When I sat down with Monolith lead designer Bob Roberts to talk about Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, one of the first things I wanted to speak about was the developer’s approach to making a licensed game. Historically, licensed games, particularly those based on film, tend to lack much of a creative urge to innovative, often sticking too close to the source material. There have, of course, been exceptions to the rule: the Batman Arkham games are the obvious exception, the Spider-Man games from Treyarch in the ‘00s, the Riddick games from last generation, and GoldenEye. Interestingly, while Shadow of Mordor stays true and very close to Tolkien’s intimidatingly deep lore, the game was made with what appears to be a very flexible approach to creative freedom.
Warner Bros. told Monolith “not to try to make it a movie game”, although releasing the game around the time of the new Hobbit movie would certainly help them sell more tickets. There’s no ignoring the coincidental timing of the Arkham games with Nolan’s film trilogy, and Shadow of Mordor with another Hobbit set to release this December. The difference with those games, however, with, say, the recent The Amazing Spider-man 2 game, is that they’re being established as their own franchises, while still set in recognisable universes. The Spider-man game, however, is really just an engaging version of the film, and not a very good one at that: there’s no real drive there to make the game stand up on its own accord.
This brings us to Alien: Isolation, an interesting game for a number of reasons. Not only does it attempt to reignite a misunderstood genre in survival horror, but it’s relying on a sci-fi franchise that has had a very tumultuous past decade. The Alien vs Predator movies confused more than entertained, Prometheus is a cryptic tale that the casual filmgoer probably wouldn’t connect with the Alien universe, and Colonial Marines really needs no introduction. More or less, the Alien brand has had a lot of trouble regaining the respect it earned in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And yet, rather admirably, it still has a lot of significance in 2014.
Why is that? Well, for one, Alien is an ageless classic, even in light of its VHS-inspired technologic aesthetic. Aliens is one of the greatest action films of all time, and Ellen Ripley is not only one of the most empowering, beloved female protagonists ever, she’s also one of the most badass and rational-minded heroes in the history of film, male or female. It’s a series that endures because it has all the right pieces: the perfect hero and the perfect enemy. Even for all the damage the Alien vs Predator films did to the antagonist’s lore, its sheer existence demonstrates the fan base’s interest in its narrative evolution.
Unlike Shadow of Mordor, Alien: Isolation is most definitely a “movie game”: it shares just too much with the first film to not be considered as such. It attempts to evolve the narrative with an exploration of Amanda’s search for her missing mother, but the key pieces remain: an evil corporation, malfunctioning robots, tight spaces and, most importantly, a hostile monster. Right from the game’s early moments there are obvious odes to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, as well as a particular reliance on both sound and lighting to create a similarly claustrophobic tension that drives Amanda’s, and the player’s, urge to survive.
Isolation has had one thing many other movie games haven’t had the benefit of: time. Developer Creative Assembly hasn’t had to release in time with a film to maximise the brand, nor has it needed to remain confined to stretching a 2-hour film plot into a game many times longer. Instead, it’s had the capacity to painstakingly recreate both the look and feel of an iconic piece of film into a game that successfully captures that same sense of nail biting fear.
It’s a movie game, but one of a different flavour. One that isn’t afraid to remain within the film’s standards, nor to branch off momentarily to explore different characters and stories. A good movie game is one that manages to capture the magic of a film, to empower the player and make them feel like they’re having the same experience as the characters, while also standing on its own as an evolution of the story. Alien: Isolation does that better than most, which ultimately makes it one of the best movie games of all time.