Raised By Screens, Chapter 4: Alien


This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS Supporter program.

Raised By Screens is probably the closest I’ll ever get to a memoir – glancing back at the games I played as a child in the order in which I remember playing them, and focusing on how I remember them rather than what they truly were. There will be errors and there will be interpretations that are simply wrong, because that’s how memory works.

“So can the cat be the android?” “Yeah, definitely.”

Playing games as a young teenager meant joyful ignorance, and then willfully turning that ignorance into lies. Many of my earliest lies (both those I spoke and those I believed) regarded games – my achievements in them, the power of my BBC Micro (‘better than an Amiga’), the fabled yellow faction in Dune II, hitting the bell in Street Fighter II to unlock the secret character, and, in the case of Alien, two lies. One was my friend’s claim that the secret company android on board the Nostromo could turn out to be hidden in feline form, and the other was our mutual claim to our rather more streetwise classmates that we had, in fact, watched Alien: the movie.

We had not. But we knew what Aliens was. We knew who Ripley was. I mean, at that time, everyone did. Aliens was three or four years old by this point, but it was nonetheless legendary to boys of my age. Legendarily trangressive too, filed alongside The Terminator and Robocop as films that you had to have seen in order to be anybody. Concerns with sex had barely begun at that age, but a certain macho mentality had arisen – to see any of that unholy trio incited the cred and awe that declaring you’d lost your virginity would a couple of years later.

Some of our peers had seen Aliens, but the facts they most liked to relay from it – with great relish – were Hicks getting his face burned by the creature’s acid blood, and “kill me.” The goriest bits, basically. Alien, by contrast, was declared ‘boring’ (and how foolish that sounds now).

Whether this was another lie, created because no-one had a VHS copy of it, or that the film’s slower, less gory nature was the cause of no-one having a VHS copy, I don’t know. But it did mean that Alien’s status as the lesser-seen film in our class slowly morphed our conception of it from ‘boring’ and into ‘the best one. The scariest one.’ Eventually – though the time period was probably measured in mere weeks – to have seen Alien carried far more weight than seeing Aliens did. Everyone’s seen Aliens, y’know? Aliens became Ghostbusters, or Star Wars.

So we lied. We’d seen Alien. We hadn’t, and we didn’t know how to – his parents too Christian, mine too conservative to permit such things to reach our tender young minds. We had seen some of Aliens, when another kid smuggled it onto the classroom video player, and it was the combination of the selected highlights (i.e. the killings) shown then and our experience of the ZX Spectrum’s Alien that we used to build our own concept of what Alien was.

ALIEN
1984, ZX SPECTRUM 48K
DEVELOPED BY CONCEPT SOFTWARE LTD, PUBLISHED BY MIND GAMES

Top-down, ‘tactical combat’ game, played out in real-time. The player gives orders to the entire crew of the Nostromo in their attempt to eradicate or escape the titular monster, but their state of mind affects their response to these orders.

Alien must have been at least six years old by the time we stumbled across it in a local shop. Still in our Spectrum comeback period, and currently preoccupied with all things Alien, its age didn’t matter. Its cover art did. This image was hard to come by back then, and yet to be spoofed and referenced into near-meaninglessness.

I still envy my friend that box – big, white-edged, plastic, with the glowing xenomorph egg of such infamy front and centre of its stark, black cover. Inside, a tape of course, but also a booklet ‘with actual pictures and dialogues from the film.’ ACTUAL PICTURES. Unthinkable, genuinely. Also another vital part of our mental Alien jigsaw, the one we clumsily, arrogantly used to try and impress others.

I made the mistake of looking at screenshots as I hesitantly researched this chapter. I dearly wish I hadn’t, because my memories of how the game looked were eerily similar to how the well-received Alien: Isolation looks today. Seeing the green grid-shape of the ship, like FTL played on a Gameboy, was jarring. This wasn’t as simple as mere nostalgia, but that I had a completely different conception of the game lodged in my head. I truly thought it was a series of corridors seen from a first-person perspective. The dissonance is mildly shocking.

It is a matter of tone, of course. As I sat there watching my friend play – I didn’t play it directly myself, but cannot remember if this was by choice or mandate – I felt the tension and terror of inching crew members around the ship, forever anxious that they’d run into the beast. When the time came to escape, which necessitated first catching Jones the cat in a catbox, it seemed a desperate race against time, pursued by unstoppable horror. Of course I remember it as first-person, because what Alien did was recreate the creeping fear of moving through an environment that could betray you at any moment.

It wasn’t just the Alien that could kill you, of course. One of the crew, one of these admittedly flighty comrades in arms, will turn out to be the enemy within. This is one of so many reasons why Alien is the more timeless and expert film than Aliens. Alien the game goes further, its ingenious twist being that you don’t ever know who the murderous android is. It might even be the cat.

It couldn’t be the cat. But we played again and again, believing our own lie that it could be, that sooner or later we’d see a catdroid. Then we’d have a story to tell.

36 Comments

  1. Tom De Roeck says:

    Definitely have had weird assumptions about how games work and they ended up doing completely different things when I was confronted with them. (which isnt what you were talking about, Alec, but still)

    For example, I played a demo of Warwinds 2 before I played Starcraft, but a classroom collegue of mine did play Starcraft before, and I would listen on and on to him talking about it. (well, only to find out a bit later that he hadnt really played the game)

    For me, the two games, warwinds 2 and starcraft ended up being some kind of weird amalgam of games. the zerg sounded simply alien and devastating and the protoss even more distanced than they did in the actual game. I was almost disappointed when I got to play the actual game, though relieved because the version I had in my mind sounded impossible.

    Its happened before with some other games, but I cant quite remember the details of those anymore, though funnily enough, those “mixups” happened when reading reviews and eagerly anticipating games, then having a completely different beast alltogether when I did buy the game.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      This is definitely a phenomenon that belongs to the days before youtube and other sources of internet gamespoilery. It wasn’t limited to finding secrets either, but lies about having completed games, or got past certain difficult parts were especially prevalent too. I remember more than once sitting a boastful friend down and demanding that they demonstrate how they beat a particular boss, or solved a particular adventure game puzzle in a different way from how I’d done it. for a brief while I enjoyed some small fame (on my street at least) for being good at adventure games. Kids I didn’t know used to come and ask me for help and of course I had to maintain this illusion as best as possible by giving impossibly cryptic clues even when I didn’t actually know the solution!

  2. SMGreer says:

    Every time I read about someone’s parents having never exposed them to Alien or similarly influential but adult films, I take great gratitude in my parents never having acted as censor. By the time I was six I’d seen Alien and Aliens, favourites of my parents, though in my naivety had of course likewise declared the original the “boring one” even though I still acknowledged it being the scarier. An attitude that completely shifted every time I re-watched the two till the original film completely overshadows its sequel now.

    I had also seen other violent, terrifying films like both Terminators (Sarah Connor’s nuclear nightmare frightened me into weeping at that age) and whilst some might scold my parents for exposing their children to such terrifying imagery, I greatly relish the fact that they did. None of the impact has been lost on me, I’ve simply gained a finer appreciation that’s now practically in my DNA.

    The same lack of censorship extended to games, though I never played the worst, even by the time I was a growing teen (GTA and Manhunt looked utterly boring to me) and I happily latched onto PC gaming (Thief, Homeworld were personal favourites) or games which my father and I could play cooperatively. So I’ve never really had the sensation of grasping at the “forbidden fruit” when it came to film and gaming.

    However the closest I got was Resident Evil 2. I don’t think my parents would ever have denied me seeking it out but by god did playing it a friend’s house terrify me. I say play, it was mostly us watching his older (fearless) brother play it. So much of it is laughable now, the blocky visuals and the cheap tricks but for a youngster who never played horror games it was a virtual nightmare. We told many lies about it too, that we believed ourselves, about the various enemy types, giving their basic scripted nature credit as being some evil beast that could hunt you down at any moment (a nightmare only recently realised with Alien: Isolation). Half of the story we made up, misinterpreting the awful dialogue or just latching on our own explanations. The game was all the better for it.

    Never got closure with it though as I was too scared to see the game through to its conclusion. Plus I knew a third was coming existence so the odds of a happy ending seemed slim.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      My parents let me see Robocop and Terminator, albiet with some bits fastforwarded! before I was 11, and Aliens came on TV a bit later and I finally saw it with the odd feeling that I’d actually seen it before. I don’t think they thought my brother and I were the kind of kids likely to want to copy the violence we saw in movies!

      However, Dungeons and Dragons was another matter entirely :) Computer roleplaying games, curiously, were not a problem – they were instead approved of highly as being more thoughtful kinds of games. That gave me the perfect covert means by which to get parts of the AD&D rulebook into the house, in the form of the appendices to the Eye of the Beholder games’ manuals.

      • SMGreer says:

        Pen and Paper RPG’s were an odd missing entity in my childhood (my mum was apparently an avid fan when she was in Uni), perhaps because we were spoiled with their Computer RPG equivalents and so my first brush with any Dungeons and Dragons stuff was the original Baldur’s Gate and later Neverwinter Nights which I treasured dearly. I never really found any love in the gameplay itself but the art of roleplaying, character customisation, dialogue choices etc. was just spellbinding for me in the years before stuff like LotR’s made it to the big screen.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Ah, the resident evil reference tells me you’re a wee bit younger… I think part of the difference we had when we were around 10 (those of us now staring into the abyss that yawns beyond the mid 30s) was that these films were contemporary and that over-the-top violence had been a trend in movies steadily increasing throughout the 80s and early 90s that coincided with the rise of home video. The news was telling us that a violent crime epidemic would take over the world by the year 2000 and “video nasties” were the big new and scary thing that OH MY GOD WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN! the media could go apeshit about. so I think that not only did our parents have all kinds of unfair pressures but also that these films were not quite yet part of the canon of influential sci-fi that anyone who’d spent the last 10 years raising kids would feel was important to them. My parents are sci-fi fans too and I saw Star Wars when I was about 4, grew up on scifi films from the 50s and 60s and doctor who and naturally saw Alien when I was too young to properly appreciate it. But Aliens or anything else from the mid to late 80s. Not so much.

      Being from a Christian background too I found my parents were even more driven by peer-pressure to keep me away from role playing games. And it took until some time in the 2000s when my Dad was playing Football Manager (a roleplaying game by any definition!) that I finally managed to have a conversation in which roleplaying was discussed as just another type of game, rather than a form of devil worship. The hysteria about roleplaying games in christian circles in the 80s seems now to have passed just as the hysteria about violent movies in wider society was mainly forgotten by the late 90s… By then videogames were already firmly in people’s sights :)

      • SMGreer says:

        Yeah, I’m 22 now, little more than a man-child-thing. My parents were atheists, as were the parents of all my friends, so it’s slightly baffling if no less interesting to hear about Christian parents and social circles being so frightened of such harmless games. Do you think that’s changed for Christian families nowadays, as the medium becomes more mainstream or are videogames, RPG’s in particular, still frowned upon or even disdained? I’ve got a few Christian friends my age who seem to have no problem about it at all but they’re not the most devout in their beliefs.

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          It wasn’t actually RPG videogames, or in fact videogames at all that were seen as a bad influence when I was a young child. They were something geeky and nerdy and if your kid was into them it was more or less a thing to be proud of. Especially as in those days computers were still seen as something you had to be clever to understand and something that was inherently educational.

          No, it was actual pen and paper roleplaying that was demonized in the 80s thanks to a number of scare stories that arose about students and kids who’d committed suicide after apparently becoming depressed about a character they were playing who died, or had a curse put on them or something. You can imagine how easily this kind of story got picked up and amplified by certain people in religious circles looking for moralistic crusades! So you had every Christian parent being fed horror stories that would naturally make them fear the worst if they knew their kids were playing Dungeons and Dragons.

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          Comparatively, I don’t think computer roleplaying was seen as a problem. I’m not even sure that enough people realised it was an actual thing :)

          These days though, the D&D sermon is much more likely to be about Grand Theft Auto!

          • SMGreer says:

            Wow, how bizarre. Thanks for sharing, that’s an odd bit of gaming history I had no idea about!

          • Martel says:

            I wasn’t even in a particularly religious family and I still remember hearing about D&D players being devil worshipers and the like. And of course being a kid that made me seek them out. I was a bit disappointed to find out they were just normal people playing PnP games with a flair for storytelling.

          • Deckard97 says:

            And let us all not forget the Tom Hanks TV movie classic, Mazes and Monsters.

            link to imdb.com

          • X_kot says:

            It didn’t help that AD&D books, such as the 1st ed. Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook, have richly drawn covers with a BIG DEMON HOLDING A WOMAN and a HUGE DEMONIC IDOL, respectively. The few times I took the books to school I was paranoid about any adult figure seeing the covers lest they be taken from me on the spot.

    • w0bbl3r says:

      It seems I am a bit older than you, I was about 7 when I saw alien on VCR release (betamax no less) in around 1980 or 1981.
      My parents also allowed me to watch anything. They weren’t knowledgable about stuff like ratings so much in those days, but my parents were clear to me that this was make believe, no matter how much it might be scary (evil dead terrified me, and still does in many ways) it couldn’t bother me.
      I grew up with a very healthy love of film, books and games. The only problem is that very very little can scare me now in entertainment. The new alien game has had a couple of instances where I have been very tense, and a little shaken, but still not scared how I was when that alien burst out of Kane’s chest, or lowered itself from the chains with a hissing I had never heard before.
      I am sick of people being so crazy about ratings. It should be up to the individual parents to judge their child, and inform their child about what they are seeing, and to make sure they KNOW what their child is watching/reading/playing at all times. There is no better way to do this than to be open about violence and horror and such.
      I loved growing up watching this stuff, and we had the biggest collection of movies on tape in the whole area at the time (of course they were copied, VCR to VCR, but that was the only way to own movies back then), and 90% of them were 15-18 rating. Even some that were banned (as the evil dead was shortly after release).
      Some people have said that my parents were terrible for this, whenever I tell people. My parents were a bit too young to have me, and not responsible in many ways. But this was one area where they were 100% right 100% of the time. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
      Seeing these iconic movies when they first came out was the only way to appreciate them fully. Because once they are a bit dated, the look of the movie and the special effects are not so convincing (you have to use your imagination not at all when watching movies these days), when they were just terrifying at the time.
      I wouldn’t trade watching the evil dead in 1982 for anything.

  3. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    You can play an emulated version of this game in your browser here.
    (I think you could even embed it in the page if you wanted to Alec)

  4. bonuswavepilot says:

    Good old gamer myths. Everyone remember Shen Long in Street Fighter II? All the result of a dodgy translation (and I think an April Fools’ style write up in one of the mags), but the mythos of how to reach him was so detailed!

  5. Zunt says:

    Ah yes, that brings back memories. You could open the external airlock doors in the hope of blowing the alien or the android into space. Of course you could also load the entire team into the airlock and cycle the door…

    The other overriding memory I have is the two cycle animation that played if the current character encountered the alien. I think it was meant to show the beast uncurling as it lunged but sadly instead it looked more as if it was pleasuring itself. Or perhaps that was the Giger-esque idea.

  6. Hypnotron says:

    I love stories like this.

    I just wonder if the popular video games today offer the same sorts of experiences? Will a 10 year old recall interesting experiences playing Destiny, Hitman: Absolution, Shadows of Mordor, Assassins Creed, Gears of War, etc, 30 years from now? I can’t see it. Those experiences don’t require the imagination, the patience and thoughtfulness that older games required. This is a generalization but I don’t think it’s too unfair.

    Modern, flow driven, content consumption games aren’t really savored while playing. Every 5 seconds the player is being conditioned to ask the game “what have you done for me lately?” Games are crafted for constant dopamine releasing payoffs. You finish a game of Counter Strike and League of Legends and what do you do? You jump straight back in for another fun but particularly unmemorable ride on the thrill coaster. You play a game of Alien and when you’ve finished it you take time off and savor the experience and you lay the seed for a story to bloom in 30 years.

  7. RuySan says:

    Thanks for the fine words and for sharing this with non subscriber, Alec.

    This is exactly the kind of articles I had in mind when I created my blog Amiga Memoirs.

  8. El Goose says:

    In space, no one can hear you… screen.

    Hmm, needs work.

  9. briangw says:

    Ahhh yes, Alien on the Commodore 64. I think I was 9 when I played it and I did see Aliens before Alien.

    This game and Impossible Mission were two of the games I never beat on the C-64.

    My gripe with Alien was not knowing how to finish it. I eventually realized I needed to capture Jones and I did on one play through. I sent everyone to the escape shuttle except for Ripley (obviously ;) ), and had her go set the self destruct sequence, I then ran back to the escape shuttle and tried to take off but Mother kept denying it saying there was a lifeform on board. SERIOUSLY???? Everyone else was dead except for the survivors and the Alien. I honestly didn’t think Mother was considering not allowing the launch due to the Alien roaming around the ship but alas, I ended up going down with the ship as I could not get back to cancel the self destruct sequence.

    One of these days, I’ll have to try it again but this was the first game that literally scared the heck out of me, especially at night . And when you went into a room that was heavily damaged and walked into the corridor and you heard the sounds and the screen flicker with the animated alien, it was terrifying back then.

    I still remember the quote at the intro screen: We live as we dream….alone. And that title music…..wow.

    • Iainn says:

      You should probably not replay Impossible Mission. I remember watching my dad complete it when I was about 5 and thinking “I can do that too!”. Nope. I never completed it back then, even when using my Action Replay cartridge to cheat! Fast forward to about 4 years ago, nostalgia hit me and I thought, “I’m going to play this game and I’m going to beat it, despite the title”. And I did just that relatively quickly. It was strange, because I remember the game being so difficult, having to find all the map pieces, flip them, colour them, completely failing to make them fit. Now it was a simple case of “Yeah, flip that map, that goes there, make it blue, easy!”. I wish I had left nostalgia alone, I don’t replay any games now…

  10. Not_Id says:

    Hey Alec, post another subscriber article, but this time don’t ask for more subscribers. “RPS subscriber program” link works just the same…

    Just waiting for other sites like pcgamesn, eurogamer, kotaku, giant bomb, destructoid, cvg, ign etc to ask for cash for info on computer games. Can’t wait…

    • thebigJ_A says:

      But… most of those DO have subscriber programs. Giantbomb puts all sorts of it’s videos behind a paywall (which I actually once subscribed to, but that site’s nothing like it once was sadly)

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Erm, this one doesn’t ask for subscribers.. And what would be so bad about it, if it did?

  11. jrodman says:

    This game is still too frightening for me to play.

  12. FullMetalMonkey says:

    This is a test. I’ve been trying to reply to this article but it’s not been working.

    • FullMetalMonkey says:

      I do think there was a sense of mystery of playing video games back in the day, which nowadays isn’t possible due to how visceral and expressive games have become. Where you’d be playing a game like Alien, Pitfall, Pacman, Rogue etc which have basic graphics but allow you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

      However when you look back on it 20+ years on, you wonder why you have such fond memories off
      a game, which terrified you when the main character consists of 64 pixels. It’s because as we get older we start to understand the world better and realise our childhood hero’s are fellow humans of flesh and blood with their own short comings a hang-ups.

      One of my own personal disappointments was meeting Suggs from Madness. In my head I had him as a really cool black shade wearing musician. Which he still is. But when I met him as
      a child he was more interested in chatting my mum up. My imagination let me down.

      Dwarf Fortress is one of the best examples of a modern game which allows your imagination to fill in the blanks but then it’s also using ASCII graphics which enhances my point. To the untrained eye it looks like a bunch of ASCII letters and symbols but for the player it is a mighty dwarf city being besieged by elves and on the verge of famine.
      But only a few meters below the deepest part of the dwarf fortress is a creature of such incredible power starting to awaken it causes the Elfish army to flee in fear of the coming doom. The dwarves thinking it was them who won the battle. But by then it’s too late, the creature is lurking amongst them. Infecting them. One by one, turning them into loyal disciples of darkness.

      All that from ASCII depictions of a recent game of Dwarf Fortress.
      Whilst I’m not criticizing modern titles for using beautiful graphics, I do think that the younger audience are missing out what made gaming back then great when we were growing up due to the lack of mystery afforded to us by games from back in the day.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      You passed! Although you failed to make any commentary on the subject matter so I’m afraid I cannot award you a distinction. The other fellows and I shall convene after 2nd hall this evening to dicsuss the continuation of your exhibition.

      • FullMetalMonkey says:

        Thank you! You get a cookie for your helpful submission to resolving why i can’t post what i actually want to post!

        • JamesTheNumberless says:

          I hope that’s an EU approved cookie.

          I get the same thing from time to time, usually when I’ve written quite a lot. I usually find that I have to either completely rewrite what I’m triyng to say, putting things in a different order and using different phrases. Or that I need to break it up into multiple smaller posts. I’ve got into the habit of writing longish posts into notepad first, then trying to post them, because of how frequently this happens! It probably has something to do with phrases that come up in spambots although the irony here is that spambots seem to have few problems getting through :)

          • FullMetalMonkey says:

            Yeah I’ve had it happen a few times before and like you say, with longer posts. I’ve saved it the notepad on my Note 2 but I can’t be arsed with posting it now.

            I’m thinking there’s a character limit on posts. If that is the case, RPS any chance of adding a letter counter?