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Alien Isolationism

October 4, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.53.48

The reviews for Alien: Isolation emerged this week – the game follows next Friday – and while the game scored pretty well, what’s really interesting is the divide between the scores given by UK and US-based critics.

At the top line, at least (and let’s be clear – I refuse to do any maths or real research about this) the UK went for 8s and 9s, the US for 6s and 7s: Eurogamer liked it, PC Gamer’s Andy Kelly loved it, while IGN, Gamespot and Polygon were less enthusiastic.

This is interesting because, while there’s a chance the UK writers are unconsciously rooting for an English studio (the game was made in Horsham by Creative Assembly), I actually think the divide springs from the thing that I find most interesting and valuable about the game: the way it presents space, and specifically, the very British way it presents space.

This isn’t an accident – Creative Assembly has always been clear that Isolation takes inspiration from the frigid horror of Ridley Scott’s Alien, rather than its action-heavy sequel (which, as I discuss in this Edge piece on Edge Of Tomorrow, casts a long shadow over video game aesthetics). Here’s a passage from my review of the game:

And what is being shown? Panels. Fat-keyed computer consoles. Hexagonal architecture. Isolation hasn’t so much copied the worn, antiseptic future of Scott’s film as it has absorbed it on a molecular level. The game is beautiful – not just film grain and lighting pretty, but artfully constructed in a way that makes it deeply pleasurable to simply be inside.

The last bit is really the key – it is a science fiction that is so intelligently put together that simply taking it in is compelling, without action or violence. I described this on Twitter as “Pinewood craft”, meaning it has the same detail and depth of setting as the great influential science fiction movies filmed by British technicians in the ’60s and ’70s, with their diligent practical effects and precise camerawork – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, and Alien.

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 16.56.01It turns out this was a perfectly moronic thing to call it, as Star Wars was shot at Elstree, Alien at Shepperton, and 2001 at a combination of the two, though I think the point still stands. What Alien: Isolation achieves is an environment so practically and perfectly realised that it heightens the very reality of what we’re seeing. It’s the shadows that fall across the surface if the Death Star, the flawless invisible rotations of 2001’s gravity walks, the grim industry of the Nostromo.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) GARY LOCKWOOD TTO 016FOHThere’s a romance in this idea, for sure. Al Hope from Creative Assembly has talked about digging up old sound reels from the production of Alien, complete with gruff cockney voices bookending each effect with references and suggestions – this is a great PR gambit because we (certainly I) want to see a correlation between the hands-on modellers, set-builders and craftsmen who built these films, and the tactile blue-collar futures they present. This is why we’re all so pleased Star Wars VII has come back to England (it really is Pinewood this time), to help us flush away the green screen nothing of the prequel trilogy, and the pervasiveness of digital effects everywhere. Realities look better when you build them.

A thought I’ll save for another day is how this practical streak runs through the also very British apocalyptic fiction I’ve been steeped in recently, with writers like John Christopher, Nevile Shute, Sir Fred Hoyle and – of course – John Wyndham pinning down the precise ways in which we’ll fall and be broken apart, a pragmatic approach to the end. But that’s what also convinces me that there is a particular sensibility, a particular Britishness, that runs through Alien: Isolation, and accounts for its bumpy travels.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Linda Le Roux permalink
    October 4, 2014 4:39 pm

    Beautifully described. The incredible dedication of the Creative Assembly team and their ‘risky’ but successful handling of the source material is great for the British video industry. Recent tax breaks will certainly encourage British developers to go that extra mile. Perhaps the American critics just can’t appreciate this and rather play safe by satisfying the American audience, I do hope Alien Isolation will be a great success for CA.

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