The other day, I was on Wikipedia reading some details about Alien: Isolation, a survival horror game in development by Creative Assembly. This game comes after the colossal failure of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which will no doubt lower people’s expectations. However, as I was reading through the description, I noticed a line in the overview: “…an Alien has already infested the station.” Something about this line got me incredibly excited for the game, and I want to dig into why the possibility of a single enemy is so interesting for me.
In most games, the player kill hundreds, even thousands of people. I have sunk an embarrassing 53 hours into Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall in the month since its launch, and in that time I have killed no less than 930 players. Think about that. How many people in human history have personally killed over 930 people? How many have even come close? I’m not going to say something stupid like
virtual violence causes real violence, but the sheer amount of violence significantly damages the pacing of these games and devalues their narriatives. Factoring in kills of computer-controlled enemies, and my atrocious 0.8 kill-death ratio, I found out that I have one encounter in Titanfall every thirty seconds. These engagements are so simple and so quick that each individual duel is essentially meaningless, an instant test of twitch reflexes, positioning and impromptu strategies. While I enjoy Titanfall, mostly because of the giant mechs and jetpacks, I think there is another way.
In the now-iconic Always Black essay, “Bow, Nigger”, the author describes a battle in Jedi Outcast which explores ideas of honor and good and evil in competitive games, but also touches on a style of combat we don’t often see. Jedi Outcast‘s combat lends itself to the kind of epic duels we all see and love in the Star Wars movies, where two titans of skill and prowess go at it for a not-insignificant period of time. You would never see a Titanfall-esque showdown between two opposing characters in a movie; it would be over in a matter of seconds. Movies have a tense build, bursts of action, and a masterfully executed climax, but with games, it is over all too quickly. Jedi Academy combat feels more movie-style than game-style, with highly developed low-level mechanics determining lightsaber swings, stance and position, and block timing. In movie combat, the majority of attacks miss or are blocked, and it takes only two or three hits to kill a person. Jedi Academy works in much the same way, with most attacks resulting in blocks, and only a few hits can bring an enemy down. This, I believe, is a much more powerful approach to combat, emphasizing the skill of two opponents. How many times have we fought giant bosses that are soak up ungodly amounts of damage? How much more satisfying would it be to land a single, skillful hit or two to take down a ridiculously complicated boss? What I’m saying is this: slow down the violence. Emphasize the complexity and nuance of a single encounter and drastically reduce the number of encounters, so that each fight feels meaningful instead of routine and boring. Games, because of their length, make the exhilaration of fighting multiple enemies disappear. Killing ten enemies in a single encounter isn’t empowering, its expected.
I remember a mission in Mass Effect which began with a slow, well-paced murder investigation, but quickly transition into with me fighting weak, computer-controlled enemies for an hour and then finally fighting a boss. Right before that boss fight, a cutscene played where my character chased the boss, tackled her out a window, then drew his pistol, dodged a magic attack, and took at least a dozen shots at his now-fleeing enemy. Soon after, I took control and just kinda shot her for a while until she died. This juxtaposition of the awesome and the mundane made me consider how the game could have been improved if the previous hour of fighting was removed, the investigation expanded, and the conclusion turned into a mechanically complex boss fight. Instead of having a lot of passable combat, the game could benefit from a small amount of complex and engaging combat. Violence can raise the stakes as high as they can go, can make the story literally a matter of life and death, but if overdone, it can have the opposite effect, making the artifice of the game world clearly apparent, and the meaning of the struggle evaporate. What I am asking for is focus, for an emphasis on mechanics that are engaging in and of themselves, not because of their context.
One game that exemplifies this kind of strong mechanics set, despite its flaws, is From Software’s Dark Souls. My most engaging battle in Dark Souls happened between me and a black knight, one of the toughest, non-boss monsters in the game. I had just cleared out a courtyard full of skeletons and climbed to the top of a tower, when suddenly this knight appeared. I ran for my life down the tower and back into the courtyard, with the knight close at my heels. When I reached the center, I spun around, and he stopped in his tracks. Hesitantly, I drew my shield, and the two of us began to circle one another, searching for an opening. The knight lunged, I dodged to the side, I struck, he blocked the blow. My character was slightly overburdened with all the loot I was carrying, so my movements were slower and more sluggish than they should have been, and I felt it. I had fought two knights before, and I knew that, in all likelihood, I was going to die, and lose all the souls I had spent the past hour collecting. The fear of death isn’t something I often experience in games, despite being in life-or-death situations so often, but Dark Souls had put it back into me. The duel continued through the slow, tense trading of blows, blocks and parries. Both of us were weak, but I was out of my healing Estus Flasks. But then, the knight charged, and somehow, I managed to roll to the side not only in time to dodge the blow, but to position myself perfectly behind him. Fueled by adrenaline, I slammed the right trigger on my controller with all my might, and plunged my katana into the knights back, achieving a rarely executed but brutally effective backstab. The knight dropped to the ground, and as his souls poured into my character’s body, I jumped out of my chair and shouted in excitement. I felt the weight of that victory, more than the dozens of trash mobs I had killed to reach the Mass Effect boss fight, or the thousands of faceless enemies I killed in Titanfall. That was my victory. That was true empowerment through combat. This is what happened in a battle without any narrative context. Imagine what that victory could have meant with a powerful story behind it.
[Edit 8/7/2016: I was an idiot, Dark Souls is now tied for my favorite game of all time, backstabs are easy as hell and pretty much break combat, and the game has an amazing story. I was just dumb.]
This is why I am so excited for Alien: Isolation, because it focuses on a single, drawn out battle between the protagonist and one xenomorph alien. Instead of padding the game out with hundreds of aliens until the carnage becomes meaningless, as Colonial Marines did, Isolation will focus on an extended encounter between the player and an enemy so terrifying and powerful that the player can barely fight back. That is a kind of focus we do not see often enough, a kind of focus that makes games great. When violence is extended and overused, it becomes filler, something to make the game long enough to justify the $60 price tag. But violence doesn’t have to be that way. Games like Dark Souls try to create combat systems that focus on deep, robust mechanics can successfully create longer-lasting, less frequent combat scenarios. Alien: Isolation’s similar emphasis, especially in a horror setting, gives me great hope that not only will one of my favorite sci-fi movies will finally get the game it deserves, but that the medium can create games that use violence without losing themselves in the carnage.