Alien: Isolation and Creative Assembly’s bid to save big budget survival horror

Alien Isolation screen

Alien: Isolation is our latest issue’s cover star. There’s more detail on what’s inside E263 here.

Survival horror is a genre in decline, though that deterioration has been slowed in recent years by independent developers and the likes of Outlast and Amnesia. Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation mirrors those independent horror games in many ways, and the studio is adamant there’s room for a megabudget survival horror game in the absence of competition from the genre’s former big names.

“I think this team really got a lot out of Dead Space 1 and Resident Evil,” creative director Alistair Hope says. “But those franchises moved in a direction that isn’t… Well, I think that fans of those originals have been marginalised and sometimes it feels like these days they’re just a couple of degrees away from being Gears Of War.” Lead designer Gary Napper agrees. “Cinematic set-pieces and loads of guns isn’t quite the ‘hiding in the cupboard’ experience I got in the old days of horror gaming,” he says. “But that stuff has been embraced by the indie community who are producing these high fidelity games that are tense and atmospheric. It’s not often you get to do that in the triple-A space.”

“There are so few real horror games, you find yourself being inspired by other games and digging back into the archives,” Hope says. “Limbo is inspiring. It did this oppressive loneliness so well, and the deaths are horrible. They are gruesome but then they’re noiseless. There’s no kind of overt spectacle to them. Then you’ve got something like Thief: Deadly Shadows where you’re completely underpowered, surrounded by guards and you can’t be seen, so just trying to find somewhere to hide in the dark gets your hear thumping. One false move and you’re dead. Even Sega’s own Condemned… the brutality of having someone throwing themselves at you, brutality hitting you, and – most important – running away from you and waiting.”

Creative Assembly’s Alistair Hope says of Dead Space and Resident Evil: “Fans of those originals have been marginalised and sometimes it feels like these days they’re just a couple of degrees away from being Gears Of War.”

Those sources of inspiration are plainly visible in Alien: Isolation, as each death is signalled with a brief glimpse of the alien, then crunching, slicing, and blackness. You can see it in the way Creative Assembly’s alien is so immediately deadly the whole game becomes about hiding and desperately searching for anything to put between Ripley and the creature hunting her, and in the way the alien retreats into darkness and vanishes from your motion tracker, lying in wait.

“A tricky thing we’ve had with the game design is being able to communicate to the player what the alien is doing,” Napper says. “That’s so important in a horror game where you’re this vulnerable. You need some advantage. We don’t want to use any exclamation marks above heads or any HUD pop ups so it became very important to us to have the alien bark its calls and telegraph what it’s physically doing so the player can learn those noises. The player needs to know early on when something they’ve done has alerted the alien. The nicest sound in the game right now is the sound the alien makes when he’s lost all trace of you.

“We have lots of those moments in this behaviour where it does something that’s not necessarily random, but it’s unpredictable,” Napper continues. “You think it’s going to do something but it doesn’t. It’s entirely systemic and it’s making its own choices, so it’s about teaching the player that the alien is learning, as well as allowing the player to learn from what it’s doing. You’re both building up this understanding of one another as the fight goes on. If you’ve evaded it for long enough, what would its next action be? Maybe it would prepare an ambush? Well it can do that. When he first sees you, most of the time he’s fresh, but the longer you encounter him for in a single location, the more he adapts to you and you’re on the clock, so you’ll have to cycle through your abilities to last against him.”

You can read about how Creative Assembly convinced Sega to greenlight its survival horror game here.

The game is already playable from beginning to end and the next ten months will be about testing, balance and polish. “When you’ve put the controller in someone’s hands, they often play in a way that we weren’t expecting and behave in ways that we weren’t expecting. So I think we need to put it in more hands,” Hope says. “We need a broader ranger of reactions so we know people are properly scared at the right times.”

“One of the things that we talked about when I first came here is that horror and comedy are the two hardest things to get right in games,” Napper says. “Horror can be funny, and comedy can be horrific, and you don’t know what you’ve got until so far into development. It’s all about the atmosphere and it’s not until you have all the components working – the lighting, the AI, the sound, the animation – you know you can make it work.”

You can read more about Alien: Isolation in Edge issue 263 now in printon iPadAndroid and Zinio. You can also take a look at the latest subscriber offers here, which are discounted for a limited time.