How Do Alien Isolation’s Lockers Work?

This is the first entry in a new column called The Mechanic, where Alex Wiltshire invites a developer to help him put their game up on blocks and take a wrench to hack out its best feature, just to see how it works. It’s about the sweat, grease and genius behind the little things that make games special.

Alien: Isolation is an AI-driven science-fiction horror game featuring, for the most part, a single, unstoppable opponent. It’s pretty much a game version of the first Alien film: confined to a space, all you can do about the xenomorph that’s hunting you down is to distract, avoid or briefly scare it. And all around you lies terrible temptation. They feel like they’ll solve all your problems. They feel like safety. They feel like places you should stay inside. But they won’t; they aren’t; you shouldn’t. They are:

THE MECHANIC: Lockers

You can really imagine the dull, corporation-driven lives that were led in the space station Sevastopol. A population sitting at desks, grumbling at each other over email on green-screen terminals. Alien: Isolation captures the same heightened sense of the everyday that makes the original Alien film so starkly convincing, and similarly sets one heck of a stage for all the awful, horrible things that ensue.

The plot, which is basically a very elongated version of the bit in Alien where Ripley has to set the auto-destruct sequence, has you traverse and re-traverse location after location to maximise your contact with the alien. It’s a game about the dynamics of careful movement and observation: watch the alien, plan your actions, execute. This means that Alien: Isolation is definitely not about lockers, because lockers are the opposite of movement and observation. And yet I, like many other players, spent a good deal of time in them, and correspondingly it turns out that quite a lot of thinking went into lockers, about what place they take in the game’s overall design and how they work.

And also, quite a lot of not thinking at all. “Of course we’d have lockers that you can hide in,” says Al Hope, Alien: Isolation’s creative director, about the fact they’re in the game at all. But they were still the last of the major hiding places his team implemented. Space stations aren’t, of course, organic spaces, and being packed-in to use their volumes efficiently, they offer a limited spatial vocabulary. With this in mind, Creative Assembly started designing appropriate objects to hide behind, then objects to hide under, then air ducts, and only then did lockers come into the game, the result of surveying already-created props for suitable objects to hide inside.

That you should be able to hide at all in Alien: Isolation came from very early discussions about what it’d mean to be trapped in confined spaces with a lethal, fast and unpredictable alien. “What would we do?” says Hope. “I’d duck behind a table and make sure it couldn’t see me. I’d creep around and try to be quiet; we wanted to take advantage of very intuitive survival skills.” To get players behaving so instinctively meant making the Sebastopol feel like a real place. Just as the alien had to behave coherently, like a living being with a mind of its own and habits that you could observe and exploit to survive, the environments had to offer features you’d innately turn to for support. “That’s a natural thing, to try to do something to make yourself feel a little bit safer, buy some time; the priority is what you can do right now to make you feel less under threat.”

The interesting thing about lockers, though, is how they’re different to the other means of hiding in the game. If you’re under a table you can see a fair amount, scoot around to stay out of view and exit from another angle. But once inside a locker, you’re trapped and your view’s restricted. An Alien: Isolation locker is struck through with a big tradeoff: for the hope of concealment you’re backing yourself into a corner, drastically reducing your number of options.

“We never wanted the player to ever feel 100% safe,” says Hope. “This isn’t your home, this isn’t somewhere you will want to stay in for a long time. It’s to communicate, subconsciously, that it’s temporary and you will probably want to move on as fast as possible.” Because while lockers are there to give sanctuary, the game would fail if it became an exercise in jumping between them as if they’re islands of safety. “We always tried to have some kind of risk or cost associated with every action,” says Hope. “The game is about taking risks and making the least-worst decision from moment to moment.” That’s something you learn for sure the first time the alien tears the door off the one you’re in.

Something else that was in part designed to stop lockers feeling too safe was the terrifyingly loud slam the door makes as you get inside. It also reinforces the tactile, physical nature of the Sebastopol, giving you the sense that you’re stepping into a frail tin can. But the sound itself isn’t as loud to the alien as it might seem, a point of much debate in the team. It’s actually bit of creative licence engineered make the moment of entry more exciting, and it’s fearsomely effective, even when you know it.

The spell of naturalism that Alien: Isolation is designed to weave means that Hope is frustratingly coy about explaining how the game responds to you being in a locker. He doesn’t want to break the magic circle. However, he says the core rules are that if the alien sees you going inside one it can therefore come and find you, and that it’s aware of what lockers are, and that players will sometimes use them. So if it suspects you’re in a general location it’ll start to investigate, and it’ll include examining lockers.

That’s why the alien will often walk past when you’re in a locker, which is useful not only because it studs potentially boring hiding with thrilling near-miss moments, but also because you get information to help you decide when to come out. Demonstrating how the alien is driven by parameters, at points during development the alien was impossible to play with. “Very subtle changes in its senses can really influence its behaviour and decision-making,” Hope says, explaining that it wouldn’t leave playtesters alone, constantly returning to where they were hiding.

You can see some of these parameters in the folder AlienIsolation\DATA\BEHAVIOR, which is filled with tantalisingly named XML files like ALIEN_SUSPECT_TARGET_RESPONSE and ALIEN_SYSTEMATIC_SEARCH. But they’re all modified by your own behaviour: if you use lockers a lot, you can be sure the alien will notice.

One behaviour was stripped out of the game: the alien attacking lockers of which it was suspicious. “It was super cool and very intimidating, but it would also start to reduce the number of places you could hide. We’re often seen as being mean, but we’re not that mean,” says Hope. But the power of the moment the alien would tear to pieces the locker next to yours meant he would have loved the chance to make it fair enough to have shipped.

Alien: Isolation’s lockers offer one more opportunity for drama, one that adds agency, too: the simple breath-holding mechanic. Here, by leaning away from the door, which further restricts your vision, and holding the right mouse button, you might prevent a suspicious alien from finding you. It could have been a more elaborate minigame, but instead it focuses attention on the alien drawing close.

That such moments feel so tense is testament to Alien: Isolation’s ability to get under your skin. No, Alien: Isolation is not about lockers, but they’re still an intrinsic part of an elegant and single-minded design in which every component compels you to live by instinct. And often die, too.

66 Comments

  1. slerbal says:

    I avoided the lockers at all cost. They felt like vertical coffins in the game. I much preferred scooting around under tables, through vents, and sometimes just pegging it down a corridor :)

    Great game though, and fantastic environment. I had to turn off the Alien so I could just have a walk around, and even without the Alien it was full of menace and decay. Brilliant.

    • james___uk says:

      I ABSOLUTELY SHIT MYSELF when I got caught in a vent the first time, smacked myself in the face and got a cut, it was amazing (twas with an oculus rift)

      • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

        Maximum respect.

        I would never again be able to sleep at night if i tried a similar thing.

      • melnificent says:

        I too have played this on oculus rift. There was a bang the lights went out, I ran to the save point and quit.

        I’ll go back one day.

      • wd40glid says:

        How does playing a FPS with the oculus work? How do you turn 180 degrees? I realize I could google this, but I’m hoping for more Alien-with-oculus stories :O

        • jerubius says:

          Pretty sure the usual method is to have the thumbstick or mouse still control your body turning, but you can move your head independently with the Oculus.

  2. rustybroomhandle says:

    On my second playthrough I actually never got into any lockers – not even once. it made the sneaky parts far more manageable. Distractions, traps, sneaking, hiding under stuff, no lockers.

  3. Somerled says:

    L’enfer, c’est casiers

  4. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    This is a really cool idea for a series.

    • Hedgeclipper says:

      And a good article to start too, looking forward to more.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Eh, not so much:

        …invites a developer to help him put their game up on blocks and take a wrench to hack out its best feature, just to see how it works.

        …Hope is frustratingly coy about explaining how the game responds to you being in a locker. He doesn’t want to break the magic circle.

        Get that guy to break his wrench out already, or find a different guy.

        • qrter says:

          Yeah, I like the idea of this column, but this didn’t tell me much that I hadn’t already deduced by, you know, playing the game.

  5. denizsi says:

    I loved the game but one thing that throughly disappointed me was the NPCs. They never even attempted to hide. Not one of them. I would have loved to see an NPC trying to hide, under tables or in lockers and either succeed in surviving until the Alien went away for a while or better yet, discover the hiding NPC much like it would discover the player. Nope. They all walked into their deaths.

    • Rinox says:

      This is not entirely true – I have seen NPCs hide, just not very often or effectively.

      I lured the alien to a group of humans to make them erhm disappear, and after it left and I returned to check the mess and do some proper looting, I found one of the guys crouched and hiding behind a few barrels. He wasn’t showing much autonomous behaviour and did very little but whimper, but he definitely was hiding from the Alien.

  6. badmothergamer says:

    I never played this game but found this an interesting read anyway. I absolutely love the idea behind The Mechanic. Definitely looking forward to reading more of these.

    • Geebs says:

      Seconded.

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      Cubed.
      I’d love even more magic card trick ruining though, if keeping it to older games.

      • Alex Wiltshire says:

        Thanks! Really glad you like the concept. I’m hoping to tear the innards out of a whole blend of games, mostly recent, but encompassing mods, indie and big production affairs. If anyone has any suggestions for specific games’ mechanics to cover, I’d love to hear them – ping me at alex.wiltshire@gmail.com.

  7. dirtrobot says:

    But they didn’t really work. I thought the game was broken because after the alien found me once, it found me in the locker every time. The forums discovered that this was intentional, the alien would learn to look in the object type it discovered you once in. The tip was to NEVER hide in anything but merely keep some geometry between yourself and the xenomorph. Oh and even if you reloaded it would ‘remember’.
    Plus the sound and animation were completely incongruent, a loud desperate slamming of a door in a stealth game? Good idea!

    Loved the game as a museum of the Alien universe, but a lot of the mechanics and design decisions were spotty. Easily one of the worst stealth games in terms of implementation and player communication.

    • Zanchito says:

      Interestingly enough, my experience is just the opposite. I used lockers with a lot of success on hard difficulty, but only when the alien was far away, mostly waiting for it to pass by and go in the direction it came from. I used them sparingly, but not stingily, and they always worked for me. The stealth felt very good for me.

    • kio says:

      I didn’t think the alien could ever find you in a locker if you did the lean back + hold breath thing, even if it remembered the location from a previous lunch. I mostly found them to be a waste of time though, since it pinned you down, reduced your visibility, and even seemed to encourage the alien to walk by.

  8. Sarfrin says:

    OK, I’m renewing my subscription. I know this wasn’t a supporter post but I want more of this sort of thing.

  9. LennyLeonardo says:

    Love this article, and would love to see more like it. On the lockers: that the Alien can learn if you use them a lot is really interesting, given that the only way it can know if you use one at all is if it finds and kills you. This means it learns between respawns, and so learns the player’s behaviour, not the player character’s.

    • Borodin says:

      Unless the game cheats, of course, so that the alien does “know” how much you use lockers, even without discovering you there

      Unfortunately I don’t think it’s unlikely that it works this way

      • RandwulfX46 says:

        Creative Assembly has admitted to a bit of cheating on the part of the Alien AI, but not with it’s behavior.
        It has been confirmed that by the end of Alien: Isolation there are 2 aliens on Sevastopol as opposed to the single xenomorph you encounter.
        Oddly enough, I can’t find any articles I can link to though :(

  10. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    Great read! I never finished the game. It became tiresome for me to constantly hide, bringing my progress to a halt. I understand that’s the point of the alien, and one day I hope to return. Also, I’ve read of the ‘no alien’ cheat or tweak, so maybe I’ll give that a shot.

  11. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I too have spent many an hour pondering the mystery of how lockers work.

  12. Bagpuss says:

    The Alien attacking suspicious lockers sounds amazing and terrifying, it’s a pity they cut that feature but I can see that it would cause the reduction in hiding places, but surely it could have been implemented if there was a locker repair feature, which in turn would have upped the tention ante if you also had to be careful of the time and noise it would take to repair it.

    If they’d thought about it a bit more I’m sure it could have been done, and have turned into a rewarding gameplay element.

    • Bagpuss says:

      *tension*

    • Baines says:

      Considering people say that they beat the game without even touching the lockers, it seems it wouldn’t really matter if the Alien destroyed some of them.

  13. thetruegentleman says:

    Wait, something here doesn’t make sense: destroying the lockers eliminates places to hide, which is something the dev team wanted to avoid as much as possible…but if the alien finds you in a locker, the locker effectively becomes useless due to the alien’s learning ability? What’s the difference between a destroyed locker and one that’s useless for hiding?

    Maybe the game would have been improved through the actual use of multiple aliens: they could communicate to each other to learn about the player’s strategies, but could also be killed to stop that from happening, instead of being unrealistically invulnerable. Seriously, we know guns and flames kill them; why the hell are the aliens invincible now? The devs sure as hell didn’t feel the need to limit the plot to one alien.

    Anyway, killing one would obviously draw others, which would probably get the player killed very quickly; the more that are killed, the more of a threat the aliens see the player as, teaching them to respond quicker to the death of another alien. In other words, it would be an option of last resort; a way for players to run to the finish or at least prevent the aliens from learning a strategy, but not a way to actually beat them.

    At least it makes more sense than one alien following you the entire game for no real reason…

    • Borodin says:

      I think the point is that, if you use lockers a lot, the alien becomes a little more likely to search for you in lockers in general, rather than to keep hitting the locker where it found you previously

    • theblazeuk says:

      Did you finish the game?

      You should finish the game or spoil the ending

      Also whilst I agree I theory, the alien does bleed if you shoot it. I liked the idea that your petty of calibre rounds just pissed it off. Your guns were made for people killing not an angry space monster. It’s based on ash’s line from the first movie, not the marines bug hunt from the second. I was ultimately not too bothered by the conceit.

  14. kumivocax says:

    nice

  15. sebagul says:

    NEVER use any locker.

    The best strategy is to move forward continuously. Walk. Never crouch, except when the alien is in the same room and looking in your general direction.

    If you move fast, the alien does not have time to spawn. If you waste time, the alien comes, and after his arrival, he never leaves.

    So, if you waste time with lockers, you are only giving time to the alien to reach you.

    Lockers were the worst idea on this game. Most players hide inside a locker, and then it turns terribly boring. That was the main reason for which it had bad press.

    The other reason for which this game had low sales is that it was ruined by the console developers sin of not understanding that a game is not a movie.
    To create movie-like suspense, they made the first two hours extremely boring. There is no alien, and little gameplay. It is incredibly boring to just press forward for 2 hours just to keep advancing a corridor. Replaying the game is torture.

    Then you have level 9, the looooong boredom walk in the planet. Again, no gameplay at all. just pressing forward.

    And again the looooooong spacewalk on mission 16. Horrifyingly boring.

    And the loooong period without alien, with only occasional, scripted encounters with lame androids (too easy, even on nightmare).

    And the looooooooong scripted events after you are captured at the end of the game, with absolutely no gameplay aside shooting some facehuggers exactly the same way and place every time.

    They do not understand the difference between a game and a movie, and that ruined the game.

    • Chaz says:

      It had bad press and bad sales? It always seemed to me that the opposite was true.

      • sebagul says:

        The official forum says that it will not have a sequel because of lower than expected sales.

        • mavrik says:

          It sold more than 2mil copies which is not bad at pretty much any metric.

        • mavrik says:

          Heck it outsold ALL Sega titles that year for more than 2:1.

          • sebagul says:

            Yea, but SEGA was disappointed. This game also was more expensive to develop, and pays royalties, so a 2 million, they barely made a profit.

    • mavrik says:

      Huh, I honestly think you mistook Alien: Isolation for Call of Duty. The first two hours were so enjoyable BECAUSE noone kept jumping at you and you had time to immerse yourself into the world and find out what’s going on on your own.

      • sebagul says:

        I doubt you can tell me anything about this game.

        I can routinely finish it at nightmare, without saving and without dying. I know every detail of it.

        • theblazeuk says:

          You are so l33t.

          Still it seems people who are not as l33t as you enjoyed the game much more.

        • Rindan says:

          You have beaten the game multiple times on nightmare without dying… a game you have serious issues with? I think what you are missing is that you are CLEARLY in the “achiever” category of game enjoyment. I’ll bet almost anything you like 100%ing games and enjoy hitting all the achievements.

          Alien is not the game for you. If you are looking to what Alien plays to, it is for players who love immersion. I am an immersion player. The better I feel “in” the world, the less I care about anything else. I’d happily play Alien with or Fallout 4 with a Oculus Rift despite how crippling it is in terms of your efficiency. For a player who gets off on immersion, Alien Isolation is probably one of the greatest games ever made. That 2 hours of not fighting you despise was some of the best parts because I got to really FEEL that universe.

          I’m not saying one style is right or wrong, just the Alien Isolation is a fantastic game… just not for your play style.

          • sebagul says:

            Yea, retarded people thinks that criticizing something is the same as hating it.

            Simple minds.

            Their mother loves them, despite recognizing that they are retarded, but do not try to explain it to them, is beyond their understanding, a waste of time.

            People with average intelligence understand and appreciate objective, non fanatic opinions, but the world is also full of retards which cannot see beyond black or white.

            Do you know who hates Jar Jar Binks the most? The people who loves Star Wars. Other people just don’t care about that movie with the stupid fish faced clown.

          • qrter says:

            sebagul seems like a fun chap to be around.

      • All is Well says:

        This. If anything, I think the alien was relied upon slightly too much, making it, at times, just another thing you had to manage (like a fatigue-meter) and not the scary monster-thing you’d want it to be perceived as. If it was omnipresent throughout the game I think there’s a real risk it would have removed all sense of terror, replacing it with annoyance.

        In the same vein, aren’t most or all “monster-in-a-maze”-type games pretty mechanically simple? Reduced player agency and simplicity of gameplay both serve to emphasize the sense of atmosphere, place and threat that is key to this type of game, I think. By making you feel helpless/exposed and shifting focus to the monster hunting you, respectively. Is it good criticism to evaluate a game on a concession of the genre?

        • Sepulchrave76 says:

          ^This! I was delighted when the devs added a Weak Baby mode, because it meant I could finally play the game without being incredibly frustrated by the alien.

    • rustybroomhandle says:

      Dude, you complain about how boring you think the game is, yet you allude to having played through it several times?

      • sebagul says:

        There is no contradiction at all.

        The game has a small percentage of highly addictive parts, and a lot of never ending boredom.

        I was explaining why it failed commercially. It received complains about it being “too long” on almost all reviews, which it means most reviewers cannot stand all the boring parts.

        I tried to make play it to my brother and other friends. They all abandoned and lost interest after some hours of empty corridors, even before seeing the alien.

        It takes to be really stupid to not understanding that I are criticizing his design errors.

        • rustybroomhandle says:

          The “too long” complaints have nothing to do with what you call the long boring parts. It has to do with the continuous cycle of “go here, flip that switch”. It just repeats too often.

          The bits that you call long and boring are some of the best parts. You get to properly soak in the fantastic level design, sound design, the views, the atmosphere and wondrous attention to detail. If anything I’d have preferred to see less of the alien, fewer androids, fewer people-with-guns parts.

          I have done two playthroughs so far, and for my third I am doing it with a mod that disables the alien completely, and will also see about disabling the helmet effect for the spacewalks.

  16. GWOP says:

    This is one game I love to read about, but never dare to play.

  17. jj2112 says:

    Well the game can be finished on Nightmare without using lockers, I neve did. The most terrifying moment for me was exiting the nest and seeing a bunch of androids coming for me and I had no ammo… Luckily they blow up on their own.

  18. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    Great article! Thanks :)

  19. KastaRules says:

    Step 1: Get in.

    Step 2: Shit yourself whenever you hear the Xenomorph approaching.

    Step 3: Realize you are in a death trap.

    Step 4: Get out (if you are still alive) and vow to never use a locker ever again.

    Step 5: Repeat from Step 1.

  20. TheSplund says:

    I used them heavily and only ever got causght a couple of times (basically until I figured out how to lean back etc).

  21. Isometric says:

    Great article! I look forward to more. I love this game, still not finished it because I find it genuinely scary. Ooh reminds me Mark Brown’s YouTube series about game mechanics, it’s worth checking out.
    link to m.youtube.com

  22. wondermoth says:

    my experience of Alien Isolation:

    > Pay £30 for Alien Isolation
    > Install and start it up, very excited because of all the hype
    > Bump into first challenge, where I have to sneak through a room of hostiles and reach a door on the other side. I am unarmed, slow, have no live information on where the hostiles are, and they appear to behave in a random manner.
    > After trying to do this for a couple of increasingly boring and irritating hours, I give up.

    So, did I

    a) do something wrong?
    b) fail because I suck at games (p.s. I don’t suck at good games, only shit boring ones that make no attempt at grabbing my interest before making me do incredibly difficult, slow and tedious things).
    c) Accurately peg this game as utter bullshit?
    d) Something else?

    Help me enjoy this experience, or at least understand why everybody else enjoyed it, but not me.

    • All is Well says:

      I know the room you’re talking about. I had the same frustrating experience. Playing on Nightmare, the hostile humans notice you extremely easy and it’s virtually impossible to traverse the room unnoticed. I resorted to the very game-y tactic of luring them out one by one, hiding in a locker (!) and then hitting them in the head when their backs were turned. Rinse and repeat. Luckily though, that room is somewhat of an anomaly in the game, so after you get past it you’re in for a more enjoyable time.

    • qrter says:

      Everyone who has played the game should know the room the OP is talking about – it’s a ridiculous difficulty spike at that point in the game, and notoriously hard to get through.

      If I remember correctly, after you pick up a certain piece of technology you need, you’ll hear the voices of people re-entering the room.. run up the stairs they’re coming from (which are in the back, on the right, when you first enter the room). There’s a small stack of crates or boxes there, if you hide behind those, the humans run by you, and you can quickly move on.

  23. damnsalvation says:

    A column devoted to digging into game mechanics? Really?
    Well… That is AWESOME! Great idea!

    I enjoyed this first one, and I’m looking forward to more.

  24. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Very interesting article – keep them coming! This is a game I’ll never play – I can’t even watch a scary movie.

  25. Premium User Badge

    Ben King says:

    FASCINATING to read about this- stealth games are on my list of games I love that I’m terrible at… my take-away is just how HARD it is to make it clear what drives decision making in an AI, and how crucial it is for the player to understand why things happen in the game. Metal Gear Solid 2 was a mediocre game but had a GREAT “Room Clearing” mechanic. Regularly when a player would be spotted and hide in a room with only one exit the Enemy would hold back momentarily and form a small squad to “Clear” the room by checking hiding spaces for the player. What made it special was the inclusion of a mini window that showed a top-down view of the enemies clearing the room. If you had opted for a claustrophobic locker in the back you could watch enemies approach checking under shelves and tables and it gave you time to make a last minute decision to bail and choose a new spot, or drop a mine or ready grenades and fight instead. they wouldn’t check every spot every time, and you couldn’t tell with more than a split second’s notice if they were about to crack open your locker, or check under the rack you were hiding under, but the extra mini camera view gave you some more information to work with. Super gamey but clever in just how it gave you a little extra time to realize you were about to get shot in the face.

  26. Tomo says:

    Great idea for a series of articles. Long overdue tbh.

    I’m in the camp that believes the lockers suck. The holding your breath explanation was awful and I essentially learnt through trial and error. I tried to use the lockers at first, but essentially died repeatedly. For me, they ruined much of the tension in the game because I died SO many times using the lockers that the alien was no longer scary. In addition to this, it just took ages to get anywhere hopping in and out of lockers. You could spend a good 3 or more minutes in a locker at a time, hop out and the alien appears, so you jump back in the same locker. I dread to think how long I would have taken to complete the game using the lockers throughout.

  27. gbrading says:

    I’ve only played a small bit of Alien: Isolation (haven’t actually met the alien properly yet, need to get back to it in the new year), but I’ve been avoiding the lockers. They feel like small metal prisons. I also understand that unless you lean backwards and hold your breath, the alien still has a good chance of finding you. Under a table or in a vent you at least have options; in a locker there’s no way out except the way you came in.