25 years ago, legendary sci-fi movie “Aliens” introduced audiences to a new level of action and excitement that few films –much less sequels — had demonstrated before. Maintaining the same level of suspense as the original “Alien,” the now-classic film cemented the directing reputation of James Cameron.
Now, in 2011, the Twentieth Century Fox franchise is in the hands of the development team of WayForward, who are producing an 2-D action game for Nintendo DS. Titled “Aliens: Infestation,” the game has been created to be similar in tone to Cameron’s film in an effort to please fans of the films as well as those looking for a fun, action-packed gaming experience.
CBR News spoke with WayForward director Adam Tierney and producer Jeff Pomegranate about what went into developing “Aliens: Infestation” for the popular handheld device and what gamers can expect when it releases on October 11.
CBR News: WayForward has handled a lot of big properties in the past, including “Contra,” “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” and most recently, “Bloodrayne: Betrayal.” Now your team is handling the incredibly popular “Aliens” brand. How psyched are you guys to work on something related to James Cameron’s classic film?
Jeff Pomegranate: When it comes to movie properties, we’re almost invariably developing games as the films are in production. This project was unique in that the film had been out for decades prior to our involvement. I spent the summer after high school graduation working herring and salmon seasons in Alaska, and “Aliens” was one of about five movies that I watched religiously every other day or so for about five months. This movie was one of very few bright spots in what was often a harrowing experience. To have the good fortune to subsequently work on a game for it, to me, is a once in a lifetime [opportunity], and I couldn’t be more grateful to the folks at Sega and Gearbox [Software] for the opportunity.
Adam Tierney: Working on an Aliens game is cool enough, but working on a game that’s actually based on “Aliens” (the 1986 film) was a dream-come-true. It’s, in my opinion, still to this day the strongest action sci-fi flick out there. And because the game would be based in the world of that film specifically, we were able to pull in a lot of unique gameplay elements that I think might have been left out had this been based on the “Aliens” franchise more generally. This game had a lot to live up to, and we knew it was critical to nail the action, tone and “oorah!” nature of that film.
Tell us about “Aliens: Infestation” and how close its ties are with the previous “Aliens” productions.
Tierney: The game is most directly tied to the first and second films. It’s essentially a follow-up to James Cameron’s movie, and the events of this game are going on at the same time as Gearbox’s “Aliens: Colonial Marines” (but focusing on a different squad). Our story deals with a group of marines that travels to the Sulaco ship and LV-426 following the events of the film “Aliens.” There’s also a brief stop at the Derelict Ship, which ties directly into the original Ridley Scott film.
However, the game pulls in elements from the entire Aliens universe (films, comics, games) to flesh our world out. A perfect example is our xenomorphs. We interpreted the Ridley Scott xeno as a different species than the James Cameron one, so in this game, players will fight both (in addition to brand new xeno species), each with its own attacks and behavior. The Scott-variety aliens hide in the shadows and slip out of the walls and ceilings to attack as you move past them. They’re never invisible, but they blend into the complex background art so that they’re pretty tricky to spot. You can see in one of the recent trailer for the game, one of these xenos dangling from the ceiling to snatch a passing marine. These guys can be pretty unsettling.
In contrast, the Cameron-variety xenos are fast and aggressive, able to run along walls and on ceilings — a nod to “Alien3” — to dodge the player’s aim. These guys hide in the ceilings and floors and burst out when players get near them, as opposed to the slinking, stealth Scott xenos. We gave them a more modern, “Alien Vs. Predator”-style appearance –dog legs, hunched posture — because it matched their faster, more aggressive mobility and made them feel a little more deadly than if they were upright as in Cameron’s film.
There are also brand new xeno species and non-xeno enemies that have been created specifically for this game, appearing as enemies and bosses. Our goal with the enemy lineup was to pull all the memorable nasties from the previous films into this game, then add even more to the mix to really put players through one helluva gauntlet.
You can play as multiple characters in the game, right? Are there certain advantages to each one?
Pomegranate: There are 20 marines and you can play as 19 of them. The only advantages to any particular one over another is in the player’s investment and personal stake in the game. By that, I mean that an exceptional amount of time was put into the writing of each marine’s dialog. This gives each a very distinct personality, much like Cameron’s film. We did this partially in an attempt to increase re-playability, but more so as a device to increase the drama and tension throughout the game. We felt that the more a player relates to the marines, the more they’ll want to get through leaving none behind. This should make the fact that, once a marine dies, they’re dead for good have much more impact.
Tierney: It’s fun to see how players latch onto certain marines over others. Each marine has his or her own portrait, name, idle animations, uniform colors and, of course, as Jeff mentioned, unique script for the entire game. It’s not exaggerating to say that you get a substantially different story experience with each of the 19 playable characters. You can even customize your squad, in a sense, by protecting the marines you like and letting the ones you don’t become xeno food.
My personal favorite marine in the game is Zoe “Cutter” Kennedy, who is our bitter, morose goth chick. She follows orders, but tends to be really pissy about everything and focuses on the carnage around her with an unsettling level of interest. Jeff’s favorite character is Jeff “Lucky” Palms, who’s a smooth talking, Matthew McConaughey type. He loves cards and gambling, and always has an easygoing disposition, in spite of the chaos going on around him.
We made a strong effort to create the most varied, memorable bunch of characters you could ever find in an action adventure like this, so chances are, the kind of marine you’d love to play as is in here, just waiting for you to find them.
The gameplay style you went with seems to be open-world/ exploratory with a lot of action thrown in. Were you inspired by other games to get this nailed down just right? “Metroid,” perhaps? Or maybe even “Alien 3” from the Sega Genesis days?
Tierney: Oh, sure — you can’t have a “Metroidvania”-style game without being heavily influenced by “Metroid” and “Castlevania.” Those two series essentially invented (and perfected) that genre. Another game that influenced this one was WayForward’s own “Contra 4” (also available on Nintendo DS), which we’d finished just prior to starting “Aliens: Infestation.” Although this game has a much greater focus on exploration and slow progression, they take a similar approach in many ways to platform shooting. A few fans have been using the term “Controidvania” to describe this title, and I think that’s a pretty accurate description.
What might surprise gamers, though, is how many modern console conventions are in there as well. We knew that gamers would be playing this title alongside modern FPS games like “Modern Warfare” and “Gears of War,” so we wanted to fold some of those behaviors and mechanics into our tiny characters. The marines in this game can walk, run, crouch, backpedal, dodge, climb, take cover, blind fire and tactical reload, all while blasting xenos into messy, green chunks. I’m very proud of how deep the character control in this title is, while still feeling very natural and intuitive at the same time.
As for the “Alien 3” Genesis game, we get that comparison a lot. We didn’t pull any specific elements from that game, but when you have two “Metroid”-style games based on the same license, there’s bound to be similarities.
What sort of research did you put into the game? Did you work closely with Fox Studios to get the look of LV-426 right, rely on photos or approach the design an entirely different way?
Pomegranate: A great deal of research goes into all of our games, I think more than anybody not in the industry might expect. Granted, the research on this one was a bit more enjoyable than on some of the games we make for 8 year old girls, but even those require due diligence to be a success. Fox was certainly integral to our research on this game, but there also happens to be a treasure trove of information in the intertubes. That’s when I realized the film had a profound impact on more people than just me. Knowing there’s such a rabid fan base definitely applied the pressure on us to get things right, and I think our team did an amazing job. I’m pretty sure we nailed it, but I guess we’ll be notified of misses in the blogosphere.
Tierney: We set each of our artists up with ample reference of how we wanted everything to look, and as you can see in trailers and screen, there’s a lot of that “James Cameron blue” everywhere, especially in the LV-426 stages. It was incredibly important to nail the visual complexity and design of those films, and not just illustrate generic spaceship interiors.
I’m particular proud of what we put together with the Sulaco ship. By the end of the game, the player will have been able to comb every inch of that vessel (including the exterior). Our game’s lead designer (Cole Phillips) took great effort to ensure that our layout was as accurate as possible, referencing old diagrams and schematics from the production of the original films. We wanted the Sulaco to feel like a believable environment, so over the course of exploring it you’ll not only come across storage rooms, hangars, and corridors, but also mess halls, gyms, an atrium, showers, bathrooms, sleep chambers, shooting ranges, and more. We wanted to make an environment that felt like people actually lived there. Big shout out to our incredible environment artists (Helm, Sven, and Mads) for their amazing work on this title. I think fans are going to be really impressed.
Why release “Infestation” for the Nintendo DS rather than the 3DS? Do you think the game’s better suited for the older platform?
Tierney: Every game WayForward makes is designed to take advantage of everything that system has to offer. “Aliens: Infestation” first went into production long before the 3DS was announced, and with it we wanted to make the ultimate action platformer on the Nintendo DS. When the 3DS was revealed, Sega and WayForward looked into the possibility of converting it to that system, but I’m personally very glad that the game is being released on Nintendo DS, because that’s what it was designed for. If we had adapted it to 3DS at the 11th hour, it wouldn’t have taken full advantage of everything that’s unique about the 3DS, and this is a game that deserves to stand out on whatever system it’s on. Plus, since both the Nintendo DS and 3DS will be able to play this title, we’ll hopefully reach an even wider audience.
What kind of bonuses can you unlock in the game? Are there any new weapons or film clips — perhaps even a playable Ripley?
Tierney: No Ripley in this game, sorry. In fact, no one from the original films appears in this game, because “Infestation” follows after the events of those movies. However, several of our marines are homages to the character types from those films. So while we don’t literally have Vasquez in our game, our character Samantha “Homewrecker” Johnston has a very similar “badass, tough chick” vibe to her. This game has its own Bishop, its own Hicks, its own Hudson and so many new character types that are unlike anyone you’ve met in the Aliens universe before.
As for extra content, there is a secret unlockable mode in the game. I can’t get too specific about it, other than to say that it requires a DS stylus, and that Bishop would be very good at it!
We might have to take a stab at that! Meanwhile, how many hours worth of gameplay can players expect from “Aliens: Infestation?”
Tierney: That’s always a tough question with an exploration game like this, because, as we saw through testing, different players go through the adventure at substantially different paces. I would say it’s a pretty meaty experience for a Nintendo DS title, but I don’t know a specific playtime, offhand. There are a lot of side paths to explore, hidden objects to locate and you can upgrade each of the game’s primary weapons twice by finding hidden upgrade items. The marines themselves have a sort of “Pokemon” aspect to them as well, with a marine roster accessible from the Extras menu, which has the portrait and bio of each marine the player has located in the game. This roster carries over to subsequent replays, encouraging players to track down every marine in the game. Even if they don’t join your squad, encountering them adds them to that roster.
You said earlier that you tired to recreate the mood of the movie with the gameplay, with threats popping up from all over the place.
Tierney: Absolutely, and that’s not the easiest thing to accomplish in a game where your character is only a few dozen pixels tall. Part of the reason we went out of our way to put so much depth into the character systems was to intensify the horror, because you would actually care what happened to your character. It’s not very depressing if a game character dies when all you’ve seen them do is run to the right and fire their weapon. But over the course of this game you’ll learn each marine’s name, read their voice and find out about their history, their family, their motivations so when they become low on health, you become very worried and focused on keeping them alive. Especially in a game where dead means dead, and there’s no such thing as respawn.
As for creatures popping out, we’ve got plenty of that in this game. As I mentioned, each creature has its own style of surprising and attacking the player, and you have to learn how to react to those in order to survive. To make things even more intense, we have sequences in the game called “Close Encounters,” where enemies can get the player caught in a grapple. If the player doesn’t free himself or herself quickly, it means an instant, grisly death (the ‘mini-mouth popping through the back of your skull’ variety). Each enemy has its own Close Encounter attack, which keeps the player on their toes.
Let me give you an example of how we keep the game tense: most of the environments in the game use a lock and key system. Once you have the correct keycard, you can get through doors of that security level. The problem is — so can the xenos. Just because you make it through a door and it seals behind you, it doesn’t mean you’re safe, because they’ll barge right in after you. Early in the game, the player picks up the welder tool, which is used to unweld previously sealed doors. But what’s cool is that it can also weld or re-weld any door in the game.
So if the player is being chased by an alien, and they’re a few steps ahead of the xenos, they can try and weld a door behind them to prevent a horde from chasing them. If they’re quick, the xenos are locked on the other side. If they’re slow, the creatures will bust the door open, mid-welding, and begin slashing at the player. But once a door is welded, that player will have to unweld it again if they want to get back through. This can present a whole new set of problems if the room they sealed themselves into is suddenly overrun with xenos and becomes their prison (or tomb). There are a lot of double-sided elements in the game like that, where they’re not purely advantageous, but offer choice to the player and let them come up with their own strategies.
Pomegranate: We hope people are playing this alone in darkened rooms, but if that’s what you’re doing, make sure to let the people nearby know so they don’t get worried when they hear your blood-curdling screams (remember, you’re not in space, so they can hear you).
What’s your favorite weapon in the game?
Tierney: It’s going to sound silly, but I really like the pistol. It’s the only gun in the game with unlimited ammo, because it’s your backup weapon. It’s not very powerful, but it’s incredible satisfying to fire off shots as fast as you can mash the button.
The pulse rifle is pure awesome, and functions and sounds exactly like it does in the film. I think most people will tend to favor that weapon as they play through the game. The smart gun is super-powerful and unloads a tremendous amount of firepower in a short amount of time, but it takes a moment to get going and eats through ammo like nobody’s business. It’s definitely one to grab right before a boss battle. The shotgun is great if you love getting close to your enemies, and the flamethrower is a blast (no pun intended), especially since its flames can curve up around walls and objects. It’s fun to bake enemies with that weapon, and watch them turn a reddish hue.
Finally, aside from “Infestation” (obviously), do you have a personal favorite Alien-licensed game?
Tierney: I remember loving the old arcade game when I was a kid, with its one-off sections like the APC driving sequence. That’s one of the reasons we have an APC section in “Aliens: Infestation,” as an homage to that title, and (like they did) to break up the action and give players a breather from the tense exploration gameplay. Beyond that game, though, I’m mostly just a huge fan of the Alien films and comics. The “Aliens” universe was a lot of fun to play in, and hopefully we pulled in all the best elements that fans are most passionate about.
“Aliens: Infestation” hits the Nintendo DS October 11