Alien Isolation and the Alpha Antagonist

The recent new game in the Aliens franchise — Alien: Isolation has been getting some interesting reviews. But one area that is turning heads would have to be the design and implementation of the Alien and how it takes a concept that I’ve been thinking about and is the first game to go with it. Normal survival horror games either make the player too strong or too weak which leads to the horror element becoming stale, but Alien: Isolation manages to do both thanks to different types of threats.

Alien Isolation

Alpha Antagonist:

In a previous post on horror design, I talked about several ways to elevate the horror genre after being disappointed by games like Dead Space, Outlast and pretty much any “horror game” from the last four years. One of my ideas was to have a horror game built around a super threat: An Alpha Antagonist who would literally hunt the player.

Many horror games like to throw in a segment where an enemy can’t be killed and force the player to escape, but this would be taking that to the extreme with having the entire game like that. Now I know some of you will point out that games like Outlast do have enemies who cannot be killed and you are constantly running away from.

The problems with those games are that the player has no defensive options and that the enemies are still bound to basic computer logic where they will only patrol certain areas and are meant to be nothing more than roving cameras. And it’s pretty clear when you’re exploring for exposition and when you’re being hunted.

Another game that tried to do the alpha antagonist concept would be Resident Evil 3 Nemesis, where the titled Nemesis monster would hunt the player. But again, this was based on scripted areas and attacks. The same could also be said of series like Haunting Ground that had the player being chased by one enemy, but still limited in its interactions. They were still better than the games I mentioned above because the player could choose to fight or flight (Or in Haunting Ground’s case set traps.) And that’s what has me very interested in Alien Isolation.

Reports about the game (I know, I haven’t played it yet but it’s now on my list) say that the developers pretty much created an entire AI for the Alien who would hunt and track the player throughout the game. Not just at scripted events, but anytime during play. The alien can only be briefly scared away and if it catches you, there is no way to really escape from it.

alien isolation

Outlast may feature enemies who stalk the player, but their actions are limited by a basic AI.

What’s also intriguing about the game is that there are regular enemies who can be fought and if the alien hears you fighting them, it may come to attack. This sounds both awesome and terrifying and exactly what I wanted the horror genre to do for years now.

The alien is both a constant threat and almost like a force of nature throughout the game and that’s what a good horror monster should be — You can’t stop them, they’re after you and at most you can briefly keep them at bay.

While this all sounds well and good, from reading reviews and watching footage the game can’t escape one problem that not even an intelligent AI can fix — being too long.

Managing Pace:

Another part of the horror genre that I’ve talked at length about is the problem with pacing in a game. A horror movie solves things by having a strict run time where everything in there has a purpose for existing. A video game doesn’t have that set pacing no matter how well designed the levels and situations were.

Looking at Alien Isolation, despite the work that went into the Alien AI, the actual responses by it are still limited to only a few results. Being caught = dead, being spotted = dead, getting too close to where it’s hiding= dead. With a short game or movie, the audience doesn’t spend enough time getting acclimated to the situation.

Alien Isolation

Traditional horror games falter by throwing in too many “scrub” enemies who eventually become routine to fight.

But when you have a 15+ hour game, no matter how scary the Alien is, you’re eventually going to reach a point of getting used to it and horror gives way to annoyance.

This is compounded by the fact that the levels are linear as no matter how reactive it is, both the player and the enemies are still limited by the environment that they are in.

Future Shock:

With that said, Alien Isolation from impressions is a great step in the direction of proving that horror games can work in the AAA market and a game like it could only be developed there. Creating an AI that goes beyond scripted areas or scenes is something on a scale similar to massive detailed game spaces that the AAA industry does best.

I’m also very curious to see how The Evil Within will fare and if it will continue to raise the benchmark that Isolation started or go back to more traditional affairs.