Opinion: Five Essential Steps For Creating A Great ‘Aliens’ Game
As a bona fide ‘Alien’ obsessive who can pretty much quote every line from the first couple of movies, and has seen the second one so many times that I’ve completely lost count, it saddens me that Aliens: Colonial Marines – the latest attempt to bring our favourite acid-blooded, people-inseminating, flesh-devouring monsters to the world of gaming – should have turned out to be such a disappointment.
The creatures, the canon and the wider universe they inhabit deserve so much better than the games they have so far inspired, which have mostly turned out to be lacklustre. Mostly.
With that in mind, I thought I’d put together an essential list of tips for whoever steps up to the mark next. Because, in my view, there are some rather fundamental things that need to be considered when attempting to make a great ‘Aliens’ game. Things like…
Start with an intriguing premise – not just ‘another bug hunt’
Lately, the games have tended to take on a rather unimaginative set-up revolving around a platoon of marines being sent off to investigate an installation which they then discover, naturally, has been overrun by viscous, double-jawed extraterrestrials.
Essentially, it’s just re-hashing the plot of the second movie in a completely dull and unimaginative way. But there are so many other cool possibilities for a game’s starting point.
Taking a cue from the first movie, you could set the experience on a giant transport ship carrying mysterious ‘cargo’. Or, inspired by the surprisingly good novels that have sprung up around the series, how about locating it in a thriving farming/mining colony that suddenly finds itself used as a testing ground for the military’s new biological weapons, in the shape of those terrible creatures?
Crucially, whatever the location, the game should cast you as a mere maintenance technician, flight officer or civvie, rather than a battle-hardened soldier. And it should have you directly experience the suspense, build-up and outright terror of the inevitable outbreak in real-time – rather than dropping into the shattered, apocalyptic remnants afterwards. That way you would see the unfolding horror through the eyes of someone utterly unequipped to deal with it, and would have to rapidly learn how to survive.
What made the original Alien so frightening was the way in which its protagonists were just a blue-collar crew with no weapons training or combat experience, plunged into an impossible nightmare. And you could completely empathise with their plight, helplessness and mounting fear. Speaking of which…
Put some effort into the characters
Every single one of the main Alien films takes great steps to give us insight into its key players, and flesh out their personalities in both overt and subtle ways. Hell, even Resurrection does that to some extent.
It’s the reason why so many of the series’ characters – even the relatively minor ones – prove so memorable. From the jittery Lambert and slippery Burke, to the hyper-emotional Hudson and Charles Dance’s haunted Clemens; each made their mark on the narrative and gave us people to really care about, root for and, in some cases, despise. Then there’s Ripley, of course: one of the great movie heroes thanks to her staunch resilience, formidable determination and compelling, humanising backstory.
Compare that to the dumb ‘Hoorah!’ cliches of Colonial Marines, and it’s easy to see the difference. The military joshing and slick quips of the grunts in Aliens were actually a lot more intelligent than that: utilized to introduce us to each of the characters’ humour, naivety, insecurities and distinctive outlook, while instantly personalising each and every one.
The essence of great stories in general, and horror in particular, is to give us people we can empathise with and care about. So, a great Aliens game needs to have a range of interesting people involved in the narrative encompassing a whole variety of personalities, backgrounds and motives. In particular, it would be welcome to see the main protagonist we inhabit have slightly more motivation than ‘I need to shoot some stuff’, and slightly more backstory than ‘I am a marine and I shoot stuff’.
Give us characters we can associate with and get to know, and it’ll enhance the experience and add to the horror. And while we’re on that subject…
Make it scary
Recent Alien games have really not tended to emphasise the horror aspect, preferring instead to give us mindless action and an uninspired procession of ‘shooting gallery’ missions.
Developers: don’t do it. Have faith in what made the movies so popular in the first place. Embrace the idea that the game should be a proper survival-horror rather than a full-on FPS, and you’ll instantly be on to a much more faithful and interesting concept.
A great Aliens game should be about slow build-ups of tension, terrifying treks down foreboding corridors and nerve-wracking forays into claustophobic ventilation systems, rather than constant running and gunning. At the start weaponry should be near-useless or even non-existent altogether, with the overriding message that you are completely out of your depth and vulnerable.
Atmosphere should be the main consideration, with adrenaline generally about hiding from threats or fleeing from enemies, rather than tearing through all-comers with beefed-up Pulse Rifles and Smart Guns.
Of course, even if you do eventually get your hands on those kinds of weapons, if Aliens taught us anything it’s that even access to death-dealing military hardware is unlikely to save your bacon for long. Which informs our next key lesson…
Don’t dilute the impact of the Aliens themselves
Because most of the games based on the franchise have tended to be shooters, from Alien Trilogy through to Colonial Marines, they feel the need to give you plenty of Aliens to gun down – and as such the significant overwhelming danger that each Xenomorph should represent is completely diluted. Rather than the formidable, intelligent, near-unkillable hunters that they should be, they simply become humble bullet-bags after a while, and each encounter is less and less dramatic.
The overriding lesson should be to avoid this by making Alien encounters occasional, and pant-wettingly terrifying. If you have to give the gamer something to shoot at, perhaps face-huggers and chest-bursters could suffice for thrilling asides, but the aliens themselves should be the memorable main-event. Imagine a similar set-up to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, with the aliens patrolling, tracking and hunting you initially by themselves and later in twos and threes – the threat-level elevated appropriately to reflect their significance.
They should be smart, versatile and deadly. We’re talking one-hit kills, ultra-fast movement and only a direct blast from a powerful weapon enough to take ’em down. Kill them at close-range too, and that might well spell curtains for your character (acid to the face really hurts, y’know).
That way, you’ll force the gamer to use their own ingenuity and intelligence to survive; barricading routes in and out of hideaways, torching ducts to check for lurking foes, improvising traps, and using motion-trackers and other equipment to thoroughly check their surroundings – with full-on flight a more fitting default option than active confrontation.
This also means that the game isn’t forced to invent new enemy types such as Colonial Marines’ unintentionally hilarious exploding, constipated brood; but can instead make the whole experience a clever game of stealthy, suspenseful cat-and-mouse.
It would also allow for some pretty cool, and innovative, life-or-death scenarios. Speaking of which…
Respect the material – but don’t rely on the same old gimmicks
Pretty much every Alien game so far has thrown in the same-old tricks and events. And they have tended to confuse paying homage to the source material with stealing its ideas wholesale – leading to ever-diminishing returns.
Hence, every game seemingly features a boss battle with an Alien queen, a treacherous company executive or android, and a wearily familiar procession of all-too recognisable material, from the equipment and weapons to the overriding themes and ideas.
But the Alien universe is such a rich one, and the nightmarish concept of its creatures so extraordinary, that you feel there’s a much greater degree of scope for the scenarios a game can present. Providing a refreshing setting and characters would make a difference as detailed above, but the experience should also make an attempt to establish its own set of ideas.
From a practical point-of-view, the game could take a leaf out of Dead Space’s book by having technical tools as makeshift weapons to begin with, for example, while the kind of missions you undertake, and the nature of fulfilling your goals, could be infinitely more interesting.
Need to get through an alien-infested area to retrieve an invaluable item? Perhaps you could deliberately inseminate yourself with an alien embryo in order to avoid attack from the Xenomorphs, with a desperate race against time afterwards to get to a med-lab and remove the developing infant before it bursts out of your chest.
And what if you had some serious moral dilemmas: like whether to hunt down and kill infected characters to stop the spread of the Aliens? Or whether to go out of your way to save a fellow survivor, at serious risk to yourself?
Yes, we all love the Pulse Rifles, drop-ships, hive infiltrating rescue mission and lovable soldier-slang of Aliens – but that doesn’t mean that the game has to feature all of these things.
So long as the game respects the spirit of the movies with regard to their vision of the creatures, and the nature of mankind’s horror and desperation when confronted with them, it shouldn’t be afraid to be very much its own beast.