Let me disclose that I know a handful of developers at Gearbox Software and chat with them on a semi-regular basis. Last month I floated with them the idea of getting exclusive tidbits or screenshots on their upcoming game Aliens: Colonial Marines, but that would essentially make this a preview, and I’m a columnist, not a journalist, so I don’t do previews.
Let me also disclose that that I am pulling for Gearbox to deliver us an amazing game that honors me as a semi-hardcore Aliens fanboy. I’ve only seen Aliens about three dozen times on video or DVD, and only about five times in campus theatres or wherever it was playing years after its original release. I’m told the true fanboy threshold starts at about 100 viewings with at least 10 of them theatrical, as well as mandatory ownership of the Colonial Marine Technical Manual (CMTM). I don’t own the CMTM, but I did once read through most of it during an extended break from an all-night, enchilada-infused Carmageddon sloshathon in the late 90s.
Finally, Gearbox is not a client of mine, and I haven’t worked on A:CM in any way. I’ve never been to Gearbox’s offices, and I met Randy Pitchford only once, at E3 2006. (Hint to Gearbox: yes, I would love to take a tour of the office that birthed Half-Life: Opposing Force.)
Now, with that out of the way…. For the sake of video gaming’s evolution and acceptance as an art from, it is in the industry’s best collective interest that Aliens: Colonial Marines kick ass.
While not necessarily a frequent topic at industry conventions, Aliens is still one of the most influential films on the videogame industry. Ever. It was the first movie to strongly popularize the concept of “space marines,” originated by Robert Heinlein’s 1959 book Starship Troopers, and it planted the seed for their appearance in videogames just around the corner. It cemented new archetypes into the gaming lexicon, like the pulse rifle, dropship and sentry gun. Never before did we experience small squad, close-quarters combat with soldiers using conventional — or at least highly plausible — weapons against unconventional, lethal creatures from the darkest corner of our imagination. At least, no movie had ever done it in as compelling a way as Aliens.
There is no doubt that many gamers made the link from Doom back to James Cameron’s 1986 film masterpiece. When my buddies all gathered around my 486 in 1993, there was instant consensus about the game’s awesomeness. My friends watched me blow away Imps while dodging fireballs for a little until someone said, “When are they going to make a game like this but with aliens?” Doom was more cartoony awesome than scary, but the close-quarters, intense combat using mostly conventional weapons in a nightmarish scenario certainly resonated with Aliens to many gamers.
Sure enough, people did make interesting Aliens mods for Doom, complete with sound samples ripped from the film. In one mod, I recall every time you died you heard Bill Paxton (Hudson) yell “game over man!” It had its flaws, but to this day I still say that mod was mostly awesome. Mostly.
Years later, Half-Life and Halo delivered more gaming elements reminiscent of Aliens to wider audiences. The headcrabs of Xen turned many Black Mesa inhabitants into grotesque zombies that were by no means as scary or even as intelligent as the xenomorphs in Aliens, but the idea of parasitic crawling creatures latching onto a victim’s head and slowly transforming them is undeniably similar to facehuggers that lead to chestbursters. Similarly, Halo’s Flood transformed victims into hostile monstrosities, though they mostly looked like bubbling snotballs of exaggerated size, speed and agility.
A more direct reference found in Halo was the squad of AI friendly soldiers that revered the Master Chief, especially Sergeant Major Avery Johnson, whom Wikipedia describes as “similar to the stereotype of charismatic black Marines found in other science fiction (such as Sergeant Apone in Aliens).” Fighting with Sergeant Johnson and his squad gave us a small taste of what it might have been like to have been in Aliens with Apone and company.
Yet in all the Aliens-related games I’ve played, I never felt like I was truly immersed in the magic of the film experience. By comparison, many moments in the better Star Wars and Lord of the Rings games over the years brought me into the films in a satisfying way. The epic nature of those two franchises led me to have grand fantasies of how I might fit into their casts of hundreds and thousands with massive battles on land and in space, and making me feel that way in games is sort of a no-brainer with a competent game developer at the helm. The Star Wars galaxy was big enough with so much history that certainly there was room for other Jedi adventures or battle experiences to be told that the films never got to. And before you send hate mail, I do recognize that Star Wars episodes IV through VI are significantly less epic than episodes I through III, but compared to Alien films, they are still massive.
Unlike Star Wars and especially Lord of the Rings, the Alien franchise is very intimate. It is close-quarters, gritty and utterly adult with violent sexual metaphor in the xenomorphs’ physical design, life cycle and predatory abilities. Star Wars movies may follow Luke and Anakin Skywalker’s personal journeys, but they are not intimate films. We could argue that Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring is very intimate, but not so with the Lord of the Rings films as a whole. The main stories of all Alien franchise films take place over short periods with few epic shots or sweeping camera angles. The audience is up close to the action in nearly every scene. There are no large-scale romantic battles with casts of digital thousands. We aren’t told a tale of a vast galaxy’s war and conflict over decades and longer. We don’t get introduced to stories of all races of Middle-earth coming together to confront evil thousands of years ago. We don’t get a lengthy cultural lesson about hobbits or franchise demeaning explanations about midichlorians. We don’t see fleets of spaceships moving in concert while Rebel Alliance leaders discuss how to blow up the massive Death Star-again. We don’t nod sympathetically when we are told the thousands of men they’ve gathered still won’t be enough to defeat the armies of Mordor.
Instead, we are trapped in a single spaceship or in a tight ground complex where horrid xenomorphs could theoretically come at you from anywhere at any time. We don’t span years, months or weeks; we barely span days, and once we get on board the Sulaco, perhaps it’s only hours. The camera rarely strays far from our characters. We experience all their emotions and rarely have time to speculate on the larger scope of the Aliens universe.
This isn’t to say that the Aliens universe isn’t large, it’s just that the slice we are given is highly focused, and we aren’t dealing with a huge number of epic subplots. We don’t have seven dozen endings like at the end of the Return of the King. Okay, we have to duke it out with the queen once the atmospheric processor blows up, but that’s it. And we aren’t traveling to different planets between acts or traversing snowy mountain ledges in one scene and plunging into the dead blackness of a never ending mine in the next.
Aliens‘ tightness compared to epic franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings leaves us with vastly less material to make games out of. And despite the quality of the Aliens film experience, there aren’t that many plausible game setups we could create without stretching the canon razor thin. That stretching upsets the core Aliens fanbase who, because they have so much less official material to examine compared to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings fans, know every detail of the canon inside and out. They especially know where the canon begins and ends. They’ve read the Aliens novels and comics and own the Colonial Marines Technical Manual. All that’s nice, but it pales by comparison to the mountain of canon around Lucas’s and Tolkien’s works. And if you are a more casual Aliensfan, like I am, you still know a lot and are likely to know proportionally much more about the Alienscanon than a similarly casual Lord of the Rings fan knows about that franchise.
The problem with that is if an Aliensgame strays far from the canon, which is easy to do by accident given how tight it is, core fans will have a harder time accepting it. Can you picture Aliens Kart Racing or Grand Theft Sulaco? Sure, such games could be ironically cute or structurally fun, but they would be considered purely derivative products that, unless they were so innovative and so awesome wouldn’t bring anything new to gaming that we couldn’t realistically get elsewhere. The tragic, serious and intimate nature of Aliens, even with its many comedic moments, makes such products implausible.
There have been plenty of direct attempts to recreate the acidic, mucous-y goodness of Aliens into videogame format, though few of them really resonated. Sure, some of the mods for Doom were scary just because the FPS genre was still new and the very idea of seeing animated, fast moving monsters that resembled the xenomorphs reminded us of how lethal they were. You didn’t want them getting close to you, because that meant a horrible death. The aliens in the Doom mods scared you the way a rat that crawls across the floor would scare someone with an extreme case of musophobia. These mods were definitely cool, even in their simplicity relative to today’s technology, because they marked the first time we got to experience anything resembling the films.
The ability to deliver a more compelling Aliens experience did progress with time. Some believe the best attempt was 2001’s Aliens vs. Predator 2, whose early levels in the marine campaign came closest to getting the right feel of the doomed squad’s descent into the hive and horrible encounter in the film. The fundamental gameplay was based on backing away while shooting to keep the aliens off you, otherwise describable as “fearful run-and-gun in reverse.” At least that’s how I played, because I was too scared to power my way through. This time, the aliens could crawl on the walls and ceilings and when they came at you, the music — borrowed directly from the film — dynamically changed to heighten the sense of terror.
While AVP2 upped the bar in approximating the Aliens experience, the main emotion felt was the same exaggerated musophobia. The Aliens film goodness didn’t last long as the game was split over three campaigns (humans, predators, aliens), and much of what gamers remember was the multiplayer that crossed all three species. Further, the game didn’t have the witty dialog or rich characters the way the film did. Ultimately the marine experience in AVP2 was rather one-dimensional, even though it did a good job with the technology available at the time.
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.