The Making Of: Aliens
. In-game graphics were often scary: all blocky and garish. Difficulty levels were scary too, with one-touch instant deaths compounded by a lack of lives. Loading times were also scary thanks to our reliance on standard audio cassettes as the storage medium of choice. And World Cup Carnival was definitely scary. However, there were no games – perhaps besides Cosmi’s Forbidden Forest titles and the odd gothic text adventure – that really cranked up the tension and chilled the blood. There were no truly scary games except for Aliens.
Those who braved Aliens will surely remember the first time they played the game and felt the fear. Having arrived at the base on LV-426, you selected a member of your six-strong team and boldly ventured forth. You passed through several similar-looking rooms, getting further and further away from your team. No signs of any alien activity. And then your motion detector began to beep, slowly at first, but becoming quicker. You spun around the room, looking for the life form. And then you found it, rushing toward you with its jaws wide open. The beeping became a constant tone and before you could react, the screen blinked out in a shower of static. One man down, but at least now you knew a little about your enemy. It was large, fast and liked to eat your head. Some bug hunt this was turning out to be.
Aliens was released in December 1986, three months after the movie hit UK cinemas. It was published by Electric Dreams, a fairly new software house founded by former Quicksilva managing director Rod Cousens with backing from Activision. Unusually for the time, a full team was put in place to develop the new title. Mark Eyles was tasked with designing the game while Jon Dean was the producer, overseeing the various coders and artists.
“Activision had acquired a number of film licences at the time and Rod asked me to design the Aliens game,” says Mark, who had worked with Rod previously as Quicksilva’s creative director. This was months before the film was finished, so with just the script and the original Alien movie for reference, Mark spent two weeks putting a rough design together. Right from the start he was clear about the kind of game he wanted to make: “There are different approaches to making a game from a movie. You can try to retell the movie, scene by scene, or you can extract elements from the movie and create an original player-led story that draws on the characters and scenario. I didn’t want to just create a clone of existing 2D blasters – simply slotting in background graphics to suggest scenes from the movie – I wanted to create something more original that conjured up the suspense and fear that was in the film. I chose to focus on a single element that was at the heart of the movie: the combat between the crew and the aliens infiltrating the base. By doing so I was able to restrict the amount of graphics required and concentrate on a single core of gameplay, rather than ending up with a compendium of mini-games all themed round scenes in the movie.”
Here Mark is no doubt referring to Activision’s own take on the movie, originally released Stateside and later brought to the UK as Aliens: US Version. Regarding this rather odd publishing decision, Mark says: “I don’t think Activision was really aware of what we were doing. It had the licence and was keen to make as much use out of it as possible and thought that creating both UK and US games would ensure it would earn the maximum amount of money. I would guess that Activision was also hedging its bets as Electric Dreams didn’t have a track record, so it probably wanted a backup plan in case our Aliens game didn’t turn out well.”
It’s somewhat ironic then that the US game is a multipart affair that, while very faithful to the movie, is routine and tedious – two things the UK game is definitely not. “I saw the US version, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything special,” says Mark. “I believe there were two key innovations in the UK game. Firstly the use of a scrolling background that wrapped around to give the player the impression that they were standing in a room. This was not a 3D environment, but was trying to simulate one, giving the player a first-person view of the action. It seemed like an obvious game mechanism for immersing the player in the action. You’re not sitting at a computer playing this game but you’re actually tied into the cameras of the marines who are making their way through the base. A lot of design decisions were about trying to fully immerse the player in the game world. This was a game that said ‘you’re really there, you’re not playing a game’. Some games take the ‘this is a game you’re playing’ attitude and are very up front about the gameplay mechanisms, like on-screen health bars for level bosses. I chose the former as I thought it would better immerse the player.
“Secondly I believe Aliens was one of the first team-based combat games. The film was about a team arriving at a base and fighting aliens, not Ripley arriving alone. It was essential to try and reflect this in the game. It would have been significantly less interesting if the player only had Ripley to control. The introduction of more characters gave the player strategic decisions to make. You got to choose the outcome of the battle between the marines and the aliens – you were not forced through a series of pre-scripted hoops. Having a team also increased the tension as characters not currently under control were attacked.”
Once the initial design was in place it was sent to 20th Century Fox for approval. This proved to be a formality. “I didn’t have any problems getting the design passed,” Mark tells us. “At the time film studios hadn’t really realised the potential of videogames. They were happy to license them and let you get on with it. They did not yet see this as a major part of their business. That came later.”
The good fortune continued as the development progressed with very few problems. Mark was fairly removed from the team, although he did continue to work on the design and tweak it as the game was programmed. Besides typically tight deadlines (“I remember the programmers were sleeping in the offices at Electric Dreams and working round the clock”), the biggest challenge was trying to add variety to the colony’s 255 rooms. Memory restraints meant that the number of location graphics was limited, and while there were a few unique rooms such as the armoury and the control room, the vast majority of the locations looked identical. This meant it was very easy to get lost in the labyrinthine base,even with the map that came bundled with the game. “In retrospect the rooms could have been better differentiated,” admits Mark. “There was actually a problem with the room wall graphics. They were created as a series of tile strips, designed to fit together in a specific order. When they were put into the game they got scrambled about a bit. There wasn’t time to fix this before the game went out, and while it wouldn’t have made a big difference, it might have helped if fixed. The reason a map was included was to help players with navigation. There was a trade-off between making the base big enough to give players a game that would last and was sufficiently challenging, and keeping the game easy enough to complete successfully. I guess if we had been given longer to finish the game we could have spent more time balancing the difficulty level.”
Aliens was developed simultaneously for the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Spectrum, with ports to the Commodore 16 and MSX appearing later. The game was praised by the computing press – Zzap!, Amstrad Action and Sinclair User awarded it 81%, 90% and 5/5 respectively – and Mark himself had no complaints either. “I was very happy with the finished product. I was particularly pleased with the effect of the motion detector ‘beep’ when you were in a room with an alien, using sound as a key gameplay mechanism. I thought this served to build up tension very effectively, especially when an alien was right behind you.”
From his original design, only one main feature had to be jettisoned. “Initially I wanted to have views from all the characters’ cameras on screen. However, this was far beyond the capabilities of the target platforms and had to be dropped. If the game was remade now this would be a great thing to include.”
As it would happen, Mark was given the chance to work on a modern Alien game when employed by Rebellion as head of design in 1999. “I joined Rebellion just as it was completing its Alien vs Predator PC game. I didn’t have much input on this, but did do some design work on the Gold Edition that was released later. I think this conjured up the whole Aliens atmosphere perfectly. Later I worked on designs for a full AvP sequel which was sadly never made as the contract went to Monolith.”
Mark worked in the industry until 2003 before escaping to academia. He’s now a principle lecturer in games technology at the University of Portsmouth. For him, and his students, the legacy of Aliens lives on. “I teach my students about game design and producing design documentation. Part of this is looking at the history of games and also the development of gameplay mechanisms. I use Aliens as an example when I talk about game genres and specifically when I talk about shooters, as well as using it as an example of one of the ways that films can be turned into games.”
And no doubt Aliens is also ideal for showing tomorrow’s designers how to make one really scary game.