Thursday, June 19, 2014

Alien Isolation: Can it become a fundamental part of the survival horror revival?

Alien Isolation xenomorphWe have already had some buzz, seen some game play and even know about the featured 15 hours of game play on the anticipated Aliens game that goes deeper into survival horror than any of its previous titles that range from platformer/shooters to beat them ups and action oriented first person shooters. Many gamers see this title with a lot of optimism, but some if us still have the same question. Can Sega impress us so much with this game that it will make the gaming community forget about Colonial Marines and at the same time turn their heads back to the survival horror genre? The hypothetical answer to that question is yes, because the Alien franchise itself is based on horror, which seems very straight forward in what they are promising with this game, but the only way to pass this test with flying colors is to basically make it an experience worth of the "survival horror" title while giving some fan-service at the same time which is easier said than done. Today, we are going to look into some aspects that could make Alien: Isolation be one of the games that will revive the survival horror genre on this generation, so let's begin:

Alien Isolation gore
Now this brings a lot of memories from the movies.

Diverse and complex level design

One of the things that make a horror game to excel is its level design. Up until now, what we have seen about Isolation looks gorgeous with a very detailed and dark sci-fi environment that ranges from eerie to claustrophobic. It is all looking real good, but it won't be of much help if the navigation through this nightmarish world is composed of smoke and mirrors with bland simple corridors and rooms (which kind of works for some environments, but not the one featured on this game). This is a space station we are talking about, so we need it to be complex as it was built by complex scientific minds. A good example of this would be the map design featured in games like Metroid Prime. It is obvious that we don't need it to be as complicated as Metroid, but Sega could take some tips off the good design practices made in those games.

Alien Isolation game lore
A computer, a magazine and a log book...Can they be read?

Good use of game lore and plot devices

Once again the setting of the game dictates what it is needed. As a promised "survival horror" title, the game needs to have some lore in it. Be it in the way of logs, video footage or even holograms or dying characters (if they want to get a little morbid), these kinds of things have been adding up to the survival horror experience since the days of the first Resident Evil with the "Itchy... Tasty..." diary that everyone read back in the day. The trick with lore and plot devices is to avoid making them in a generic way. For a moment there, we must feel and imagine what was happening to the people involved, like the "Itchy...Tasty..." Resident Evil example that was previously mentioned. With that one we actually visualized was was happening with the person that wrote that diary as he was little by little turning into a zombie without even noticing, that kind of impact is what they should aim for.

Alien Isolation interaction
This cutting mechanic seems to be becoming popular.

An imaginative use of puzzles

It is obvious that given the setting of the game, we won't see any esoteric or surreal puzzles involving switches on paintings or moving statues, but the sci-fi environment featured in this game serves as a good place for some technological/machinery or even normal appliance puzzles. It is expected to see a lot of buttons and levers in this game, but it would be best if they don't just consist of pressing the interact button a couple times or collecting x number of key cards. If the setting of the game is to be a futuristic technological place, then all sorts of devices could be used for various purposes, be it on a residential area, storage room, entertainment center or anything that the space station can offer. This will spice up the players exploration through the place and make them think for a while, looking for a way to solve the problem in order to keep advancing.

For instance, let's say that a Xenomorph trashed some big pipes that are now blocking your way. You then remember that there was a service robot in some previously visited area that could easily move those pipes away and you also remember that the password needed in order to activate it was cleverly put in an ambigous way in one of the documents (game lore) you read. Then you go figure out the password, activate the robot and use it to clear your way, there you go puzzle solved!

Alien Isolation hazards
I know some people that will end up like hot dogs on a barbecue afternoon, instead of just solving the problem.

Extra hazards throughout the game that don't involve Xenomorphs

This is classic stuff from sci-fi movies, but it has also been present in various survival horror games like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, Fatal Frame just to name a few. These are accidents or situations that can easily kill you and on a space station all sorts of things could serve for that purpose. When we think of hazards in the case of this game, we think about things like fire, been thrown in to the vacuum of space, lack of oxygen, security systems gone wrong, etc. The ideal way to go about this game play aspect is to avoid going the lazy way with mood killing "quick time events" and let the player save themselves instead of relying on some button combination. Of course it has to be a fair deal, but at the same time it must be challenging enough to demand some quick thinking.

Alien Isolation exploration
Do I see a low gravity environment there? Can't imagine a Xenomorph just floating by.

Don't divide the game in stages

Dividing a survival horror game in pseudo-stages is something that can be associated with lazy game design in the same way than the "bland corridors and rooms" thing. The best thing to do is to keep the exploration mood going throughout all the game without suddenly pausing the game just to say that the player got to the end of an area. Doing so just ruins the mood and gives an artificial sense of safety that just takes away the "survival" in survival horror. Let the players decide where to go at any given time, let them backtrack, sidetrack and explore at their leisure as they little by little succeed in unlocking new parts in the game. There is this certain feeling of accomplishment when you revisit a place while looking for something and you catch a glimpse of the remnants of your previous visit (dead enemies, opened pathways, solved puzzles, etc).

Alien Isolation main character
Will she survive? That's up to us...

Wrapping it up

A wave of next-gen survival horror games is getting near and Alien: Isolation can be a very important part of it. Sega just needs to learn from theirs and other developer's mistakes and capitalize on the horror that comes as a given in the Alien franchise. Many of the things discussed on this article are things that have been missing from survival horror games for too long and need to come back in order to bring the genre back into full strength while making it evolve at the same, spelling success not only with the old hardcore survival horror crowd, but also with the newer generations. Alien: Isolation already shows that it has what it takes, but that can only be truly seen when we actually play it and not just on videos and pictures. Let's just hope that we have a masterpiece in our hands people, the genre needs it.

Bonus Stage

Here is some video footage of the game, taken by IGN on the days of the E3 event.

Alien: Isolation Game play - E3 2014 (IGN)

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