If you’re here for another love letter to Alien: Isolation, look elsewhere. I may have fallen victim to some of its charms (the clacky keyboards and the treasure trove of world-building devices are just some of the delights on offer) but I wasn’t here to admire Isolation’s artistic merits – I was here to desecrate them: to creep through as a horror philistine, averting my gaze from any film-accurate scares that braver Alien fans might laud. In short, I planned to wrap up this column without triggering anything that could even remotely be considered “good” horror.
However, this approach inadvertently led me into playing Alien: Isolation exactly the way it’s meant to be played. Playing as Amanda Ripley, you’re tasked with searching for a flight log of the Nostromo on the dilapidated space station Sevastopol. However, something has gone horribly wrong, and it’s quickly made clear that you’ve arrived at a miserably inopportune time for anyone bearing the Ripley surname.
It’s a suspiciously quiet introduction – for a long time, the only jumps are the creaks and bangs of a space station falling apart. At first, I felt a little bit silly for jumping at shadows, but that didn’t last: camouflaged beneath Sevastopol’s noisy death throes, there was something trying not to be heard in the station’s rafters and ventilation shafts.
By the time I met my first companion, I was thoroughly uncomfortable with Isolation‘s menace. Though my new friend, Axel, introduced himself at gunpoint and had a penchant for scuttling around vents like a space raccoon, I was so on edge that even he was welcome company. I viewed Axel as a bulwark against Isolation‘s scares – after all, if anything bad were to happen to us, it would happen to him first.
My relief at meeting a fellow survivor was short-lived, as the telltale signs of Xenomorph fuckery began to play out. Chains, hanging from the ceiling, began to rustle. The game’s camera, once rooted firmly around Ripley, shifted to watch Axel and Ripley from the ceiling. The final straw was the thick fluid dripping onto Axel’s shoulder, and I steeled myself for an imminent monster reveal. Alien is one of the few horror films I love, so I thought I knew what to expect: a slow camera pan-up, a Xenomorph clinging to the roof, a scream. So when spiked tail tore through Axel’s chest without warning, I shrieked – kicking off the most terrifying moment of a game I’ve ever experienced.
In the second it took for Ripley to turn around, the monstrous killer had disappeared into a nearby vent with Axel’s body, and was already looking for its next target. The hunt was on, and I despised it. The tram that would whisk me to safety was mere meters away, so I hustled across as quietly as possible. After a terrifying few minutes of sneaking, I made it to the console that would summon my means of escape and mashed the right buttons – but instead of relief, I found terror as sirens screamed into life. The carriage began moving to the station at a leisurely crawl, and the noise had attracted the attention of the Xenomorph, which was now thundering through the vents above me.
It’s hard to emphasise just how scared I was – if my Village column hadn’t already gone so badly, I would’ve called time on my Isolation playthrough right then and there. Instead, I huddled into the corner of the room, frozen in fear, and prayed the Xenomorph wouldn’t hear me. After what felt like hours, the tram finally arrived, and I sprinted away to the next area.
It would be another 30 minutes or so before I got my first reluctant look at Isolation’s Xenomorph. On my quest to escape Sevastopol, I triggered a security lockdown complete with locked doors and loud sirens – to get out, I needed to find another computer to switch it off. All the while, I could hear the Xenomorph circling above, biding its time to strike.
Eventually, I found the computer I needed to shut down the lockdown – but as Ripley used the keyboard, the Xenomorph slipped out of a vent on the room’s ceiling. Transfixed, I watched as every inch of the alien unfurled – its long talons, spiked tail, mouth full of a mouth full of teeth – until Ripley, sounding as scared as I felt, hid behind a desk. When the Xenomorph’s tail snaked around the desk in search of her, my legs shot up in real life to get away from it – I’ve never been so unwillingly immersed in a game before, and I never want to be again.
What makes the Xenomorph truly terrifying is that it doesn’t feel like it’s hunting Ripley – it feels like it’s looking through the screen and hunting you, the player. Activities that would normally be considered meta in some games – saving, hacking minigames – are all fair game for the Xenomorph, and create noise that it can hone in on. Every one of Isolation‘s mechanics felt like it was out to get me, so when the Xenomorph finally prowled out of the room, I tried to interact with the game as little as possible – crawling through dark vents without turning my flashlight on, speedrunning any mandatory hacking segments, and loathing the column that kept me here.
I had to find an elevator to make my second escape, but it was tough going – it felt like the Xenomorph was now hunting me proper, and I froze like a rabbit in the headlights every time it slithered through the vents above me, or prowled across a corridor I needed to get through. In my hunt to disable the lockdown I’d stumbled upon a revolver, but my role as prey felt so absolute, that trying to shoot the Xenomorph never occurred to me – my fight-or-flight was turned up to 11, and I knew exactly which one my brain had chosen.
Thanks to my tactical cowardice, I almost made it to the elevator without incident. But as I entered a wide-open atrium with the lift at the other end, I was subjected to a terrifying demonstration of the Xenomorph in action – impossibly fast, it tore through a gaggle of survivors before disappearing into a vent directly in the way of the elevator.
As I went under the vent to reach my escape, I was hit with the overwhelming terror that the Xenomorph was going to drop down onto my head. It didn’t happen: ironically, my fear of the Xenomorph meant I’d played through the hunt perfectly, and I made it to the next floor safely. However, I didn’t make it much further into Isolation before I had to admit defeat. I’ve had my fair share of scares over the last month, but they paled in comparison to Isolation’s Xenomorph, which made me feel like I was in genuine danger – and judging by the way my heart was beating every time it tried to sniff me out, maybe I was. Isolation terrified me in ways I didn’t think were possible in a game – and although the Alien fan in me wanted to see more, I couldn’t bear another second in Sevastopol.
Isolation brings an end to my horror column, and in a fitting way, seems to tie all of this month’s games together. The fear of the mundane in Layers Of Fear was taken to new heights with Isolation‘s sound system, while Poppy Playtime had its own fuzzy blue Xenomorph to contend with. Resident Evil Village‘s opening sequence felt like a primer to the intense fear of being hunted I’d suffer through in Sevastopol, and Dead Space…okay, I actually quite liked Dead Space, and I’d like to think a Plasma Cutter would’ve made a steaming puddle out of that Xenomorph.
Wrapping up this column, there’s no moment of catharsis – this trial by fire hasn’t converted me into a horror fan, or helped me with my fear of…well, fear. If anything, Isolation has made me less likely to touch the genre again – but I at least understand why other people are attracted to horror games. I can’t comprehend how, but the desperate adrenaline rush that’s sent me reeling out of five games and counting is almost certainly the same thrill that drives others to seek out scare after scare. It might not be for me, but with the quality of games I’ve spent the last month playing, I sincerely wish it was.
For more columns like this, follow NME Gaming on Twitter.