Aliens: Colonial Marines is an Uwe Boll film in reverse

…and it will probably kill Gearbox as a result.

Aliens: Colonial Marines. Six years in the making. The studio-approved canonical sequel to Aliens, a chunk of pure, uncut, nerd-bait of unrivalled potency. Hyped by some impressive preview footage, some interviews with the developers telling us how much they loved the source material, everything looked promising.

Gamers, informed on the Steam page that pre-ordering the game would get them a discount from £39.99 to £29.99 took their chances and opened their wallets, based on preview footage alone, and for a time the game was bobbling around near the top of the Steam’s sale chart. Console sales followed suit and the game hit the charts at number one for a week. It is interesting to note that Aliens: Colonial Marines, on Steam, has still not yet retailed for the full £39.99 even some time after launch.

In truth, my expectations were not stellar. Built up by the preview footage and the promise of cooperative gameplay, something that the developers, Gearbox, have a reasonably good pedigree for, I was expecting something akin to Borderlands with Pulse rifles. There was noise way back in the games development that the writers of the outstanding Battlestar Galactica reboot might be working on the story so a stroll through the old movie locations, shooting some baddies and getting spooked by scary monsters seemed like the order of the day.

But even shielded by my trusty armour of low expectations the game was something of a shock. I played it through in one sitting with two friends on the hardest difficulty and it was actually entertaining a lot of the time. I can’t lie and say it wasn’t fun, but it wasn’t the game’s fault that it was fun. Most of the fun was derived from pointing out just how bad the game was, like taking a ride on the world’s worst ghost train. Missing textures, enemies spawning out of thin air in full view of the player and broken game mechanics set the tone but it was the story that lowered proceedings to a new level.

The xenomorph, one of the most terrifying monsters in cinematic history.

The story to Aliens: Colonial Marines is a sincere contender for being the worst story ever conceived for use within a storytelling medium. It is not just a ridiculous story with ridiculous characters and ridiculous dialogue: it also almost studiously avoids contact with the very monsters people bought the game to shoot at. The game contains only three levels where the action is comparable to the movie Aliens, for games other seven or so levels you’re shooting either men with guns or a combination of men with guns and the odd alien.

The game's many, many, many catastrophic failings aside however, there is perhaps a greater malignancy within, that being the almost total cynicism of how it was marketed. The fact that the preview footage is so much better than the actual game footage is the first thing that really ought to be addressed. It is standard for game developers to attach a disclaimer to footage of beta or alpha footage of their games, the usual blurb that the graphics may not reflect the final product. This is because usually a game looks a little ropey in the final phases of development before it is polished up for release. However in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines you’ve got the reverse, a game that was either clubbed into a coma with the ugly stick before crawling out of development, or that was promoted with faked preview footage.

There seems to have been more effort put into marketing Aliens: Colonial Marines than making it. A deep feeling of laziness permeates every aspect of the game, which barely passes muster as functional and exhibits all the creative flair of a cowpat. Boxes will have been ticked off; multiplayer, check, character customisation, check, locales from the movie feature in the game, check, but nothing feels like any ambition was directed towards it beyond getting to the level where it can be described as "present". Gamers might have seen something similar not so long ago; a game that spent years in development but ultimately arrived unfinished and unpolished; Duke Nukem Forever, also from Gearbox.

One wonders from looking at these two shameless efforts if Gearbox are looking to borrow the tried and tested Uwe Boll business formula. Uwe Boll is a somewhat infamous director who went through a phase of buying up recognisable intellectual properties from video games and then making barely related movies on a shoe string budget in order to benefit from the recognition attached to those games. Postal, Alone In The Dark, Bloodrayne and Far Cry all have an Uwe Boll film attached to them. People have decried Boll for this shameless exploitation of brand recognition, but in his defence games have been doing it too and for a lot longer.

There is in fact a proud tradition of absolutely rotten games being made off the back of successful movies, dating back to the classic ET on the Atari 2600. Well I say classic. ET was a game made in a few weeks for the Atari 2600 in order to make it out the door in time for Christmas of 1982. It was and perhaps still is one of the worst games ever made not just for the obvious reason that it is completely awful, but also for the cynicism of it. Buy the rights, rush out something that broadly fits the definition of a game, profit and screw the consequences. The consequences in this case being the games industry crash of 1983. This crash may not have been caused by the relentless stink off that one game, but the bad feeling generated by such disregard for the customers certainly could not have helped.

Video games are a wildly popular and eminently sellable product but the companies that produce them are very fragile things. They rely on sales, they rely on repeat customers and as such they rely on the loyalty and satisfaction of those customers. It benefits nobody to have games companies making the whole industry look bad by not just releasing abject games, but by dishonestly trying to bill them as something they are not. It’s easy to argue that the buyer should beware and that the developers have to do all they can to get their money back, but that argument only works if you are not planning to make another game. Every time the customer gets burned by a producer it gets a little harder to make that next sale.

Gearbox might have already killed itself with Aliens: Colonial Marines; attaching toxicity to its name that it will not easily shake. It’s a safe bet that Aliens: Colonial Marines will be, for nearly all those that bought it, the last Gearbox game they ever buy. One can only wonder, as developers and publishers struggle through increasingly difficult times for the industry, just what will it take for these lessons to stick.

An, *ahem*, "polished" screenshot of the game. Photograph: Getty Images

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

Photo: Getty
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John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder