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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era