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What the Aliens franchise could learn from Outlast

1:00 AM on 10.23.2013 // nickhorth1

Promoted from our Community Blogs!

[In light of the recent reveal of a new Alien game, I thought it appropriate to share this blog from Dtoid community member Nick Horth. Want to see your own blog appear on our front page? Go write something! --Mr Andy Dixon]

The whine of a pulse rifle is a quintessential and iconic Aliens sound. And over the course of Colonial Marines, it's one you'll get utterly sick of.

This is partly because, as in all aspects of that excuse for a videogame, the arsenal of weapons available seem to have been programmed by the work experience kid in between smoke breaks. But even if your pulse rifle didn't fart out a dribble of bullets anemically when you squeezed the trigger -- even if it was the finest replication of that iconic movie weapon -- Colonial Marines would still misunderstand what makes the franchise work.

Let's go back to a key scene in Aliens. Ripley, Hicks and the surviving marines are recuperating and reassessing after the disaster in the Xenomorph nest, where most of their complement of soldiers, along with Cigar-Smoking Cliché Man, were destroyed. Hicks assesses their remaining weaponry: couple of pulse rifle magazines, a few grenades, and the two automated sentry guns. They set the two sentry guns up and watch as the aliens hurl themselves into the line of fire. Off screen I might add. The ammo counters run dry.

They're fucked, and they know it. Ammo runs out, and the aliens don't need any to kill them. Ripley's back to square one: stuck in an easily breachable location, with few weapons and only her own ingenuity to rely on.

And that, right there, is the point of the series. Even gung-ho Aliens, with its squad of smack-talking marines, knows what makes the horror work. The Xenomorphs are stronger, faster and deadlier than we are, and you can't beat them by taking them on in a straight up fight. Guns will kill a few, sure, but they don't travel as 'a few'. There are always more, and those are the ones that kill you. Or send you to the alien neonatal unit for observation.

You might have been playing the excellent Outlast recently, or at least have seen Jim Sterling quaking in fear like the man-mouse he is through one of his Now Bloody Playing videos. There's a bit early on with a man who's been popped on a skewer like a bit of chicken satay.

"They killed us. They got out. You can't fight them. You have to hide.", he groans. Which is fairly eloquent for a man with a ten foot pole inserted into him, but still. He just summed up the mantra every developer, every film-maker should adhere to when creating an entry into this universe. Oh and don't bring Hicks back either; that's just fucking dumb.

I recently re-watched the fantastic Alien, inspired by a bout of horror gaming lead by Amnesia and Outlast, and I was fascinated by the possibilities of a combination between the survival horror FPS genre and this wonderful property, which has never really, truly been given a videogame title deserving of it.

Firstly, of course, you have the setting. It doesn't really matter where it takes place; every Alien film has its own bleak industrial complex, and they would all make for a terrifying place to get disemboweled in. I think the 1979 film has the edge here though; the Nostromo's bleak, damp corridors with their cramped ventilation shafts and dangling chains have that perfect mix of faceless industrialization and gothic gloom.

The mechanics and technology of the futuristic Alien universe also make for an interesting factor. So, the aliens are always faster than you, and you can't outrun them for longer than a few seconds. You do, however, have an environment that can be sectioned off, manipulated in a way that the corridors and bedrooms of Amnesia or the asylum in Outlast can't be. This actually becomes a factor in the underrated Alien 3, when the prisoners attempt to trap the creature between a series of heavy automated doors, in lieu of having anything to hit it with.

Now, let's talk about weapons. We all love the Alien arsenal. Yes, the Smartguns are cool. Yes, the pulse rifles are all dope and fly and that. I'm afraid we have to let them go. Not entirely, maybe, but they can't be the answer to every problem.

This is where a title like Outlast shines. It's a simple game, and so much more effective because of it. Death comes quickly once the deranged inhabitants of Mount Massive Asylum get hold of you. There's no guns, or even knives and clubs. You're totally outmatched, and if you get seen, you're in real trouble. A simple mechanic, like the night-vision camera you're given, becomes a horrifying necessity. You don't want to use it for fear of what you might see, but it's really the only way you have to traverse some areas. So use it you must. How I wish the hand-held scanner got this kind of care and attention in Colonial Marines, instead of becoming the objective marking smart-phone app that it did.

There's also a great sense of physicality and weight to everything. Pause outside a room and your avatar will nervously grasp the door frame, reluctant to enter. Jump over a fallen cabinet and you'll see him clamber across. It's an excellent way of making the world feel like a real place, not a vacantly pretty box for you to slide about in. Surviving in Outlast is a helter-skelter panicked rush to find somewhere -- anywhere -- to hide.

Ellen Ripley, until the dopey fourth film, barely fires a weapon in anger. That's not her strength. Her power comes from her will to survive and her quick-thinking and improvisation. That's the character I want to play: not some jar-head marine with an unlimited ammo pack and a Smartgun. Weapons in an Alien game should be a luxury, something you can't quite believe you've found, and something that is only a temporary reprieve.

It would also eliminate the biggest problem with an Alien shooter: that the Xenomorphs lose their effectiveness as a threat when they close to melee range and don't kill you in one swipe. The whole point of the films is that if they get to you, you're dead. Instead, Colonial Marines (and to be fair other titles like Aliens Vs. Predator or the old PlayStation games) has critters that just sort of bump into you a bit, occasionally kicking off a tedious quick-time event that is so easy to complete it removes any tension.

Aliens are faster, stronger and more deadly than we are. We need a game that recognizes that, and makes facing them (or screaming and running away from them) the horrific experience that it should be.

Shooters are typically about empowering the player. What an Alien title needs, though, is a developer brave enough to disempower them. 'Reduce' them to Ellen Ripleys: brave and resourceful, but only human. Emphasize the fact that the only advantage they have is their ability to manipulate their environment. Save guns for rare moments of fortune, if you're not brave enough to eschew them completely.

Watch the original Alien again. Bring back the horror. Those plucky Xenomorphs deserve better.

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