Creative Assembly's Talented Miss Ripley
Alien: Isolation lead designer and senior producer talk scary aliens and shower scenes
So you've snapped up your dream IP, the studio is excited, and you're hard and stealthily at work bringing it to life. But then another game, using the very same franchise, is released to critic's cat calls and internet rage. Do you feign a heart attack and use the time off to reconsider your employment options? Panic and smash your servers? Not if you're Creative Assembly, and not if the game you're making is Alien: Isolation.
"It did completely reaffirm to us that there was a massive Alien fanbase out there and they're all after something very specific, and everyone has their own idea of what the alien should be," says lead designer Gary Napper, dismissing the Aliens: Colonial Marines kerfuffle.
"The alien had been done effectively a disservice in a lot of games"
"But just to see such a vocal reaction to the game, everything that they've said they want is something that we're building and we're very excited about that."
Key to Creative Assembly's vision for Alien: Isolation is the xenomorph itself and the way the gamer will interact with it. Gone is the alien as cannon fodder, multiplayer perk or endless spawning attack force. Instead the team is focusing on creating a foe that gamers will have to work hard to outsmart.
"That original movie was all about that one alien, and that's what we decided we wanted to deliver," explains Jonathan Court, senior producer at Creative Assembly.
"We thought the alien had been done effectively a disservice in a lot of games, it had been boiled down to fodder and we wanted to make a really meaningful experience with our alien and make it such an important part of the game."
While the team is faithful to the source material from the first film as much as possible, the seventies alien was a little less terrifying than you might remember.
"When we built this alien, when we first set out we said 'we're going to build the exact alien from the first film,' but if you look at the alien from the first film the alien doesn't really move much," laughs Napper.
"It stands around, and they generally walk into him rather than him hunting and attacking them. So we found ourselves building people's perception of what the alien was, rather than an exact copy from the first film."
Elsewhere though, the team is the sort of obsessive you only really find when you combine a team of game developers with a class geek IP. The films plays on a loop in a number of screens at the Creative Assembly office, and there are members of staff from the VFX and lighting sectors of the film industry on staff to create the perfect atmosphere. Creative Assembly even made sure that the right live editing capabilities were built into the engine so sets could be lit in real time.
"We got about 3 terabytes of data from Fox's archives and that is invaluable stuff," says Court.
"I mean we used the metrics for the original sets, we fed all that into our environment build. We took this stuff really seriously and it was good to get hold of, it really informed what we were making."
Napper adds that these new methods are being combined with slightly more unusual uses of old technology to get the right 1979 sort of feel.
"Our UI guys have done some incredible stuff where they've been doing things like making a UI prompt screen or a bit of video, playing it back through an old VHS recorder whilst stamping on it and twiddling the cables and getting some actual VHS distortion on it and recording that and playing it back and capturing that digitally."
"Even in our first demos we were building our character was a female test dummy"
But what's an alien and a pretty set without the right person to race through it at the players command? Enter Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ripley and new foe of the alien. Napper promises this heroine won't be from the shower scenes school of character design.
"You've just described the first third of the game there! No, there's absolutely nothing like that. We're trying to keep this as true to the franchise as possible so we didn't want to go back or undo stuff that's actually happened in the alien history and when we looked at connecting it we saw this character, Amanda Ripley, that had never actually been explored. The one bit of information we had about her was in a deleted scene from Aliens."
Court and Napper both dismiss the weak but surprisingly popular argument that female protagonists don't sell games, arguing that they never saw their game as featuring a big space marine with a buzzcut.
"If you think of the Alien films the first thing you think of is Ripley and an alien or you look at that iconic thing of her standing in the powerloader with the queen behind her or her with the flamethrower in the corridors in Alien," explains Napper.
"Even in our first demos we were building, the first early physics stuff and wireboxing out the levels our character was a female test dummy. So it was almost just an assumption that before we even decided on the story that our character would be a female lead."
The game has been in production for three years at Creative Assembly, and when they started the survival genre was all but dead. AAA had all but given up on it, and the surge of innovative indie titles like Outlast had yet to arrive on PC. When they did Napper admits to being a little nervous, thinking it could lead to some serious competition for Alien: Isolation.
"It's not long before a big studio picks up on this and makes something," he says of this thinking as the indie horrors hit. "I really hope we're able to announce and show our game before that happens. And luckily we did and the reaction has been absolutely outstanding."
Now the game is public: the team recently showed it to a bunch of journalists in a darkened room, who then rushed away to write excited previews about crouching in cover waiting to see the patrol pattern of the alien, only to realise it didn't have one. Stories of dying horribly and of feeling their hands shake. The game might not be out until the end of the year, but reactions have helped build the teams confidence and, says Napper, make it all worthwhile.
"It was great having people from the press come in and play it because we had them all with headphones on in a dark room playing the game. All we could hear when we were watching them was their breathing - slowly it got faster and faster and then you'd hear the odd gasp in the room and one guy nearly fell of his chair."
"And I saw some guy nearly kick his TV over," adds Court. "We got some good reactions, we wished we'd videoed it now."