You must truly live in the moment, making the second-to-second best of an unremittingly bad situation. You have lockers to hide in, vents to scurry through, and an ever-expanding array of bodged-together flash-bangs, noise-makers, smoke bombs and Molotovs. Even a couple of hard-to-use guns, later on. But none of them is ever the true answer. Because there are no true answers. Every possibility comes with disadvantages. Most are unwieldy and uncertain in their results, and all have the potential to make things worse if they don’t pan out. And they often won’t. Every move you make has an immediate and dramatic effect. Everything’s a ripple in the pond, and nothing ever reverts to a reassuring ‘normal’. It's all monumentally unsettling, made of constantly threatening unknowns. Exactly as real horror should be.
It takes at least a couple of hours to deprogram those long-ingrained video game instincts and understand how things work here, but when you do, you’re in for the most tooth-crackingly tense, ferociously believable, and emotionally harrowing survival action you’ve ever experienced. Not to mention a constant array of spectacular, randomly evolving, dramatic set-pieces, the power and spontaneity of which can put even the best scripted action to shame. You might gingerly open the door to a cavernous room that you know is filled with gun-toting humans, only to instantly behold they and the Alien silhouetted in a grim tableau of evisceration. You might quickly sneak out of a dangerous corridor to a side-office, to calm down and regroup, and immediately see a nine-foot horror show walking past the opposite door, missing you by a second.
Oh yes. The Alien. There’s that as well. Once you’ve spent the first hour or two forcibly acclimatising yourself to the depth, pace, and sheer, relentless demands on your mind and nerves, the real terror arrives. And you are not ready.
So nuanced, layered, and complete is the experience laid out by all of the above, that it’s almost possible to forget about the beast before it eventually appears. But however aware of it you are, its impact is devastating. Hell. I’d encountered it multiple times at preview, and even now, after the marathon, masterfully-paced running time of the full game (at least 20 hours, based on the current office completion average), it’s still a terrifying, confounding, and captivating presence.
I use ‘captivating’ very deliberately there. Because the Alien is not simply a figure of fear. Its advanced intelligence and senses make it death-on-legs, a truly living, untamable wild animal. If it sees you, you are almost certainly dead. If it’s closely stalking you, your personal view of the world changes in an instant. Instinctively, you suddenly define your surroundings by light and shadow, by hiding holes, cover, silence and sound, all of which can work for or against you. Progress becomes a case of ‘if’ and ‘how’, not ‘when’. Movement is measured in inches and feet rather than metres, and simply remaining alive becomes more exhilarating than any objective achieved. Every new hiding place reached becomes a glorious win. Every room crossed becomes more satisfying than any boss fight. It’s as thrilling as it is terrifying, and that’s to say, immensely.
But over time, your relationship with the Alien will change, just as it changes the dynamics of the world around you. Despite its horrific, primal nature, you’ll steadily form a closeness to it. A strange, terrified, adversarial intimacy as you unconsciously study it and learn. Its sheer array of behaviours, reactions and abilities, while always monstrously imposing, will start to inform your own. The sound of its footsteps when out of sight, the cacophony of its breathing and screams, and the metallic thunder of its traversal through vents, gradually become a language, and your deadly, cat-and-mouse interplay a conversation. Avoiding, misdirecting and outsmarting a dangerous enemy is always a satisfying action, but with so much emotional weight attached to the act, and your methods informed by so much unguided, hard-earned understanding of the organism’s nature and actions, it’s more powerful and personal here than you’ve likely experienced before.
You’ll start to plot its invisible routes ‘outside’ of the level. Its movements on your motion tracker will explain its paths and behaviours around the map if interpreted with insight. You’ll try to predict whether it’s on the ground or in the ceiling, based on the sounds it makes. Eventually, it will become a key part of your journey, a perverse companion even. Sometimes you’ll even look upon it with fleeting relief, as it arrives to gore a pack of noisy, bloodthirsty looters on your tail. As later items allow you to interact with it more directly--though never to truly fight back--that closeness will increase, until by the end you’ll find your journey to be as strangely emotional as it is physical. In fact you’ll go through a very similar personal development to that of one Ellen Ripley over the course of a certain three films. And there truly can’t be a more perfect adaptation of Alien than that.