Phil Hartup on videogames

RSS

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.

A screenshot from Alien: Isolation. (Image: Sega)
A screenshot from Alien: Isolation. (Image: Sega)

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.