the game’s opening cutscene, Samuels, a well-meaning synthetic — a human-looking android — interrupts Amanda’s manual labor. She is aloof to his presence until he tells her that a ship recovered the flight recorder from the commercial vessel where her mother was a member of the crew. For fifteen years — the game is set in 2137 — Amanda has waited for news of her mother’s fate. So she signs on with the tiny delegation assigned to retrieve the flight recorder from Sevastopol, the decommissioned space station where it’s being housed.

When Amanda and two co-workers try to board Sevastopol, an accident occurs that separates her from her companions, one of whom is injured in the incident. As Amanda begins exploring the station, searching for medical supplies and a way to reconnect with her group, she passes along graffiti-streaked walls that bespeak a climate of upheaval. Evidently, the employees at Sevastopol were not happy about being made redundant; however, the slogans decorating the walls also hint at another threat besides a jobless future.

A general supposition of mine is that you can predict the overall quality of almost any horror-driven narrative by measuring how long the monster is withheld from view. “Alien: Isolation” fared well on this litmus test by devoting a good amount of time to inculcating a sense of foreboding. You get your first full sense that something has gone terribly awry after Amanda comes upon a common area where row after row of body bags line the floor. Listening to the squelch of the bags’ plastic beneath her feet establishes a sense of mood as effective as any line of dialogue.

When the monster eventually appears, your best option is to slink away as quietly as possible. “Alien: Isolation” conforms to the survival-horror genre by accenting its protagonist’s vulnerability. Know that if and when you slip up, Amanda’s demise usually transpires with quick, no-frills brutality. Thus, the most sensible way to approach the game is to avoid conflict whenever possible. Even when Amanda encounters Sevastopol’s malfunctioning, homicidal robots, whom she can take out with an I.E.D. or a few carefully-aimed headshots, the noise from such activity tends to draw more attention than it’s worth. Adapting myself to the needs of this logic, I spent most of the game cowering under desks and hospital beds and in lockers so as to wait out any menaces nearby. With respect to these situations, I must say that I’ve never empathized with another video game character’s bated breath to a similar degree. This game modulated my breathing patterns with startling frequency.

Ultimately, the game’s premise is a simple one. Retrieve the flight recorder and get off of Sevastopol. Between Amanda’s separation from her co-workers and her escape, one is led through many a blind alley and through numerous tasks that do not result in any forward momentum. Still, these fruitless adventures, though exhausting, are worth taking.

Sound design is crucial in horror and science fiction creations like this because it coaxes the viewer to imagine their own gallery of nightmares. With that in mind, I would advise against any but the most skilled or masochistic players from setting the game on Hard, the recommended difficulty setting. The game shines most brightly when you’re dodging between temporary havens, catching glimpses of what might kill you. Conversely, dying repeatedly in the same spot can numb you to the shock of such an eventuality.

A dominant complaint of some of the reviews that I’ve read about “Alien: Isolation” is that its campaign goes on for too long. Propping up this reasoning is a reflexive aversion to so-called “FedEx quests,” whereby video game characters are tasked with crisscrossing environments back and forth to complete objectives. The argument against such design choices is that they exist solely to inflate a game’s length. From a marketing standpoint, the benefits are obvious: the longer you keep the consumer preoccupied, the less chance they might rush through a game then foist it on the used market. I am sympathetic to this argument in most contexts, but here, I think it misses the mark.

Revisiting the Scott film, one is stuck by the crew’s ongoing debates about their responsibilities and compensation. The movie can be read as an allegory about the importance of work in our lives. Viewed from this angle, the game’s FedEx quests acquire a symbolic resonance. Sure they’re tedious, and at times they may seem never ending, but they also subvert the notion that what you’re playing is a game that exists solely to give you a fun, easily manageable adventure. The frisson generated from an exciting new occupation buckles beneath the tedium of the work involved. And by golly, you will ache to get off that damned space station as much any of the other souls stuck on it.

If you’re the sort that believes that there is nothing strange about art making impractical demands of its audience, “Alien: Isolation” offers a grueling experience that might sap you in all of the right ways.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.