Grime, Cables and Coffee Cups - Why Alien: Isolation's Science Fiction Feels Real

By Andy Kelly on at

While a lot of ‘70s sci-fi has aged badly, Alien is still a surprisingly convincing vision of the future. This is thanks to director Ridley Scott’s preference for understated realism over flashy special effects, and the motley crew of artists he hired to help him conceive and build his world. The bizarre art of surrealist H.R. Giger is what usually slithers into your mind when you think of Alien, but concept artist Ron Cobb had an equally powerful impact on the look and feel of the film.

While Giger journeyed into the darkest corners of his subconscious to imagine what the alien elements of this world would look like — the derelict, the fossilised pilot, and the creature itself — Cobb focused on the practical side of things. Ships, computers, machines, and other fanciful future technology were his area of expertise. He produced hundreds of intricately detailed diagrams on graph paper studying how things would actually work on the Nostromo, from the way individual bulkhead doors would open and close, to the eject mechanism for the Narcissus shuttle Ripley uses to escape in the finale.

He didn’t need to go into this much detail, and most of his work is never seen, or only briefly glimpsed, on the screen. But by obeying an internal logic and thinking beyond mere aesthetics, Cobb created a compelling high-tech world. A place you feel could actually exist and operate in reality. The stark, functional design of the Nostromo has more in common with a submarine or an oil rig than the fantastical starships we’re used to seeing in films, and that’s why it still holds up almost 40 years later. It’s dark, grimy, and unglamorous, and that’s why it works.

A lot of sci-fi presents a bright, optimistic vision of a spacefaring future, but in Alien a ship journeying through the stars is no more exotic than a truck driving down a freeway. And this matter-of-factness is reflected in every element of the film’s design: from the dark, cramped corridors of the Nostromo to the crew’s rumpled, oil-stained uniforms. A distinctive visual identity the artists at Creative Assembly masterfully adapted when designing the setting for Alien: Isolation.

Like the Nostromo, Sevastopol — a space station orbiting an immense gas giant — is a product of a future where all the wonder and adventure of space travel has been replaced by cold commerce. Space is no longer the final frontier: it’s a commodity waiting to be exploited. Isolation’s artists were granted exclusive access to three terabytes of Alien production material, including unreleased photos of the sets, and from this they created their own bespoke setting with the same utilitarian design philosophy. The result is a setting that doesn’t just look like Alien, but feels like an authentic part of its universe.

Creative Assembly went to great lengths to immerse themselves in the film’s production design, going so far as to create their own concept art in the style of the artists who worked on the movie, including Ron Cobb, John Mollo, and Jean ‘Mœbius’ Giraud. The ragtag team of wildly talented and very different artists assembled to design the film are why its visuals are so remarkable, and Isolation’s artists captured some of that magic. From complex studies of environments to intricate costume designs, Isolation’s concept art is as impressive as anything that made it into the final game.

Despite the presence of a variety of archaic late ‘70s technology – including glowing CRT monitors, chunky IBM-style keyboards, and reel-to-reel tape players – Isolation’s setting doesn’t feel out of date. You completely and effortlessly buy into its retro-futuristic design because everything is so considered and understated. The tech feels like a part of the setting, rather than something designed to evoke a particular time period. It’s this, alongside consistent attention to detail, that set both Alien and Isolation apart in their respective genres.

“I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effects,” says Ron Cobb. “I’ve always felt that a lot of effort should be made to render each environment as convincingly as possible, but always in the background.”

And that’s what Isolation does so well. It transports you to a credible sci-fi world that doesn’t need far-fetched technology or outlandish special effects to convince you that you’re in the future. You believe you are because it seems real. The more grounded a setting is, even if it’s fantasy or science fiction, the easier it is to relate to it. That’s why Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, with their dazzling holographic computer interfaces, aren’t as believable as Alien, despite dramatic advances in effects technology.

Alien: Isolation also takes deeper inspiration from the film’s design beyond its aesthetic. The cold claustrophobia of the Nostromo is a big part of Alien’s power as as horror film, but the austere technology plays a part in it too. In a lot of sci-fi there’s usually some magical device or weapon that saves the day, but all the crew of the Nostromo have to fight the alien is a cattle prod, a primitive motion tracker, and some old flamethrowers. This establishes that, even in this advanced spacefaring future, technology won’t save you: the crew must rely on wits and instinct, which brilliantly carries over into the game. The crude technology cobbled together by Amanda Ripley actually adds to the horror, because you never feel like there’s a miraculous solution out there.

Alien: Isolation shows that, when it comes to science fiction, less really is more. Much videogame sci-fi is shiny and ostentatious, as artists strive to show you just how incredibly, outlandishly futuristic they can make their worlds. But Sevastopol is more convincing than any of them. Granted, Creative Assembly had some incredible source material to work with. But rather than just recreate the film’s sets for easy nostalgia, they used that enormous, precious archive of reference material as a starting point to craft their own confident, artful extension of the film. Isolation is indeed a passionate, faithful homage to the film Alien, but it’s also a worthy addition to the universe and the mythology in its own right.

If you enjoyed this article, check out the companion pieces:

A Closer Look at the World of Alien: Isolation

The Making of Alien: Isolation

Author Andy Kelly, aka the Alien liker, is also behind the Alien Archive twitter account, which posts visual material from the series, and a gorgeous series of videos on the game's world, embedded below.