A screenshot from Alien: Isolation. (Image: Sega)
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The Aliens horde: the inconsistent movie franchise with the consistently decent spin-off games

While there hasn't been a good Alien movie for almost 30 years, the games of the franchise have been steadily churned out for decades.

People create monsters out of our subconscious fears. The early vampires represented a Victorian fear of suave foreign gents swanning off with Bram Stoker’s wife. Zombies represent our fear of conformity and of mortality. King Kong represents the fear that a classic monster movie might turn out to be incredibly racist. Meanwhile H R Giger’s Aliens, in their various screen depictions, speak to our subconscious fear of being torn apart by giant insects, raped and fatally parasitised, or burned to death with concentrated acid.

The screen legacy of the Alien creatures is a mixed bag. Alien is the greatest science fiction horror movie ever made, and Aliens shifts from the horror genre to become instead a war movie and does so brilliantly. Then Alien 3 is more divisive – some people love it, some people dismiss it. Then we get to Alien: Resurrection and a couple of Alien vs Predator flicks almost straight into the DVD discount bin and at this point we can all agree that the fridge has been well and truly nuked and the series was in terrible shape. Even when Ridley Scott returned to the series with Prometheus he was keen to keep some distance, which was best for all concerned considering the state of it.

Given that there hasn’t been a great Alien film since 1987, nor even a respectable one since 1992, just what has been sustaining the franchise in the nightmares of nerds the world over all these years? The simple answer is the games. The Alien might not have had the most successful run as a modern movie monster, but with his sometime partner in monstrousness the Predator, our parasitic pal has been a fixture of video gaming for the last thirty years.

Personally I missed out on start of it all with the Atari 2600 game Alien in 1982, which was a Pac-Man clone. While the Pac-Man games have always had a sort of harmless quality about their aesthetics the core game mechanic of being chased around a maze by enemies which you can deter but never entirely remove is very strong and is something we’ll come back to later. The first alien games I got my grubby little child hands on were both based on the movies, Alien and Aliens: The Computer Game, from 1984 and 1986 respectively. I played the Spectrum versions because back then having more than two colours in the same 8x8 block of pixels was seen as trying too hard.

Alien was a baffling adventure game where you tried to keep as many of the crew of the Nostromo alive as possible while the Alien sneaked around attacking them. Eventually, so I heard later, you could kill the Alien and escape, but this was something I never managed. The European version of Aliens: The Computer Game was a sort of Neolithic squad based FPS, an ancestor of the early Space Hulk games. It was tough - getting from A to B was incredibly confusing given that you seemed to be moving through an endless series of circular rooms. Also having to keep an eye on all your team at once and hit the aliens in the head, sometimes in the dark, while aiming on keyboard was not easy. Being a myopic child yet to figure out he needed glasses probably didn’t help. This was the first game to ever successfully give me the heebiejeebies. A combination of having to keep an eye on a whole team at once and the sudden need to switch from trying to work out where you were to shooting a monster made it unsettling. By contrast the US version of the game was a series of mostly bad mini-games themed around scenes from the film, a more direct interpretation but forgettable even by the standards of the time. The European version was not forgettable, to the extent that if somebody asks me to think about the music from Aliens I still think of this.

The crippling confines of the hardware meant that games were inevitably very limited. However those early 8-bit games managed to create some atmosphere using mechanics and, in much the same way as the first film, by keeping the monsters out of sight. It was the threat of the monsters appearing that made the first games work.

By the time Alien 3 had arrived games had moved on and you could tell that developers were frustrated that just at the point they had the hardware to make a decent action game, the movie makers had decided to take out all the cool guns from the movie. So we had an Alien 3 game that basically took Ripley, gave her all the guns from Aliens and threw her into a world of platforms and more enemies than you could shake a flamethrower at. It being the mid-1990s, the idea of a woman as the lead character running around saving men from monsters wasn’t nearly as controversial as it would be today, plus the game was good, which was a nice bonus. Yet video gaming’s ultimate ‘Fuck You’ to the largely gun-free Alien 3 was the majestically ridiculous Alien 3: The Gun. There had been other fairly silly arcade games before based on Aliens, but it takes a special kind of genius to take a film that features almost no firearms at all and base the game of it on two huge vibrating Pulse Rifles bolted to a cabinet. It was glorious.

The home video games had broken from the movies before, largely because they just couldn’t yet match up to the movies, but it was really with Alien 3 that it became clear that video game Aliens and movie Aliens were never meant to be bosom-bursting buddies. Subsequent games like Alien: Trilogy went further down this road, cheerfully eschewing the plot of the original movies, recasting Ripley as a Marine and squishing the three movie plots down into neat first person shooter format. Later games would usually do without Ripley entirely. What people wanted from the movies were the creatures and the weaponry, and so it went for a time.

The unquestioned breakout game for the Alien as a modern gaming adversary was Alien Versus Predator, released in 1999. It was the first game to get the Alien to look right and act right, scrambling along walls and ceilings, crawling indignantlytowards you if you shot its legs off. For the first time the Alien wasn’t just another bad guy in just another first person shooter. It had character. As a result Aliens Versus Predator was notoriously scary and difficult with limited save games, dark and creepy locations and relentless enemies. Bringing the Alien in as a playable character provided an interesting change of perspective too. The Predator, well, he still wasn’t so great to be honest, but he didn’t pop up enough to spoil the fun. Notable features of this game were the lighting, with everything done in real time and most of the light sources destructible. Another was the inclusion of a cooperative horde mode. Aliens Versus Predator was definitely ahead of its time.

Aliens Versus Predator 2 cemented the greatness of the Alien when it was released in 2001. This was a brilliant game and remains perhaps to this day the best Aliens game ever made, particularly for its multiplayer modes. The single player game was easier and less scary than the first game but it more than made up for this by being more engaging and better designed, with an entertaining plot that twisted the stories of the three playable characters around each other.

The life cycle mode of multiplayer in particular was a highlight, allowing you to play as all phases of the Alien - from creepy spider monster, to blood-splattered phallic chest-bursting baby, to adult. The horror of being taken out by a leaping facehugger was sublime, as was the comedy of seeing the alien later emerge from the host as a harmless wiggler, hurriedly fleeing the scene like a worm who has accidentally wandered into an early birds convention. I have fond memories of playing this game over the network in my university halls of residence and hearing another player, in the room on the opposite side of the flat, scream when I nabbed him with a facehugger. There has never been a better source of jump scares in a multiplayer game.

Some might call this the peak of the Aliens franchise for video games, and perhaps they would be right, but the games have kept coming on every platform from Nintendo DS and phone to PC and consoles. You can even get mods to add Aliens to Killing Floor, Left 4 Dead and Fallout: New Vegas. It feels inevitable almost that somebody will do something better one day. The most recent Aliens Versus Predator game, released in 2010, was quite poor, lacking the character and polish of the previous game and replacing it with gleefully gory - yet tedious and quickly repetitive - kill moves in an attempt to get back to the horror roots of the series. Some years later Aliens: Colonial Marines arrived and was an absolute stinker of a shocker of a failure of a game. Regardless of these failures another game is in development, though - Alien: Isolation. Like all the best monsters the Alien doesn’t die easily.

Alien: Isolation is a return to the roots of the games in some ways, revisiting the Pac-Man idea of being in a maze pursued by a monster. From the early previews it appears to be similar to Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs and Slender, but we know from experience with Colonial Marines what the preview of an Aliens game is worth. Nonetheless it will be interesting to see if it is any good. Slender relies on being a short, sharp game: you win or you die and it won’t take more than ten minutes either way. On the other hand A Machine For Pigs has a longer sustained narrative but it didn’t really succeed. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the first of the Amnesia games, also had a longer storyline, but it was a new take on a genre and had surprise on its side as a result. Alien: Isolation is reported to also have a decent length to its story - some eight hours or so according to previews - but it will be going over familiar narrative ground, with a familiar monster, with a familiar set of mechanics, so it is hard to be very optimistic. The first time you watch a movie about the Alien you don’t know what it is, but you learn about it, and you get to watch the characters learn about it. Now, though, we know what the Alien is doing, and watching the characters learn the basic rules to the monsters lifespan that we already know gets old.

However, even if Alien: Isolation ended up (somehow) worse than Colonial Marines, it wouldn’t matter. A game with Aliens in it is no longer any more special than a game with zombies, orcs or people who aren’t from America - they're just another enemy. This isn’t because the Aliens games have spent the last decade being crap and cheapening themselves, but because they have spent the last thirty years being a significant part of the history of video games and, whichever way you slice it, that is a hell of a long time for any franchise to exist. We know them so well that they are familiar, an established part of nerd folklore, like Koopa Turtles, Ken and Ryu or Leroy Jenkins. As such the games will keep appearing every so often and it is only a matter of time before one of them is great, even if it comes down to sheer force of trial and error somebody will get it right someday. Until then all we need is a deck of cards.

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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain