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Designing the retro future of Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation
Classification: TBA (likely to be R18+)
Platforms: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Windows PC
Release date: 7 October 2014
Previewed on: Xbox One

The Alien film series is a cultural institution, but the vast majority of media devoted to this franchise centres around James Cameron's 1986 action sequel Aliens.

While Ridley Scott's chilling original, 1979's Alien, is beloved by film buffs and horror fans, it is usually relegated to playing second fiddle to its action-packed younger sibling.

This holds true for video game spin-offs. With games tending to be a very action-heavy medium, almost every game based on the franchise has drawn from the themes of gritty marines mowing down hordes of ravenous creatures.

Nobody has ever attempted to capture the look and feel of the original film, a deliberately-paced chiller in which a single alien creature stealthily picked off the small crew of a mining ship one by one. Could this atmosphere of slowly-building dread be recreated in video game form?

British studio The Creative Assembly is betting it can, and what it has shown to the gaming press so far is extremely impressive.


Alien: Isolation takes place after the original film, taking up the tale of Ellen Ripley's estranged daughter Amanda. She goes in search of her mysteriously vanished mother and finds her way to Sevastopol Station.

Unfortunately, so does one of the same aliens faced by her mother.

One of the most remarkable things about the game is how faithfully it recreates the look of a film made in 1979. This is not a glossy high-tech future, but one filled with green screen monitors, banks of chunky switches and dials, and flickering fluorescent lighting.

"We're all nerds who love the film as much as anyone," admits Jude Bond, lead artist on the project. "We were given a truckload of archive material and production shots and that really opened our eyes to what was really going on on the set. The things that we thought we'd seen, well, they weren't what we thought we'd seen.

"We just started consuming material, anything we could get hold of. What was this made of? What is this material here? What's that object there? Everything we could, we took it apart. Once we deconstructed it, the set and the costumes and whatever else, we were finally in a position to start rebuilding.

"The theory all the way through was that we wanted everything to look like it could have been on the set, that was our main criteria. We'd ask ourselves, does this look like it might have been there on the set in Shepperton? Yes or no? That was our answer."

Every aspect of the game's design has been informed by archival material, even the sound effects. "The sound guys got a load of old tapes that let them reconstruct how a lot of these sounds were created," Bond recalls. "They had tapes with the original sound engineers talking over their sound effects, explaining in detail how they were put together."

However, films and video games are different media with different requirements and limitations, so some aspects needed tweaking. H. R. Giger's iconic design of the titular alien was one such example.

"In the movie, you really do see such a small amount of the alien, it's very suggestive, not explicit," Bond explains. "As fans, we thought we knew what it looked like, until we saw these really explicit, posed, off-set shots, and we were like, what? This was how it was made? It was made out of this and that?

"Terrific costume design, but obviously it wasn't going to work for us. We don't have the editorial control that Ridley Scott had, pointing a camera exactly where he wanted it, because this is a game. So we thought, you know what? If Ridley Scott could have hired a ten-foot tall actor, he probably would have."

There are also other threats lurking in the station, including other humans and their robotic servants. "There are human survivors on the station – they're not inherently evil or inherently good, they're just trying to survive, like the player really," Bond says.

"We've also introduced a less sophisticated synthetic person, or android. These are more primitive than Ash and Bishop, just automatons really, just there to serve the menial tasks on the station. Again, they're not good or bad, they're just doing what they're told."

The attention to detail extends even to the station's signage, which is faithfully based on the symbols developed by Alien production designer Ron Cobb. The bold, blocky shapes designed by Cobb indicate space suit storage, radiation hazards, airlocks, and more.

"They didn't cover all of the things we needed in the game, so we've expanded on them to denote things like elevators and other things, but as a foundation they're a brilliant, simple design," Bond says.

"It's the kind of thing not a lot of people will notice, but those who pay close attention to the details will see it and know, oh, there's a hard vacuum behind that door!"

The end result of all of this effort is like a creepy tour of the original movie set. Fans of Scott's film will be astonished at how faithfully the film's look has been recreated in a digital medium.

Likewise, fans of survival horror will be pleased by how terrifying and challenging the gameplay is. This is appropriately old-school horror, deadly and frightening, and the game's promotional materials have focused on how scary it is.

Alien: Isolation will not only look and sound remarkably like Scott's classic film when it is released in October, but it will also provide similar scares.

DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez