Alien: The perfect organism

This Spectrum/C64/Amstrad CPC Alien game (Spectrum version shown and played) debuted all the way back in 1984, making it perhaps the only official Alien game old enough to predate Aliens original cinema release. As if to help transport us back to those simpler times the manual opens with a nine page retelling of the first (or as it was then, only) movie up to the infamous “chestburster” scene, using stylishly grainy and deeply oversaturated monochrome photos as a visual aid. The game takes over where the text left off, beginning with the alien scuttling out of an arbitrarily-decided crewmember’s chest.

Although the game’s goal is broadly the same as Ridley Scott’s horror classic – try to either kill the alien or escape it (preferably both) – the way this creepy scenario plays out differs greatly from one game to the next as anyone could start the game infected, anyone (and everyone) could die at any time along the way, and anyone could be the devious alien-admiring corporate android saboteur.

Paradoxically the fixed nature of the Nostromo’s three floor layout and all the items contained within its web of labs, mess halls, and engine rooms only heightens the uncertainty, as thanks to this feature you can spend some time formulating a clever plan… and then watch it fall apart as a character holding a helpful item suddenly dies, or the xenomorph insists on prowling a vital connecting corridor. If you refuse to play along and do nothing other than have one person make a break for the Narcissus – the Nostromo’s lifeboat – the instant the game begins you’ll soon hit a clever snag, as it won’t launch unless the self-destruct system’s active, three or fewer characters remain (the Narcissus can’t hold any more), and most importantly of all ship’s cat Jonesy is present in either a net or his cat box. He could be anywhere and he isn’t keen on staying in one place or getting caught (according to manual he prefers some crewmembers over others too, which presumably translates into a hidden catch success rate) – and that means if you want to escape without killing the alien yourself you have to send someone out to grab him. Try to force the lifeboat to leave anyway – there’s a terrifying alien busy tearing everyone apart after all – and Mother, the Nostromo’s computer, will override the order and continue to do so under all circumstances unless its very specific requirements are met. It’s a beautifully simple idea that forces you to engage with the whole game even if you already know exactly what you need to do and it also fits the setting perfectly: what could possibly be more “Alien” than everyone dying just because the computer’s been programmed to value obeying the company’s rules over the lives of any employees?

All of this real-time and often doomed action is controlled via a command-like overview of the ship, the harsh green-on-black map used in this Spectrum version honestly doing a great job of making you believe you’re looking at a movie-appropriate display and trying to direct the characters remotely. Helping describe the action you’re not seeing is Mother, your personal awareness of a deadly presence tearing through the unprepared crew like they’re wet tissue paper at stark odds with the computer’s cold status updates: “Ripley has collapsed”, “Dallas finds Kane’s body”, “The ALIEN is attacking Parker”.

The game’s “Personality Control System” attempts to convey the crew’s sense of fear and uncertainty by giving them not only a general health state – OK or injured, for example – but a mental one too, someone’s willingness to crawl through tight vents or go to the lower deck alone depending to some degree on how confident they’re feeling at the time. Are they standing next to a half-chewed corpse? Have they been injured themselves? Are they holding a decent weapon, or are they supposed to fight the alien off with harsh language and a motion tracker?

Getting into direct combat with the creature is almost always a bad idea, even if you do have the firepower to temporarily drive it off (or under rare circumstances even kill it). Aside from the obvious physical risks to the character in question there’s also the state of the room to consider, as catastrophic area damage will instantly kill every human in the same room – and brilliantly that means, as it should in any game based on Alien, you can have the means to defend yourself literally sitting in your hands and still not feel safe. The “best” way to dispose of the violent extraterrestrial is to blow it out one of two airlocks, although that involves using someone as bait, and having someone else standing in the room with the airlock controls at the same time, and hoping it doesn’t realise what’s happening…

It’s not a great plan but it might be the least-worst one available, especially as even if you haven’t set the ship’s tight five minute self destruct timer there’s still the TOOH – Time Out Of Hypersleep – counter to worry about: or to put it another way, how much unplanned-for extra oxygen the crew’s inhaling as they try to sort this out. Something’s going to kill the crew, and if the alien somehow doesn’t get them first then the limited air supply definitely will.

I wish I could create a game as tense as this. You’re always given enough information to understand exactly how much danger you’re in but never enough to know when you’re safe, the sound of a door opening somewhere even when the only crewmember left alive hasn’t moved is perhaps one of the most chilling pieces of audio information I’ve ever encountered in a horror game. You really don’t know who you can trust or what’s going to happen from one game to the next, and everything you do know might suddenly become useless due to circumstances beyond your control.

Crucially you always have just enough “power” on your side to make these desperate fights worthwhile, enough of a chance to turn a bad situation into a scrappy “At least someone made it out alive” sort of hollow victory – just like Ripley did in the movie. There’s always a way out of this mess even when everyone else is dead and the only survivor’s standing in a partially destroyed laboratory holding a spanner – you just need to keep calm, quickly consider your next move, watch the vents, and pray luck is on your side…

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