Sega’s Alien Isolation was released in 2014 and took the world by storm. Alien Isolation is a good game. I would even go so far as to say that it is one of the great horror games of the genre. And it’s no secret why. The alien is completely unpredictable, making it perhaps the most terrifying antagonist in any game, ever. The reason for the alien’s effectiveness can be traced to a relatively simple philosophy of horror pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft, which states that the most potent fear is that of the unknown. Most horror games apply this philosophy, though due to most games’ tendency towards mechanical clarity, relatively few approach it through their mechanics, as Alien Isolation does.
The alien of Isolation is governed by an immensely complex AI system which, in the words of Brendan Keogh, makes the alien seem like an ‘active, intentional agent’ within the game. The unpredictability of the alien is, under general assumptions of what makes for strong gameplay, a poor design choice — usually, design elements should be easily interpretable. But it works. And it doesn’t work despite the alien’s unpredictability, it works because of the alien’s unpredictability. Think about it: once you discovered that the enemies in Outlast couldn’t find you in hiding places unless they saw you hide there, did you ever really feel scared under a bed? Of course not! Because you are able to comfort yourself with the certainty that your adversary is incapable of finding you — ever. Isolation does not afford its players that luxury. You are always kept on your toes. Nowhere is safe. The designers of Isolation discovered that the long-held mindset of gameplay clarity isn’t always so black-and-white. And in doing so, they expressed the horror philosophy of H.P. Lovecraft more elegantly than any other game I’ve ever seen. To get to the root of why Isolation works so well, we first need to examine exactly what Lovecraftian philosophy is, as well as how it conflicts with general game design trends.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American horror author who is best known for his 1928 short story, The Call of Cthulhu. Lovecraft was arguably one of the most influential voices in horror (he was also like, super racist, so, you know, keep that in mind), and his philosophy echoes throughout most horror media today. While most can easily identify the surface traits of Lovecraftian horror — homicidal cults, Victorian aesthetic, grotesque monsters, ect — the core of his philosophy is actually much more fundamental and much more pervasive. It can be most succinctly described by Lovecraft himself in his most famous quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” This philosophy is persistent throughout most horror media, from The Shining to Outlast to, you guessed it, Alien Isolation.
Lovecraftian philosophy is most commonly applied to narratives, making it easy to discern in film. The Shining, for instance, is so terrifying because not only is the moment-to-moment of the film unpredictable, but so is the premise itself. Is it a slasher? A ghost story? A psychological horror? It’s not clear until the end of the film, and even then the premise remains fairly ambiguous. But anyway, let’s get back to games.
The role of the game designer can be viewed as, in the words of Community’s Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), to “create a boundless world and . . . bind it by rules.” Generally, these rules must be fairly easy for the player to decipher. When your health runs out, you die. When you hide in a cupboard, you won’t be found. This mindset makes sense — if a game’s mechanics are enigmatic to the player, the game runs the risk of frustrating the player. The game may seem like it is not playing by it’s own rules. Mechanical clarity is broadly viewed as a virtue, and sought after by many designers. In fact, the philosophy is broad enough to be nearly universally applicable within the industry. To many, it even functions as a litmus test for the quality of a game.
These two philosophies, one based in mechanical design, the other in narrative, consist of seemingly diametrically opposed ideologies. One philosophy values clarity, the other values the lack thereof. Of course, narrative and mechanics are separate entities within a game, but the most emotionally potent and artistically impactful gaming experiences come from those rare cases where the narrative and the mechanical aspects of a game align almost perfectly. But in many cases, narrative and mechanics compromise each other rather than compliment; this phenomenon is referred to as ‘ludonarrative dissonance.’ In other words, narrative and gameplay are distinct, but are inherently intertwined in the gameplay experience.
With this in mind, let’s examine a couple of prominent horror games, starting with Outlast. The game’s narrative follows Lovecraftian philosophy (its theme is also quite Lovecraft-esque as well), with the player exploring a decrepit, horrific, insanity-infested asylum. The player is an investigative journalist primed from the get-go to uncover the mysterious, possibly supernatural disaster which sent the asylum into turmoil. Outlast certainly follows the Lovecraftian approach of shrouding its narrative in mystery, but its mechanics are quite easy to grasp. Enemies can’t climb into vents; they can’t find you under the desk, or in a locker. There is very little unpredictability in the actual gameplay beyond scripted events. Now let’s look at Until Dawn. This game takes a decent approach on Lovecraftian philosophy from a narrative standpoint, with a hard-to-pin-down horror style, emulating ghost stories and slashers alike. At least until (spoilers) the true nature of the horror is revealed to be the supernatural Wendigo. The game also achieves a decent moment-to-moment application of Lovecraftian philosophy — the scares are well-paced and unpredictable (to an extent). The trouble arises if/when the player decides to walk in circles for three hours on end. Since the scares only occur at specified locations, the player can often delay the next one indefinitely by staying in one place. Kind of a mood killer. The commonality between these two horror games, and many others, is their presence of ludonarrative dissonance. There exists a striking fissure between the narrative and the gameplay.
Okay, let’s get back to Alien Isolation. The alien bore the flag of Isolation. The alien was the reason for Isolation’s critical praise. And the alien broke the universal design philosophy of mechanical clarity.
Alright, alright, it’s not quite that simple. The design philosophy of mechanical clarity wasn’t broken, per se, but it was stretched. See, there are no certainties within the gameplay of Isolation. The alien roams freely throughout the levels, guided by nothing but the player’s scent and sound. The alien can climb into the vents; it can find you under a desk, or in a locker. It very well might not, but it can. The alien of Alien Isolation is, in the most fundamental gameplay terms, an Unknowable Horror. That sounds kinda familiar, doesn’t it?
Narratively, Alien Isolation doesn’t really apply Lovecraftian philosophy — most players are fairly familiar with the conceit of Isolation due to its inspiration. But it does apply Lovecraftian philosophy to its mechanics. In doing so, Isolation subverts the design philosophy of mechanical clarity – to an extent. The thing is, Isolation still hints at the functioning of the alien’s AI. It’s rare to encounter the alien in vents, but you can guess that it might still be there from the sounds of it crawling through the vents above you. The entire aesthetic of Isolation, from the lighting to the smoke effects to the sound design, points towards mechanical uncertainty. Because of this lack of clarity, the player can never find psychological solace in the certainty of the alien’s actions, but rather must make their best guess as to where the alien is and what it might do next. The game hits a delicate balance between frustratingly enigmatic gameplay and clear, obvious, and, for lack of a better word, ‘gamey’ mechanics.
What this all adds up to is a unique application of Lovecraftian horror philosophy in mechanics, not narrative. Something that, in my opinion, more horror games could give a try.
Look, I know that Alien Isolation isn’t a perfect game. It’s about twice as long as it should be, and the Working Joes are exceedingly irritating. But Isolation still takes a step that, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t been taken by any other horror game, at least not to this extent. In fact, I’m willing to guess that the Working Joes were likely used to the extent that they were because of the fear of such a bold design decision as the alien backfiring. The Joes were a safety net. But Isolation didn’t need a safety net. The risks paid off. And not only did the risks turn Isolation into the critical success it was, they also say something extremely important about our philosophies of design and narrative. About how these philosophies are often more interchangeable, and less categorical, than we assume. Now it’s up to us — the fans, the media, and, most importantly, the designers — to listen to Alien Isolation. To listen, to learn, and to innovate.