Friday, July 8, 2016

From Alien to Familiar

It can't be understated how much James Cameron's "Aliens" film has influenced video games.  Resident Evil 2, DOOM 3, and the original XCOM, all drew inspiration from the movie in obvious ways.  I've even heard arguments that it's directly responsible for the creation of the survival horror genre as we know it.

Unsurprisingly, there have been a large number of direct adaptations of the Aliens franchise with wild variations in quality (even between platform ports).  For example, the Amiga and Apple IIc version of Aliens are pretty different, as are the Sega Genesis and SNES versions of Alien 3.  As far as good Aliens-themed games go, the general consensus seems to be Alien vs Predator 2, Alien: Isolation, and the original DOOM total conversion mod.  I've also heard positive things about the Nintendo DS title Aliens: Infestation, but I haven't had a chance to play it myself.

When it comes to bad games, there are sadly far to many to properly list.  Part of the problem comes from unrelated games that cherry pick all the best bits of the Aliens franchise for use in their own projects.  Hence, when an actual licensed Aliens game comes out it feels derivative in terms of gameplay (take the old Mac game Colony, or Metroid and Contra on the NES for examples of games that beat'em to the punch).  Another, more fundamental problem, is a simple lack of developer creativity.  I'm probably a bit of an outlier here when I say that my preference is for the original over any of the sequels (yes, even the second one).  My reasoning is simple, the alien was far more mysterious in the original film than at any point after.

It seems that the aliens are a biological weapon of sorts, engineered by an enigmatic race of giants.  It makes sense, but what if the aliens were actually native to some planet instead?  What kind of eco-system would that world have?  An even more disturbing possibility is what if they're not the dominate species on their homeworld?  Another interesting corollary is what do aliens look like when they are devoid of human DNA?  Supposedly, one unique aspect of xenomorph physiology is their ability to take on aspects of the host species (incubator).  It's a sort of accelerated evolution through grave robbing.  Originally, the alien in the first film was going to be much more maggot-like with translucent skin and a clear domed head that held a humanoid skull underneath.  Unfortunately, the production crew couldn't get the lighting to work quite right so the idea never really panned out.  Still, it's interesting to consider whether or not the xenomorphs are even a species at all.  Perhaps they are the culmination of ever species they've used as breeding hosts up to that point?  In which case how would xenomorphs interact if they were from branching evolutionary paths.  Would the dog-alien in the third film cooperate with it relatives from the previous movie?  Would they fight like red ants and black ants?  These are interesting questions that nobody has tried to answer, which is a shame because it would make good fodder for a video game.

Another disturbing aspect to the xenomorphs is their ability to steal not just the DNA of their hosts, but their memory as well.  It would help explain why, at times, the aliens appear to be strangely clever, they know everything their host knew, it's just that most of the knowledge isn't pertinent when the mental faculties of a xenomorph are dominated by the three basic instincts: survive, procreate and kill.  To me, the weirdest part of unexplained alien lore has to be their feeding habits, or lack there of.  Xenomorphs don't appear to eat anything and yet they grow ridiculously fast.  My personal theory is that they are somehow able to convert energy into matter, kind of like photo synthesis except instead of sunlight and leaves it's their elongated head organ and thermal radiation.  At the very least this would help explain why aliens like to build their nests in hot places, and why they would be such desirably specimens for scientific research.

Regrettably none of this has been explored or even addressed in a satisfactory manner.  Instead we've only really gotten rehashes of the first two films (usually with more bugs and more guns).  Worse still the aliens continue to get less and less...well...alien.  They started off as a mixture of flukes and tarantula wasps, then became something akin to ants or bees, and by the third film the alien was basically a jungle cat.  Appearance-wise too, the alien design has migrated away from the original bio-mechanical look to something more insect or reptilian in appearance.  Even the space jockey race have had their eerie pachyderm-like traits reworked into something more recognizably human.

Incidentally, during the pre-production of  Alien 3, H.R. Giger did a bit of design work on the alien for that movie.  Not wanting to simply repeat himself, the artist added some new features to the creature such as a "finger brain," consisting of numerous tendrils along the top of the head that would movie in rhythmic patterns.  Additionally, his new alien design had hollow tubes that would emit haunting windpipe noises.  I don't know how scary this would have been on film (none of he designs were used because of concerns over production costs), but it's bizarre stuff, totally unlike anything found on the planet Earth.  Hence, "alien" in the truest sense of the word.  I can understand why filmmakers would be reluctant to take those kinds of risks, but if you're going to make a tie-in game you might as well try to make it stand on its own merits.    

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