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Alien Isolation: "I didn't expect smiling and laughing"

Creative Assembly's Al Hope on what Rezzed visitors can expect when they face the xenomorph.

Peel away the snapping jaws and acid blood of the Alien franchise, and you'll find that what really drives this enduring saga is something far more primal. The ticking clock of pregnancy, the knowledge of something growing, incubating, preparing to burst into the world, is what gives the xenomorph its true power. It's a feeling that Al Hope, console lead at Creative Assembly, is all too familiar with.

"I think one of the frustrating things for developers, or most creative people, is that you always want to be telling people about what you're doing, shouting about it," he says. Except, for years, he couldn't shout about Alien Isolation.

The project was first pitched to Sega in 2008, just after The Creative Assembly finished work on the Norse action game Viking: Battle for Asgard. Even with a greenlight, the developer's relatively small console team has been in active production for at least the last three years. "That's a long time to be under the radar," admits Hope. "We very much felt like we were the dark horse of the studio, working on the secret project."

That meant sitting on the sidelines during the Aliens: Colonial Marines controversy, which many fans worried had poisoned the well as far as games set in this universe were concerned. Thankfully, when the time came to formally announce Alien Isolation, the response couldn't have been more different.

"We were taking a different approach to the franchise, within games certainly, and when we showed it to people they'd get very excited which showed we were on the right track," Hope explains. "All we really wanted to do was tell people what we were doing. So, yeah, when we were finally able to announce it, that was a really fantastic moment. Especially for the team. A team full of beaming smiles."

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What's perhaps most unusual about Isolation's reveal is that it came when the game was already in a playable state, rather than the usual announcement years in advance followed by a drip feed of screenshots and trailers. Rather appropriately, Alien Isolation hatched into the public consciousness pretty much fully formed.

"It really felt, for this game, people's first experience should be to go hands-on," agrees Hope. "That's the thing that excites me most about Rezzed, putting it on the floor and having gamers actually get their hands on it and try it out."

Chatting to developers, it's easy to get sidetracked into discussions of technical minutiae or production milestones, yet our conversation constantly returns to the player experience. Hope and his team are clearly incredibly excited by the prospect of anyone - but particularly the public - playing their game. "The chunk people will be able to play at Rezzed takes place towards halfway through the game, and I guess it's us showing what it's like to be in a space with just yourself, the Alien and a motion tracker," says Hope. "That's very core gameplay: what's it like to try and survive against this version of the Alien?"

Of course, if you were really surviving against the Alien, you probably wouldn't be sitting alongside other gamers, surrounded by all the hubbub and clatter of a showfloor. Isn't he worried that such surroundings may not be conducive to the intimate horror experience? "Ideally everyone would be in isolation chambers," Hope laughs. "As much as possible we've tried to create that atmosphere, everyone will be wearing headphones to help create that immersion so you're not distracted by everything that's going on all around you. When we see people playing it they usually seem quite focused and concentrating on what's occurring in front of them."

Although the game has been played by the press, this will be the first time the demo has been handed over to hundreds of gamers. "It's going to be fascinating for me," Hope enthuses. "For a long time, we knew how we played the game but because of the nature of the game, where the Alien is reacting to what you're doing, no two playthroughs are really the same. It's really fascinating for us to see how people behave and how they respond to the Alien threat, how they adapt and, ultimately, survive. If you get ten people in a room, they all press start at the same time, ten minutes later they're all in very, very different places, having very, very different responses to the world. It's really cool for us."

In particular, Hope is keen to see how players cope when faced with the original incarnation of the Alien, as imagined by Ridley Scott and HR Giger. That extends to recreating the grungy feel of the 1979 movie, with attention to detail that extends to in-game videos being transferred to VHS tapes and then re-recorded off a CRT screen for maximum "adjust your tracking" authenticity -

"It really was a case of wanting to make the Alien game that no one had made, the game we wanted to play."

"Alien has its own distinct look and feel, it's own emotional tone, very different to the more action-oriented sequels," Hope explains. "More importantly, [we wanted] to recreate the Alien. It was something that had a big presence. Physically large. We were really keen to have a creature that looked down on the player and was really imposing."

It's this aspect of the Alien brand that Creative Assembly seems most keen to fix. "Over the course of the franchise, the role of the Alien sort of diminished, in terms of scale," Hope says. "It really felt to me that there had to be an alternative experience that the player could have, rather than [the Alien] being cannon fodder, a bullet sponge at the end of your gun. There's another direction, another approach. It really was a case of wanting to make the Alien game that no one had made, the game we wanted to play."

So far, of course, most of the discussion and coverage of the game has concentrated on the headline feature of being stalked by a single lethal Alien, and the stealth challenges that scenario poses. I tell Hope that my concern is how that can be extended over an entire AAA game without becoming repetitive. It's clearly a question he's been anticipating.

"I think the game is very much about the whole journey", he explains. The space station, Sevastopol, that the game takes place on is quite broken and physically dangerous, so navigating your way through the world is a puzzle in itself. That's a constant, something for the player to engage with. How do I get through the world? And then, at the same time, there's a relatively small number of inhabitants on the station and they're in a similar position to the player, very desperate to survive, and how they react to the player and events is unpredictable, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and there's the potential for the Alien to appear at any moment. So there's quite a few combinations that the player can be occupied by. It's about player choice, giving them multiple options to overcome the obstacles that are facing them."

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And what of the artificially intelligent xenomorph, which hunts the player using its virtual senses and doesn't just jump out for scripted scares? How do you build a full length narrative game around an antagonist that chooses when - or if - to strike? "The game has a story, and it needs to respect that story, so there are moments where we engineer things so that the Alien is highly likely to appear," Hope admits. "But in general we let the Alien inhabit the space and then it reacts to the events that go on around it. For a very long time, that was the hardest thing about demoing it internally. It was a heart-stopping endeavour trying to demo it to the publisher because I wasn't sure what was going to happen. I'd be concentrating so hard on trying to survive, I should have had a heart rate monitor and put it up on screen."

"The game's about tension and release. It can't be X number of hours of unrelenting pressure," he continues. "When we gave the game to people to play, they were going a lot slower than we were expecting. People seem to become immediately immersed in the world, and were looking behind every desk, really exploring the world. And everyone's response to the Alien seems to be different. People were a lot more cautious than we expected. I think the game helps get you in that frame of mind. If you decide you're not going to play it like that, you don't survive very long."

He laughs. "One of the things I hadn't anticipated was that people's reaction, after playing it, is a big smile, laughing about it because they've been so scared. They've come out the other side. I didn't expect smiling and laughing."

"One thing I am really looking forward to is with this new generation of consoles, Twitch and YouTube live-streaming games, with every playthrough being different," he adds. "Once the game is released it will be almost like an infinite horror movie of people trying to make their way through the game."

And while we're on the subject of new technologies, I can't help but ask about the resurgence of virtual reality, a development that would seem perfect for an immersive first-person experience like Alien Isolation. An appropriately pregnant pause follows. "I think...I think it would be fair to say that we're always exploring new technologies," Hope eventually replies, with a diplomatic laugh.

It's talk like this that makes me think Hope and his team at Creative Assembly might finally be the ones to understand not just what makes Alien work, but what makes horror work. It's not just the jump scares, it's the anticipation of them, the tingle of vulnerability, the frisson that comes from not knowing what's around the corner - not just the first time you turn it, but every time after that.

What convinces me is when I mention one of my favourite Alien games - an obscure 1984 top-down strategy game for the ZX Spectrum that pitted the crew of the Nostromo against a single free-roaming Alien. "Yeah!" blurts Hope immediately. "That was a great game. You didn't know which member of the crew it would hatch from. It was so ahead of its time." The Alien series is so iconic, so embedded in pop culture, that it's easy to pay lip service to it. As fans have discovered to their cost in recent years, anyone can seem to say the right thing while completely missing the point.

In that moment of instant enthusiasm for such a brilliant franchise obscurity, Alistair blows away the misgivings and suspicions that have congealed over my fandom through repeated abuse. He gets it. He gets the Alien, and soon we'll get to see his vision as it delivers its bloody birth on the Rezzed audience. Somebody call the midwife.