Staff Picks: Best of 2014, by Lillith Sinclair

Day two of Staff Picks Week has Lady Lillith Sinclair under the spotlight. Her favoritest thing this year may not be a big surprise, but it's still interesting to read about. Take it away!

Apart from Five Nights At Freddy's 2 that came out this year, there really hasn't been a prime rib of quality survival horror/first person shooter than Alien Isolation. While Fazbear and his kin were more about psychological terror and jump scares, Alien Isolation is a measure of tension, disempowerment and gives the player a first hand experience of what it is like to be prey that is being hunted by a large, lethal and superior predator.

As I previously covered in my enthusiastic game review, Alien Isolation should rightfully be on the Best Of lists for any self-respecting fan of horror games who aren't so much about sudden bursts of horror, but a continuous experience of uncertainty as to whether or not they will be alive in the next five minutes. As somebody who works in the health sciences, I read the experience of playing Alien Isolation as the ECG of an arrhythmia patient: there is always a sense of underlying dread in the line, unsteady, and when it does spike, it's fast and it is frightening before it returns to its default state again, but the patient is never truly 'safe'.

If I had a scale of the amount of white-knuckledness I experienced while playing it, it was always up around the 7 mark and when I was being actively stalked by the alien, it rocketed up to 11. There is no true sense of respite here, because the game wants you to know where the alien is at all times; ignorance is costly and foolishness is punished with aplomb.

Naturally, Isolation isn't flawless as I am certain all of you have read varying accounts at some point about what works in the games' favor and what doesn't. But the thing is, as with any game, the experience is completely subjective. So long as you don't approach this game with the mission to kill everything and anything, Alien Isolation never truly relinquishes its hold.

Which brings me to my purpose of writing this indulgent column. The most prevalent theme in this game comes from the title itself: isolation. Of course you have poor Amanda Ripley who is foistered into the decaying Sevastapol station, and in a physical sense, Amanda is on her own for about 98% of the game. The other 2% comes from her interactions with various characters through cutscenes and via headset as she strives to find out what happened to her mother and finally, to survive the station and all of it's malcontent inhabitants.

Hang onto your butts, kids, things are about to get spoilery.

Still here? Good.

To me, Alien Isolation shows said isolation via quite a few avenues in the game.

First and foremost, the fact that Amanda is stuck on a crumbling space station without much of a clue about what has happened prior to her arrival. She can see something catastrophic has occurred given the disrepair of the ship, but then she sees bodies, bodies that don't appear to have been a result of a kind, gentle death.

Although Isolation has very little in-your-face-gore, a lot of the violence comes from after the fact. Amanda's arrival is met with empty space terminals, abandoned guard posts, broken down equipment and low power for computer uplinks among other things. In a sense, Sevastapol station is like Cabrini Green: it was built with lofty, almost noble purposes, but lack of care of the inhabitants and outsiders caused the place to fall into ruin and the alien's presence was but the cherry on a decaying, rotten cake of industry and greed.

It is revealed through the game that many of the bigwigs and their supplicants aboard the station were a bunch of greedy sods who cared less about delivering quality products to potential clients and more about cutting budgetary corners, using blackmail, extortion and corporate racketeering to make ends meet. When all goes to Hell, they don't try to put their differences aside, the chasm between their immorality and moral coil has only grown deeper and far apart.

[some spoilers continue]

The Alien franchise has often pegged a lot of the blame on Weyland-Yutani with it's ruthlessness and lack of compassion for the human species, but Seegson, a competetive branch has tried to strike out on it's own to make it rich only to fail miserably because it doesn't value quality business management and product control. Reading about the slow, agonising death of Sevastapol and by extension it's parent company via computer files and audio clips are fascinating and more than just a little bit depressing.

I feel the reason why the developers took a lot of care whilst creating this microcosm that Amanda is thrust into is to reflect a very real problem in today's world: business want to be expedient, not efficient. They want more but are prepared to give as less as they can in their best interests. The blue-blooded live in an artificial version of paradise while the blue-collared suffer their failings. The way people feel about Sevastapol is a sense of disdainful indifference and apathy. Nobody likes it, but nobody is willing to stand up and make a change for the better in order to bring the station back on its feet. That school of thought it all too common with us, isn't it- we are more content to endure failure and problems rather than try to band together and fix them as a collective. A grassroots movement is well and dandy, but it takes more than a few hundred willing people to alter a crippling status quo.

A far more psychological and complex reference to desolation in this game are Amanda's personal feelings. She is going on this mission first and foremost to gain closure about what happened to her mother. She risks her life constantly but with a sense of purpose and collected competence. She is frightened, but she adapts quickly and manages to find a way to endure. You would think, with all of this survival and planning and skill Amanda would be rewarded by finding out about her mother in full... but here's the kicker: she doesn't.

Amanda is still left with questions and uncertainty. You could theorize that this game and it's themes of absolute lonliness and oppression echoes Amanda possibly thinking that her own mother has abandoned her, let her go from her life, leaving her daughter upset, confused and demanding answers that she isn't going to get. Granted, Amanda knows deep down that her mother would never do that, but all of us have a little voice of uncertainty in our minds that tell us strange, horrible and nearly impossible things in the event of thinking of a worst case scenario.

You could also make a point that the alien itself could stand for Amanda's doubt and ambiguity to the suspicions about her mother made physical- frightening, unfamiliar and imposing, constantly stalking her and never allowing her to forget it is around, a vindictive demon of the subconscious. To go another step further, Mr. Scary Pants ET could be a personification of this dark, twisted version of Amanda's mother that has come back to torment her daughter. The Clymentestra to Electra, the horrible, betraying mother who Amanda must survive lest she become another victim of her mother's will. Only unlike Electra, Amanda cannot kill her mother, she can only endure and hope she can evade her demonic mother's wrath as she navigates her way through this escalating crisis.

Man, that got Greek.

Alien Isolation more than lives up to its name and to me, it was one of the defining highlights of the game world of 2014. Could this be the best game of my year?

You know what, I'm gonna say YES. It kicked me so hard in the teeth every time I braved it, but that is why I keep coming back for more: it's a test, it's a challenge, and it is exactly the return to slimy, dribbling, psychologically demanding and maleficent roots that the Alien franchise needed.

The Babadook

I adore horror films. What better means to reflect social anxities, ills, pressures, controversial conditions and repressions via horrific exaggeration. But alternatively you get horror films that believe in the practice of subtlety, supression and the horror of what is not seen. Take for instance one of my personal favourite horror films of 2014, The Babadook, an Australian psychological drama/thriller directed by Jennifer Kent.

To me, there is nothing more scary than mental illness; losing knowledge of oneself and those we love, being left without our facilities and not having the support we need. Apart from medical conditions, cognitive malady can also come from various sources of stress in our lives, an enormous one being that of grief. The Babadook is a study in the nature of loss and bereavement and how it can eat away at those who are feeling it.

The film stars the utterly radiant Essie Davis as Amelia, a single mother who is coping with the tragic loss of her husband and her unresolved grief as well as having to raise her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman, being annoyingly brilliant and brilliantly annoying) all by herself without anybody offering a solid support to help her. The titular, almost cutely-named Babadook monster is quite obviously played to be a manifestation of the sadness, depression, grief and impotent rage Davis's character is feeling. When you let grief consume you, you think terrible, horrifying thoughts; what do I do now? Who am I? How can he/she leave me like this? What if I'm next? How will I die? What can I do? Nobody knows what I'm going through. These are all questions those of us who have lost somebody we love think, but are too afraid to voice them aloud because we fear we will be harshly judged for it.

The Babadook is an observation and a lesson in how important it is for us to face the demons that haunt us in the event of such a crisis. This film isn't about jump scares or some type of Lewton Bus hissing into frame, this film is a drama through and through with the actual monster itself being more of a play of the imagination than a true physical being. We only get glimpses of the creature as it steadily and viciously penetrates Amelia's life as well as her mind but it is all in shadow and what exists in the shadows can never truly be seen. Until we shine a light on what concerns us, all we can do is feel our way through the darkness and try to make sense of our surroundings.

I'm so glad 2014 helped show the world that Australia can do horror that surpasses the formula of excess and delivers a far more sensitive approach to a genre that is still passed up more in favor of the bombastic and grandiose. Sure, there is nothing wrong with that either, but as they say, there is a difference between feeling revulsion and feeling genuinely frightened.

The Babadook is about something that we can all relate to at one point or another in our lives, and no vampire, demon, werewolf, witch, paranormal or cosmic entity can ever hope to surpass the trials we subject ourselves to when we lose the ones we love and are given no closure and no resolution. This film may have been made in Australia, but the sensation of loss is a universal language and one the human species is destined to feel time and again.

For more of Lillith Sinclair, follow her on Twitter!

Share on Google Plus

About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment


Post a Comment