Sunday, September 27, 2015

What the future used to look like (Alien: Isolation) (image post)

[If you want to skip the introduction and go straight to pretty pictures, click here.]

I want to be able to recommend the game Alien: Isolation because it's a visual masterpiece in terms of set building and that could have been worth the price of admission in itself if the gameplay and story weren't such crap.

I would argue that it would have been a far better game if it had taken after Gone Home and actually had you isolated in a place where your objective is to explore, find notes, messages, documents and such, and learn the story by putting stuff together on your own in a place devoid of others.

Why it would have been good, which is different from what made Gone Home good, is why I so very much want to be able to recommend the game, and am so disappointed that I can't.

In Gone Home the point was to learn the story, primarily of your sister, but also of your parents and, in general, why you arrived to an empty house.  That could have been good in Alien: Isolation too since the crap parts of the story weren't the things you learn via the emails, logs, and recordings scattered around the station, that was actually well done, the crap parts were everything that happened around your character during the actual game.

The reason that Alien: Isolation would have been great as an exploration game, though, isn't about story but instead about setting.  The setting is amazing to see and wonderful to stroll around in.

You see, Alien: Isolation is a sequel to the first movie of the franchise: Alien itself.

I'm not saying that it ignores, disregards, or contradicts the later movies.  It just takes place before them.  There's a time skip in there, recall.

The second movie, Aliens, takes place decades after the first and during those decades things changed.  The signal being broadcast from the derelict space ship with the alien eggs stopped for unknown reasons, the planet with said space ship was teraformed and colonized, synthetics/artificial people had a programming upgrade that changed them from complete monsters who would do whatever The Company told them, no matter the cost in human lives, to compassionate individuals who were programmed not to fucking harm human beings, Ripley's ten year old daughter (Ripley promised to be home in time for her eleventh birthday) grew up and eventually died at the age of sixty-six, Gateway Station was constructed.  Probably other stuff too.

The game follows movie-Ripley's daughter, Amanda, as she goes on a mission to look into the first clue about her mother's disappearance in 15 years since it happened.  Thus game-Ripley is 25 years old during the game.  It also means that the game is 15 years after Alien and 43 years before Aliens.  Thus Alien: Isolation is closer to Alien than any other movie in the franchise.

Hence me saying that it's a sequel to the first movie.

Here's the thing about the first movie: it came out in 1979.  That means it has Zeerust.  What is Zeerust?  It's a town in South Africa.  Seriously.  Douglas Adams and John Lloyd collaborated on two small dictionaries which operated on a simple premise: There are lots of definitions that need words; there are lots of words (specifically the names of places) that are lazing about without definitions.

Thus in The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff Adams and Lloyd took those words off of signs and gave them definitions.  Zeerust was given this definition: the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.

A lot of things pull utter bullshit when dealing with how they relate dated visions of the future in their cannon.  See Enterprise, which never tried to have a pre-Original Series vision of the future except for that one alternate universe episode where evil Hoshi became evil empress of the evil empire by taking control of a ship of the same class as the Original Series Enterprise (but even then they weren't trying to deal with it, more just pretending it didn't need to be dealt with) or see Human Revolution the nominal prequel to Deus Ex which (oddly) rebelled against the lack of Zeerust in the original and added a metric fuckton to the the thing that was supposed to come between the present day and the not-Zeerusty future.

Alien: Isolation takes a different tack.  It's a sequel to Alien, it knows it, and for fuck's sake it's going to to look like it.

* * *

Stepping into Alien: Isolation is stepping into what the future looked like in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The vision of the future given to us in 1979 by the film Alien is lovingly recreated and expanded.

Instead of using the 15 years between Alien and Alien: Isolation to justify Zeerust reducing aesthetic changes the entire game is set aboard old things to justify keeping more or less the exact same Zeerust.  First there's a brief introduction on-board a transport ship that's not much newer than the ship from Alien (and was thus able to be bought cheaply as a near-wreck by the current owner and then be repaired over time into a decent ship) then the entire rest of the game is set on an old station that's in the process of being decommissioned and shut down.

Thus the creators of the game have plausible in-universe reasons for the setting to have pretty much the same look as seen in Alien.  And it's fucking wonderful.

Before I start the pictures I should point out that they all look worse than they do in the game itself.  The game uses film simulation effects that you usually don't notice unless you see a lens flare because the non-lens-flare component, a constant low level film-grain effect, actually does a pretty good job (I'm not sure if it's intentional or not) of simulating how human eyes deal with low light situations, BUT when you take a still, regardless of lighting, that low level film-grain effect becomes unmissable and annoying.

That caveat aside, let me introduce you to the future of the past, it's just down the hall and through the door.

This is a fairly standard work station on the station:

That doesn't look too odd, which is a large part of what's so great about the game, they took the 1979 future and made it fucking work, but there are some things that give us some flashbacks to the years before I was born.  That light on the right seems to come from a different aesthetic, and those joysticks . . . well you can't really see them that well because of the scaling down I had to do, let's get a closer look:

I remember those!  But, I don't know much about space tech, maybe they still use them on the space station that's in orbit right now.  I'm almost entirely sure they don't, but not absolutely sure.

What we really need to look at are computers, right?  They're what shows age.  Other than the NSA being able to be blackmailed because they broke their charter by working to spy on Americans (something they now do constantly with no push-back in spite of it still being illegal) the only thing that dates the 1992 movie Sneakers (now over 20 years old) is the computers in it.

Well that and occasional oblique references to the fall of the Soviet Union.

So let's look at some computers.

Well, actually first another workstation picture because the desk toy is taken directly from the movie Alien and it does get us a nice look at a keyboard and a microphone which are also things that change with time.

The loss of detail was so annoying that I didn't scale that one (I did crop it some), though blogger probably did so automatically, even so, if you click on it you should get a larger image than the one you see without clicking.

Points of interest:
  • Top Left: drinking bird perpetual motion machine that appeared in Alien (though I didn't remember it because, honestly, why would I?)
  • Right: microphone the likes of which we no longer use.
  • Bottom Center Rightish: another type of joystick.  I also remember those.  We had at least one when I was a kid.
  • Bottom Center: keyboard with the nice big fat keys that seem to be on the way out (though are by no means gone) because people prefer (apparently) the smaller keys developed for laptops or even having touchscreens that do away with keys entirely (which: oh my god, what the fuck?)
  • Bottom Left: Is that ... an ashtray?
Why yes, it is an ashtray, because in the future of the past people smoked in space.  Sometimes they still do in the future of the present, but not as often.  Back in the future of 1979 everyone smoked in space.  It went without question.
Nick Naylor: So cigarettes in space?
Jeff Megall: It's the final frontier, Nick.
Nick Naylor: But wouldn't they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
Jeff Megall: Probably... but it's an easy fix, one line of dialog, "Thank God we invented the ... you know, whatever device."
         - Thank You for Smoking (2005)
Ashtrays are everywhere, as are packs of cigarettes, and this can be found on a wall:

KOORLANDER lovingly machine-rolled for YOUR pleasure
Whatever the hell it means to be lovingly machine-rolled.

And I've just noticed that there's something else in the image with the ashtray that I can expand on, I took a closer shot of the keyboard and joystick and then completely forgot I had done so.  So here:

In the future there will be markers.  I'm not totally satisfied with the view of that totally futuristic keyboard, so let me do a closely cropped shot so you can see it in mildly better detail:

Future keyboards have shapes and shit instead of letters.  Also note the fun lights that serve no purpose we provincial people in the early decades of the 21st century can understand.  There's a lot of lights whose purpose we cannot hope to understand about, but I said we'd get to computers.

So, here's a computer:

That's what computers will look like in 2137 AD/CE. They will be bulky, their screens will generally be green only, they won't have pictures or graphics (except for one video message that happens to be one of the few places where they throw consistency aside) their interface will be extremely basic, and yet ... and yet they fit so God damned well into the aesthetic that it won't fuck with your sense that you're on a space station orbiting a distant gas giant more than a hundred years after the present day in the least.

This is what the future once looked like.  This is the world that Alien: Isolation immerses you in, and the experience is amazing to the point that I cannot possibly convey it in this post and, unfortunately, it's completely ruined by the game-play and plot really, really sucking, so as much as I want to be able to, I can not in good conscience recommend paying money for the game.  Maybe if someone makes a mod for it where they turn it into a pure exploration game, but I don't even know if it's modable.

So that's your bog standard desktop.  There are other types of desktops but if your interacting with a computer in a place that doesn't look like NASA's mission control from the Apollo missions, then you're going to be dealing with one if these, not one of those.

But wait!  Not all computers are desktops.  Surely we will have tablets in the future, right?

Why yes we will:

See, there's one right there on that desk.  Maybe you can't see that well, here:

And it's not like there's just one kind of tablet, look at this one:

Actually, honestly, the second one looks like a better fleshed out version of the first but that's not the point.  The point is that in the future of the past we'll have computers we can walk around with that have a number pad and little dials and stuff.

There will also be these things:

Which... I honestly don't know what they are.  You only ever use them to playback audio recordings of transmissions made by people on the ship from the movie Alien before shit went wrong.

But the future will not just be about workstations, computers and smoking.  People will spend time sitting at tables and eating or talking or conferencing or playing cards or whatever it is that people do when sitting at tables.  So I give you a non-scientifically determined, not rigorously random but not created with specific intent either, collection of tables from the future:

Wait, was that a boombox in the back?

Why yes it was.  Here's another:

They're not just decoration.

In a game where you'll be hunted by a bulletproof Alien (it seems that the game creators forgot that the reason you can't shoot them is because shooting makes them bleed and the blood is acid so powerful it could eat right through the hull which is less than ideal when you're in space), variously threatened and hunted by evil uncanny valley androids (to distinguish themselves from the company an alternate company said, "Isn't it creepy when you don't know if someone is a human or a synthetic?  We make sure ours are recognizable on sight," the marketing strategy failed but they were manufactured on the station where the game takes place so there are tons of them) and also in danger from amoral humans who shoot first and ask questions never, something that makes distracting noise can be useful.

Mind you, as I noted, the game-play and plot weren't very good, so it's more interesting to us for aesthetic reasons.  It's boombox in the most traditional sense: it combines big speakers with a radio and a cassette player.  So there must be audio cassettes, right?


They aren't just found in boxes, they're also found laying around solo or in small groups.

Random note about the audio cassettes:

This is the loading screen from Gone Home, the exploration game I mentioned repeatedly in the introduction:

I actually had to go online to find that because for some reason my copy is crashing.  That's ... distressing.  Regardless, I bring that up because this is the saving icon in Alien: Isolation:

Not exactly a huge connection, but I think it's the platonic ideal of the game reaching out and saying that it wants to be more like Gone Home.

Also in music, though I don't have any nice shots, there's at least one harmonica and a few wooden acoustic guitars scattered about.

I'm not sure about the harmonica, but I think it's still the case that a near-centuries future without wooden acoustic guitars is pretty unbelievable.

The instrument family has been in style for over five thousand years at this point (and that's just what we know of) and while it's hard to place exactly when older guitars sufficiently like modern guitars to be considered guitars without qualification, it's several centuries at least with no signs of the trend having peaked, much less started to decline.

Anyway, back to the world of Alien: Isolation.

Even before a killer creature started screwing things up, the station was in the process of being decommissioned, the businesses on it shutting down, the inhabitants trying to secure some form of future for themselves elsewhere, so forth, but it originally housed all of those businesses which employed all of those people and while I didn't take any shots of the arcade, the bar, the air-hockey tables, or that sort of thing, I do have one shot of a reception desk:

A thing that I'll continue harping on (guitaring on? luting on?) is the fact that the giant fracking cathode ray tube monitors there (and elsewhere) don't jump out at you and scream, "This is not the future!"  There's a decent chance you didn't even take notice of them when you looked at the picture, though I don't pretend to know for sure how any given person will process any given image.

The Zeerust isn't a problem for immersion.  This is, to me, a bit surprising.  But it's also (again: to me) really neat.

I never showed the first shot I took of a workstation, so have a look at it now:

Did you catch that?  No, not that there was one of these:

Though I did decide that they were important enough to quickly boot up the game, find the nearest one (which was, unfortunately, in a badly lit area, hence the crap quality of the image) and take a shot of one so you could have a better look.

No, I was wondering if you noticed the magnetic tape computer in the background?

I actually think it was noticing that (as in that one, right there) that really caused me to realize the game was fully embracing the vision of the future from 1979.  It didn't make me feel any less like this was a plausible future space station, but it did help me realize that there were no half measures in recreating the future of Alien (which I'd already been impressed with the faithfulness of anyway.)

Now I don't want to make it sound like magnetic tape is a thing of the past because it very much is not.  Some really powerful computers still run on magnetic tape, and magnetic tape has never been abandoned (and is still being improved upon) as a computer storage medium.  However, computers that run on magnetic tape you can see in reel-to-reel format?  That's dated.

We don't do that anymore (for non museum-esque purposes, that I'm aware of.)

In case you did miss it, here are two more examples without a lot of crap in the way:

That's the sort of thing that this post is all about.  This is what the future used to look like but doesn't anymore.  Many people would be concerned with such a thing being in their source material and thus try to pretend it wasn't there; covering it up through omission or adaptation.

Alien: Isolation doesn't do that.  Don't get me wrong, it's not in your face about it either.  There's nothing forcing a player to stop and take notice of these things.  You have to take notice because you're currently reading a post in which I'm basically only including Zeerusty stuff, but a player of the game doesn't.

It's unapologetic about being a same-technology-level sequel to a 1979 sci fi movie, but that lack of apology doesn't show up in it coming out and shouting, "I'm not ashamed of what I am!" instead it comes out in the game being secure enough in its own existence to simply be what it is.

And that quality, that state of being a sequel Zeerust and all, means that the Zeerust doesn't make it feel dated.  You don't play it and think, "Damn is this a 1979 future," you play it and are able to fully believe that it's a space station in 2137 and, when taken at a meta level, that's a metric fuckton more impressive than something made with the aesthetics of the future today, rather than the 1979 future, presenting a convincing setting of a space station in 2137.

Because cassette tapes and reel to reel computers and bulky CRT monitors and all sorts of other things are already past so how could they be future?  But they are.  They are the future because it turns out that even dated visions of the future can feel like the actual future when they're presented as part of a consistent and well thought out aesthetic.

And that is the wonder of Alien: Isolation, you're transported into a different world where you can fully accept that this is the kind of ad you might see on a space station one hundred and twenty two years from now:

A future where people still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea (because they are):

Didn't get a good enough look there?  How about here:

A New Dawn of Precision Digital Watches
Random other shots from yesterday's future:

As I said up there somewhere, there's no way I can adequately convey how unexpectedly awesome it was to be walking through this world that was covered in Zeerust but somehow not marred by it.  Unfortunately the game makes it so you're doing it while trying to hide from an alien that will kill you with insta-death if you make too much noise or look around in one place for too long, surrounded by innocent people who are all damned to die for the crime of not being the main character, shot at by jerks who have taken social Darwinism to it's maximum gun wielding extent, on the run from killer androids because: "Why not?", and locked into a plot that's really craptastic on multiple levels.

You can, as I did, download a third party program that makes it so stopping to take a nice look around will not get you brutally impaled or otherwise dead, but unfortunately having the giant piles of "We named the game 'Isolation' so we're surrounding you with people and things that want you dead so you'll never be isolated for long," simply not notice you when you're standing right in front of them breaks the immersion in a way that an unashamedly 1979 era vision of the future never could.

Hopefully some day someone will make a game like this that's the exploration game this so desperately cried out to be.

That day is, unfortunately, not today.


  1. That's so frustrating. These are really pretty scenes - a wonderful aesthetic, wonderful set dressing, just wonderful - to be caught in a game that doesn't appreciate them.

  2. keyboard with the nice big fat keys that seem to be on the way out (though are by no means gone) because people prefer (apparently) the smaller keys developed for laptops

    It's probably to do with what you're used to. I've spent approximately one zillion hours working with laptop keyboards over the course of my life. I've spent relatively few hours working with desktop keyboards, and usually as a temporary measure until I could get back to my laptop. Desktop keyboards feel awkward and clunky and wrong.

    the giant fracking cathode ray tube monitors there (and elsewhere) don't jump out at you and scream, "This is not the future!" There's a decent chance you didn't even take notice of them when you looked at the picture, though I don't pretend to know for sure how any given person will process any given image.

    Well, sort of. The ye-olde computers didn't ruin my immersion because I didn't even process those lumps on the counter as being computers until reminded by the text below. Mind you, the lighting is pretty dim.

    No, I was wondering if you noticed the magnetic tape computer in the background?

    Is that what that was? I noticed the tape reel, but I thought it was a panel with a decorative or symbolic design on it. It resembles the Ubuntu symbol. ( the Ubuntu symbol supposed to resemble a reel of magnetic tape?)

    this is the kind of ad you might see on a space station one hundred and thirty two years from now:

    Well, to be fair, imagine how powerful a computer would be if you took a big 1980s case and filled it with 2010s parts. Now imagine what you could do if you filled a 1980s case with 2130s parts. You could probably run sapient AIs on that desktop.

    1. Also, now that I actually look closely at those numbers, is it 132 years from now or is it 2137? I mean, I do sometimes forget precisely which decade it is when counting how many decades until a future date (especially with big round numbers like 2000), so I understand if you do too. Just pointing out a discrepancy.

    2. Well, to be fair, imagine how powerful a computer would be if you took a big 1980s case and filled it with 2010s parts. Now imagine what you could do if you filled a 1980s case with 2130s parts. You could probably run sapient AIs on that desktop.

      I've often wondered why we don't do that. Well, not why we don't do that exactly. An 80's case full of 2015 parts would be really expensive to afford that many 2015 parts. But it's still tempting to imagine how much power we could fit into spaces that are completely acceptable to be taken up by a computer, even if the modern world seems to have forgotten this acceptability.

      Desktop keyboards feel awkward and clunky and wrong.

      To me as well and I grew up with them. Although, it's been at least a decade since I've had a desktop of my own so plenty of time for the "grew up with" factor to be worn off by "actually use now."

      Also, now that I actually look closely at those numbers, is it 132 years from now or is it 2137?

      2137, I'll go back and fix it. Thanks for the catch. I actually remember thinking that I was doing the math wrong, but I couldn't figure out where so I went with it. Guess I still haven't adapted to being in this decade.

    3. I've often wondered why we don't do that.

      Don't we? I was under the impression that desktops (not sure about servers and supercomputers) have remained roughly the same size for my entire life if not longer; we simply fit more and more power into the same space. Laptops shrunk in the early-mid 90's, then stabilised except for stunts like the MacBook Air. Miniaturisation unlocks new types of computers that can get away with trading decreased power for increased portability, and that's often a worthwhile trade (I don't really have any good places to put a desktop in my house, let alone a laptop in my utility belt), but as far as I know computers within a type remain about the same size, and the bigger types are still used when there's space for them.

      Actually, hang on, I can get you some specific examples on laptops.

      Yeah, check this out:
      IBM Thinkpad 600 (released in 1999, my primary laptop in 2003-2004): 11.8x9.4x1.5 inches, for a volume of ~166 cubic inches.

      Dell Inspiron 15R M5110 (released in 2011, my current primary): 14.8x10.24x~1.3inches, for a volume of ~197 cubic inches.

      So, the newer one is actually bigger.

    4. I'm long out of the loop on desktops, but when I wasn't those big boxes consisted, mostly, of empty space. The components weren't small enough to make a laptop out of for sure, but the space didn't seem to be being used with any great efficiency.

      Also, I've long imagined how many laptops could fit into a desktop with the same specifications as just one of the laptops.

      Bigger laptops are actually something that I think I know the reason for. Laptop development forked into the lighter less expensive netbooks and more powerful computers that kept the name "laptop" which are very much about sticking as much as can be stuck in without losing the ability to say it's still mobile.

      The netbooks took over the desire for smallness, allowing the laptops to grow heavier and larger (within reason.) One of the things that's a concern for them is that all that power in so small a space risks overheating.

      I actually think that the reason for the amount of empty space in the desktops I've seen the inside of might be a low cost cooling shortcut. The air dissipates the heat for most of it, only the really hot parts need fans and heatsinks.