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Aliens: A Gaming Franchise Haunted by Imperfection

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Three space marines use flamethrowers to burn the hallway of a xenomorph nest.

Upon its release in 1979, Ridley Scott’s iconic movie, Alien, set a new precedent for science-fiction. The genre-breaking film showed audiences that sci-fi could go beyond lightsabers and space-faring smugglers, and, ultimately, that space could be scary. Like, disturbingly scary. With its phenomenal score, stunning visuals and a protagonist for the ages – not to mention that infamous chest-bursting xenomorph – Alien became an iconic piece of cinema. To this day, critics still herald it as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. So naturally, game developers felt like the cross-genre classic would make a great video game…or two…or three.

Since its inception, we’ve seen all manner of officially licensed Alien(s) video games burst out onto the scene. But the road to making the perfect Alien(s) video game has more often than not resulted in failure. The franchise’s gaming endeavours have frequently been marred by technical limitations, developmental troubles, and high expectations. Despite this, a vast number of Alien(s) games have been produced over the years, including first-person shooters, old-school strategy, arcade and even adventure titles. Developers have kept at it, refusing to give up on a franchise with so much gaming potential.

With this knowledge, it comes as no surprise that we are once again seeing Alien(s) make its way onto our PCs and consoles in the form of Aliens: Fireteam Elite. Much like the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo, I and many other fans of the franchise were caught off-guard by the surprise announcement. Though it should be noted that this was a much more pleasant surprise than that of a newborn xenomorph bursting free from crewmate Kane’s ribcage. Which as you can imagine, was a very, very unpleasant surprise for everyone present.

From the myriad of gameplay footage available online, Fireteam Elite looks like a fun, exciting and intense third-person co-op shooter that nails that classic Aliens aesthetic. Of course, with it being part of a franchise that’s had such a rocky history in gaming, you’d be a fool not to have your share of doubts. But with a number of hands-on previews showcasing what looks to be a solid recreation of the action-packed sci-fi sequel, can Aliens: Fireteam Elite succeed where others failed? Will we ever see the perfect Alien(s) game? If history has taught us anything, it’s that we should expect the worst; and yet, now more than ever, I’m inclined to tell you otherwise.

A 2D PAC-MAN style maze is shown, with the player sprite being chased by three other alien sprites.
Behold! Alien (Atari 2600) in all its glory.

It’s important to start from the beginning when assessing Alien(s) games’ many failures, and why to this day we still haven’t had the perfect Alien(s) game. The Alien(s) franchise’s long and storied history in gaming began way back in the days of the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, in a time long before high-end 3D graphics and large-scale development studios. Video games and game development, in general, were still a relatively new thing, and thus the games produced during this time reflected the technology and capabilities of the era. To put this into perspective, one of the earliest Alien games was pretty much a clone of Pac-Man. Which, when you think about it, actually sounds pretty neat.

Subsequent titles varied in genres, ranging from a hybrid strategy/adventure game (with gameplay systems such as crew management) to the first iteration of an Aliens FPS. There were some really interesting ideas and concepts around what an Alien(s) game could be, which led to many of the classic Alien(s) games still being held in high regard. Some of these titles continue to have a higher review score than their more modern counterparts. The issue with a lot of these original games in the franchise is that they are a victim of their old age (with many of them finding their way onto Abandonware websites). While still playable, they are very much products of their time, rendering their outdated graphics and sound design incapable of competing with today’s larger, and more immersive video game experiences.

The player character is grabbed by a xenomorph, and is presented with three options for escape.
A screenshot of early Aliens: Crucible gameplay footage.

In recent years, the Alien(s) franchise has been seen far less on both the big or small screen (Unless you’re counting Aliens vs Predator, and, really, why would you?). Discounting the AVP games, Alien(s) still had few games release during its early 2000s hiatus, including 2D side-scroller Alien: Infestation, an FPS on the PlayStation and even the occasional VR experience. But what there’s arguably been more of in the post-2000’s era for the franchise is numerous cancelled game projects.

Game cancellations are always an interesting part of the industry, giving players a look at what could’ve been for their favourite franchise or studio. Alien(s) is no exception. These have ranged from two Aliens: Colonial Marines projects on the PS2 and Nintendo DS; Aliens: Hadley’s Hope, an online multiplayer PvE game set in the Alien(s) universe; and Aliens: Crucible, an RPG set on a xenomorph infested planet developed by well-known game studio, Obsidian Entertainment.

A fair few of these now cancelled titles were also pretty far along in development, with playable demos and working prototypes (the likes of which can be found online). Crucible above all others looked incredible and was described by writer on the project, Chris Avellone, during an interview with VG247 as, “basically Mass Effect but more terrifying.” I’m not going to sit here and discredit the potential of Hadley’s Hope however, as, by the sounds of it, the team over at 3D Realms and Slipgate Ironworks had a strong basis for what that game was going to be. The game would’ve seen players take on the relentless xenomorph horde in the colony of Hadley’s Hope, where several xenomorph queens presented an ever-growing threat to both the colonists and space marines. If anything, the design Hadley’s Hope was going for sounded a lot like what Aliens: Fireteam Elite is going for now as a PvE online co-operative experience.

Whether or not any of these cancelled projects would’ve succeeded is a what if at this point; but if you ask me, an Aliens RPG from the folks responsible for The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas would’ve probably been something quite special. What all of them highlight however is that the creativity game devs had with the Alien(s) universe never really died, even if the games themselves did.

Not much is known about why so many Alien(s) projects were thrown in the trash heap, aside from little things here and there. Crucible’s cancellation was apparently the result of Sega redistributing resources into making Alien: Isolation, and for a few others, Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox dealt the final blow. What could be argued is that game development became much bigger, particularly with the cost of development as well as the risks. So, it comes as no surprise that so many projects fell by the wayside, as publishers no doubt felt more secure funnelling resources into one project, than many. All that being said, we haven’t seen an Alien(s) game since 2014, which is a curious case in and of itself. It makes you wonder if a certain game release in 2013 had any bearing on the franchise’s long absence from the world of gaming. I am, of course, talking about the disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines.

A lone space marine fires their pulse rifle at a group of incoming xenomorphs.
It might’ve been bad, but it did look good.

Even in the empty vacuum of space, everyone could hear the screams of Aliens fans as they had to endure the disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines. The story of Colonial Marines by this point is a retold tale that has since become a parable for future generations of game devs. The game suffered from almost everything a development project could suffer from, including but not limited to: development scandals, legal trouble, poor programming and a final product that was littered with game-breaking bugs. (Though, in all honesty, the game itself was marginal at best.) Stories started to come out that the team at Gearbox were secretly using the resources provided to them for Colonial Marines to make the next Borderlands; which made for some…interesting developments. In short, it was a total mess.

Colonial Marines did manage to pull off the impossible in that it took one of the key traits of the Aliens movie – kick-ass space marine’s gunning down xenomorphs – and made it feel completely bland and uninspiring. There was no real sense of tension nor excitement in the narrative or gameplay. Any joy that could’ve been had from blazing through waves of xenomorphs was made null and void by run of the mill encounters and clumsy AI. No matter your personal feelings towards Colonial Marines, the game left numerous fans of the franchise severely disappointed and hesitant to embrace a new Alien game.

While the case of Colonial Marines appears cut and dry, the case of Alien: Isolation is a bit harder to comprehend.

The cover art for Alien: Isolation. The main character hides against a wall, where on the other side the head of the xenomorph creeps out.
Perhaps the single greatest piece of Alien cover art ever made.

Alien Isolation is by all accounts the closest we’ve ever gotten to a perfect game in the franchise. Personally, I loved it as did so many others. Its art and sound design are beyond compare in terms of how well they reproduced the classic feel of Alien, whether that be in its ominous orchestral score or the retro-futuristic interior of the Sevastopol space station. Not only that, but the developers designed the franchise’s signature extra-terrestrial terror, the xenomorph, in a way that provided the player with an unpredictable and menacing foe that inspired dread in almost every encounter. Navigating the game’s empty corridors and dimly lit vents felt as unnerving and claustrophobic as its cinematic influence; while sequences with murderous androids, and the inevitable face to face with the xenomorph, were heart-racing and unforgettable. As someone who is a fan of the original movie, playing Isolation was so distinct from any other Alien game on the market, thanks in no small part to how authentic it both looked and felt. In short, the game for many a fan proved that the perfect Alien game was possible.

Yet despite its incredible accuracy to the source material, there were still some critics and fans that were left wanting, and the game was met with an overall mixed reception. Some opined that after a while, the repetitive nature of encounters and overwhelming formidability of the xenomorph made the game feel more like a slog than the terrifying experience it was trying to be. Beyond that, many claimed that the length of the game made certain moments feel stretched out, seemingly removing any feeling of terror or thrill that could have come from its most tense moments. IGN’s Ryan McCaffrey in his review of the game said, “Someday, someone is going to make an incredible Alien video game that checks every box. But, sadly, Isolation is not it.” For a game that so perfectly captured Ridley Scott’s original vision, it still couldn’t take up the mantle of the perfect Alien game, which is a worrying prospect for the franchise’s gaming future.

Of the two most recent attempts at making an Alien(s) game, one turned out really good, and the other found its way to the bottom of a bargain bin. Neither was considered perfect. Both demonstrated that despite mirroring the look and sound of their source material, faithfulness to the IP and its aesthetic just isn’t going to cut it. Yet, you’d think that would be the key: accuracy. But it’s also important to keep in mind that as video games, the gameplay must also reflect that same accuracy to the IP; which, in Colonial Marines’ case, is one of its many failings. But then we fall into another problem, because Alien: Isolation had some stellar gameplay design, at least in terms of capturing the essence of the original movie.

So what needs to be done to create the perfect Alien game?

An old-school video game UI of Aliens: The Computer Game, which shows an 8-bit sci-fi hallway, character portrait, and the names and health of several squad members.
Aliens: The Computer Game (1987) by Electric Dreams Entertainment and Software Studios

Mark Eyles, a pioneer of the UK games industry and Aliens fan himself, sat down with me to talk about what it takes to make a good Alien(s) game and whether or not we will see a perfect game in the franchise. He would know, of course, as he’s arguably made one of the best.

Mark was fortunate enough to design one of the first Aliens games in the ’80s, with UK games studio, Electric Dreams. The game, simply titled Aliens: The Computer Game (1987), released as a first-person, point and shoot strategy game that had you control a group of marines navigating a map of over two hundred rooms; where a rogue xenomorph could pounce on you at any moment. The game was said to be ahead of its time, serving as a precursor to the modern FPS. I wanted to find out more about what went into making an Alien(s) game back in the day, in the hopes of finding out where the franchise is failing today.

Mark shared much about the game’s development, most notably, the challenges he and the team faced during it. After finally deciding on making the game, the team were given a tight deadline to get the game made and published, resulting in several long nights at the office fuelled only by pizza. To make matters worse, Aliens hadn’t even released yet, meaning that the only thing Mark and the team had for reference was the film’s script, and the original Alien movie.

“The game I got heavily involved with was Aliens [The Computer Game (1987)], but what was weird and different to now was that all I had was the script to go on, and not knowing whether [the movie] was going to be a success or not,” he said. “Reading the script was really exciting, but I had no idea, other than the Alien movie, what it would look like. So I worked from the script and designed the game based on that.”

Yet despite never having seen Aliens and running on borrowed time, Mark and the team at Electric Dreams were still able to craft a game that encapsulated what made the movie sequel stand out from its predecessor. To this day it remains one of the most well-received Aliens games of all-time. A retrospective from the site, Retro Gamer, wrote “Aliens dripped with atmosphere and was quite unlike any movie conversion of the time, and not just because it was so bloody good. […] it managed to capture all the terror and confusion of the movie in a way few other titles have managed.” Another retrospective review of the game states, “Aliens is both an excellent game in its own right and perfect at evoking the tension and atmosphere of the film.” For a game designed from the movie’s script, it masterfully recreated the feeling of tension evoked from its cinematic counterpart, on top of nailing the look too. Not bad for an old 8-bit title.

A large gridded sheet of sketch paper shows the site plan of a video game map.
Marked shared one of his design sketches for Aliens: The Computer Game (1987)‘s map.

Obviously, Aliens: The Computer Game (1987), much like many other pre-2000 Aliens video games, hasn’t aged too well. But it stands out so much because of the achievement Mark and the development team made. This led me to ask Mark what his thoughts were on making a perfect Alien(s) game – especially given the success of his own Aliens game:

“I think it’s remaining true to the franchise that’s important and having that look and feel of the world is critical. Once you create that world you can tell lots of different stories in it, and it can be like the Alien: Isolation story or Colonial Marines or something, or you could see it being a RTS in that world.”

He added,

“You have to be true to the license or else why get the license? When you’re working with a film franchise, if you’re going to extend it you have to do it very thoughtfully so that you’re not taking it off in a completely different direction. You have to be true to the films and draw from them.”

Despite his enthusiasm and candour, Mark was pretty much confirming exactly what I already suspected: that making the perfect Alien(s) game requires paying respect to the franchise’s style and aesthetic. But while most Alien(s) games have done this, they have still fallen short of perfection.

“I think there’s so many questions around what sort of player experience you want,” Mark explains. “It’s expectations as much as anything. If you played a bunch of FPSs and then you load up Isolation, which is a first-person game and you don’t get to do a lot of shooting, it’s like, ‘well this is disappointing.'”

He then shared what is perhaps the most obvious answer to why we might never find consensus on the perfect Alien(s) game:

“I don’t think there’s a perfect Alien(s) game. You could have two brilliantly produced and made Alien(s) games which are each slightly different, and you could play each of them and when you’re playing one of them, that’s the perfect game. But it’s not that one’s better than the other, they’re just different and I think that’s true of a lot of games. When you get there it’s a case of maybe it suits me, maybe it doesn’t, so it’s a bit of an impossibility.”

“There’s a sweet spot with people where there’s a whole bunch of games that they like and gameplay they like, and there’s a whole bunch of games that live within that. It’s sort of like a Venn diagram where there’s all the games I like and there’s all the games they like and it all overlaps in this area. It’s a large complex thing where it’s not something where you’d have people saying ‘this is perfect’.”

A xenomorph pounces towards a space marine who opens fire on it with his gun.
A look at the upcoming Aliens: Fireteam Elite.

With the gaming landscape as broad as it is today, perhaps the perfect game is simply a myth told by publishers to entice people onto the hype train. Mark and I discussed how we are living in a post-genre era in the games industry, where you can have an RPG with strategy and shooter elements or an FPS with aspects of survival and horror. The opportunities are endless, and as such there can’t be a game that pleases everyone, especially with Alien(s). It’s a franchise with a unique sci-fi universe that has continually inspired innovation and creativity from game developers around the world. History has taught us to expect the worst from this iconic franchise, but it has also taught us something else; That when you place that universe in the hands of a game designer, they will produce some truly phenomenal experiences. As Mark puts it:

“There’s not a perfect Aliens game, but it’s such a strong universe they’ve created there, and you could tell so many different stories in that universe. You can certainly have a perfect Aliens game and a perfect game altogether, but it’ll be for a single person. We will see a perfect Aliens game, but it won’t be the perfect Aliens game; It’ll just be another perfect Aliens game.”

What does this mean for Aliens: Fireteam Elite? it means enjoy it. From what we’ve seen of the game, I’ll be the first to admit I’m excited. The visuals are on point, the gameplay looks thrilling, and you can play with friends. Most importantly, it looks like a kick-ass Aliens game. But even still, we are all different. For you, Alien: Isolation is already perfect, to someone else, Colonial Marines is the best Alien(s) game (ludicrous as that may be), and for others Aliens: Fireteam Elite is exactly what they’ve been waiting for. With so many different games out there, and so many people playing them, the perfect game just isn’t possible. For an Alien(s) game to be perfect, all it has to do is stay true to the franchise, feature some solid gameplay, and overall be a fun experience; even if that’s just for one person.

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