Bursting with potential
So Aliens: Colonial Marines was a bit disappointing then, to say the least. But let's not dwell on that. Let's look to the future instead. Because regardless of the latest game's many misfires, there remains a terrifying amount of video game potential in the Alien universe. Its dank, claustrophobic world of biomechanical nightmares contains swathes of material as yet unexploited in interactive media. Should a developer get it right and really pull on the films' greatest strengths and most affecting ideas, then that developer could create one of the smartest, scariest and most memorable games in a very long time.
What would be involved in that 'getting it right'? The following, we reckon...
Base it on Alien, not Aliens
The problem with Aliens as video game enemies is that too much exposure to themkills the sense of threat. The reason these things are scary is right there in the titleof the first film. Theyre alien. Completely unknown and unrelatable bymankind, physically or behaviourally. Throw in too many and they just become fast-moving zombies with two sets of teeth. Cannon fodder with a carapace. The Aliens movie works by essentially being a Vietnam film; a horrific story of nave, outnumbered soldiers thrown into the meatgrinder against a well-hidden enemy they dont understand. But that kind of fear is tricky to sustain over a full-length FPS campaign.
So for the Xenos to be treated with the terrified respect they truly deserve, a great Alien game needs to follow the model of the first film, not the second. Given that the unknown is the key element to the power and scares of Alien, it should be inspired by the scenario rather than based on the exact story. But it should absolutely immerse the player in the complete Nostromo survival experience.
Spare the Alien, keep it special
Using the first film as its model, an Alien game would inherently have to relegate Xenomorph appearances to infrequent and unexpected instances. It would also need to use a low total number of Xenos. Far from reducing the thrills, that would seriously enrich the experience if played right.
With sporadic Alien encounters appearing as unexpected, dynamically generated events, the threat of the beast would maintain a heightened sense of dread, its presence felt constantly whether physically close or not. But obviously it would be impossible to build an engaging game around the simple process of sneaking around dark corridors without much happening, so in order to work as an interactive experience and remain film-faithful, a good Alien game would need to be built around a few other key principles and ideas. It should be a game about survival rather than combat. The Alien should be just one of many dangers. And there would need to be multiple non-Xeno objectives that the Alien could interfere with at any moment. So first of all, lets
Focus on survival, not attack
Alien is a film about a small bunch of completely unprepared survivors tackling a single unknown and unseen predator. So let's put the player in the same situation as Ripley and her ill-fated crew. Lets have them dealing with Aliens on an isolated, non-military ship far from any immediate assistance.
Thus, any method of retaliation should be improvised and fairly weak. A claw hammer here (watch out for that blood), a blow-torch there, or more often than not just the simple act of running away and praying to find a lockable door. Home-made weapon-crafting should be possible, Dead Rising 2-style, but exploring in order to scavenge the necessary materials should bring its own risks, which would need to be balanced against the benefits of sticking to (hopefully) safer routes and bolt-holes. And speaking of environmental considerations, if were going to provide a holistic, immersive Alien experience then the physical setting is going to be fundamental
Make the Alien just one problem of many
Let's say your character starts the game rudely awoken from hypersleep. Maybe theres a power failure. Maybe a meteor strike has caused a hull breach, or the Alien itself has sabotaged the ships systems. Whatever the problem, maintaining a failing living environment should be a major element of the game. In fact improvisationally fending off death, whether it come by Alien or environment, should be the games only ultimateobjective. Just like in the film.
The ship should be a dark, dangerous, self-contained open-world with a limited lifespan, extendable only through the decisions and actions of the player. Do you move out to make repairs, risking exposure? Do you reroute power from a less vital system and hope that it doesn't become very vital further on? Do you even venture out at all, or just try to hunker down and hope you don't get trapped by the Alien? This should be a Xeno survival and ship management simulator, and much like in a 'sim' game like Dishonored, there should be no right or wrong approaches. Just on-the-fly appraisals of developing situations, risk-and-reward resource management and hope.
Make a small package filled with big surprises
Even the best survival horror game has trouble maintaining a genuine sense of intimidation for a whole 8-10 hour campaign. Given that an authentic Alien game would need to thrive, as the film does, on constant tension and perpetual urgency, a different approach might be needed.
How about an intense 3-4 hour campaign -- about twice the length of the film -- built for replayability and dynamically different experiences each time, Left 4 Dead style? How about randomised gameplay scenarios by way of multiple remixed variables? Sometimes there might only be one Alien. Sometimes there might be two or three. Sometimes a Facehugger might be thrown into the mix in order to reduce ally numbers while building the opposition. Some games might even add a young Queen to proceedings, bringing as she would the risk of an unsurvivable infestation if left alone for too long. And to put the player well-and-truly in Ripley's boots, they should have no idea what they're up against until they discover it first-hand.
How do you reconcile that with a pre-determined story? Simple. You don't. Read on.
Maintain the fear through emergent unpredictability
Weve already referenced Dead Rising 2s weapon crafting system. Now let's throw in its 'Can't have it all' clause as well. To remain truly unpredictable, demanding and terrifying, our Alien game should restrict the players power to see and do everything in one play through. It should also have multiple possible end criteria. Maybe everyone dies. Maybe they kill the Alien but die when the ship fails. Maybe they trap the Alien in the escape shuttle and launch it. Maybe they use the shuttle themselves but get killed anyway after forgetting to check the life support still works. Maybe they send a distress call and try to wait it out, and maybe they just blow the whole ship to hell.
Procedural generation and dynamic, player-driven gameplay are really taking off right now, fuelling everything from Skyrim to Dishonored to Minecraft to FTL. Build an open-ended Alien survive-'em-up around those values and you could have a constantly changing, constantly terrifying game. And to really push things to the next level, let's include a last layer of unpredictability, coming from the most dangerous place of all.
Make the human element as scary as the alien threat
The Alien films are filled with human deceit. In the first, the Nostromo's 'discovery' of the alien ship on LV-426 is an orchestrated accident on the part of the Weyland-Yutani Company. In Aliens, company man Burke is pulling the strings throughout. And then W-Y manipulates things yet again towards the end of Alien3. So let's make the ship's crew unpredictable. Let's randomly designate their behaviour and motivations on each play through just as we randomise the state of the ship. Maybe there's a Company plant on board (android or otherwise). Maybe someone's a psychopath. Maybe a good person gets scared and starts sacrificing their friends to the Alien in order to survive.
And of course, the player should be free to be as underhand as they want. And to really make things sing, let's have Journey-style blind multiplayer, with every character available for human control. Balance the game so that cooperation brings a greater overall chance of survival but back-stabbing might sometimes mean an immediate life-saving possibility. You'd have an endlessly edgy game, like Kane & Lynch's betrayal-driven multiplayer blown up into the nastiest survival horror around.
Yeah, you heard. Or at the very least make saving facilities limited. We could maybe include ZombiU-style character-swapping in the event of player death, balancing the tension lost through the use of a limited lives system against the fear of the diminished resources that come with a reduced crew. But hell, The Witcher 2 had no problem bestowing full-scale bad endings in the early hours of the game, and neither should our interactive Alien experience.
Anything else jumping out?
So, those are our ideas on how to make the perfect Alien game, but how about yours? Any important elements of the series you think we've missed? Any other films in the series you'd like to focus your adaptational attentions on? Let us know in the comments.
And while you're in a Xenomorphic mood, w hy not check out some of our other related content, like 13 must-know facts about the Alien universe or 12 big ways that video games have ripped off the Alien movies?