Yesterday, I began a discussion about the impact of the Aliens movies on the video game industry and why that influence makes it so important that Gearbox Software’s Aliens: Colonial Marines succeed. This is the second part of that two-part series.
One of the fundamental challenges in making a game from the Aliens franchise is the debate among fans about which film depiction of the xenomorph was best. Fan opinions are strong and most typically polarized between the alien in Alien and Cameron’s aliens from the second film. There is some slight generational bias depending on how old you are and which film you saw first, but I haven’t seen any credible research into that notion. For an Aliens-based game such as Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines, it’s imperative to have Cameron’s model of the creatures along with a Queen, while at the same time giving fervent Alien fans time with their favorite — and this has to be done in a way that doesn’t piss off either group. As for fans of the “dog” or “runner” alien from Alien 3, don’t they always get the short end of the stick? One could write a book about fan opinions on this topic alone. Gearbox needs to research it, pick a direction they can make a game out of and just go with it. No matter what they do, someone is going to be upset.
Now, more than 20 years after the original release of Aliens, we have an opportunity to get a detailed, rich and hopefully powerful taste of the Colonial Marine experience in new material that takes us back into the film universe. So what is that experience that fans want? I can only assert my personal bias, but here it goes:
I want to suspend my disbelief and encounter eggs and pretend as if I had no idea what they were and then have a facehugger jump out at me like what happened to Kane in the original Alien. Indeed, an A:CM teaser trailer showed us this moment, though astute residents of Gearbox’s official forums concluded it was CGI, even it if was done in the game engine. CGI, in-engine, teaser or actual gameplay … it’s hinting that this game is headed in the right direction. But there’s more than that.
I want a story with interesting characters that fills in the gaps of what happened after the events of Aliens but that is not just canon filler that someone came up with on the back of a napkin. I want an actual structured story with the horrid discovery of the xenomorphs by naive and perhaps misled marines. I want some form of percentage dealing behind my back in true franchise fashion. I want to devise a survival plan, have it go horribly off course but then prevail, somehow, dragging a half dead squadmate to safety and escaping by the rubber of my official Colonial Marines boots, possibly with something exploding behind me. Or maybe nothing explodes, and the writers — with their impressive Battlestar Galactica credits — come up with something fresh. Perhaps I have to choose who lives and who dies?
I want this game to scare me not only in the musophobic way but also in more intellectual methods. I can’t say what that means exactly, but my best hint is that I don’t need all the contacts with the aliens in the game to be of them moving and crawling quickly and coming out of the walls. There was something sinister and terrifying about how the lone creature in Alien sometimes stood there and salivated on the Nostromo. Sure, the crew had no real weapons to fight back with, but that kind of horror adds real depth, and I am ashamed to say I can’t recall any Alien, Aliens or AVP game really delivering on that. For that matter, even Aliens did this in effective moments such as when Burke or Cpl. Ferro each bought it, or in the air shaft scene where one alien slowly crawls over the smoking corpse of the one Vasquez repeatedly shot in the head at point blank range. It’s easier to make these moments scary and interesting in a film than it is in a game, but bring it, Gearbox. Bring it.
I am hoping I am man enough to want this game to scare the living shit out of me the way the first Alien movie did, and then let me overcome that fear in an ass kicking fit of short, controlled bursts asking which alien would like some, except hopefully I live through it. Other things I want include getting foiled from greasing a rat-faced son of a bitch. Using Gearbox’s squad control mechanics from Brothers in Arms, I want to order AI buddies who are fighting panic to seal a door with handheld torches while aliens pound at the last door we sealed. (That may depend on exactly how Gearbox implements BiA style squad control combined with ability to take control of any individual squad member at any time.) I want to hear garbled instructions from a friend in online co-op and yell back over my headset: “All. At. Incinerators.” I want to check those corners. I want to use more than harsh language. I want that sinking feeling from pings on my motion tracker and hear my squad mates argue about it. I want to blow an alien out of an airlock. And yes, let me get into a cargo loader and do hand-to-claw combat with an alien queen, channeling Ripley in exasperated rage and tell her to get away from, well, you get my point.
These moments and details are all highly accessible to any Aliens fanboy. The catch of all this ranting is that I don’t want exactly the same moments as in the film. In other words, Gearbox has a particularly tough job: they must give us an original story in this universe with original gameplay moments that are specifically unoriginal. See, we never really got to experience these film moments in a game in a way that truly resonated. Yes, some of the franchise and AVP games delivered bits and pieces of this Aliens goodness, but none of them had any real staying power. For this game to break through and ultimately satisfy the many un-served Aliens fanboy film fantasies, it has to give us a visceral taste of these moments while making them impossibly original at the same time. Meanwhile, all the “basic” elements of a good squad combat game have to be there, including the core shooting and weapons mechanics and outstanding use of 3D space in the level design. It also needs authentic music implementation using the official soundtrack or something very close to it, good graphics, good squad control and AI and all that other crap the Sega marketing team has to wade through to sell the game at retail to possibly non-fanboy corporate buyers at stores such as Best Buy and Target. I’m sure there are internal PowerPoint decks flying around left and right at Sega about that at this very moment.
After all that, we come to the key question: why? Why does this game need to be awesome, not just for the fanboys, but for all of us interested in the success and growth of the videogame industry? Because Aliens is one of our most precious sci-fi franchises from any medium, and if Aliens: Colonial Marines can be trusted to expand and re-energize that franchise in an interactive format it would move us much further to accepting that games are just as valid as any other art form, if not even more powerful.
As you ponder that, and possibly think to yourself that you already believe in the validity of games as art, consider the fossilized skeleton of the large being the Nostromo crew found on the derelict craft on LV-426 dubbed the “Space Jockey.” The film canon never fully explores the Space Jockey’s origin. Although franchise novels, comic books and even the game AVP2 include it, these works have not reached a broader audience the way the Aliens movie has, which is the main point of contact to the franchise for most mainstream fans. If we can trust Aliens: Colonial Marines to dive into this sacred territory and feed our curiosity in a detailed, interactive version that honors the power of the films, it would allow us to more openly acknowledge that games can be amazing stewards of classic franchises. From there we move a step closer to more broadly accepting that games can originate amazing entertainment archetypes of a compelling nature that reaches far beyond gamers.
So to Gearbox: I’m blatantly pulling for you. Expand and enhance the official canon and give us new, resonant material that gives non-gamers a reason to believe in the power of this medium.
And to the many Aliens fans who have made so many interesting posts on Gearbox’s forums, keep on posting and arguing over which alien depiction is best as well as egg morphing vs. queen morphing, how much you love or hate James Cameron, susceptibility to fire, human-like intelligence or ant/hive intelligence and so forth. You are a big reason why anyone would suggest Aliens: Colonial Marines could make a good game in the first place.
Jeremy Miller is founder of Strategic Game Consulting, a specialized company focused on helping video game industry clients create higher selling products though industry leading NPD data analysis, game accessibility consulting and individual and team Executive Coaching services.