07 January, 2015

Midweek Musings 07/01/15 - Amanda Ripley, Is Less More?

In this feature we'll be talking raw opinion (as we do just about everywhere on the site) about whatever niggling issues spring to mind. In our first piece we delve into Amanda Ripley. She scarcely seen on screen during Alien Isolation, and when she does appear in the game’s few cutscenes, there is little effort made to convince you that she is interesting. You find out precious little about her past, and maybe even less about her personality. So why then, despite this apparent lack of substance do a lot of people, myself included, regard Alien Isolation’s protagonist in such high esteem?

I believe she is one of those rare, exceedingly rare, almost silent protagonists that is actually able to build a relationship, which is almost symbiotic in nature, with the player. Many games, particularly first person ones have a rather depressing habit of placing the player at the helm of a white, male protagonist who utters a few cringe-worthy one-liners, occasionally breaks the rules but ultimately, they’re a good guy in the end. Amanda Ripley cares for very few of those traits, she undertakes the mission to Sevestapol Station to unravel the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, this is her only relationship and piece of history that the player is made aware of. For all intents and purposes she is Ellen Ripley herself; a rather unremarkable woman. She isn’t that tough, she isn’t a genius, she doesn’t have a past of note. She has only a believable technical knowledge and the desire not to die.

In the original Alien film, Ellen Ripley is very much that, a human that wanted to live, as the series Alien (1979) she was a survivor, terrified by the utterly alien horror that stalked the corridors and ducts of the Nostromo. As a viewer I was terrified for her, yes the aesthetic, the movements, the way in which the Xenomorph snatched away her companions was dark and predatory, but I never considered Alien a traditional horror movie in terms of it being scary to watch, or jump inducing. Although, I have heard the notion that the Alien is thematically about rape and child birth, the way the Xenomorph effectively penetrates and impregnates its victims. Its ‘young’ quite literally bursting out. That death itself is less horrifying than what it does to you. Watching Alien, I always felt the tension and dread for Ripley in the movie, rather than fear of something myself. Of course, like a horror movie, Alien Isolation depends upon the viewer to *want* be affected by it, if you go into the Alien movie with the mind-set that you’re watching a dude in a rubber suit chase woman around a movie set, or conversely that it is a videogame, you’re probably not going to get much out of this – or perhaps any piece of fiction. I feel Alien Isolation, and Amanda Ripley, only truly work because of the first person perspective, and it is why I endorsed the noise detection enabled by the console’s camera (to a less extent the head tracking) in the review. You have to be in it, to believe that you are Amanda, that you are the prey of the Xenomorph. That primal fear of violation that the Xenomorph stirs is not felt in the same manner through a disembodied camera, as it is felt through her eyes. Because they are your eyes, creating an effective that Ellen Ripley never could have.
went on she became something else entirely. But in the pure experience that was

Amanda is not a warrior, and by extension neither are you, your interactions with the world and the entities with in it are limited, logically. Which is what makes Alien Isolation such a bitter-sweet experience to play, it suffers from bloat. There are a good number of hours, the middle third of that game which directly violates that symbiotic relationship between Amanda and the player, in which you are in direct combat with rogue androids. My feelings on this are well documented in the review, ultimately it is frustrating and detracts from the overall experience because the fear that bonds the player and Ripley together is lost to frustration.

Dealing with the androids, while frustrating, at least maintains the notion of Ripley’s frailty, human frailty. We’ve seen videogames try to accomplish this exact thing before, and fail. The Crystal Dynamic’s 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider is prime example. Prior to the game’s release, the developers stated, a number of things (via Kotaku) about their aims for the new, softer looking Lara and what feelings they wanted to evoke. Such as, “…you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” and that the player is, “…more like 'I want to protect her.’…”. Lara’s younger appearance, coupled with the rumoured sexual assault scene, was more than enough to raise the ire of many (as did her original, hyper-sexualised model), ultimately though it amounted to little. Their attempts of humanising her, shaping her into a character that the player really cared about protecting were dashed the moment they coupled it with hours of murderous rampage and a host of almost comically gnarly death scenes. No, the heartfelt moment when she had to kill a dear for the first time wasn’t enough to offset a diametrically opposed game design. In Alien Isolation storytelling and gameplay operate synergistically. Amanda Ripley is vulnerable, always, and by extension you are vulnerable. Amanda Ripley looks ‘normal’, like a typical woman. Her face probably didn’t need to be seen at all, but that the developer choose to and succeeded in making her look normal is crucial, because just like the direction of the story, the dialog and cutscenes, her normal appearance avoids forcing an image or judgment of Amanda on to the player.

While playing, it struck me how not-sexualised Amanda Ripley was, when compared specifically to Ellen Ripley. In the Alien and even more so in the later movies Ripley’s femininity was not hidden; in the opening scene she emerges from cyrosleep wearing only standard-issue underwear, just like her male crew mates. She undresses in a room that (unbeknownst to her) she shares with the Xenomorph. Such scenes occur throughout the series. But with the exception of a second of leg at the beginning, Alien Isolation has none of this. These scenes could have been a method pushing the Xenomorph-rape-fear further still, as I feel the scenes in the movie quite forcefully do. Of course, including such scenes
could have easily felt like merely a cheap ploy, just like Lara Croft’s remodelling and implied assault. I saw it as a major point of divergence from how the movies presented her mother Ellen. Ultimately, I believe that the game is able to convey the Alien horror experience better than anything else in the franchise, that it can do so without relying on such overt tactics is a powerful thing.

The developers do a deft job of placing Ripley in believably frightening positions throughout the story, particularly the early encounters with the Xenomorph and less savoury residents of Sevestapol. In cutscenes they show her clearly scared, and have her take at least logical actions and responses, but avoid having her voice judgments or exclamations – they are for the player. Especially when you are actually playing the game and trying to avoid the unpredictable Xenomorph intelligence (again, I cannot recommend the use of noise detection enough!). As the player you guide her actions and play the part of her thoughts, she is a cipher, she is not just desperate to live, you are. The game avoids placing Amanda in situations that would cause the player to question her actions, because if you did you’re out of it. The connection is gone. In that sense it is far more effective than the original movie, because a player has so much more agency than a viewer ever could. The player is a stakeholder. But of course, without Ellen Ripley, Amanda Ripley would have never existed, and naturally a two hour long movie is able to maintain itself far better than a fifteen hour (plus) long game.

I don’t believe Alien Isolation is trying to telling the story of Amanda Ripley or even really the wider plight of Sevestapol. It attempts, and I feel succeeds in spite of game’s length and padding, in making the player and the character one. So no, Amanda Ripley is not the deepest character to be written in to a videogame, but she is one of the few playable character that actually leverages the power of the first person perspective in an exciting way. The effectiveness of that character depends greatly on the players’ own investment, much like the horror genre itself, not everyone will play the game and have that experience, or even necessarily want it. It is not the visuals of the Sevestapol’s interior, or spot-on sound design that make Alien Isolation feel like an authentic Alien experience, it is the human element. The human fear that has never successfully been exploited in the franchise since the original Alien, and Amanda Ripley is the key. 

Are you someone who feels the same way I do about Amanda Ripley? Or was she just another floating pair of hands? Let me know, and look for more musings same time next week!

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