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How Creative Assembly Brought Fear To Alien: Isolation

Alien: Isolation creative director Alistair Hope speaks at GDC 2015 about how Creative Assembly focused on building a horror game, not an action game, through deliberate design choices.

Alien Isolation, Creative Assembly’s first person survival horror game based on Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, deliberately focused on the act of survival not killing, with a player character who was underpowered and underprepared.

This was the key approach to establishing its horror said Alistair Hope, the game’s creative director at a talk delivered in San Francisco at the Game Developer’s Conference this afternoon.

“We wanted to give the player simple A to B choices – ‘should I stay or go?’ – requiring you to survive on your instincts," said Hope. "We knew that this would be the key to creating a sense of fear and urgency.”

To achieve this sense of dread and quick-fire drama, Hope and his team opted to recreate the low-fi science fiction aesthetic of the original film. “We wanted to communicate to the player that technology isn’t the answer. There isn’t big gun waiting for you in a locker that will save you.”

In this way the aesthetic became more than decoration. “It became part of the gameplay,” said Hope, pointing out that the motion tracker, which shows the player two simple dots on a screen to indicate their position in relation to the alien “supports the idea that technology isn’t the answer; it’s not a magic bullet.”

Hope explained that the team decided to make the alien creature dynamic rather than scripted; it responds to sound and light rather than following set paths. “The alien couldn’t be scripted as this would evaporate tension. We had to tap into the fear of the unknown and ensure that the player had live encounters in which no two playthrough would be the same. We loved the sense that this gave of being inside the pressure cooker, set against a singe alien: huge, menacing and monolithic.”

Hope revealed that the team considered a third person camera angle for the game, similar to that seen in other survival horror games such as Resident Evil.

“We were concerned that people wouldn’t recognise the game as survival horror if we had a first person camera,” he said, before showing exclusive video footage of their attempts at this approach. “We found it just wasn’t as scary,” he said. “It felt as thought the alien was hunting the character, not you. It generated a less powerful emotional response. Third person felt like an Alien game; first person felt like Alien.”

In closing, Hope urged any game developers trying new things to believe in their vision if they feel like we they are doing something different and risky.

“If you're going to dedicate years of your life to creating something, make sure it's something that you care about,” he advised. “It may place a lot of strain on your team, but having a dream and a strong vision is crucial. Maintaining your confidence is difficult when attempting something different. But if you are successful in this, anything is possible.”

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