Creative lead, console team, The Creative Assembly
FAl Hope, ine art graduate Al Hope has spent the past 18 years making games at The Creative Assembly. When he joined in ’96, he was the eighth employee of a company that has grown to around 300 staff and become famous for its Total War PC series. As creative lead for the studio’s more recently founded console team, Hope guided the development of Alien: Isolation. What was it like having access to the film archives? It was really special to get our hands on that material. When we started, we thought we’d just have the movie to base everything on, and to be given access to kind of the full production archive was unbelievable. [20th Century Fox] did an amazing job of archiving the material back from the ’70s. It gave us new insight into how that world was originally created, everything from blueprints of the set design to close-up prop photographs and even continuity Polaroids of the cast. [Plus, we had] lots of photographs of the set from angles that you just don’t get to see in the movie. I was also fortunate enough to visit the archive, which is deep underground underneath Fox Studios, and sift through cardboard boxes of original Ron Cobb artwork as well, which was just… Well, that was a very special day. The game’s sense of place is unrivalled, especially the way every corridor seems to light up differently. We’ve got some really talented guys, and we brought people in from the film industry and postproduction to help us light it. And I guess we had amazing inspiration from the movie again, which is just beautiful to look at. It was a great benchmark for us. That was one of the reasons we decided to create our own engine. We knew what we wanted to create, and building an engine specifically to allow us to light the world so beautifully was really important to us. The alien is impeccable throughout, but leaving so much up to AI processes must have been tough. In order to create the experience we wanted, to really make you feel like you were encountering Ridley Scott’s original alien for the first time, we realised we couldn’t choreograph every single moment of the game and it would have to be running under its own senses. And that was the real challenge. It’s taken a multidisciplinary team a long time – almost the length of the project — to just build and refine and iterate that creature. I think we’re really happy with where we got to. Has the alien ever done anything that surprised you during development? The thing that we find most surprising is the fact that we can play it now and, for me especially, my heart will be pumping away, and I have to play it just the same as anyone else. I have to concentrate moment to moment on how best to survive and what my next move is. I think that’s amazing. Like I said, we’ve been working on it for a long time – we played the game every day – and it’s still really effective for us. We’ll jump and yelp, you know? We get caught out and we should be able to ninja our way through! The game is uncompromising, even on Easy. Are you worried some players will find it overwhelming? I think there’s an audience out there who’ll really appreciate a challenging game and that’s in there for them. But I also think that, with the levels of difficulty, you can find a sweet spot for where your [preferred] challenge sits. At the same time, we were never going to make this ‘easy easy’, because I think that would really undermine what we were trying to achieve in the first place. We couldn’t make the alien easy to simply grease paths, because that would just destroy the atmosphere and credibility. The game is hands-off when it comes to explaining its various systems, though. Was that deliberate? We wanted something that felt really instinctive, like you were having to use your wits moment to moment. We want you to feel underpowered and underprepared – there’s no magic minimap, there’s no radar. The motion tracker is about as close as it gets to that, and it’s a really imperfect device that only gives a certain amount of information. We don’t put anything in the world, holograms or whatever, that alert you to people’s senses. You have to look, listen and respond in quite a real-world way, I suppose, and that felt right. We absolutely experimented with all sorts of different options, but we just kept coming back to where we ended up because it felt like the most intuitive way of doing things. That extends everywhere, including the controls – like the fact that when you want to duck under a table you don’t have a button press to get under a table, you just push. Playing Isolation underlined for us just how much inspiration Dead Space took from the Alien films. Yeah. I mean, you can see the film’s influence everywhere. I often say that my favourite Alien game was Super Metroid, because I think it was heavily influenced by the film. But I think that was the fun thing for us, because we were the first people to go, ‘Wow, we’ve got the licence to actually run with this. We’re not ripping it off or just being super inspired by it — we really can go deep and push it.’ That was really exciting, and actually a big deal for us.