Few video games capture the essence of their inspiration quite like Alien: Isolation. Creative Assembly’s 2014 survival horror looks as if it were made by the set designers of Ridley Scott’s movie themselves, such is the incredible attention to detail. But it’s the groundbreaking use of the xenomorph that makes Alien: Isolation such a triumph; this perfect organism is an engine for fear.
The game’s fifth mission, The Quarantine, marks the first moment in which the xenomorph actively hunts you through Sevastopol Station. Armed with little more than the iconic motion tracker, you must evade and escape cinema’s most terrifying predator. This is where Creative Assembly truly brought the Alien fantasy to life. But recreating the terror experienced by Ellen Ripley in the original film took more than authentic visuals and sound effects.
To find out how The Quarantine was made we spoke to two of the game’s developers about how Creative Assembly brought together astonishing AI, clever looping level design, and cutting edge lighting to inject pure terror into your first encounter with the alien.
The core of Alien: Isolation is a cat and mouse chase between your protagonist, Amanda Ripley, and the xenomorph. Prior games in the franchise depicted the aliens as cannon fodder for gung-ho Colonial Marines, but Creative Assembly looked to Ridley Scott’s tense original film, not James Cameron’s action-packed sequel, for inspiration. Much like in the 1979 horror classic, there’s just a single xenomorph in Alien: Isolation and you’re powerless to stop it. The only thing you can do is try to survive.
To create a believable, relentless predator, Creative Assembly programmed its xenomorph with advanced artificial intelligence. This terrifying creature is able to explore environments of its own volition, hunting you down through sight and sound. It can even learn your survival tactics and adapt to outsmart you. It is, to quote Ash, “A perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.”
During Alien: Isolation’s opening missions the xenomorph is only glimpsed in scripted moments, but in The Quarantine it’s finally given full freedom to stalk you. “This was the first encounter where we took the brakes off, the first ‘real’ encounter if you like,” explains Jude Bond, lead artist on Alien: Isolation. “The creature was fully off the leash; Amanda had the motion tracker and a job to do, she was on safari with the Alien, set for a deadly game of hide and seek.”
“An insane amount of work went into shaping the creature from a visual perspective – everything from the development of its physiology, through to modelling, animation and VFX,” he says. “Evidently, we’d developed complex AI and behavioural systems, scripting, and level mark-up too. As such, it was the first opportunity in the game for us to fully showcase the enormous amount of work we’d put into the creature.”
In the events leading up to The Quarantine, you have discovered that a full-grown xenomorph is skulking through the vents and corridors of the vast Sevastopol Station. Following the injury of a colleague you’re sent to the San Cristobal Medical Facility in search of supplies. To access them, you first need to find a keycard belonging to the deceased Dr. Morely. But just minutes into your search the entire facility is put into lockdown as the xenomorph arrives on the scene.
“The alarm sequence was a great opportunity to reference the Nostromo destruction sequence in the original movie,” Bond says. “The emergency lighting state in San Cristobal was great fun to produce – the asynchronous patterns of the rolling lightings and strobes, supported by the audio, created a really disarming sense of chaos, disorienting the player, and heightening the tension.”
It’s not just this alarm sequence that acts as a call back to the original film, though. The entire Sevastopol Station draws heavily on the retro-futuristic style of Alien, and its architecture is directly informed by the design of the Nostromo freighter ship. The Quarrantine’s medical facility was based on the movie set’s sick bay in which Kane was treated following his encounter with a facehugger.
“By the time we started to build this space, we’d thoroughly deconstructed the original movie, frame by frame,” recalls Bond. “We really got inside the heads of the original production designers and understood not just the design language, but how that was achieved in a practical sense, on a movie set.”
“Reverse engineering the original movie provided us with great foundations to build the Sevastopol on,” he adds. “We took the essence of the Nostromo, then used its DNA to inform a huge amount and variety of content.”
It wasn’t enough for the medical facility to be authentic to the original film, though. It had to be an arena perfectly calibrated for the player’s very first unscripted encounter with the xenomorph. This location would be a showcase for the alien’s capabilities, as well an introduction to the mechanics players could use to evade it. Everything that players had learned across the previous four missions would come together in this practical examination that would test their ability to survive against their worst nightmare.
“The shape and design [of the environment] is massively influenced by the fact that it’s for an alien encounter,” says Catherine Woolley, the level designer behind The Quarantine. “The level itself became a great testing ground while the AI for the xenomorph was being tweaked, as we needed to make sure it would work as we expected within environments created for it.”
“When designing a space for the alien to exist within, we wanted to try and ensure the player would not easily become trapped in a scenario they cannot escape, as not only could it feel unfair, like the level isn’t there to help them, but [this would] relieve the frustration of being cornered like a cat with a mouse,” she explains.
“If you pay close attention to the map for the Crisis Stabilisation Unit (which lives within the San Cristobal Medical Facility) you [will] notice a large number of loops from corridors creating loops, underground passages or vents to other corridors,” she notes. “These loops give you an option of finding a safer spot should you come head to head with your foe. Some loops are larger and pose a greater threat, some have dead ends, and some are very small to help with the trickier situations.”
Those looping routes were also designed to provide vital sightlines for both the player and the alien. The first segment of the facility, for example, loops around the Day Room, an area that features windows that allow vision not just into the room, but straight through it and across to the Sedation Ward. Doors at either end of the room also open up a sightline from the entrance corridor right across to the Staff Quarters. These intersecting sightlines, along with the beeps of your newly-acquired motion tracker, allow you to plot the alien’s location, which in turns helps you plan your movements towards the Staff Quarters, where you will hopefully be able to locate Dr. Morley’s keycard.
“I’d like to think [those key lines of sight] helped players, as the moment you spot the xeno walking the opposite way from the staff quarters is the second you can make your move,” says Woolley.
You’re not entirely reliant on your wits and observation skills, though. While you can’t do anything to harm the xenomorph, there are a number of tools located around the level that can be used to distract and relocate the beast hunting you.
“I knew in this scenario the player would only have the Pistol, Crowbar and Motion Tracker,” Woolley notes. “They also may have crafted a few distractive elements like an EMP, Flashbang, Noise Maker, Smoke Bomb or Pipe Bomb.”
“However, as you didn’t have anything that could make the alien retreat at this stage, I’d made sure there were other ways to distract the creature to ensure safe (or not so safe) movement through the level,” she explains. “You can do this with the rewire systems dotted around. These allow you to power the underfloor vents, a door, and then also set off some alarms and sprinkler systems. Provided you’re not near those alarms they can be a worthwhile distraction, sending our tall friend off to the Sedation Ward to see what’s going on.”
With the alien successfully evaded and the door to the Staff Quarters unlocked, you enter a new area where tighter corridor structures significantly diminish your vision cone. However, each room is still built to allow speedy recognition of threats and escape routes. The recreation room, for instance, allows you to take cover behind the circular sitting area and observe both entrances from relative safety. With the coast clear you can then duck into the sleeping area. Here you discover the patient rooms assigned to Dr. Morely, which helps narrow your search for his keycard.
That information leads you into a circular corridor with seven treatment rooms, each of which is a dead end with no easy escape should you be cornered. That’s why finding the list of three rooms on Dr. Morley’s round is so essential; you don’t want to investigate all seven of them when there’s the constant threat of the xenomorph trapping you inside. But even with that information, you still don’t know exactly where the keycard is. You’re still going to have to take some risks.
“One thing we were trying to do with Isolation was create what feels like an interactive real environment,” says Woolley. “Telling you exactly where you needed to go would remove tension, plus I felt it gave a nod to games where you used to have to note down where to go and everything wasn’t just given to you through objectives and direct waypoints. Signage is a key part of Alien: Isolation and we hoped people would utilise it! Just like you would [if you were] in a hospital!”
With the keycard lifted from the mutilated corpse of Dr. Morely you’re able to complete the final loop of The Quarantine. The card unlocks a nearby door that leads directly back to the very start of the level, the Welcome Area, and from there you can head down to the lower hospital to continue your search for medical supplies in the next mission.
To encourage you to take this shortcut and not backtrack all the way through the level are the navigation signs that Woolley mentioned, which point to the Welcome Area. But while the signage and general aesthetic of the San Cristobal Medical Facility were meant to evoke the feeling of a real hospital, it was not envisioned as an authentic space. Instead, it is first and foremost a video game level designed to support the hide and seek gameplay generated by the xenomorph’s AI.
“I’d be lying if I said we were looking for the authenticity of a medical setting,” admits Bond. “It was designed to feel like a hospital, rather than function as a hospital. Believable, not authentic. That’s not to say we just threw in some hospital furniture and crossed our fingers. Far from it.”
“We took care to think about what the spaces were and how they would be used by the crew,” he explains. “This resulted in us creating a lived-in feel through informal, slightly chaotic propping, giving us a strong counterpoint to the mechanical formality of the architecture. There were lots of layers to the art we produced, but this trick alone created a nice tension, and we used it all over the game.”
“All the littered pieces among the hallways were to help, and at times hinder, the players,” adds Woolley. “From the gurney bed you’re near when the xenomorph makes its appearance, which allows you to take cover underneath it in the hopes people don’t back track to Morley’s office, to the various cabinets someone will hopefully use to hide from the alien.”
“Each piece of cover was instrumental in allowing players to progress forwards and towards their goal,” she says.
The very act of having to evade Creative Assembly’s intelligent hunter is more than enough to generate a palpable sense of fear. But the continual sense of dread players experience in Alien: Isolation comes from far more than just the creature alone. The very architecture of Sevastopol Station is designed to generate a truly terrifying atmosphere.
“Low ceilings and narrow corridors certainly created a sense of oppression and confinement,” says Bond. “The space is in control, you’re not. A lot of our architecture modulated between constricted and relatively open spaces though. We did this to create an appealing rhythm, setting, and resetting the player’s perception of the space. Tension and respite, breath in, and breath out.”
This philosophy can clearly be seen in the contrast between the spacious corridors around the Day Room and the tight, claustrophobic ones that snake through the Crew Quarters. These locations are also lit in very specific ways to enhance the atmosphere provided by the area’s structure.
“The lighting in San Cristobal no doubt helped to build tension and a sense of fear, or dread,” Bond says. “Generally, we used shadow, or the absence of light, to create a feeling of veiled threat. On a basic human level, what you can’t see is scary and creates space for the imagination! We really tapped into that specific flavour of psychological horror, so prevalent in the 1979 movie.”
“We regulated the darkness, punctuating it with spots or pools of light,” he explains. “This punctuation obviously helps to describe the space and guide the player, but it also created the tension that we were striving for.”
“We used the light component of ‘pooled lighting and darkness’ to create a kind of a deceptive sanctuary for the player, luring them into a false sense of security,” he continues. “Where the light and shadow meet, we found a sweet spot for creating tension – at the edge of being able to discern distinct shape and form, with a degree of ambiguity around what you’re seeing.”
While tension, fear, and dread are all vital components of survival horror, these need to be off-set by occasional moments of relief and safety. In Alien: Isolation this is provided by a very limited amount of save points. There are just three in The Quarantine, and they split the mission into relatively even thirds. One is available at the very start of the level in the Welcome Area, a second can be found in the Day Room near the vent from which the alien first appears, and a third in the Staff Quarters close to where you eventually find Dr. Morley’s keycard.
“I tried to place them in locations where you could potentially have a breather, trying to find a secure feeling location and lines of sight to make sure you weren’t about to be eaten,” explains Woolley. “However, for those less aware of their surroundings, that might not be the case. I wasn’t so much trying to increase tension, but more create spaces that you can’t wait to get to!”
By allowing these moments of relief, the save points tie Alien: Isolation’s ideas together. The astonishing, adaptive intelligence of the xenomorph is obviously the key to the experience, but the entire thing would fail if the alien could reliably defeat you each and every time. This is a survival horror, and the player must make it through alive to not only complete the game, but to also live an experience that replicates that of Ellen Ripley in the original film. The save points, distraction tools, sightlines, and lighting in The Quarantine all combine to help the player survive this terrifying ordeal, and ultimately provide an unforgettable introduction to one of gaming’s most terrifying hunters.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Features Editor.