Design lead Alistair Hope talks to Develop about making a new engine and believable AI to recreate the terrifying atmosphere of the movie classic
Following Ridley Scott’s eerie and terrifying original Alien film movie released in 1979, and James Cameron’s all-action sequel Aliens, the franchise has had a chequered history across film and games.
The original Aliens versus Predator game by Rebellion in 1999 was critically acclaimed, but the IP hasn’t enjoyed the same success since in the gaming world, and the most recent attempt, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, was marred by controversy, a plethora of bugs and was slated by reviewers.
Even the Alien vs. Predator films were scorned by critics, and the Alien prequel-but-not-a-prequel Prometheus was also met with a mixed response.
The mantle has now fallen to Creative Assembly, the famed RTS developer now branching into new genres, to help revive the iconic Alien’s reputation and bring back the scares once again with upcoming survival horror game Alien: Isolation for new-gen consoles and PC.
“This was our chance to take the franchise back to the roots, back to Ridley Scott's haunted house in space,” Alien: Isolation design lead Alistair Hope tells Develop.
“To make a game based on the values of that original movie. One of the most important aspects of Alien is that it's really credible. It’s 35 years old this year but you can watch it today and still get something out of it because, for a sci-fi film, it's very grounded.”
The survival horror takes place on a remote deep space trading port called Sevastopol, and pits players in the role of female lead Amanda Ripley, daughter of Alien star Ellen Ripley, as she aims to uncover the mystery behind her mother’s disappearance, all the while being stalked by the story's famous monster.
Hope says the key to emulating the original film is keeping the game grounded and making sure the setting is at least somewhat believable to engross players into the game and evoke that sense of fear.
“Alien: Isolation is very much about immersing the player in this incredible space, this 1979 view of the future with an alien which is huge, terrifying and lethal; an alien that isn't running on a pre-defined script or path, but using its senses to hunt its prey – you,” he explains.
“We found out early in development that for this to work, all the elements had to work together in order to create this believable experience. So we've invested a lot in the tech and brought in some amazingly talented and experienced people to create this unique experience."
To create that unique experience, Creative Assembly developed a specially-built game engine for the title, ensuring it was ready for the new generation of consoles long before they were announced.
One of the key bits of tech Alien: Isolation hinges on is the AI. Without clever, believable responses and pathfinding from the title’s alien protagonist, Creative Assembly won’t be able to develop that immersive experience it craves to recreate the atmosphere of the original film.
“We really wanted to ‘re-Alien the Alien’; to enable the player to experience what it would be like to encounter Ridley Scott’s original Alien,” says Hope.
“An intelligent creature using sight and sound to hunt the player. One of the ways we ensure that the alien is a convincing creature is by having him follow some pretty solid rules. For example, if he is inside vents or under the floor, he has to obey the rules of navigating the space. This means we are not teleporting him ahead of the player or making the player feel cheated with regards to his movement.”
He adds: “As the player develops certain abilities through the game, so too will the Alien change its behaviour in response. This means that the more you use an item or device to distract or defend against the alien, the less effective it will be as it adapts its behaviour.”
Another key element to increase immersion is the use of distinct sounds from the alien to display certain behaviours. A large roar will signal an imminent attack, while an alert sound will communicate to the player their footsteps are being heard.
“It is this sort of telegraphing and reaction to the player that has been core to the alien design. With no HUD or prompts telling you if he has seen you, it all has to be in world and from the creature itself,” explains Hope.
Despite the impressive-sounding AI behind the alien, and the old emotions by fans of the original movie being reborn once again, is there really still a market for the traditional survival horror? EA’s Dead Space and Capcom’s Resident Evil IPs both gradually immersed themselves into more action-oriented experiences in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience.
Or is the genre in fact as successful as it’s ever been, with titles such as Shinji Mikami's and Tango Gameworks' The Evil Within on the horizon. Hope says the horror genre is alive and well, but has evolved over time to incorporate a variety of game types.
“It no longer has to stick to its classic, narrow definition; you can find new, really effective, survival horror experiences in a variety of games,” he says. “From something subtle like the excellent Gone Home, to the oppressive atmosphere, chilling violence and highly stylised world of Limbo.“
Alien: Isolation could be just what survival horror needs to kick-start new life into the genre on next-gen, even if the strict definition of the gameplay style has changed. It’s also a chance to help re-launch a franchise with a recent chequered history in both film and games – but one Creative Assembly seems to be taking seriously by taking the series back to its famous and terrifying roots, on that haunted house in space.
Develop readers will have a chance to look behind the scenes of the hotly-tipped Alien: Isolation at a new event this February.
Develop's An Audience With… Alien: Isolation takes place on February 12th at the Ray Dolby Theatre in Soho, London.