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

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser