Remembering Alien: Isolation’s “Lo-fi” Aesthetic

Creative Assembly's trip to the past to build the future is a hallmark in art direction.

The very amazing and very terrifying Alien: Isolation is currently enjoying a substantial discount on Steam (just $2 as of April 27, 2020!) and perhaps there’s no better time than now to take a brief look at what made this surprise hit memorable–besides the alien itself.

Creative Assembly fortunately left us with a fantastic dev diary that shows some of the behind-the-scenes techniques they used, including pushing cable connections on CRT screens, VHS tapes, and more to the breaking point.

Isolation presents a fantastic crash course in design techniques, showcasing what the results are when you apply specific constraints to how something can be presented or designed, and when you base an entire project on some simple concepts, such as “CRT, not LCD,” when thinking of how a single facet of a universe might be designed, and how that can branch out to build an entire artistic vision and presentation.

What’s important to note in Alien: Isolation’s design, perhaps, is that real thought went into what exactly the technology in this universe was, and how it would work. Creative lead Alistair Hope described it as “a stamp in time and approach,” which reveals that they didn’t just go for an ephemeral, directionless trope of what “science fiction” or “sci-fi” would look and feel like, but took the time to consider what the materials might be available, what could feasibly be constructed, instead of just using a far-flung future setting to create without limits or boundaries.

The dated look of these materials to us, then, doesn’t merely paint with a nostalgic brush, but contributes to the horror, the “disillusioned view of the future” which Hope talks about. That the team went out of their way to actually make as much of its visual artifacts from real materials, “crushing cables and putting magnets around the TV to make it glitch and cause interference” is the kind of “realistic” feeling that we come to expect from well-crafted practical effects in film and television.

Alien: Isolation is a tremendous experience of horror, one that can be a little off-putting for some. If for no other reason, picking up a copy to experience this stunning digital recreation of a vision of the future from 1979 is as good an excuse as any.

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