Friday, December 12, 2014

Gaming: Alien Isolation

If You See This, You're Screwed
I am playing Sega's Alien Isolation. Let's talk about what it has to teach us as an RPG. The first part reviews the game. The second discusses it in context of JAGS and tabletop gaming (and has spoilers).

Alien: Isolation
Video games have not been especially kind to the Alien franchise. There have been some decent Alien vs. Predator titles--but Colonial Marines was a new kind of bad. They've also been hamstrung by the need to make the same game over and over: you have three story lines (Alien, Predator, and Colonial Marine) and multiplayer (which the Alien is a load of fun for) and with all that load the story is kinda 'eh.'

Of course the Dark Horse Alien comics kinda had the same story over and over too (which was also the same meta-story for Alien, Aliens, and Alien 4): Humanity is fascinated by the Alien, can't contain it--and it ends ... badly. Metaphorically the Alien is a cross between contagion (don't let it on the ship) and demonology (studying it is as dangerous to the scholar as to whatever "target" they intend to use their bio-weapon on).

That people could kind of get away with telling the same story over and over speaks to the dominance of the Alien as a villain. It's a genius antagonist: the kind of perfect-storm of a once-in-a-lifetime scary script (the alien as a kind of physical incarnation of rape is something that would be ground-breaking today), a master-work by the then-relatively unknown HR Giger (he since made other movie monsters--but none of them attained the prominence of The Alien), Ridley Scott at the top of his game, and a young crew with a handful of known actors that gave a collection of amazing performances.

So by the time we're more than 30 years from the initial release it's fascinating that someone was finally able to make a game that takes us back to the Nostromo.

Kind of.

In DLC (Downloadable Content)--something you pay extra for.

But the point is that the actual Alien: Isolation story feels very, very appropriate for the Alien franchise. It takes place between Alien and Aliens--Ripley's daughter has grown up (her mother is in cold-sleep in a lost shuttle after the first movie). The Nostromo's flight-recorder has been found and taken to a space-station orbiting a massive gas giant.

Ripley (the daughter) gets on a space-ship and heads out. She gets separated from her crew due to an explosion and finds that (a) the station had been nearly abandoned by its corporate owners, (b) there are insane androids (Working Joes--primitive looking compared to Ash and Bishop--but ... uhm ... plenty deadly), and armed, murderous, renegade survivors. Oh, also? (C): There's an Alien.

The game is a stealth-er where you have weapons--but they can't kill the Alien and you need to sneak around completing missions to try to get off the station. When the alien shows up, if it sees you, you're in big trouble. The developers did some lovely The-Alien-Kills-You sequences ... and you'll get to see a lot of them.

The game is tense, gorgeous to look at (if not all that interactive: there are a lot of objects you can't do anything with) and nails the space-retro look of the first movie. Its art-direction is pitch perfect. I played the game on Easy, knowing it had a reputation for being frustrating: and it is still a challenge on that level. It's not (as far as I've gotten) incredibly deep--but it is brilliantly done. It feels right, looks right, and creates a sense of dread.

I'll also note that the Alien itself is more the up-right creature from the first movie than the crouching creatures from the second (insofar as we can say there's a real distinction). It's also not "invisible." Between hiding in lockers or under beds and peering out, you get a pretty good look at it--and it holds up well. It moves with menace and intent. It hisses, jerks around--disappears into ceiling vents--and when it sees you and you hear that hiss? You're screwed.

The game is excellent (I've not finished it).

One Note: The Nostromo -- In the DLC "Crew Expendable" you see the original cast and you get to choose one to try to get the Alien out the Nostromo's air-lock. The sets are EXCELLENT this looks like the Nostromo, has a couple of decks, and even the voices are decent. The ability to render The Nostromo in something approaching movie-like fidelity has probably existed for a while but this is an excellent job. If you want to "play Alien" this comes pretty damn close.

Gaming Alien: Isolation
What stats would you give The Alien? Well, if we kind of "split the difference" across the various media (the original script had the Alien biting off Ripley's head and talking in her voice ...) the Alien is:

  1. Bigger, stronger, and faster than an average human. It is not faster than the eye can follow. It is stronger than a strong man--but does not seem strong enough to, say, lift a bus. 
  2. It has an exoskeleton that makes it virtually impervious to hand-to-hand combat, probably very resistant to hand guns, but not immune to auto-fire from an assault rifle (I think in Alien: Isolation you can't kill it--and you do get a shot-gun. So maybe the Alien there is tougher?). In the game you can flame-thrower it and it runs away. It doesn't die.
  3. It has claws, teeth, extendable teeth, and a long stabbing tail. It can kill a human in a single hit reliably. This means it likely needs to clear 10 PEN damage with its tail.
  4. The extendable teeth would be additional bite-damage, only usable in a Grapple/Grab (which would fit with how it uses them in the movie).
  5. It has good senses--but not incredible ones (?)
  6. It is very hard to see: it has good stealth.
  7. It can climb almost sheer walls.
  8. It has all the acid-blood you can buy. If you are near it and you wound it, you will get acid on you and, if you can't ditch your armor, die.
The alien, minus the space-ship killing blood, could be less than 24 AP (I'll put a package together when I'm not on a laptop). The blood is an issue since the characters are afraid it'll eat through the hull of the ship and the Nostromo seems to have a really, really thick metal hull. JAGS has the Acid Blood power--but does not go into detail about how it might better dissolve metal or something--if the acid blood does 100's or 1000's of points of damage then, yeah: the Alien costs a fortune (in Aliens, though, they had to ditch armor--they didn't just instantly die--so it might do 8 Damage and ignore another 8 DR each Round for 3 Rounds or something?).

Also, notably, in Aliens the the xenomorphs bash their way through a metal bulkhead. That speaks to doing a really large amount of damage (assume the thing has 9 DR armor and something like 500 ADP to tear down? It could have more based on weight and construction). If we assume the Alien hits for 30 IMP damage, it could tear through such a door (remember: the door is solid metal--but is not literally armored)--but would do it more slowly than in the movie. I attribute this to dramatic license rather than that the Alien can crumple several inch thick metal in a matter of seconds ...

The Game Itself
The game Alien: Isolation would not be especially fun to play out as they've done it. The reliance on stealth would likely be handled as a Drama where you would be making rolls against the Alien and would have actions like "create distraction" (with the tool used to create the distraction giving various pluses) or hide-in-locker (if there is one nearby), and a plus for crouching (half-rate movement).

I'd probably give Ripley a set of Success Points she could use during encounters--thus, the Alien would "eat away" at her defenses (when she is fully stocked she can almost certainly hide from it--but as she spends the points, they run out).

The game would call for specific maps with hide-points pre-determined (you could do it without this--and just roll to see if there's a good hiding spot nearby--but part of the game is being aware of where hiding places are so you can hang out next to them).

How would you handle the Alien running away when it's flame-blasted? That's a good question. In JAGS, when you get flame-blasted you either take damage or not. What the alien would do in the basic game is get hit on the way in and, if not Dazed, just chow-down. That's not how the game plays.

JAGS has some hooks for this kind of event--but they're not well developed. Firstly, the Alien could take a "run-away" 'defense' maneuver (and, presumably, it gets to do so during a move-action). This means that you can kill it--but every time you go to flame it, it takes the run-away dodge and gets to run. 

That's weird: short defensive actions usually don't move you that far (although we're talking about that for another power).

Another possibility is that the Alien has (a) a lot of regeneration and (b) a special power that makes its response to taking either ADP or being Dazed result in a "run away" action for the 8 REA cost of being Dazed (in JAGS, when you are hurt, you make a CON roll, if you miss it by a little, you lose most of your Action Points--REA--and are 'Dazed.')

In this case, changing the effect from being knocked down or whatever to "it runs" still costs it the REA--but it moves away. This is a pretty good power--especially for something that can run really, really fast. But it might not be super-expensive.

The result of this would be you flame it, the flamethrower reliably Dazes it, and if that happens, it runs. In this case, it would sometimes simulate what we see in the game (that it gets flamed and runs) but you'd also have: flamed and nothing (it eats you), flamed and stunned (it eats you), and flamed and unconscious (you kill it).

It might also have ADP with a clause that "dazes it" (or makes it run off) after it has taken the damage. This might even be "outside its armor" the way a Power Field is. This power doesn't exist--but would represent a way to inflict wound-effects (of whatever sort) on something even if you couldn't really hurt it (it has a lot of armor). 

In this case it would need enough ADP that there is no way a handgun can hurt it--but a flame-thrower can. Maybe the flame unit does 30 IMP flame damage? That would kind of fit its "rifle-like profile." Notably, this ADP would heal nearly instantly out of combat. It would also put a limit on how much you could hurt it before it gets mad (after being dazed / cornered) and then kills you because it has around 12 armor and your weapons literally can't hurt it much beyond that.

As a final note, the rules for shooting something with a grappling gun, having the grappling hook get stuck in it, and then having the thing pull itself back on the cable are, again, something we don't generally model. That isn't because we don't think it could happen / be cool--or because we didn't think of it (we thought of a LOT of stuff)--but because the handling time to see if certain weapons "pierce and get stuck" is pretty high compared to the number of times you'd likely care about that.

A weapon ... like a grappling hook ... designed to stick to things, though, might be a case where special rules would commonly be in force. In this case, if it penetrates and does a minor wound or better--or gets 1x Damage or better--it's hooked. Ripping it out does as much damage as it did going in and (probably) requires a WIL roll. Anyway, after that, you can make Offensive Grapple rolls to drag people around and so on.

A really good Stealth Drama with rules for using terrain, expendable items (in the game, Ripley has flares, noise-makers, can bang a wrench on the wall, and so on), and Success Points could, potentially, make for a tense experience. Since unlike the computer game, you'd only get one failure (assuming the PC's death ends the game), you'd want to calibrate the number of missions and dictate how the SP pool regenerates or how you get more--maybe for solving more of the mystery?

The Alien itself isn't a huge amount of points--but to get some nuance in its play you'd probably want new rules (we considered putting extendable jaws in JAGS Archetypes--but since here was really only one thing we could think of that had it ... well, we already had Acid Blood ...).

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