Alien: Isolation and patient gaming

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Alien: Isolation asks quite a lot from the player. It asks that you consistently pay attention to your surroundings, that you strongly consider every single move, and that you be aware of the Alien’s location at any given moment. It asks that you remember things; passcodes to doors, the minute details of a floor’s layout, and even potential hiding places should things go south for you. It even asks that you look past your own anxiety and stress in order to move forward, one step at a time while under extreme and constant duress from all manner of forces more powerful than you. All of this takes a toll that is both emotional and mental, and, over time, this tension drastically alters the way you perceive the game itself as well as the challenges that it places in front of you. But perhaps the thing Alien: Isolation requires most from the player is something that is often in short supply: Patience.

There is a lot of waiting in Alien: Isolation. In the very beginning this is a good thing. Your brain is on full alert and you can feel your insides twisting at the mere prospect of that first sighting of your hulking Xenomorph nemesis. You know it’s coming. As a fan of Ridley Scott’s original film, those inevitable first deaths at the hands of the Alien are as tantalizing as they are dreadful. Smartly, the game holds back for roughly two hours of walking, exploration, and exposition about just what the hell is going on in Sevastopol station. The tension is sky high by the time you first glimpse the Alien in a clumsy, pre-rendered reference to the film that is really only missing a cat. This tosses away a lot of the good will that the game has been building so carefully but is certainly not even close to a killing blow. Soon enough you’re attempting to avoid a group of trigger happy humans, as well as the Alien, without even the motion tracker to assist you, in order to escape to another floor via an elevator.

This early sequence represents the game at its best. A clearly defined objective and some obstacles to be avoided with careful observation and a tiny bit of self assured forward progress. I slowly crept toward the objective in question, a door that needed to be hacked, with my heart pounding in my ears almost as loudly as the Alien scurrying in the vents above and the horns from the soundtrack blaring in my headphones. The Xenomorph clambered down from the vent in front of me with that shuddering vocal noise so strange that I couldn’t even begin to classify it. My first actual, unscripted Alien sighting. It was as awe inspiring as it was horrifying, easily making up for the earlier scripted missteps. All nine feet of it truly dwarfs the player character’s huddled form, startling me into an inability to move. Thankfully, it hadn’t yet spotted me so I began my painfully slow crawl back the way I came from, and huddled behind some cover where I waited for my situation to improve. I didn’t mind waiting because it was partially instinctual and, in my mind, it served a purpose: survival.

This proved to be true. Waiting for a minute or two ensured that the Alien would spot the other humans in the room and focus entirely on killing them instead of me, giving me time to hack the door and make my way to safety, all the while hearing the pained screams of some humans who had given me hell earlier in the level. It was immensely satisfying outsmarting the game with the odds stacked against me and would continue to be so for the next few hours. But then something happened.

By hour six or seven, the usual time at which a modern game of a similar level of intensity would end, I began to grow weary of all the waiting. Suddenly, crouching scared in a cupboard wasn’t terrifying; it was just an annoyance. I began to see faults in the same design aspects I’d applauded earlier on. The decreased frequency and the purposefully inconvenient placement of save stations became grating when I lost half an hour of sneaking to a single tiny mistake. Through all of this hiding I’d become painfully aware that the Alien is persistent to a fault. The player could spend five or ten minutes in the same locker thanks to the creature’s insistence on loitering or, worse yet, going away for a span of time so short as to not even give the player the opportunity to exit the hiding place. But the game didn’t plan on letting up. Hour after hour it continued to take me for a ride and then ask for further patience from me.

Unfortunately for Alien: Isolation, my patience for video games ran out years ago. In an age where instant gratification is king, video games are often skinner boxes for impatient people. Reaching the level cap more and more quickly with each WoW expansion, single player games without a hint of challenge on the default difficulty setting, unlocking guns in Advanced Warfare’s multiplayer just to get that feeling of more and more and more… Part of it is streamlining video games in order to make them more accessible or more enjoyable to a wider audience. After all, video games have seen a steady exponential increase in popularity since the turn of the century. AAA games are now designed with more types of people in mind. All of it is to stop the player from becoming distracted or frustrated so they’ll keep playing. The result is that we’ve been trained by years of game design to lack patience.

While playing the campaign in Advanced Warfare I would become annoyed by a single death in a level, as though my time were being wasted. Alien: Isolation is the antithesis of this idea. It operates on its own time. It is in no hurry to move things along and it is not afraid to halt player progress. The game doesn’t care that I lack patience. You either wait patiently or you get nowhere. I don’t particularly like playing Alien: Isolation, nor am I likely to finish it. Perhaps it is too long and perhaps it does have some pacing issues, but I don’t usually see those as large enough problems to stop me from finishing a game. The truth about why I won’t finish it is much more complicated and is a mixture of internal and external forces. The game is a cocktail of frustration when you consider just how purposefully unwieldy many of the mechanics are, but, similarly to Lars Von Trier films, when the whole idea is to be challenging to the audience, can you criticize the game for the challenge? Alien: Isolation asks a lot from the player, after all, but I draw the line at patience.

Box art courtesy of Wikipedia, images courtesy of Alien: Isolation website

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