Alien Isolation interview – senior designer Gary Napper & art lead Jude Bond on bringing the bitch back

alien Isolation

The bone-rattling, nerve-shattering hands-on wasn’t all that left a lasting impression from our exclusive trip to see Alien: Isolation for the first time at developer Creative Assembly. Equally impactful was the passion and confidence of its developer, which is trying to achieve something unprecedented within this storied franchise. We caught up with two of their key men to talk eye sockets, bucking trends and jumping the shark.

Alien Isolation interview

OPM: What we’ve played has been intense and very scary – but how do you apply that formula to make it work over the span of a full game?

Gary Napper: That’s everybody’s first question. How can we maintain that tension for the length of the campaign? And it’s just down to the game design, balancing, the flow of the story and the mechanics, when you introduce things to the player. Obviously, we work in peaks and troughs with our approach to the action. How often you’re against the alien, and how often we show it. A lot of it is down to how the player feels like they want to play.

Jude Bond: The player is one of the things that’s really unpredictable, and you can’t always tell what they’re going to do. So we’ve got an alien that can act in a nice way and support that. So when the alien is prowling around in the ceiling just under the vents, if you make a lot of noise it does come down. So you have some players who will sprint through the level, collecting things, scavenging in the world and trying to defend themselves, yet other players will take that careful slow approach, gripping the motion tracker for dear life and just getting through it. That’s been reflected today in the styles of the playthroughs. A couple of guys managed to do it with just one or two kills, only died a couple of times. Most people died between eight to 12 times, and there’s other people who spent the entire hour playing it and died 30 times or something. They took off their headphones and said, ‘That’s the most intense alien I’ve ever seen.’ They’re not getting frustrated about it either, which I’m so happy about.

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OPM: In the first movie, you only see the alien’s body in full when it’s being flushed out of the airlock at the end. What were your points of reference when you were animating it?

JB: We had to start largely from scratch. The absolute first point of reference was the original ‘79 alien, but we all know that’s a man in a rubber suit, and that’s not going to stand up in our game. One of the first things we did was make the guy 9-10ft tall. From that we were like, ‘well, a 9-10ft tall bloke isn’t going to be able to walk around this space that’s designed for 6ft humans in a very convincing way.’ We ended up iterating on the actual physiology in the alien, so it kind of could work in that space. We built an alien that physically can’t work, and that informs how the thing moves, and how the creature chooses to behave.

The absolute first point of reference was
the original ‘79 alien, but we all know that’s
a man in a rubber suit, and that’s not going
to stand up in our game

OPM: I noticed the skeletal eye sockets are back on the alien’s head, as they are in the original rubber suit.

JB: We have mixed feelings about that. The reason we had those there is because that’s how the original prop was built. That was there in the original movie. [It’s obscured by] the back-lighting in the movie so it may not be clear to some people, but others are aware of it. That may or may not be perceived by the player, but we’re still going to care about having that kind of detail in there.

GN: You look at the tiny details that some of the art guys have put into the world, and it’s just incredible. The coffee grinder in the kitchen, the boxes of cereal from the Nostromo. I don’t know if you noticed, but the circuit breaker from the handle in the demo you played is the exact handle from the self-destruct sequence at the end of the film. The thing about the movie props, and it’s just a personal thing, is how real they appear. You see Sigourney struggling to pull that thing down, and I absolutely loved it.

alien Isolation

The Alien Isolation team copied the film’s original concept art style to help perfect the atmosphere.

JB: One of the things we’ve done in the art is to ensure that there is something in every room that ties us back to the original film, be that something as insignificant as a lever on the wall, or the shape of the door. There’s something everywhere that will tie us back to the original movie. That’s not to say that we’re over-egging the connection there, the environments we produced are hugely diverse. We’ve managed to build what could be authentic, just by virtue of understanding how the original stuff was built, deconstructing that and putting it back together. We understand the aesthetic of the original film.

Once you’ve deconstructed everything and understood how it works, you can build anything and it’d be in keeping to that stuff. We’ve tried to limit ourselves to only things which could’ve been or were available in 1979. Down to the pieces of equipment, we’ve built from components which pre-date ‘79 and could’ve been built on the set at Shepperton for example. We’ve maintained that authenticity almost to ridiculous levels really. It gives us a framework in which to check our work and make sure we’re delivering what we want and not jumping the shark.