Friday, 10 October 2014

Alien Isolation and in-game technology

In science-fiction, especially science-fiction games, technology is often a kind of magic. A more cynical writer might say writers use technology as a deus ex machina, the way sorcery is used in Harry Potter or The Force in Star Wars. If the writers of a videogame need to quickly move the story from level A to level B, then fuck it, use some technical sounding MacGuffin.

Technology is also a mechanical shorthand. Developers have a patronising attitude towards players. They seem to assume people will lose patience for, or interest in a game if the action, whatever form it takes, stops. In Destiny, for example, rather than actually hack computers themselves, players can simply tap square and have their robotic pal, Ghost, do it for them automatically while they dedicate their energies to more important things, like shooting and jumping. You could maybe bring budgets into this discussion as well. Why spend time building a hacking mini-game when you can just make a simple animation of, say, Ghost casting his scanning beam on a computer, and then feed back to the player with some quickly recorded lines of expository dialogue?

As in real-life, technology in games is used to save time and cut costs - to allow both the player and the developer opportunity to focus on things they deem more important.

This representation creates a vacuum, an absence of meaning. When your interactions with the game world are distilled to a mere button press, at which point either a robotic companion or an animation of your character's hands does everything for you, it's hard to feel physically part of that game world. Also, you don't gain any knowledge of how the game world works. Things simply "happen," while you gaze blithely on, ignorant of whatever mechanisms and rules are supposed to be governing your fictional environment.

I've written before how Metro tries to countermand this, how it takes the time to explain what machines are for, why they're needed and how they work. A generator does not simply come to life when you press one of its buttons - you have to charge it first. Likewise, a gas mask won't work indefinitely. The filter has to be changed and the visor, if it gets dirty, must be either cleaned or replaced. These are small details but they make you much more connected to the game, essentially because you're informed that the game world operates on physical laws that you yourself are familiar with. You've had to recharge your phone. You've had to clean something because it got stained.

 Alien Isolation has an almost fetishistic interest in the way machines work. When I spoke with creative director Al Hope, he described the aesthetic of the original film as pessimistic. It's a miserable view of the future, where technology, often, is a hindrance rather than a help. Think of the uncooperative messages from the Nostromo's computer, MOTHER, or, as an extreme example, the murderous intent of Ash, the android. This is technology that doesn't work. The readouts on the navigation systems are indecipherable; everything is activated by pressing a series of buttons, inputting a sequence of keycards. Far removed from the slick, magical technology in fluff like CSI, in the Alien universe, everything has circuity and a mechanism. Like the human body, which operates on biological laws, this technology is susceptible to failure.

And so, in Alien Isolation, a lot of your time is spent repairing, rebooting or reconfiguring computers and machines. Nothing is ever so simple as pressing a button. If you want to use an elevator, you have to find its power source and use a wrench to crank it back to life. If you're trying to establish communications with another ship, you have to program Sevastopol, the station you're on, to move into the correct position then power up the comms array and tune the output to the right frequency. These processes take literally hours of game time. Before you can interface with Sevastopol's mainframe, APOLLO, you have to climb down to it, disengage some safety locks so your companion, Samuels, can hack it, climb down again, bring it online by activating two generators, manually turn on its servers, disengage its security protocols then physically climb inside it. This takes around four hours, or more, of the game. This is technology that seems to be actively working against you.

That gives the game world character. As well as providing the player with several tactile, mechanical interactions, the process of getting APOLLO online infers a kind of roughness - an unfinished quality - to Sevastopol station. Read some of the in-game logs and you can learn that, before the events of the game begin, Sevastopol is in the process of being decommissioned. Also, the company that owns it, Seegson, is in dire financial trouble and attempting to earn back some faith from its shareholders by pushing as far into space as possible, ahead of everyone else. Sevastopol is a cheap, cut-corners kind of place, an office which still runs on Windows 98. The amount of time it takes to complete any kind of engineering work, to make something happen, as simple as opening a locked door, is unbearable. The technology in the game makes you acutely aware of several things. First, the game world, this shabby, dingy, thrown together failed space colony, this dreary future. Second, your character's ability - she's an engineer and, despite all the faulty wiring, she can still get things done, she's capable. Thirdly, and contrary to the previous point, it makes you aware how vulnerable you are, how desperate your situation is. If you could simply open locks using some technological spell, you would feel as if you had dominion over this world and, by proxy, power over your enemy, the alien. You'd also feel as if you could easily escape - the threat of the pursuing creature would diminish, greatly, if every room could be unbolted using something like JACK from Gears of War.

Technology is a character in Isolation, insofar as it has a complex relationship to the player. It's essential - you need your tools and the station's various emergency protocols and computers to survive - but it's also a detriment. The best characters in literature are conflicted, duplicitous. Sevastopol station, and the technology therein, are both friend and foe. Ignoring the idea that technology in other sci-fi games is essentially superglue for various plot strands, it's normally used for positive and creative mechanical feedback, as a way for developers to contextualise their wilder ideas and gift them as tools to the player. Think of the weapons in something like Resistance or Dead Space, absurd, spectacular things, designed to give players a sense of variety and visual spectacle. They do nothing to question the value of technology, to characterise the futuristic game world beyond "pretty cool, huh?" In stories where technology is supposed to be an enemy, such as Resistance, where the apocalypse has been caused by the synthesis of the "Chimera virus", it's contradictory to then inform players that technology is their answer. Again, it represents a lack of engagement with the game's fiction, on behalf of the writers. It shows that technology is used blindly, to justify ludic ideas. Also, that despite chest-beating about dystopian narratives or, in Dead Space's case, the novels of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Isimov, the developers are uninterested in questioning technology, one of the main characters in their game.

So I appreciate the measured, nuanced representation of tech in Alien Isolation. I appreciate that it is neither for you nor against you - it's simply a cold collection of parts which have to be correctly manipulated in order to function. As I said in the Metro write-up, that kind of portrayal eliminates a lot of the sex appeal around tech, around weapons. It's the kind of good sense that should halt developers when it comes to writing scenes around a Javelin missle or an orbital missile silo - an attempt to question whether technology really is "cool."

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