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Fear in unpredictability: Alien: Isolation's brand of survival horror Exclusive

Fear in unpredictability:  Alien: Isolation 's brand of survival horror
October 7, 2014 | By Kris Graft

October 7, 2014 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC, Design, Exclusive

For Al Hope, creative lead on Creative Assembly and Sega's Alien: Isolation designing a game that is truly about "survival horror" meant focusing on what made the game's 1979 movie source material so horrifying: unpredictability with a dash of impending doom.

"We were really keen in replicating the sensation you get when you're watching that film, Alien," says Hope. "We understood early on that if we were going to re-establish the alien as this ultimate killer, something that really commanded your respect, that you felt was lethal, terrifying, and gave you the sense of being hunted, we had to take a different approach; that the alien couldn't run under any prescribed path or pattern."

It's that unpredictability that lays the foundation for the tension in Alien: Isolation. In the game, the creature acts on non-scripted A.I. Not even the game's developers really know exactly when and where this hunter will appear.

"If you can predict what it's going to do moment to moment, that destroys the fear, and the tension evaporates," says Hope.

Thanks to the game's A.I., the alien conveys the feeling that it is looking, listening -- hunting -- for players. Every playthrough is different. While some horror games do rely on randomized aspects to build tension and create scares, many are heavily scripted, and guide players through what are essentially haunted houses.

"Horror, in large part, is about not knowing, about the mystery of what's behind the next corner," Hope says. That means even people on the team who've played the game all day, every day, still are frightened when playing. "We didn't want to make a game that was about jump scares. We didn't want to say 'boo' around every corner."

What would you do?

Before Hope and the initial small Alien dev team even got anything on a screen, he says the crew would sit around the office and talk amongst themselves and speculate what they would do if the alien were actually there in the office. How would they feel, and how would they react to those feelings? What would their survival instincts drive them to do?

"If you can predict what it's going to do moment to moment, that destroys the fear, and the tension evaporates."

"The kind of answers we'd come up with were things like, maybe we'd hide under our desks, or maybe we'd try to see where it went. Maybe we'd try to be as quiet as possible." Hope says the team would ask one another questions like, "If you wanted to get to the fire exit -- how would you get to it? Well, I'd carefully move from desk to desk, and watch what it's doing. I'd creep my way there. It sounded like an interesting game of cat and mouse or hide and seek."

By asking these questions and speculating the implications of survival in a mundane office setting, the Alien team was able to set the tone of the kind of fear the game would adopt. None of the answers to "what would you do?" would be "reach for my shotgun" or "blast it with my flamethrower."

That approach is truer to the movie, argues Hope. While there certainly are some big guns in the movie, and in the game (though ammo is scarce), the role of technology in both is downplayed. The focus is on the instinct of survival, rather than outright conquering a foe or being a "bad-ass."

Building tension, building fear

Creators of horror fiction, whether in movies, books, games or otherwise, have long preached the idea that showing too much of the monster can actually make for a less-scary experience. When the creator allows a person to imagine the danger, the fear truly takes hold; see less, fear more.

"It proved that the alien didn't need to be on the screen the entire time in order [for players] to be frightened of it, cautious of it, or anticipating where it was going to be next."

For the Alien team, seeing that theory in action is what really sold them on the approach. "When we started protoyping, we got a lot of feedback saying that players were really scared and tense when they could see the alien. But we also got feedback saying that when they couldn't see the alien, they didn't feel they had the information to move forward -- there was a lot of anxiety in them because they didn't have any idea at all where this thing was.

"That was really interesting for us, as it proved that the alien didn't need to be on the screen the entire time in order to be frightened of it, cautious of it, or anticipating where it was going to be next."

A more specific method of building tension in players was the implementation of an anxiety-building save system. "We tried a whole bunch of different solutions but we kept coming back to the manual save," Hope explains.

But this the system the team decided on wasn't a typical manual save. In Alien, players have to find specific locations and use a machine, which takes time to process the save. During that save process, players are actually vulnerable to attack. Think of it as when a victim in a horror movie is fumbling for their keys to unlock their front door to get into the safety of their house, as a monster is chasing them.

"That's really a double-edged sword [for players]," says Hope. "As you see these emergency kiosks, which represent save points, you breathe a sigh of relief, because you realize your progress is potentially saved. At the same time, you're extra-extra cautious, because at the same time you're saving, you could potentially be killed.

"It felt like the right thing to do, because even the simple act of saving became part of the horror experience, and supported what we were trying to do," he says.

Hope says his idea of horror involves many of those small victories that lead up to the ultimate victory -- survival. "It's a nice way of making something mundane actually part of the experience," he says. "It's that unpredictability that is the game's strength."

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