on Feb 22, 2013
My column this week is about how AAA games aren’t really capable of doing an Aliens title justice because the medium lacks either the mechanics, the maturity, or the confidence to introduce themes and character arcs that compare to the original.
In my column, I pointed out that the aliens themselves don’t show up until the halfway point of the movie. I just watched the Aliens Special Edition last night, and the same holds true for that version. The extended cut is two and a half hours, and the aliens show up right around the hour fifteen mark. This might be one of the reasons they felt the need to make so many cuts: An hour fifteen is a long time for a space monster movie to go without any space monsters. It’s a shame too, because the cut material in the first half really enhances the theme.
In the movie, Ellen Ripley returns to Earth after being in hypersleep for almost 57 years. She’d promised her daughter she would be home for the kid’s birthday, but she didn’t get home until two years after her daughter died, basically of old age. Not only did the aliens kill off her friends, but they caused her to break this promise and miss out on her chance to be a mother.
Then Ripley ends up being dragged back to LV-426 where the space marines promise her absolute safety and manage to uphold that promise for less than a single day. On the colony they find Newt, the sole survivor. Newt has lost her parents. In fact, everyone Newt has ever known is dead. Newt is alone and doesn’t trust adults because the adults all got themselves killed. Ripley is alone and still mourning the loss of her daughter. They begin to form a bond, with Ripley gradually becoming more protective of Newt and Newt gradually trusting Ripley even when every other adult has failed her. Ripley makes a promise to protect Newt saying, “Cross my heart and hope to die”, which is a solemn oath in the parlance of the little girl. These mutual character arcs and the resulting relationship drives the core of the movie, and a significant portion of the running time is dedicated to them.
When Newt is taken, Ripley’s desire to keep her promise is so strong that she’s compelled to dive, alone, into the very heart of the alien nest, with just twenty minutes left on the clock before the whole place goes nuclear. She loves Newt more than she fears this space-horror that has plagued her nightmares. She’s willing to go on this preposterous suicide mission rather than allow the aliens cause her to break another promise.
In the hive, it becomes a duel between two mothers. The Queen defending her young versus Ripley defending hers. After the queen is finally defeated, the complementary Ripley / Newt arcs close when Newt embraces Ripley shouting, “Mommy!”
Then we have the arc of Ripley coming to trust Bishop despite her understandable distrust of synthetics. There’s also her mild flirtation with Hicks. Ripley is the most badass and resourceful civilian, and Hicks is the most compassionate and humane of the marines. (Note little moments like when he helps Newt see what the adults are doing when everyone else is ignoring her, or the gentle way he chastises her when she tries to examine some of the dangerous equipment.)
And yes, the bond between Ripley and Newt brings to mind the bond between Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead. These threads of human interaction are potent, and give the story that nail-biting / gut-punch “oomph” at the climax. (I didn’t mention The Walking Dead in my article because I wanted to steer clear of making gameplay suggestions. I wanted to keep this idea at a high-level “you need to do character development in there someplace” without getting into specifics.)
And the space marines? Those guys were mostly just cannon fodder.
Shooters aren’t ready to even contemplate themes this complex and deep. BioShock gets a big eye-roll from me for being heavy-handed and laboriously paced, but I have to admit that it’s miles ahead of the competition. Half-Life 2: Episode 2 broke new ground for the series when they gave Alyx a clear character arc that began when she was injured by the hunter and ended when she helped you defeat them. That was a great little moment in the game and I really enjoyed it. But even so, Alyx probably has fewer speaking lines than Private Hudson in Aliens.
It’s not that there aren’t moments of success, but we have so very far to go to reach the heights of cinema and most developers seem to think they’ve already arrived. Make your game cinematic or don’t, but don’t kill off some five-minute NPC and think you’ve just made the toll booth scene from The Godfather.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.