Alien: Isolation was undoubtedly one of the best games of 2014—a nerve-wracking survival horror experience that not only did justice to the spooky sci-fi vibes of the Alien series, but also a great job translating the tactile, analogue aesthetics of Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 film. This isn't a game about guns and brute force, but about using tools and objects to work your way through an eerie space station, filled with hatchways, computer consoles, and paranoid androids.
You can't kill the alien, at least not through conventional means, so you have to stay one step ahead as it stalks you through shadowy corridors and ventilation shafts. For the game's developer, Creative Assembly, Alien: Isolation was a bit of a departure. Though they had worked with other genres in the past, you'll most likely know the studio for its real-time strategy series Total War and more recently Total War: Warhammer.
Feral Interactive has long acted as a strong partner for the studio, porting its strategy games to mobile, and more recently remastering the classic Rome: Total War for PC. Feral is now tackling Alien: Isolation, and not just porting it to tablet, but to Android and iOS devices as well. We reached out to Feral to find out a bit more about the challenges of translating Alien: Isolation to a touch screen, and how the team worked to retain the game's immersive visuals and atmosphere despite the downsize in specs and screen real estate.
Only Mobile Gaming: Alien: Isolation is a very pretty game, so I was surprised to see that it was not only being ported to tablets, but to phones as well. Were there any sacrifices that had to be made in that process? Do you feel like it’s recognisably the same game?
Feral Interactive: Yes, we do. In terms of content and visuals, it’s identical to the original game. And in some ways, the mobile version—similar to the Switch release—has better visuals due to the addition of new anti-aliasing effects that weren’t available when the game was originally released.
The major difference is how you physically control Amanda. We have added a touch interface, so her movement and actions are now controlled using your fingers. The game now also supports gamepads and, depending on your device, there is even keyboard and mouse support.
OMG: As with a lot of survival-horror games, Alien: Isolation relies heavily on atmosphere, mood, lighting, and sound design. Do you feel that mobile is able to represent these aspects in a similar way to the original version? Is it better to play the game with headphones, for example?
FI: We believe that all platforms can have a similar experience, as the immersion in Alien: Isolation is driven by very good game design and high production values, and depends less on the device it’s played on.
However, as with any game, the environment in which you play impacts the experience. Just like on other platforms, playing Alien: Isolation with headphones heightens the sense of immersion. Dim the lights, and you’ll really ratchet up the tension.
Having said that, think about how often you see people immersed in a great game or film on their phone, and they end up missing their train stop! Once you get sucked into Sevastopol space station, the game does an amazing job of removing other distractions.
OMG: Alien: Isolation’s core gameplay is pretty simple. Like many horror games, it’s kind of a walking simulator, with a few tools you can use. There are guns, but it’s not really an FPS in that sense. Would you say that the simplicity at the core of its gameplay, i.e move and hide, made it a good game to adapt for mobile?
FI: The smaller number of controls is certainly an advantage for mobile. However, Alien: Isolation is a game with lots of slow and cautious movements interspersed with very rapid actions; for example, quickly using your flamethrower to ward off the alien, or hacking a door quickly to get out of a dangerous situation.
One of our key goals was to make sure the controls react well and are easy to use in situations where speed is of the essence.
OMG: Alien: Isolation is also a very stressful game, where you need to quickly shift between tools in high-pressure situations, i.e bringing up your radar or throwing a flare. Was it a challenge to create a touch-screen control system that accommodated this on a mobile? How did you settle on the control system you decided to use?
FI: We spent a lot of time looking at the touch controls we’ve developed in our other mobile games, as well as those in other popular mobile games, and combined this with a lot of playtesting to refine the controls. The end result is a couple of default control schemes that should work very well for most players.
Having said that, we are very aware that there are subtle differences in how individuals hold mobile devices, and what feels comfortable and natural for one person is odd and difficult for others. With that in mind, the mobile version allows players to fully customise the size and position of all on-screen inputs to suit their playstyle. That means that if you’d like a slightly bigger movement stick, or feel like the fire weapon button would feel more comfortable if it was just a few millimetres to the left, you can easily make those changes. It can all be done from the pause menu without even needing to reload the level.
We also added other features to help the player, including haptic feedback on buttons (if the device has haptic support), and multiple camera control methods with their own customisation options; for example, sensitivity, dead zone, etc.
OMG: Alien: Isolation was kind of a divergent game for Creative Assembly, which is known for making RTS titles. In that sense, was it a challenge for Feral to adapt it for mobile, since as a company, you have a reputation for porting RTS games as well?
FI: You are right, to date most of our mobile games are strategy titles. However, we have been porting games of all genres for many years: from motorsport games such as the GRID series, to first-person shooters like BioShock Remastered, we have a wealth of experience across many game genres, and have a pretty good understanding of the different demands of each.
While Alien: Isolation is the first mobile game we’ve done with FPS-based controls, the concept of a mobile FPS was something we had researched pretty thoroughly. Going into production on Alien: Isolation, we knew there would be challenges, and the potential solutions to those challenges. That gave us a solid foundation for control methods, which we could then iterate on with playtesting throughout the entire development cycle.
When it comes to predicting the future, we’ve found that it’s a good way of having your quote reused in a list of “bad tech predictions” a few years down the line. Marty Cooper, inventor of the mobile phone, once said "mobile phones will absolutely never replace the wired telephone!"