Maybe it's because Stasis Interrupted's been released and I've been watching a few gameplay videos of it but for some reason lately I've been (again) thinking a lot about Aliens games and where they've gone wrong over the years.
Colonial Marines was obviously terrible, but Aliens Vs Predator (2010) was also pretty mediocre, and though there has been the odd good game (Aliens Infestation being a good example) I feel as though it's one of those franchises that was really good in concept but now has gotten milked to retardation (see: Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Halo, etc, etc) in terms of games, and really just needs to be given a fresh lease of life. We've sort of been stuck in this continual loop of whatever formula's popular atm being taken and applied to Aliens and the end result (usually an FPS) being pretty mediocre. We really just need fresh blood.
Actually, scratch that, I'm not that much of a starry-eyed optimist, I doubt there will ever be big enough of a direction change when it comes to what's expected of an Aliens game by Sega or Fox for them to push for more original games to be made, so unless the AAA market shifts away from FPSs we're pretty much stuck with mediocrity (I mean I hope it's not true but it seems a safe bet atm.)
That said, it doesn't mean we couldn't see some good Aliens-inspired
It used to be a big thing back in the late 80's/early 90's to wear your influences on your sleeve (apparently copyright infringement wasn't a thing back then, who knew!) So for example playing through Syndicate (the original) you'll see references to Blade Runner but also nods to Aliens (a few of the character names are in the agent pool and the military APC bears a striking resemblance to the one from Aliens); it's also why Snatcher features a main character who resembles Deckard from Blade Runner and why the eponymous snatchers of the game resemble T-800s from Terminator; why Rebelstar 2's cover features what can only be described as a 'motherfucking xenomorph for christsake!', why Contra (atleast on the cover) features two guys who look a little like Arnie and Stallone (circa Predator and Rambo), and why the covers of Streets of Rage games sometimes feature multiple Jean-Claude Van Dammes...
what in the...?!
The point is early games features a lot, and I mean A LOT, of free and easy creative license - seriously it was like the 60's but instead of having sex everybody was stealing other people's ideas! FREE LOVE MAN!
This is good and bad, on the plus side it came at a time when games literally had no ideas of their own and people were desperate to make something interesting, so they borrowed from great movies (among other reference material), and if you're going to borrow from anything to make your game then I'm relatively comfortable with it being Aliens or Blade Runner, or in fact anything from 80's/early 90's popular culture, because I love that shit. Developers used this source of potentially good ideas and tried to translate them into games, whilst skimming past the whole 'copyright infringement' thing, (though if you're Revenge of Shinobi that didn't quite go so well!) and that's not necessarily a bad thing – it still happens occasionally today, and the end results can sometimes be really awesome – look at Uncharted 2 for example, poor man's Indiana Jones it is not.
The negative side though is pretty clear: if you're borrowing from existing IPs, even if borrowing between mediums, you're still borrowing those ideas and they're not completely fresh. And if the last ten or so years of AAA gaming has shown anything then it's that creative stagnation is not great for an industry, even in small doses, even when like with AAA gaming now it's just the characters and setting that tend to remain the same.
While I'm hesitant about saying more games that borrow from existing sources would be a good thing, I think usually what puts me off that sort of borrowing with games is that what developers borrow is usually more mechanics and archetypes rather than themes.
It's usually stuff like 'gruff, bearded white dude' and 'cover shooting' that get borrowed, when really what needs to be borrowed is the themes, the feel, the atmosphere. The industry already borrows a lot from film as it is, but sometimes it feels as though they borrow the wrong things. It often strikes me watching films that developers/publishers/whoever creates game projects misses a trick sometimes when it comes to what would make money as a game – there's so many great ideas out there floating about and nobody's taking advantage of them.
The thought really struck me watching Minority Report not too long back, I didn't love the movie but I enjoyed it and I thought the concept was interesting so I wondered - why hasn't anybody tried to do this in a game? I mean we've had plenty of detective games before – Snatcher, J.B. Harold Murder Club, Ace Attorney, Hotel Dusk, Tex Murphy, being just a few examples. The classic detective game genre is pretty well established, mostly in visual novel games, so why not a game where you tackle pre-crime? You'd have this interesting detective game with the added element of forcing the player to tackle the moral quandary of whether arresting somebody before they commit the crime really makes them a criminal.
I've had this thought a few times actually watching films or reading books/short stories – reading through a lot of Philip K. Dick's short stories, a fair number of them could make interesting games, and reading Neuromancer I can see why people were inspired by that. H.P. Lovecraft's works are another good example, though he sometimes crafted creatures of pure terror that can only truly exist as figments of the imagination a fair number of his stories would work really well if they were taken and merged with existing styles of gameplay to create original games. Even if they ended up being terrible it's hardly like we're drowning in horror games set in the late 19th/early 20th century at the moment.
The point being there are more places that games can go, more themes, more issues, more content that can be explored.
It's what's borrowed and not that it's borrowed that I think's the problem a lot of the time with games. This is what I think the shame about pretty much every Alien(s) games is, (and indeed a lot of movie/TV/anything popular tie-ins), it's that instead of trying to emulate or borrow from the creative property the themes, the feel, the dynamic of the original and expand upon that, they just borrow recognisable elements, they borrow the 'skin' of the show, the surface-level detail and plaster that over just some random ill-thought-out game.
I mean look at Colonial Marines, in many respects it's the antithesis of everything Alien(s) represented – the lone heroine defying gender convention to survive and escape impossible odds/that military and scientific might alone can't tame nature; it's just a bunch of dumb dudebros and some token women blowing shit up, being boring and surviving just because they're two-dimensional hero characters but hey, somebody says Weyland-Yutani and Lance Henriksen is in it so it must be a faithful continuation of the franchise!
What I'd really love to see is someone (a developer, big or small) take the barebones of what made Alien or Aliens good and make a game from that.
Alien was a sort of claustrophobic, very tense, very dark and almost suggestive horror story set in a very realistic, hard sci-fi future. It was about a very primal fear of the 'other', and also about sexuality, wrapped up in this story about some space truckers who stumble upon something they really shouldn't of.
Aliens was more about the arrogance that comes with military might and the power of science, and how sometimes the two can fail when confronted with a force of nature that doesn't bow to that power – with obvious Vietnam parallels. Again it was also about this force of nature, this creature, but tackling that same horror from Alien on a macro rather than micro scale – the xenomorphs weren't so much evil antagonists as just wild animals whose perceived territory had been invaded.
Hell, even if it was just a thinly-veiled homage to Alien(s), I'd be cool with that. One of my favourite games is Snatcher, and that's basically a thinly (very thinly) veiled homage to Blade Runner, Terminator and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others), it does it well enough and innovates enough turning that into a game that it works though. This is kind of true of a lot of Hideo Kojima games though, he innovates through heavy pastiche/obvious influence but the things he creates are original enough for it not to matter.
Again while I don't like the idea of encouraging more copying from different creative properties I do want to see that when ideas are borrowed they borrow the right kind – the more abstract qualities, the themes, the feel, etc, rather than the obvious, concrete things – the characters, the props, the logos, etc. Kojima isn't alone in this but I'd say he has the right kind of attitude when it comes to how to make good games (most of the time) and be influenced by outside sources, he borrows the ideas not the skin of a creative property, and one of the reasons why his games are often so popular is because he strikes the same chord the popular media he borrows from does.
An Aliens game doesn't necessarily need marines, nor Weyland-Yutani, nor even combat, what it needs is to be scary, it needs atmosphere, it needs to be about a group of people coming into contact with this oppresive invading entity, this force of nature, that can't simply be controlled by technology or firepower.
That's more Aliens than anything in Colonial Marines was.
One of the ideas that struck me while thinking about how Aliens could work as a game is why haven't we had some sort of visual novel Alien/Aliens game? Something maybe played a little like those detective games I mentioned earlier, with you investigating locations, mostly powerless, as you look for some way to escape and have to keep a good eye on your motion tracker so you know when to hide in a locker, between trips away from your safe haven to look for supplies.
I've mentioned it before but I also felt the Alien game for the Zx Spectrum did a pretty awesome job of mimicking the feel of the film for a game that old, merging a sort of top-down strategic view of the Nostromo deck by deck with a visual window in which the xenomorph could pop-up when nearby (accompanied by the steady thum of your motion tracker), that was good. The game feels tense at times, despite the limited graphics, and the fact it's so raw (you die about as easily as most of the characters in the film do) makes it a very challenging experience.
Or even if it was something less horror-based I'd be cool with that – maybe the corporate flunkey simulator I joked about in the other blog I wrote about Aliens games not long after Colonial Marines befouled my senses. Say a game with a cutesy/Super-Deformed graphical style where you play a corporate flunkey who has to balance researching xenomorph specimens with micromanaging running a colony, and has to avoid too many devastating xenomorph outbreaks to protect their bottom line (oh no, not the atmospheric processor again, those things cost a bundle! *60,000 people already dead*), in a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to Carter Burke's role in the Aliens' story. Even something like that would be more Aliens than Colonial Marines, because atleast it would have some sense of the film in it, some connection to what made the film good.
I can't think of too many films that have had such a fundamental effect on me as Alien and Aliens have (Blade Runner being another actually, and Ghost in the Shell is actually another) and though I think mostly there's enough original ideas for games not to have to borrow I'm so desperate for something that emulates the feel of Alien(s) that I'd settle for a knock-off of either, aslong as it had the atmosphere, the tension, the feel, and the themes of the films (the first two anyway.)
So many games have been influenced by film and other media that we have to recognise there's always going to be an element of borrowed content in games (as there is in any medium), and that's not necessarily a bad thing. From Rambo to Blade Runner, from Jacob's Ladder to Event Horizon, from Jurassic Park to Indiana Jones, all have helped inspire great games.
My hope is that the industry tries to remember it's the ideas that matter and not the things when it comes to inspiration and license.
...oh, and that somebody totally makes a cool Alien(s) rip-off soon! WOO!