I’m sitting at my PC at home. I’m comfortable – well, as comfortable as I’ll get in my chair. I’m holding an Xbox 360 controller, which is plugged into my PC. My thumb is resting on the controller’s A button.
On the screen in front of me is the image of a door. Well, a hatch, big and white, the only exit to a darkened room. Light shines in through two vertical windows on either side of the hatch. In the middle of it, where the seam between the hatch’s two halves runs to the left, is a palm-sized red button.
As soon as I press the A button on my controller, my avatar within the room will reach forward and press the red button in the hatch on the screen. The hatch will then open.
And I’m scared.
I don’t want to push the button on that hatch.
Some have commented that it’s hard for the Alien to be really scary nowadays. It’s appeared in no fewer than six movies since its first outing in 1979. Amongst geek circles, it’s better known and more fiercely debated than most actual animal species.
You’d think I’d be one of those who wouldn’t look on the creature with fear. I’ve drawn it several times, hunted down pictures out of sheer curiosity. How did the effects people on Alien make the costume? How did H. R. Giger’s original designs translate to the actual monster? How did it change from Alien to Aliens and then in the subsequent movies? (Note: I never bothered with Alien vs. Predator 2: Requiem.)
Heck, a good part of why I bought Alien: Isolation was because I think that, as fictional antagonists go, the Alien is one of the coolest. I wanted to be part of that experience, something I had a taste of in 1995, when I did Alien War at the Trocadero in London. (I still have my ticket somewhere…)
I’ve tried almost all the game’s modes since I downloaded it (I haven’t rolled out with the Last Survivor DLC yet). I’m a good way through the campaign, I played Crew Expendable through (dropping the difficulty down from Hard to Normal after my aborted first few tries) and overall I’ve found it a very tense, very entertaining experience.
But I don’t remember being honestly scared during the game. I’ve watched folks’ YouTube videos of their playthroughs, and their panic at the sight of the Alien is almost comical.
That’s never been me playing this.
Even when I was crouched under a desk or hospital bed or in a locker, I’d be torn between the tension of not wanting to be found (something any of us can experience if we play hide-and-seek with a best friend – there’s something magical about buying into the game that turns a mate into someone whose gaze you hope to not catch) and the desire to get a better look at The Creative Assembly’s rendition of probably the best science fiction movie monster of all time. But I’ve not really been scared.
Then I chose Survivor mode and faced that door in the Basement challenge for the first time. When I think about it, there’s a similar moment in Crew Expendable, when you stand at the top of the ladder that leads from the bridge deck of The Nostromo to the deck below.
At those moments, I discovered that, yes, Alien: Isolation could scare a longtime Alien fan like me.
See, when the campaign kicks off, you’re thrown into danger, but it’s like the lobster in the pot – you don’t really realise you’re in trouble until it’s too late.
When I stood at that door, or at the top of that stairwell for the first time, pressing that button meant stepping out directly from safety into the unknown. I knew what was down there, of course, what would be looking for me. But I didn’t know the terrain; I didn’t know where I could hide, what I could put between myself and the Alien.
Pressing that button meant making a conscious choice to embrace that unknown, to accept that I would make mistakes, that the thing could find me and kill me.
The consequences weren’t anywhere near that final, of course. Death at the claws and teeth of the Alien just means rebirth at the last marker of progress. But still – there was something about the first time I stood at that hatchway, at the top of that ladder. Here is where it begins. Here is where the clock starts running. Here is where the adversary starts testing me. And I don’t know where I can run to.
It’s not so bad, now. I know what lies beyond the press of the A button; I know where I can go, the resources that might be waiting there.
Yet I wonder: If and when I purchase the extra Survivor challenges that the Creative Assembly and SEGA will release over the coming months, will I feel that fear anew, when I stand at a new hatchway with an unknown arrangement of walls, crates, desks, ducts and items on the other side. Will I feel that fear anew?
And what can that tell me about those moments outside the game, when I face the opportunity to step into the unknown, whether it’s a get together, a freelance prospect or something else entirely, and I have the choice to either step forward or quit out?