Why you really can’t make a videogame of Aliens
Having witnessed the explosion-enhanced culmination of Halo’s weirdly touching transhumanist romance, my indefatigable co-op partner and I were casting around for a new world to blow things up in. Aware of the shoddy reviews poor Aliens: Colonial Marines had received, we tried it anyway – and it turns out to be a moderately entertaining two-person blast. The only problem, and it is, admittedly, rather a serious one, is that fighting the xenomorphs doesn’t actually work. Scuttling jerkily over walls in the distance, they just look like videogame spiders of the sort that twin-pistolled Lara Croft used to dispose of with contemptuous ease. Then when they suddenly materialise right in front of you, they look like not-very-terrifying cardboard cutouts of aliens, the likes of which were perhaps once on display in Woolworths. And then one you didn’t see bites you from behind and you end up firing your last-stand pistol impotently at the ceiling, calling apologetically on your comrade to revive you.
The design dilemma here, of course, is that when there are thousands of aliens, they can’t be made too dangerous; whereas if they are very powerful but few in number, most of the game will be spent trudging empty corridors. (The corridors in Colonial Marines are rather beautiful corridors, but still.) More fundamentally, though, it was always a quixotic notion to turn Aliens into a shooter, because the film is not a shooter. Though we think of it as a war-film sequel to a horror film, Cameron’s movie contains relatively little shooting, and what shooting you get is decidedly chaotic and not triumphant. Instead – and as in all classic war movies – there is a lot of extremely tense waiting.
My favourite scene of the whole film (in some extended cut) is the one in which the team set up sentry guns aimed down a long corridor and wait. The aliens come, and the turrets efficiently shoot them to acidy bits. But there are so many aliens, and they just keep coming. The team watch the red-LED ammo counters of the turrets in horror as they slowly count down to zero. The xenomorphs’ suicidal assault is a fascinating mixture of the almost tragically heroic – like infantrymen hurling themselves over the tops of the trenches at enemy machine gunners in the First World War – and the horrifically incomprehensible: these vicious space-minds show absolutely no mercy to any organism in the galaxy, including themselves. The suspense of this scene is worthy of Hitchcock. And it would not work in a videogame. The marines have outsourced their agency to automated turrets, and are just watching in mounting fear.
So it comes as a relief quite early on when Colonial Marines suddenly gets embarrassed that it is a game about trying to shoot apparently randomly teleporting cardboard Woolworths cutouts of aliens, and instead decides to be a low-rent Call Of Duty in space. This is more like it: shooting bellicose men who are popping up and down behind crates in pretty space corridors. The whole aliens thing was never going to carry a game anyway.
Aliens: Colonial Marines is an unsatisfying videogame version of the film, then, because no satisfying videogame version of the film could actually be made. Its creators are hardly alone in having made such a mistake in the first place. Throughout videogame history, at least since the 1980s, game executives have latched on to a cinematic source inspiration that has guns in it and thought, ‘Guns! Videogames have guns in them too! This will make a great videogame!’ Notoriously, they very rarely have.
Because the player has continuously to be given something kinetically satisfying to do, a war-based videogame will always have to err on the side of Rambo rather than The Thin Red Line. Those that do it best are those that embrace the Michael Bay-esque absurdity of the conceit in the first place: the CODs, the Halos and the Gears. Or they outdo even pulp cinema in their baroque military fantasy, perhaps casting the player as a sword-wielding special-ops cyborg ninja doing relentlessly bladetastic battle with bad men and mooing robots. Yes, it’s one of my favourite games so far this year, Metal Gear Rising.
The sheer silly joy of Rising arises from another generic twist, cousin to the one James Cameron played on Ridley Scott’s original movie: Rising is a wargame that is really a beat ’em up. And once you get the hang of slicing people and bovine mechs apart at elegant angles, it’s even more fun than shooting usually is. Yet in other ways it’s curiously relevant to the practice of war in our time. Early on, one of the characters refers to “private military companies”, prompting a member of one such outfit to protest: “We prefer private security provider, sir.” “Yes, well,” the first man replies, “security can mean many things.” That’s a sharper comment on modern political rhetoric than any you’ll find in a supposedly more realistic combat entertainment set in real-world sandy places. Why shoot jerky xenomorphs when you can dice enormous anthropomorphic machines to pieces and get a witty lesson in Unspeak at the same time?
Illustration: Marsh Davies