We Need To Talk About Hacking Minigames

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By the time I finished Alien: Isolation I had become acutely aware of the criticisms people gave the game a year ago, mainly concerning its surprising length. I’m not gonna go on too much about that, but I did become interested in some of the things the game tried to do in its structure and procedure which weren’t total successes.

Isolation is definitely an overly long game. It has around four or five moments that each would have served perfectly fine as an ending, and probably should have been 50 or 60 percent as long as it ended up being. I would even argue that by the time it does end it’s about half way to being more Aliens than Alien in terms of spectacle and action. If anything, Isolation might be proof that a true survival horror game probably doesn’t need to go beyond a certain length — perhaps 12 hours. Resident Evil: Code Veronica suffers the same problem, bringing that franchise’s classic structure beyond its logical conclusion.

It’s pretty obvious Isolation is at its best when you’re playing hide-and-seek with the alien. That’s the core of the game and it works very well most of the time, but it also has a couple other main elements, one of which ties directly into the hide-and-seek and one of which may or may not need to be there.

For one thing, Isolation is pretty much the king of hacking minigames. How to properly convey hacking is something pretty much every medium of fiction has struggled to convey. Video games have struggled with a wide array of what amount to minigames to convey the act of breaking into computers or electronic locks, but I’ve never seen a single game utilize as many different ones as Isolation does. Hacking being in the game makes perfect sense — having to potentially do time-consuming activities with the alien approaching creates tension, but I feel like The Creative Assembly should have figured out some kind of broad system instead of mixing together half a dozen completely separate minigames. Essentially, a larger game within the game.

The issue is it’s probably difficult to convey the idea of an engineer in a video game, at least it is in an action game or any game where the main interface involves controlling a single character. At that point perhaps Isolation should have allowed itself to be more of a puzzle adventure game if it was already de-emphasizing guns. It could have at least focused on puzzles as much as the older Resident Evil and Silent Hill games did. Perhaps it could have tried to teach players some kind of fairly complex computer puzzle system that all the computer puzzles would play into instead of a bunch of really simple ones. Or maybe it could have just made hacking a miniature version of the main hide-and-seek game where you have to sneak past security protocols instead of an alien. I feel like it’s going to be a somewhat significant moment when one game finally figures out a hacking system that most other developers end up agreeing on.

The other thing Isolation tried and didn’t really succeed at was its emphasis on exploration. A big, dark space ship with the kind of atmosphere Creative Assembly achieved is the kind of place that begs to be explored, and the developer definitely tried out some Metroidvania elements in it. You have different doors locked by different mechanisms, and you eventually come back to unlock them with a widening array of tools. In the end though going back to all those places felt like backtracking.

In my opinion Creative Assembly’s first mistake was neglecting to make the initially off-limits places into things players wanted to unlock and explore. Metroid works partly because when you see a place just out of reach there’s usually something in plain view the player wants, or at least wants to investigate. Sometimes it’s just the gate to an entire area, or a new path. In Isolation you rarely see what’s on the other side of all those locked doors and panels. Maybe it should have displayed the flamethrower or shotgun behind one such locked panel, or a part of the ship you know you need to reach. Basically, Isolation doesn’t make its exploration enticing. It’s just exploration for the sake of exploration, or perhaps atmosphere.

The second mistake Creative Assembly made I think is in how linear Isolation ultimately feels. You never really feel like you’re exploring the station of your own volition — just going where other characters tell you to go. Going for the Metroidvania feeling makes a lot of sense both due to the space station setting and because Metroid itself is heavily inspired by Alien, but if Isolation really wanted to do that I think it should have tried to feel more like, well, Metroid. Imagine a version of the game with fewer characters and more open-ended exploration, where players feel truly isolated on a much more deserted version of the ship and are left free to figure out where to go and how to navigate around roadblocks. That kind of game would potentially be more interesting with a single alien randomly roaming the whole map instead of certain pre-scripted places. Perhaps this is what Routine will accomplish.

For its first half, Isolation is still a really good modern survival horror game in an era where no one expected to get one outside the indie space, and you have to applaud it for even making the attempt with a decent budget. It just ended up being a really imperfect attempt. Honestly though, I’m fine with that. In a time when we’re getting a lot of well-executed but formulaic games we need more imperfect steps into experimentation.

BULLETS:

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