It’s dark outside. I’m breathing faster than normal. A small carrier bag I’ve just left haphazardly on my desk flutters to the carpet and I flinch. ‘It’s just a bag,’ I whisper to myself. ‘It’s just a bag. It’s just a bag. It’s just a bag’. But it’s not just a bag. I’ve been to my local GAME and purchased a copy of Alien Isolation. A week ago. Since then it’s been on my DVD shelf, in that bag, staring at me. I told myself I want to Platinum Shadow of Mordor first. I told myself I should complete Hyrule Warriors. I had reviews to write, a novel to finish. I even told myself I should paint the whole flat and do a clearout. But that bag started to haunt me. It started to stare. I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed it from my shelf and flung the bag on my desk. As I stared down at Amanda Ripley’s shrink-wrapped face I wondered two things. Why was I frightened of a video game and why was I freaking out over the Alien I knew very well and completely idolised? Well, that’s a big question, and it requires a rather lengthy answer.
I grew up with horror. From my first black and white Hammer Horror classic to the most demented and trashy gorefests my grandfather could find at the video-rental-slash-greengrocers. At 6-years-old I was watching the likes of The Omen, Halloween and Black Christmas. By ten I was into Nightmare on Elm Street, Psychomania and The Evil Dead. I considered Demons to be a cinematic classic and I can still quote Return of the Living Dead Part 2 all the way through. Horror films and books were a way of life in my house. We worshipped H.P. Lovecraft and I read Clive Barker while my friends were still blushing over Judy Blume. But out of all the books and films that simultaneously lit up my life and scared the hell out of it, there was only one that grabbed me and never ever let me go. Alien. I can still remember the first time I saw it. I abandoned my battery-operated yapping dog and princess castle and watched the entire thing through with a kind of stunned rapture. I couldn’t look away. It wasn’t safe to look away. If I were to look away the Alien would notice my inattention and pounce me through the TV screen. I simply had to watch the whole thing just to be safe. I still think there’s a strange sort of kiddie logic there, but it doesn’t explain why I then insisted we watch it over and over again. I had to modify my Saturday afternoon playlist. The People that Time Forgot, The Great Muppet Caper, and Alien.
It’s now thirty years later and I’ve read all the books, all the comics, been frightened half to death at the Alien War experience at the Trocadero and watched a man get arrested during a showing of Alien 3 at Crawley cinema. I love it, I love it, I love it. But I don’t love horror games.
The fear started on the Commodore 64, ironically, with a copy of Alien bought by my grandfather. I was far too young for it, didn’t understand it and it scared me shitless. All I remember was the terrifying music and the thought of Dallas crawling through the air vents just like in the film. I knew what was coming and the game had this awful quickening bleep of either a motion detector or a heartbeat as the Alien neared. It was almost like I was in that air shaft with the both of them. Despite the dodgy graphics and absolutely awful gameplay, the game did something to me that no horror film ever had. It made me truly panic. It put me right in that airshaft. It pulled me all the way into that world. My living room disappeared and I was trembling inside a metal tube, trapped on the Nostromo.
I like a spooky game, let me just clear that up. I dedicated most of my free time to 7th Guest and 11th Hour. I still have the novelisation of 7th Guest on my bookshelf. Those games were eerie but there were predominantly puzzle games with impressive ghostly cut scenes. It was like watching a film. I loved them. They tickled my horror fancy. A little later Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father and the Lovecraftian Shadow of the Comet started to unnerve me, but these were point-and-click adventures so all was still fine. Despite their scary storylines, I was still detached. The spooky stuff was in my 300lb monitor and I was safely in front of it clutching a little white mouse.
Later on I discovered Phantasmagoria, another point-and-click ‘interactive movie’. That game was the first since Alien on the Commodore 64 to properly scare me. I was fine until the last part of the game. Up until then I’d been solving clues, finding items and working out puzzles. Then, near the end, the tone of the game completely changed. The main character suffers a horrific sexual attack by her possessed husband and is then chased by him all over their big dusty mansion. I went from the hunter – hunting for clues, hunting for the answer to the game’s mysteries – to the hunted. My role in the game had suddenly changed and I didn’t like it.
I’m very good at empathising with characters in films. Wow, wouldn’t it be awful to have your intestines ripped out by a werewolf?! Ouch, I would hate to get my spine ripped out. Rigor mortis looks painful! Generally, though, I do not put myself directly in the victims’ place. In survival horror games, all that changes. I’m no longer empathising because suddenly I am that person. It’s me wandering around Silent Hill. It’s me being chased by zombie Dobermans. It’s me scared and Alone in the Dark. And now, it’s me about to be trapped on a space station and hunted by the horrific alien life form that dominated so much of my childhood. Daddy’s home.
This was my destiny. I had to do it. In went the disc, on went the kettle and down went the lights. And you know what I did? I put the game on Easy. Yes, that’s right. I’m not shy. I’m proud to declare that all gamer’s should chose whatever difficulty setting they find comfortable. Plus, I’d heard IGN had played on Hard and had a hell of a time. I was terrified to play this game and I knew it wouldn’t take much before I was back in Game Redhill asking for a trade-in. Only a few months before I’d tried both Outlast and P.T. and didn’t last long with either. An hour and one crying foetus on P.T. and four separate attempts adding up to only forty-five minutes of gameplay on Outlast. I couldn’t cope, and I didn’t want to risk that I would abandon Alien Isolation in the same way. I had to give myself a fighting chance. The Alien was my enemy and the Easy setting was my weapon of choice.
The game’s introduction did nothing to calm me. There I was, standing in my unmentionables with an instruction to get dressed. There was no indication of where to get dressed or how to do it. I was isolated already. Was the Alien here? It surely wasn’t but what if it was? What if it jumped me while I was farting about in a locker? A little while later I found myself creeping around Sevastopol jumping at every noxious noise, every horrifying light bulb that flickered on and every vicious vent that hissed open as I innocently crept passed it. Yeah, I was off to a terrible start. I’d worked myself into a state before I’d even inserted the disc and I was now on the edge, flinching at everything and jumping seventy-seven centimetres when a party notification rung through the TV speakers. DAMN YOU, PARTY CHAT!
Finding the tracking device was a relief at first, until I realise the beeping was synchronising with my heartbeat. It flung me all the way back to the Commodore 64, that awful feeling of ‘It’s coming. It’s coming. It’s coming, it’s …’ Why do people put themselves through horror games? Is it just that they don’t really feel the empathy and fear like I do or is it the thrill and adrenaline? For me, the fear is so real. It’s a physical reaction. My heart pounds so hard I can hear it, I feel a strange churning in my stomach, and when the danger is right there, when the Alien is right there, I’m forced to look away. It’s got me, it’s all over. I’m dead and I don’t want to see it. Dramatic much? Yep. It’s why I don’t play horror games. I know the events aren’t real, but the fear is.
So what kept me playing Alien Isolation even though my hands were shaking and I honestly felt like puking? As I’ve already said, Alien has always been a big part of my life and so this game, with its story of Ellen Ripley’s daughter, was unmissable. It’s a missing chapter. It’s a missing sequel that I can actually play. It’s a chance be inside that world. And wow, what a world. Alien Isolation is stunning, atmospheric and a credit to the original film. With its 70’s future tech, first person perspective and unhurried gameplay, I felt immersed in a world that was recognisable and real. I was actually trapped on Sevastopol and I couldn’t quit, because quitting would mean being stuck on that space station forever. This particular revelation came while I was cowering under a desk. I’d been there for fifteen minutes, having already met several deaths in the corridor outside. I was now afraid to move and was obsessively monitoring the Alien on my motion tracker. That was my lowest point in the game but also my highest. If I quit, I would be stuck under that desk for the rest of eternity. It would be my purgatory and I would be forced to forever cower in fear. I would be eternally hunted. The Alien would have won. Well, not on my watch! The only way forward was literally forward. Keep going. Wait for the green blob to disappear off the top right of the tracker and then spring from under the desk, out the door in front and take a dramatic left. Don’t stop. Don’t run. Don’t let the fear cripple me. Don’t let the Alien catch me. Five minutes, one save point and one pulled muscle in my back later, I was laughing and close to crying. Ripley beat you. I beat you. I can actually do this.
The thought of beginning a game with no weapons and never having anything that would actually kill the main antagonist is enough to unnerve a lot of people. Weirdly, it made me feel a little better. No weapons means there must be a way to beat the Alien without a million corridor face-offs. Yes, there is a flamethrower later on in the game, but you have a limited supply of fuel and it won’t kill the beast. There is also a trophy available for not killing any humans. Even better. This means I can get around them. This means I can use my crippling fear to my own advantage. Seriously, you’re on a spaceship, you’ve got a gun, does that mean you’re going to stride down the corridor and blast anything that gets in your way? That’s what I hate about some horror games – the constant confrontations. You want to beat an ten-foot tall armoured Xenomorph, a bunch of crazy androids and dozens of frightened men with guns? Go quietly. Use the environment. Don’t confront – survive. Alien Isolations both taunts me with my greatest fears and presents me with the tools to cope with them.
Alien Isolation is about pure survival. Survive the Alien and survive the game. Hiding is key and the hardest instinct to defy is the urge to run. You’re behind a crate, the Alien has crossed the corridor into one behind you and you want the second door on the left. Every molecule in your body and your controller wants you to run, and walking, maybe even creeping, is the most scary-arse thing you’ll ever do. By the time you reach the second door on the left and stuff yourself in a locker, you’ll long for a quick game of LittleBigPlanet or a Wii U and an advance copy of Yoshi’s Woolly World. One of the major criticisms of the game is the save points. There’s no auto save and no ‘I’ve made it halfway across the room so now I’ll save, and now I’m all the way across the room and I’ll save again.’ The save points have to be located and are in the form of an emergency telephone system hung on various walls around the game. And when I say various, I mean one or two walls. Or maybe just one wall. Think you’ve got bigger bollocks than the Alien? Think you’re not scared? Fine. Die and lose an hour of gameplay, and you will soon learn what fear is. Reach the save point, wait the agonising one-Mississippi, two- Mississippi, three- Mississippi for it to activate and then realise you’ve been holding your breath and soiling your underwear.
One of my most terrifying moments was when I was trying to get past a group of armed survivors to reach an elevator. Upon creeping up behind the female survivor, I could hear her talking to herself. She was so scared. They were all terrified and just doing whatever they had to in order to survive. Unfortunately, that meant repeatedly shooting me dead. I tried killing one of them with my maintenance jack, but that just made the other two shoot which brought the Alien crashing down on me. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get past them. I was left with one gruesome choice. I had to bring in the Alien to take them all out for me. Trouble was, the severe lack of hiding places. I realised I would have to actually leave the area completely. So, I crouched by a door, hurled a noisemaker at the frightened girl, and got the fuck out. I didn’t go far, just behind a couple of trollies directly outside. I was close enough to hear the Alien arrive, close enough to hear the girl die, and close enough to hear the Alien dive back into the air vents above me. I checked the motion tracker and all seemed clear. The Alien was gone and the girl was dead, but were the other two survivors also Alien kibble? Being unsure I had to creep and sneak my way back inside, my slowness giving the Alien time to double back and enter the same door behind me. My heart hammered and I slipped behind a crate and waited. Had it seen me? Had anyone seen me? Nothing happened. No one shot me. I heard the hiss of an opening door and so I peeked over the top of the crate and saw the Alien’s tail disappear back into the corridor. It was gone. The survivors were gone. It was just me, my troubled conscience and the clear path to the elevator.
As you can tell, I take my games very seriously. I feel as though that incident actually happen to me. I feel as though I am Amanda Ripley and I killed those people. That is why I don’t play survival horror games and why they are so terrifying, because I don’t want those horrific things to happen. I don’t want the memories of gruesome deaths. I don’t want to feel the fear of my own impending and inevitable death or witness the lengths I would go to in order to avoid it. I don’t want that level of immersion, and with video games becoming more visually realistic and therefore potentially more immersive, that’s empathy on a suffocating and terrifying scale. I made the exception for Alien Isolation for one reason only. As a child, I was fascinated by that creature. As a teenager I idolised it. As an adult I, yes, admired its purity. The Alien terrified me and still does. I wanted the chance to be the one to destroy it. I wanted the chance to meet it, face it, touch it and fight it. That Xenomorph is a rock god and I wanted the chance to get its autograph before I blew it out of an airlock.