Identifying critical theory at work within Alien: Isolation (2014)
This research report analyses the survival horror videogame Alien: Isolation and its relationship to the film Alien (1979) by identifying relevant critical theory and assessing the game’s success as a remediated adaptation and transmedia addition to an existing franchise.
Theoretical concepts incorporated within include intertextuality, (film) adaptation studies, convergence culture, remediation and procedural rhetoric.
An abridged history of the Alien franchise is included, with a focus on licensed Alien videogames. Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013) is analysed in particular, although it does not form the focal point of the report.
The report offers insight relevant to the development of digital games adapted from specific source texts or created as part of an existing transmedia franchise.
Key terms: remediation; adaptation; Alien; Isolation; procedural rhetoric; narrative; enunciation; transmedia; intertextuality; franchise; survival horror; videogame; game
Alien: Isolation (2014) was developed to recreate experiential moments from Alien (1979). It is an example of the intentional remediation (Bolter, Grusin, 1999) of Alien through a new medium, and an official transmedia co-created (Jenkins, 2006) addition to the existing Alien franchise. Alien: Isolation is a clear example of ‘convergence culture’: the collision of old and new media (Jenkins, 2006).
For conciseness, the digital game Alien: Isolation will be referred to herein as Isolation while the 1979 film on which it is based referred to as Alien.
The subject of the report is also relevant to the writer’s current practice: the production of a game design document for a hypothetical videogame adapted from John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (1951).
Chapter One of the report identifies relevant critical theory from a range of disciplines, familiarising the reader in preparation for their deployment elsewhere in the text. Definitions of the concept of intertextuality are established, incorporating terminology from multiple theorists. Useful theory from the field of adaptation studies (the study of films adapted from literature) is identified, with systems of categorisation for adaptations listed. A brief explanation for the concept of remediation is introduced.
Chapter Two gives an abridged history of the Alien franchise, with particular focus on the videogames released under the Alien license. The context provided will explain the significance in The Creative Assembly’s decision to create a survival horror game based on Alien. This chapter also introduces two other specific videogames: Alien (1984) and Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013).
Chapter Three focuses on Isolation, assessing its effectiveness as a work in several capacities: a digital ludic adaptation of a film, an addition to a transmedia franchise and a survival horror game. Isolation is compared against Alien (1984) and Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013). Ian Bogost’s (2010) concept of procedural rhetoric is employed in analysing Isolation, along with terminology borrowed from Brian McFarlane’s (1996) work within adaptation studies.
The report concludes by suggesting areas for further study and making recommendations for the practice of game designers working on games of a similar nature to Isolation.
A synopsis of Alien is provided below for those unfamiliar with the film (although this, or any other synopsis, should not be considered a capable substitute for viewing the film itself).
In an (originally unspecified) future time period, the commercial vessel Nostromo travels through space, returning valuable cargo to Earth. Its crew are awakened from hibernation to explore a deserted planet from which an undetermined radio transmission is emanating. Upon investigating, one of the crew is attacked by and impregnated with an alien lifeform, which gestates inside his body before bursting out of his chest. The lifeform (referred to as ‘the alien’ in this writing) then proceeds to stalk and sequentially kill the remaining crew. In a concurrent sideplot, it is discovered that one of the crew members is not human but rather a manufactured, synthetic impersonation programmed by the crew’s employer to ensure the alien is returned to Earth. The film concludes as Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the last surviving crew member, escapes the ship and destroys the alien.
While there are many discrete aliens that appear throughout the franchise, the alien can be considered a recurring character, or many iterations of the same mythic creature. The alien also appears in the Alien vs Predator game series, which is not the focus of this report.
In Isolation Ellen Ripley’s daughter and playercharacter (the playable protagonist of the game; ‘player as character’), Amanda Ripley, encounters more of the same alien species as she searches for her missing mother on the space station Sevastopol. For the purposes of this report, Isolation should be considered canonical with Alien – that is to say, part of the same consistent fiction.
Chapter One – Identifying relevant theory
Analysing Isolation requires us to consider its relationship to previous works. This chapter considers relevant theory we can employ in this analysis.The concept of ‘intertextuality’ offers one method of considering such relationships. Graham Allen (2000) notes that intertextuality is “one of the most commonly used and misused terms in contemporary critical vocabulary”. Identifying an accurate definition of the term requires us to go to its source: accomplished Bulgarian-French philosopher/critic Julia Kristeva. Kristeva coins the term (intertextualité in the original French) in the essay ‘Word, dialogue, novel’, fourth chapter of Semeiotiké, published in Paris in 1969 (Orr 2003). Although Kristeva can be credited with formalising the concept into a single term, the essay is primarily a translation of work already carried out by the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin (Orr, 2003; Moi, 1986), himself greatly influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure (Allen, 2000). Kristeva’s (1969) oft-quoted definition of intertextuality explains that “…any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.”Here it is pertinent to clarify the term ‘text’. Writing on intertextuality has a tendency for fixation with literature. This report argues that the principles established by Kristeva and her comrades are applicable to other media also, specifically digital games. The application of intertextual theories to two literature sources is just as valid as to one ludic and one filmic: Isolation and Alien. Text and ‘work’ are used herein interchangeably (although it should be noted that Barthes defines the terms separately in his 1968 essay ‘Death of the Author’ (Allen, 2003), this distinction is not useful for the current investigation).
Roland Barthes entry on intertextuality for the French Encycopédie universalis (1973) (as quoted by Mary Orr, 2003) expands Kristeva’s definition:
“Every text is an intertext; other texts are present within it to varying degrees and in more or less recognisable forms … Every text is a new tissue of recycled citations …The intertext is a field of anonymous formulae whose origin is rarely recoverable, of unconscious or automatic citations without speech marks.”
As Graham Allen (2000) explains, “Authors of literary works do not just select words from a language system, they select plots, generic features, aspects of character, images, ways of narrating, even phrases and sentences from previous literary tradition.”
Barthes’ elucidation emphasises the unavoidable nature of intertextuality. It is not so much an additional feature for consideration when creating a work, but an inescapable aspect of such creation. Not all intertextual references present in a text can be realistically identified and probed, camouflaged as they are amongst the shared the ideology of both writer and reader (Fiennes & Žižek, 2012).
Gérard Genette’s theory of ‘transtextuality’ – roughly equivalent with the definition of intertextuality already established in this writing (Allen 2000) – offers additional terms to explore Isolation’s relational meaning; specifically Genette’s ‘hypertextuality’, a subset within the greater transtextuality. In Palimpsests(1997), Genette defines hypertextuality as “…any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary.” This ‘hypotext’ is a ‘major source of signification for a text’ (Allen, 2000). Alien can be seen as hypotext to Isolation’s hypertext. Genette’s hypertextuality helps us describe the intertextual nature of Isolation with more precision.
Allen (2000) highlights that “…the phenomenon of film adaptations of literary classics clearly constitutes another version of such hypertextual activity.” Similarly, we can go on to include game adaptations of film as an example of hypertextual activity: the process of adaptation of a work from one medium to another with enough similarity for useful comparison.
Film adaptation has already been explored within adaptation studies, a well-traversed ‘hybrid’ field that concerns itself with the adaptation of literature into film (Whelehan, 1999). Despite over fifty years since George Bluestone’s seminal Novels Into Film (1957), contemporary commentators note a lack of integration between adaptation studies and other, more established and better respected critical fields such as film and literary criticism, as well as a failure of the principles posed by adaptation studies to be adopted by popular criticism, which invariably falls back on the ‘fidelity question’ when reviewing adapted film (Cartmell & Whelehan, 2010; Leitch, 2007; Stam & Raengo, 2005). Adaptation theory can be characterised by a rejection of the importance of this fidelity in favour of a post-structuralist, intertextual approach. Brian McFarlane (1996), in particular, discounts the question of fidelity, embracing a post-structuralist understanding of meaning not inherent within a text but depending on the realisation made possible through the interaction of the reader, in this case moviegoer. For McFarlane, the ‘fidelity criticism’ is a ‘doomed enterprise’, as “…any given film version is able only to aim to reproducing the film-maker’s reading of the original…” rather than perfectly replicate an objective, intrinsic meaning.
McFarlane refines pre-existing concepts to provide terms to distinguish different elements of a source text that must be adapted: the ‘narrative’, a “…series of events sequentially and consequentially arranged…” and the ‘enunciation’, the manifestation of the narrative within the structures a specific medium offers (McFarlane, 1996). Roger Fowler (1977) describes the two respective concepts (‘histoire’ and ‘discourse’ in the French poetics) in pleasingly concise form as ‘story-matter and its manner of delivery’. While McFarlane’s narrative can be simply transferred from one medium to another, its enunciation cannot, expressed as it is in the system of signification unique to the medium it resides in (McFarlane, 1996). The enunciation must be ‘adapted proper’, recreated using the ‘enunciation mode’ of the new film medium. As Dudley Andrew describes, “the matching of the cinematic sign system to a prior achievement in some other [literary] system.” (McFarlane, 1996). McFarlane’s argument for ‘adapting proper’ is virtually identical to the theory of remediation presented by Bolter & Grusin (2000) four years later.
Numerous proposals for the categorisation of adaptations have been proposed. In The Novel and the Cinema (1975), Geoffrey Wagner describes his three types of transition of fiction into film: ‘transposition’, “…in which a novel is directly given on the screen, with the minimum of apparent interference.”; ‘commentary’, whereby the original is “…either purposely or inadvertently altered in some respect.”; and ‘analogy’, a non-literal retelling that is a “…fairly considerable departure for the sake of making another work of art.” Five years later, Dudley Andrew (1980) would formulate three similar categories: ‘borrowing’, which Andrew compares to medieval appropriation of biblical imagery – “The success of adaptations of this sort rests on the issue of their fertility not their fidelity.” (emphasis mine); intersection, in which the “…uniqueness of the original text is preserved to such an extent that it is intentionally left unassimilated in adaptation.”; and ‘fidelity of transformation’, the “…reproduction in cinema of something essential about an original text.”, where an audience ‘expects to make such a comparison’. Andrew’s categorisation bears some similarity to Wagner’s, but – although McFarlane (1996) claims the categories correspond roughly with Wagner’s in a reverse order – is less clear.
However, Thomas Leitch (2007) criticises Wagner’s and Andrew’s categorisation systems, accusing them of seeking to evaluate the adaptation against the original text, rather than analysing the two texts and their relationship in objective fashion. In Leitch’s eyes, Wagner and Andrew succumb to a common high culture vs mass culture, original vs imitation bias. The boundaries between each category are also poorly defined – or, indeed, definable – and application to a range of instances of adaptation difficult (Leitch, 2007).
To remedy this Leitch formulates his own terminology. His ‘celebrations’ can be adaptations that seek to preserve a work by encasing it in the filmic medium, often replicating as many possible elements of the source text (“…structure, action, character, dialogue, theme, tone and so on…”).These celebrations are created out of a belief in literary superiority. ‘Adjustment’ is another and most common approach to adaptation. This involves the modification of the source text, recognising the importance of ‘adapting proper’ the enunciation of the original. Leitch describes several ways of doing this, including ‘compressing’ or ‘expanding’ the narrative, ‘correcting’ perceived faults in the source text, and ‘updating’ it for a modern audience. ‘Superimposition’ describes the process of adapting a work into a specific genre or purpose, the “…repacking [of] canonical literature works for their target audiences.” ‘Revisionist’ adaptations show a considerable reimagining and deviation from a source text, while still maintaining a clear hypertextual relationship.
Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin (1999) argue that each new medium refashions or repurposes elements from earlier ones. This process is named ‘remediation’. The twin principles of ‘immediacy’ and ‘hypermediacy’ are necessary to put remediation in context: as a new medium strives for immediacy, to offer a ‘real’ representation without artifice, the medium becomes more complex, employing increasingly elaborate methods to make up for the artifice inevitable and inherent within the medium. This complexity is hypermediacy. New media may claim improved immediacy, but this invariably breaks down into hypermediacy.
Chapter Two – the Alien franchise
Let us first define the term franchise as used within this report. According to Henry Jenkins’ (2006) ‘industry insiders’, franchising is the “…coordinated effort to brand and market fictional content under these new conditions [offered by media convergence].” and within “…the context of media conglomeration.” Oxford Dictionaries has this to say: “[a franchise can mean] A general title or concept used for creating or marketing a series of products, typically films or television shows…”, giving ‘the Harry Potter franchise’ as an example. We could define the ‘Alien franchise’ as the fictional universe (let us simply refer to this as the ‘Alien fiction’) Alien and all its stories take place in seen through the lens of modern capitalism. The Alien franchise defined here refers to all the works, trademarks, characters, products, and the alien monster itself.Ridley Scott’s 1979 film is of course the root from which the Alien franchise grows. Writer Dan O’Bannon acknowledges Alien as a remake of John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) in which he stars and is credited as writer, among other roles. O’Bannon notes his original intention to “…do Dark Star as a horror movie instead of a comedy…”, as the “…germ of Alien.” (de Lauzirika, 2003). This is evident in the subplot in which O’Bannon’s character is molested by a predatory alien creature, endearingly portrayed by a painted beach ball in the student-film-cum-theatrical-release.
The first videogame to use the Alien franchise was fundamentally a reskin of Pacman (1980), using vaguely human and alien figures to replace Pacman and the ghosts from the original game, respectively. Released in 1982 and simply titled ‘Alien’, it was released on the Atari 2600 home videogame console (Corriea & Riendeau, 2014). Like many of the tie-in games released over the next thirty-five years, it attempts little more than exploit the Alien brand for commercial ends.
Two years later, another game (also titled ‘Alien’) was released on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, arriving on the Amstrad CPC in 1985 (Corriea & Riendeau, 2014). In this second ludic attempt, players command the seven crew members around the Nostromo, attempting to trap and jettison the alien out of an airlock. The player’s success, shown at the end of the game as a percentage score, is assessed by criteria including how many crew members survived and whether the alien is alive at the end of the game. Side objectives include catching Jones the cat and identifying which random member of the crew is an android tasked with assisting the alien, just like Ash (Ian Holm) in the original film. Onscreen text indicates the emotional state of the crew, broadly observing the characterisation of each in the movie. “For example, Lambert, played in the movie by Veronica Cartwright, is nervous and easily spooked. In the game, if things get too intense, she might refuse to move into the next room or enter a duct.” (Whitehead, 2013)
Alien was followed by three film sequels: Aliens (1986), Alien3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997), all with different directors. The films follow series protagonist Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), exploring the effect the alien and her survival of it have on her life and identity. The first of these sequels, James Cameron’s Aliens, innovates on the original film’s formula by adding multiple aliens in a terrestrial environment, rather than a single adversary in claustrophobic proximity. Instead of the Nostromo’s ‘space-truckers’ (Nathan, 2011) Aliens pits well-armed ‘colonial marines’ against the aliens, moving the film towards action rather than horror.
[image normally goes here](Figure 2.1)
Following Aliens are many more videogame tie-ins than it is pertinent to list here. The majority are licensed products rather than attempts at any meaningful co-creation (Jenkins, 2006) and use surface details from the films – the visual design of the alien, likenesses and names of characters, or just the franchise name and logo – to appeal to the consumer. Almost all build gameplay around dispatching large numbers of aliens using ingame versions of iconic series weapons (such as the Pulse Rifle or flamethrower), often contrary to the events of the films on which they are based. As Dan Whitehead (2013) of Eurogamer amusingly summarises, “Alien 3, a movie which rather pointedly featured no guns whatsoever, spawned an arcade game simply called Alien 3: The Gun. Such is the one-track mind of the games industry.” A tendency towards ‘Metroidvania’ style 2D exploration can also be observed across the franchise games, with Ripley invariable playercharacter.
Aliens: Colonial Marines (2013) is the conclusion of these attempts to emulate the frantic combat of Aliens through the use of existing first-person-shooter mechanics. Critical reception of the game (referred to as ‘Colonial Marines’ hereon) can be described as disappointed. Combined percentage review scores (Metacritic, 2015) for the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 editions of the game were 45, 43, and 48 based on published review scores and 3.4, 3.5, and 3.8 based on user scores out of ten, respectively. On release, it was described as “…a failure as an adaptation of the source material and a failure as a piece of narrative entertainment.” (Richardson, 2013), with specific criticisms levelled at poor visuals and lacklustre gameplay that distracted players from the fiction of the source text (Ogilvie, 2013; VanOrd, 2013). The poor quality of the finished product has been attributed to mismanagement and poor coordination between developer Gearbox and other third-party studios (Sterling, 2013). Colonial Marines employed retroactive continuity techniques (or ‘retcon’: the redefining of previously established plot developments) to fit its own story into that of the Alien fiction, gathering more criticism in the process (Sharkey, 2013; Hornshaw, 2013), particularly the revival of Aliens character Hicks (Michael Biehn), established as dead in Alien3.
It was with the unfortunate context of Colonial Marines that Isolation was released the following year. Other than a shared publisher (Sega), the development of the two games was entirely separate (Houghton, 2014), Isolation being developed by UK studio The Creative Assembly, acquired by Sega in 2005 (Thorsen, 2005). The Creative Assembly’s intention was to create “…a game which really captured the spirit of the original movie [Alien] with an alien that was terrifying [and] massive. To make a game based not on action but on horror and survival.” (Alien: Isolation [YouTube channel], 2014).
In marked divergence from franchise convention, Isolation features just one alien, a single unkillable adversary. The artificial intelligence of the alien itself was praised consistently, even if its unpredictable nature led to survival depending on luck as much as player competency (McCaffrey, 2014; Whitehead, 2014). Equally, the constant presence of the alien lessened its impact, with fear giving way to annoyance for some reviewers (Gies, 2014; Rundle, 2014). Most noted the coherent gameworld exposited through environment design (Carter, 2014; Whitehead, 2014).
Criticisms of the game included a long campaign that strained player attention (Meikleham , 2014; VanOrd, 2014) and the potential for frustration through some of the less forgiving mechanics, such as infrequent opportunities to save progress and the repetition it caused (Dingman , 2014; Gies, 2014). Story and characters were judged underdeveloped, deviating rarely from traditional videogame contrivances (Kelly, 2014; VanOrd, 2014).
Isolation received “Generally Favorable Reviews” (Metacritic, 2015): with combined scores of 81, 79, and 78 percent for the PC, Playstation 4 and Xbox One releases respectively (published review aggregates for Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 editions were unavailable at the time of this writing). Similarly, user reviews granted a consistent grouping of 8.4, 8.3, 8.0, 8.0, and 7.8 out of ten for the game when played on PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One platforms.
The Creative Assembly formulated creative solutions to achieve their goal of experiential fidelity. Members of the development team worked with Ron Cobb (Alien: Isolation [YouTube channel], 2014), the concept artist who had designed ‘human aspects’ of Alien such as the Nostromo set and space suit costumes (de Lauzirika, 2003), in order to understand his process and recreate it. This influenced not just the visual design of the gamespace (the created environment the player traverses) but the game’s mechanics as well: the motion tracker displays intentionally limited information to make the player feel vulnerable (Alien: Isolation [YouTube channel], 2014). The design of ingame assets were limited: “In order to say faithful to the source, we set ourselves a rule: we wouldn’t build anything that couldn’t have been built on the original set in 1979.” (Alien: Isolation [YouTube channel], 2014).
Chapter Three – Alien: Isolation
Let us return to the methods of adaptation categorisation identified in Chapter One. If we were to identify a category best suited to describe Isolation, observing Wagner (1975) we would be compelled to choose ‘commentary’ or ‘analogy’; although Isolation does not recreate the exact plot of Alien, using different characters and setting, the two works observe similar structures and tropes (defined as “…storytelling devices and conventions.” by TV Tropes (2015)). Dudley Andrew’s (1980) category of ‘fidelity of transformation’ has some utility in defining the relationship between Isolation and Alien, the game after all aiming to reproduce some essential component of the source text. The player is certainly invited to make a comparison between the two works while playing Isolation.
Leitch’s (2007) ‘celebration’ category of adaptation, described earlier as seeking to preserve a work by encasing it in a new medium, could certainly apply to the bonus content included with certain editions of Isolation that allow the player to relive moments from the original film in an interactive fashion. These non-canonical moments create ‘what if?’ scenarios, using a celebratory set-up that encourages players to compare their own aptitude against that of the film’s characters. For the game proper, Leitch’s ‘superimposition’ seems the closest matching description: Isolation is as much an adaptation of Alien into the structure and conventions of a survival horror videogame as it is an adaptation of the survival horror genre into the fiction of Alien. Specific gameplay mechanics adopted by developer The Creative Assembly show Isolation’s survival horror roots, such as the necessity for hiding in lockers from a single deadly foe that is methodically hunting the playercharacter. The Penumbra series (2007), Amnesia (2010) and Outlast (2013), and the precedent they set for the financial viability of action-light stealth-heavy survival horror games are a clear influence on Isolation’s development.
Despite the lack of weight felt for the ‘fidelity question’ within adaptation studies, it is certainly true that The Creative Assembly saw it as an important part of development, going to great lengths to recreate production processes from Alien. Colonial Marines was praised by some reviewers (Ogilvie, 2013) for its adherence to a superficial visual and audio faithfulness, but was criticised for recycling other elements, such as narrative beats and character design – a “reverent [but] dull retread … the worst kind of fan service…” (Richardson, 2013). If fidelity is a goal – and Colonial Marines financial success (Metro, 2013; Purchese, 2013) despite consistently poor reviews is evidence of consumer demand for faithful ludic adaptations of cult films such as Aliens – we must consider exactly which elements of a source text should be, and can be, faithfully recreated. This question has already been answered in part by McFarlane (1996) and his consideration of narrative and enunciation.
McFarlane defines the aim of a film adaptation to be to “…offer a perceptual experience that corresponds with one arrived at conceptually.” (McFarlane, 2006). The perceptual experience referred to here is the viewing of film, whereas a conceptual experience is one arrived at through reading literature. We might use McFarlane’s syntax as a template for our own purposes: the ludic adaptation of a film is a procedural experience that corresponds to one perceived. Here we employ Ian Bogost’s (2010) concept of procedural rhetoric to determine the enunciations possible in a digital ludic context and how one might adapt them proper (McFarlane, 1996).
As Bogost (2010) notes, “The ability to execute a series of rules fundamentally separates computers from other media.” These systems of rules create a participatory representation (Bogost, 2010) of some other real world system (or in this case, a hypotextual one), rather than creating the representation itself, as a non-interactive filmic work does. We pause here to note that this distinction indicates a weakness in traditional game design; many designers are unwilling to let go of their hold over the representation they create, granting the player only superficial interaction over the gameworld. The tendency for modern videogames to rely on non-interactive cutscene cinematics to exposit is no doubt an example of this, relying on the direct remediation (Bolter& Grusin, 1999) of enunciation techniques from cinema rather than adapting them to a procedural form. The cutscene can be regarded as a failure on the part of the developer to translate rather than transfer the enunciations of another, better developed medium.
Returning to the focus of the report, we must ask ourselves which systems present within Alien have been competently recreated in Isolation. The interactions between playercharacter and alien were vital for The Creative Assembly, with complex artificial intelligence aiming to lend it an unpredictable, believable nature (Alien: Isolation [YouTube channel], 2014). These interactions are based on specific moments from the hypotext, namely ones where the alien is in close proximity to characters: Dallas’ (Tom Skerritt) death inside the Nostromo’s air ducts or Ripley’s panicked journey from the ship’s bridge to the Narcissus escape shuttle. These moments, while iconic, are brief. Prolonged encounters with the alien occur in Isolation but not in its hypotext. Alien is a film in which ‘nothing happens’ for the first forty-five minutes (Scott, 2000); or rather, nothing but tense character interaction. For the Alien fan that deems such character interaction a vital component of the film Isolation will seem decidedly less fidelitous. This was coincidentally a recurring criticism of the game amongst reviewers (Kelly, 2014; Paprocki, 2014). Despite its age, 1984’s Alien videogame (discussed in more depth in Chapter Two) is more capable at procedurally recreating hypotextual interactions between the crew and the process of formulating, implementing, and revising a plan for defeating the alien.
The framework offered via adaptation theory does not, however, take into account the transmedia aspect of the Alien franchise: that a non-literal adaptation can also add to a shared fiction from another medium. Isolation gives players access to the already established Alien fiction through its gamespace, assisted by expected survival horror tropes such as text logs and environmental exposition. While Colonial Marines largely regurgitates ideas from Aliens, The Creative Assembly intelligently co-created new, coherent aspects of the fiction, adding to its drillability (Jenkins, 2006). As reviewer Dan Whitehead (2014) notes, “…[The] Creative Assembly shows that it really understands the world it has inherited. Just as the 1979 movie pulsed with a bitter undercurrent of class resentment, so Isolation presents us with a corporate future that feels weary, exhausted and broken in ways that are all too familiar.”
There exists a notable anti-corporate theme within Alien and Aliens. The twist mid-way through Alien that Ash (Ian Holm) is a robot comes with the revelation that the crew’s enigmatic employer considers them “expendable” against the perceived financial gains of capturing the alien. The class exploitation of the crew at this point is clear. Burke’s (Paul Reiser) character in Aliens is similarly motivated, a satirical jab at the aspirationally ruthless middle-managers the neo-liberal political agenda of the 1980s cultivated. In both films protagonists only find themselves in the ‘haunted house’ (the lair through which the alien stalks) through economic conscription, compelled into disagreeable situations through manufactured financial troubles.
Rather than turn to the ‘Weyland-Yutani Corporation’, the source of irresponsible capitalist antagonism throughout the franchise, The Creative Assembly invented their own rival corporation, ‘Seegson’. The fictional economic climate is illustrated ingame through the dilapidated nature of the Sevastopol space station that acts as Isolation’s haunted house, complementing a consistent ‘low-fi’ aesthetic.
Equally, Isolation’s playercharacter – written virtually from scratch for the game – is a clear homage to Alien’s Ellen Ripley. Although underdeveloped, Isolation’s Amanda Ripley is characterised almost identically, embodying a no-nonsense blue collar approach to the story’s contrivances that avoids patriarchal assumptions on gender. Amanda Ripley’s implementation suggests an intelligent and capable understanding of the source text and its cultural impact by The Creative Assembly. As playercharacter, Amanda is independent and capable, coming from more justifiable origins than her mother; Alien’s Ellen Ripley was originally written as a male character and cast as a woman based on the previous commercial success of female characters in peril in Alfred Hitchcock films. It was a choice to make Alien stand out, an exploitation of the novelty of seeing an attractive woman in deadly danger. This attitude is summarised well by Ridley Scott, “She is beautiful – she’ll die late in the third act. It makes the audience keep wondering.” (Nathan, 2011).
The capabilities of a digital game offer the chance to explore the gameworld in a more personal manner, for longer than the conventional two-hour duration of a film, deepening the audience’s comprehension of the franchise fiction. But, a transmedia addition such as Isolation cannot hope to rest on the novelty of such a window. As Worton and Still (1991) explain, an “…allusion to a work unknown to the reader, which therefore goes unnoticed, will have a dormant existence in that reading.” What, then, happens when a player of Isolation has not seen Alien? What are the implications of this ‘dormant existence’ of intertextual meaning? In this case the work acts as an introduction to the greater franchise (Jenkins, 2006). The intertextual nature that compels us to look into and through a text (Leitch, 2007) can here be employed for the purposes of ‘synergy’: what Jenkins (2006) describes as the economic opportunities presented by owning and controlling all transmedia manifestations of a fiction. Here, intertextuality is harnessed towards capitalist rewards.
Alien is considered a classic film – despite the failings of its licensed works. It is an admired example of the filmic medium that many have emulated and few have surpassed. Just as adaptation theorists note cinema’s preoccupation with ‘classic’ literature, Isolation is a clear example of the digital games industry attempting to achieve cultural legitimacy through the appropriation – or remediation – of media already revered.
Isolation observes limited success in intelligently adapting Alien but is hampered by a lack of engagement with the principles of procedural rhetoric (Bogost, 2010). Isolation’s reliance on constant player interaction with the alien during gameplay goes against the alien’s inscrutable portrayal in the hypotext, for example. Future digital ludic additions to the Alien franchise should balance the use of the alien carefully to keep it a credible, terrifying threat while fulfilling consumer expectation of its presence ingame.
Isolation has sold fewer copies than Colonial Marines (Metro, 2015). This could be due to a combination of loss of consumer confidence in videogame additions to the Aliens franchise and survival horror having a less broad commercial appeal than a conventional first person shooter. Nonetheless, Isolation’s sales have been promising, reaching number thirty-four amongst the UK’s one hundred best-selling videogames (Metro, 2015), impressive considering its October release date. By Janurary 2015 over one million copies of Isolation had been sold (Karmali, 2015; Phillips, 2015).
It should be noted that many of the findings of this report that concern Isolation also concern Colonial Marines, as the two games were made with similar fidelitious aims. Further study could investigate why the two games’ critical reception diverged so. Isolation’s biggest asset may be the intelligent co-creation employed by The Creative Assembly compared with Colonial Marines’s preoccupation with revisiting specific elements of the Alien franchise. Simply put, Colonial Marines recreates superficial details present in Aliens; Isolation creates new content that invokes the experiential qualities of Alien.
Adaptation theory may have substantial utility for ludic adaptations also, and further investigation is suggested. The appropriation of concepts already formulated, such as that of narrative and enunciation, could improve future digital games. However, adaptation theory does not take the potential transmedia nature of adaptation into account; the unique relationship of sequel and adaptation can exist only within a transmedia franchise such as Alien. Appropriated theory must fit alongside, rather than replace, existing theory regarding digital games.
Pictorial realisation is a cherished ability of film (Leitch, 2007). The potential for ‘procedural realisation’ should be so cherished amongst designers of digital games. An interactive medium should aim to make previously inaccessible experiences reachable, not simply recreate iconic set design. Film adaptation may offer us the prospect of “words made flesh” (Leitch, 2007), but the digital game can give such flesh life incarnate.
20th Century Fox (1982); Alien [videogame]
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