SDCC 2014: We talk Alien Isolation with Al Hope

alien isolation al hope

Earlier today, after climbing into a massive, claustrophobic xenomorph egg and playing 10 uninterrupted minutes of Sega’s upcoming Alien: Isolation, we got to sit down with Creative Lead Alistair Hope for a little more information on our favorite black-shelled, drooling bug…

So how has the fan response at SDCC been so far?

It’s been absolutely phenomenal! This was my first SDCC, so I wasn’t sure what to expect…but I was still really excited to be bringing Alien: Isolation here! We have the replica giant xenomorph egg, that’s impressive on it’s own from the outside…but then you get to climb into it, and it just looks amazing. As you know, it closes you up and you’re completely isolated from the rest of the show; it’s really just sensory overload…the seats vibrate and the sound is loud. Plus, we have a camera inside that’s pointing at the player’s face. The audience outside can see the player’s movements, but they can also watch the player react to the game’s events. That’s probably the most fun part of being at SDCC–watching people outside the egg watching how the player inside the egg trying to survive the Alien. Every time someone goes in, it’s a different experience. It’s really entertaining just to stand and watch player after player going in, each trying different tactics to try to survive.

“Yup. Perfectly normal. NOT CREEPY AT ALL…”

The most striking thing that we noticed while playing, was the non-linearity…can you speak a little on that?

Right from the start, the thing we were trying to achieve was to let the player experience what it’s like to confront Ridley Scott’s original Alien. It’s just tall, really massive, terrifying and intelligent–something that really feels like it’s hunting you.  We realized that we couldn’t just craft an experience where they’ll resort to patterns, or have a heavily scripted design…it had to be dynamic and reactive; it needed to be running on it’s own senses. The Alien here is just looking and listening for you, so everything you’re doing will cause a reaction in it. It’s very much a live encounter–every playthrough will be slightly different. That’s what was really fascinating about these developers: we’ve been working on this game for about four years now, and we play the game every day. And yet, when I go into the Isolation egg, my heart will be thumping away as I play, because it’s completely unpredictable! I don’t know what going to happen…and I can’t just breeze through it! There’s no ‘if I go left, he’ll go right’ moments that I could ghost every single time. Every time, I have to play it properly–the creature really commands concentration and respect, and that’s exactly the experience that we were aiming to give the player!

People watched us scream like little girls while dying. A LOT.

During our playthrough, we discovered that you can’t really outrun the Alien…

Nope. This is really a game about survival…it’s not about killing at all. It’s all about the player being underpowered, and really just tapping into the values of the first film. There’s no sort of sense that there’s a giant gun somewhere on the Nostromo that’ll be the answer to the problem. The approach we’ve taken is very much ‘what do I have on hand that could help me survive?’. There’s no weapon in the game that allows you to kill the Alien…but that’s not to say that you can’t change the situation…

Wait…”Change the situation”??

(laughs) We allow you to evade! You start with a flare, and if you throw the flare into a corner, the Alien will use its senses and detect that there’s light where there was no light before, so it’ll go over and investigate. That will allow you to move on and be unseen, and kind of avoid confrontation. We have a crafting system that allows you to use the items you’ve collected while exploring to build tools and devices. If you deploy those items in the right place at the right time, it might help shift the odds.

Can you give us an example of a crafted item?

Sure. We have this item called a noisemaker–it’s pretty much just two speakers and some circuitry. If you throw that into the world, it’ll start making this crazy sound…which will, in turn, attract the Alien’s attention to that area. But having said that, the Alien does adapt, so you can’t just keep throwing flares. The Alien will quickly realize ‘hey…I’M BEING PLAYED HERE!’ and it’ll investigate the wider area, because it knows that something’s around that’s throwing these items around. So once again, you have to change up your strategy to survive!

No blips. No alien. Still creepy as hell.

What was one of the biggest challenges when creating the alien AI, to keep it true to the Alien canon?

The biggest challenge was always just delivering the unpredictable Ridley Scott Alien. It’s just this massive team effort; it’s that amazing AI, but it’s also animation, colors and movement. The thing about our Alien is that it’s highly credible–it’s really believable. And the movie itself is 35 years old this year, and you can watch it today and still get an emotional reaction–his Alien is truly credible, and you believe what you’re seeing. It’s such an immersive experience, and our alien really has to match that. It has to move realistically, react believably and so, there’s this huge amount of layered work that went into delivering that. We have layer upon layer upon layer upon layer of animation, all working together at the same time. It’s really phenomenal! The sound’s amazing…I could just go on forever! But from the get-go, the alien is the star of the show, and everything we’ve created has been based around that concept.

When we were playing, we noticed that one of the challenges was to survive the entire ordeal without ever using the motion tracker. I tried it once…it didn’t go so well.

Bravo, seriously, for trying! That actually came out of watching people play the demo previously. When we took it to E3 as a work in progress, and got a tremendous amount of feedback from watching people play. I was actually watching people play without the motion tracker, and it was just this massive adrenaline rush of an experience! They were just using their ears and eyes to keep alive, and people seemed to really get a thrill out of that, so we decided to put that in the game! It’s an optional objective, but it’s quite a rush–just a really intense experience–if you decide to go it on your own intuition!

So are the environmental interactions that the Alien has with the ship designed to help players who want to play sans-tracker?

No, no. We always strive to make the world accommodate the alien. It’s about player choice; moment to moment. It pretty much always boils down to that primal level, like ‘ok, I’m hiding behind something. Do I stay, or do I go? If I move, where do I move to?’ Every second, you’re going through this mental checklist of what’s around you, and how courageous are you feeling? Can you build anything? How are your resources? Should you use your flare right now, or hold on to it? It puts a lot of pressure on the player constantly. That’s the space we wanted to create; one with lots of options all the time…

“No tracker? NO THANK YOU!”

We noticed a bunch of air vents, too.

(laughs) Yeah, there are main corridors and thoroughfares, but there are a lot of air vents, too! The vents really belong to the alien, right? But if you’re brave enough, you can try to use them too! It’s all a matter of measuring the risk–if you know that the alien’s on the other side of the room, and you happen to have a vent right next to you, that might be the smartest move at that point. But the next time it might be the complete wrong move…every time you play, it’s different!

When we played, we noticed that the point of view seems to be a bit taller than the “average” FPS, which tends to feel more squatty, and with the Nostromo crew DLC, will the game feature height and perspective shifts between characters?

Well, we’re striving to create the most immersive experience inside the player’s head, both visually and through audio cues. That being said, I don’t think we changed height perspectives too much.

In terms of space between the first and second movie, where in the canon can fans expect to explore? Will it be as emotional for people who haven’t seen the original film?

Alien Isolation takes place 15 years after the Nostromo goes missing. We really wanted to create a game that taps into the original…but at the same time, we didn’t want to make a game of the movie. Amanda Ripley, Ellen Ripley’s daughter, has been searching for her mother…and Weyland-Yutani discovers that there’s a recording from the Nostromo, so they send a really small crew to go and retrieve it. Amanda volunteers to be part of that crew. Obviously, once they reach the station, things don’t go as planned, and from there, you find a whole new story and slew of mysteries surrounding the whole event.

Apparently being a badass is genetic.

Will it always only be you, as Amanda, playing…or will there be other NPC interactions throughout the game?

The primary focus was always on Amanda’s experience and her story, so we wanted to keep it about her.

This is always the stupid question to ask, but given that the game will fluctuate, is there an average play length, from beginning to end?

We’re really, really happy with the length of the game. But that’s a really good question with a really difficult answer. Everyone will play it differently, and experience it differently, so it’s really hard to judge. When we started, we were making spaces that were filled with 15 to 20 minutes of content…but players were spending 45 minutes in them! It made us really go back and think about how we should design it. When people are so immersed in the world…and they’re feeling really tense because they’re scared! So they’re slowing down, and investigating the world to try to find stuff  to help them survive! There is really a range of play styles, but when it’s just us playing it and knowing where we’re supposed to be going, it probably takes us around 15 hours to finish it. But I get the feeling that the average playtime is going to be more towards the 20-hour-and-up mark. Also, because you can replay it, and try a different tactic, you can almost play it a completely different way, and have a whole new experience the next time around.

The FPS genre really has an action and explosive, “bro” heavy emphasis…do you think Isolation will appeal to them as well?

Here, we have gamers and fans of every flavor, and what we found is that people from all sorts of backgrounds get a huge amount out of it! You might get a Call of Duty, high-action player go into the pod and try to run and shoot the flamethrower…but the game very rapidly shows them that those actions are a really high-risk strategy. Those reactions–which are really a testament to gamers–show that they’re open to a new experience, and rapidly adapt and try a different approach. They realize quickly that this isn’t a shooter, and by trying something different, they have a great time! We love getting the feedback from events like this, and from here, we’ll take it back to the studio and fine-tune it, and try to get it into the gamers’ hands as soon as humanly possible!

“Pleasedon’tseemepleasedon’tseemepleasedon’tseeme…”

When we played the demo, it was on a PS4…will there be touchpad exclusive input or anything else specifically geared towards each system?

We’re not really talking about next-gen features, per-se, in terms of the DualShock track-pad. For now, it’s just geared towards simple map navigation. However, in the dark, you’ll notice that the DualShock’s light bar is synced to the motion tracker, and if the motion tracker ‘pings’, it flashes the light bar. So when you’re sitting in the dark, you have this really quite nice crossover from the screen into the room around you…and it’s surprisingly, quite effective!

What about the DLC that stars the original cast? What was that like? 

“The Nostromo DLC is really just a dream come true working with those guys. Obviously, we’re massive fans of the film, so the lightbulb goes off above our heads ‘hey! wouldn’t be cool if we could set something in the original Nostromo ship? I wonder if we could persuade the original cast to come back and tackle our alien?” We just feel really fortunate that we could talk with the original cast about what we were doing, and talk about our approach…and for them to be genuinely excited and wanting to be a part of this is really, really cool!”

“…And the internet did ‘SQUEEEEEE!’ loudly; and it was good.”

Lastly, because we have to ask: will Alien Isolation have any multiplayer components?

The game is very much a single player experience. But, it’s interesting, because at the beginning, we had a lot of different ideas focusing around multiplayer modes…but, ultimately, Alien Isolation is just about being an immersive, single-player experience and how you’ll react to this unfolding story, and the intense environments.

 

Alien Isolation will be released globally on October 7th, on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC.

Live pics courtesy of Al Hope (@WannaNeeda)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mick
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