Alien: Isolation Interview - The Creative Assembly Talks Terror
Written Friday, January 24, 2014 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
Right, this is a long interview, so we’re going to keep the intro short. Here's our chat with Alistair Hope and John McKellan, the creative lead and the UI lead on The Creative Assembly’s upcoming survival horror, Alien: Isolation.
One of our most anticipated games of the year, Alien: Isolation sees players creeping around on an abandoned ship, armed with just an ominously bleeping motion tracker. And all the while, a single terrifying alien stalks your every move. We played it, and it was bloody terrifying.
But what’s the rest of the game like? Will there be combat? And how hard was it to pitch a survival horror Alien game, when the rest of the industry seems to be going in the opposite direction? We attempted to discover all this and more. Read on to discover the results.
So when did the whole process start for you?
Alistair Hope: We’ve been working on the game for almost three years now. I was a huge Alien fan. I have very vivid memories of reading Alan Dean Foster's novelisation, I think probably before I saw the film, as a kid. So I read his novelisation, because I was a big sci-fi fan, and it had an awesome cover. In the book I got a sense of this place and this creature, and then I saw the film and it blew my mind. It was an incredible experience; the production design and the whole atmosphere of the place, it really does feel unique. It’s just so detailed, especially when you look at other sci-fi films of the time.
So when I knew that SEGA had the Alien license, it felt like Alien: Isolation was a game that should be made. There’s something there which could make for a fantastic game. The vision, more or less, has stayed the same since day one. Before we had anything I’d be saying to the guys, “What would it be like if you had Ridley Scott’s Alien in the studio right now, what would you do?” And people would be saying, “I’d hide and make sure it can’t see me”. So I’d be like, “Okay, then what?” And you start to think, yeah okay what would you do? It felt like there was something there, really special, and so a few of us, a handful of guys, put together a little demo, which took about four weeks to make and another couple of weeks to polish, which was kind of a tech demo and mood piece, where we tried to explore what it would be like to walk around the environment, the medical lab. The demo ended with the arrival of this huge alien, which completely dominated the screen and attacked the player, and it was just like wow. It was amazing.
So we pitched that to SEGA, and it kinda went a little bit viral internally. People were saying “Have you seen what CA’s doing?” And then we took it to Fox, and they were really enthusiastic right from the start. Alien: Isolation was very much from us, it wasn’t a brief we were handed by SEGA. I’m very aware that when I say that stuff out loud it sounds like bollocks, but it’s very much the game we wanted to play. Other games have focused on a different aspect; on you versus the horde, on many aliens, and it seemed like there was this incredible opportunity to put the player in a space with this creature that’s tall and monolithic and you can’t get around it. We talked about “re-aliening the alien”, which is a clumsy phrase, but I think it distills what we’re trying to do, to take it back to that.
Was is a hard sell to pitch a survival horror game in a market where, certainly towards the end of the last generation, it felt like there wasn’t much faith in the commercial viability of the genre?
AH: No, this sounds pretty cheesy, but SEGA were very supportive from day one. Incredibly so, considering we don’t have a heritage of survival horror. But whenever we pitched it to people, we had a similar reaction which was “Wow yeah, this hasn’t been done before, you should make this.”
Also, when we started, I think survival horror was stereotypically or archetypically, a third-person experience, and so when we started that’s what we did, it was third-person. Because in a way, when we started back then, that was one of the things you were expected to do. So we played around with that for a bit, but I had always thought of it as a first-person thing. It’s something that you should have a direct relationship to and not try and have it through a character. It’s interesting, at a time when some of the other franchises are chasing Gears of War, it felt like we needed to stay true to what we were trying to do.
When we started developing, the guys would corner me and say, “Al, come and look at this” and what they’d done was hack the game camera so it was effectively on the forehead of the in-game character and it was amazing, a completely different experience. That was a watershed moment for us because we were going back to what I thought we originally should be doing, and that was great because it changed everything. It’s not a character hiding behind a box, looking at the alien. You’re looking at the alien.
I got that when I played. Every time I opened a door it was a terrifying experience. Because I’m there, y’know? Even walking up ladders, I know you’re going to do it to me, but I was scared that while climbing up a ladder something might jump out.
AH: On that point, we wanted to try and make climbing ladders a bit more of an experience, so we let you stop and look around. So just by adding that, people start feeling nervous about climbing ladders because they’re like “Why are they letting me stop and look around?” It completely changes how people play.
John McKellan: The first-person thing. Just bringing the camera five feet closer to the danger, even that alone, and going up to the door and instead of having all this peripheral vision you have a door that whooshes open and reveals this new frame. So the idea to make players scared to open a door is perfect, it’s cool.
Tell me about the story and how you arrived at that idea.
AH: So when we started, I was really keen - I mean we were never going to make the game of the movie, that was never something we wanted to do. But we did want to capitalise on all the great stuff we’ve got; the low-fi sci-fi and the feel of it. So we wanted a story that was right next to Alien, we wanted to stay close to it. And it really just started from that. At the end of Alien, the Nostromo goes missing, who cares enough to go looking for it? It was interesting thinking about - well Ellen Ripley had a daughter, she’d care. She’d want to know what happened. But what would happen if she did go looking? What would she find? And it felt like there was this huge gap between Alien and Aliens, where we didn’t know what happened. There was this story that needed to be told, we had to know what happened, who would go looking for her? And that’s where we came from.
So in the story, it takes place 15 years after the Nostromo goes missing. Someone finds the black box flight recorder that was automatically ejected upon the self-destruct sequence occurring. Weyland-Yutani hear that it has been found and they send a small team to go and collect it, and Ripley’s daughter Amanda volunteers to join them. And when she reaches the ship where the black box is, she encounters the horror that her mother faced in Alien.
You mentioned low-fi sci-fi, explain a little bit more about that and how you’ve bought it to life.
AH: We obviously wanted to stick to that retro, 70s vision of the future, which was so unique in the film and also gives viewers now a sense of nostalgia and familiarity. I think it feels quite fresh amongst all the high-fi sci-fi we’ve had over the years. Out approach has always been to… you know Alien is a two hour film set on one ship, and we have to give the player more to explore than that, with new locations on a new station that’s bigger and more varied. So we had to expand on what was there and there’s a 15 year gap between the first film and our game, so there’s not a huge amount of difference in terms of tech. So we tried to stick as close to that as we could and think the way that they would think. And explore our concepts in the same way they did while creating Alien. So we used the same techniques for concept art and we set rules for ourselves, like not referencing any technology that was created after 1979, because the guys making the sets wouldn’t have done that. This helped us steer in the same direction they were headed. It means that the tech in the game and the things you can do, are all kind of grounded and relatable in some way. If you’re anything like my age, you’ve tuned in things and you’ve battered away on a Spectrum hoping to make something work. There’s something really nice about that and something that’s quite fresh about it, despite being really old.
What are players going to be doing when they’re not hiding from the alien?
AH: In terms of pacing, what we showed today was this very small slice to give you guys a taste of what it’s like to be in a room with an alien and a motion tracker, and limit it just to that and see how that plays out. But we wouldn’t want that to be the continuous experience. So we talk about needing tension and release, we need the player to experience those kind of moments but also moments where they are able to catch their breath and gather their thoughts. This game is very much about being in this very remote place and your journey through it. So it’s very much about the world, the environment, the kind of physical obstruction that it provides you. And your interactions in this world too and your choices within those interactions. And also, there’s a limited inhabitance still present. They’re in a similar situation, they’re still desperate to survive. But they have different reactions to the events that are occurring, and some are negative and some are positive towards the player. So we feel like there’s a lot of different combinations of interactions and engagement for the player, within the context of knowing that the alien could appear at any moment. That tension is ever present.
JM: Watching people play the demo was interesting, because when they finally got to the airlock there was a sigh of relief. That is just as important as what came before, those small victories where you’ve pushed forward and succeeded. You need to give the player a break. I like to reference the moments in Silent Hill 1 and 2 where the world would turn back to the foggy world and you had a sense of relief because you knew what was there and you felt a bit safer. And then as time would progress you’d hear the klaxon go and you’d get that sense of dread again. That was important, to let the player explore and let them soak up the world. We’ve built this ridiculously detailed world and you don’t explore that when you’re terrified. You need to give them the right scenario to do that, otherwise they’re going to miss so much.
So there will be combat, right? And puzzles?
AH: We’re not making a shooter, but there is conflict.
JM: In terms of puzzles, there are things to solve like hacking games and a few other things that we’ll be talking about later.
Okay, so the rumour before the game was officially announced was that you’d be shooting your way through clones and soldiers. Is that true?
AH: No. There are no soldiers in this game. Androids are one of the core components of the IP and in Alien there is Ash and there’s some duplicity there. In the demo you may have noticed one that’s been ripped in half. But the station is run by a corporation called Seegsen and they have their own type of android who are just following instructions and are nowhere as near advanced as Ash.
I’m not using this word in a pejorative sense, but is the game linear?
AH: It’s a single-player experience that’s very much about the story, but at the same time it’s very much about player choice. So what you didn’t get today, today was straight forward in terms of the layout. In the wider game, we’re not really talking about it today, but there’s more opportunity to find alternative ways to manoeuvre and navigate around the world.
JM: Other paths to choose to solve problems.
How long will the game be. What’s the target?
AH: Erm… this is one of the challenges we have at the moment. We need to get more people playing this game to see how they behave. We have a sense of how much content we need to generate. But what we find out is, say for example we make something and we think it’s about 15 minutes of content, and we get someone to playtest it and they’ve taken twice as long, they’ve taken half an hour. We get someone else to play it, 45 minutes, someone else, an hour. Everyone seems to have had a really positive experience, they’ve just done it in their own way.
That happened today, right?
JM: Yeah, everyone pressed start at the same time but within 10 minutes they’re all in radically different places doing different things and observing the world in different ways. So we have this big range of playtimes that we have to narrow down to ensure that people are getting a consistent experience but those that want to stay around longer in the world still can.
Presumably length is important because you haven’t got multiplayer?
AH: This isn’t a game that would suit multiplayer. For us I think there’s going to be a really good amount of entertainment hours for your money in this, not least because it’s different every time you play. At the centre of it is the alien, who reacts to you and doesn’t stick to a set path every time. For us as a dev team, the scariest level is the level we don’t know, because we can build a world, drop an alien in it and the worst thing for us when you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s very much a live encounter because the alien is using its sight and hearing to track you down. It’s very suspicious if it thinks it has sensed you. And if it can’t find you, equally scarily it will dive up into a vent and disappear and then suddenly, explosively appears somewhere else. It’s very much reacting to what you’re doing, the noises you’re making and the flashlight. It’s very responsive. Its abilities evolve too, where it learns new ways to surprise you.
It’s really difficult to talk about this without talking about the wider gameplay. But there are a lot of opportunities for the player, the whole game is about the player constantly looking at the information at hand, the resources they’ve got and the immediate threat of their situational position, these constant A/B choices about do I craft something or do I save it? Do I go in that room because I think there may be something beneficial in there, or do I go for the door and get out of here? There’s so many.. it’s really hard to talk about this… but it will be interesting for players to go back. I think now the new consoles allow people to share their playthroughs, I think there’s a lot of opportunity there for people to play the game and show how they did it. We talked about it early on as being an infinite horror movie, because everyone is going to be playing it in an ever-so-slightly way and the events are going to play out in an ever-so-slightly different way. That’s a really exciting prospect. I can’t wait to watch Twitch or Ustream or whatever and see what people get up to.
Alien: Isolation is out on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 and PC later in 2014.