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Raised By Screens, Chapter 4: Alien

Isolation in green

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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.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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