The Alien movies have become a semi-permanent part of western pop culture. H.R. Geiger’s slimy mouth-within-a-mouth designs, the idea that androids bleed white, and the suspicion that a feverish stomach ache is precursor to a little creature clawing its way out of someone’s chest cavity–these are nightmare images that have been inherited by cultural osmosis. Aliens: Colonial Marines is a lavish monument to that cultural inheritance, transformed into an ambient interactive shooter and not a passive viewing experience. At E3 I spoke with Mikey Neumann, Writer and Chief Creative Champion for Gearbox, about the challenges of adding to that legacy.
The films series delved into a lot of ideas revolving around motherhood and gender roles. Is this game continuing in that tradition?
We’re continuing some of those threads but I think the motherhood theme really got played out in Alien: Resurrection because they had to go so far out there. Ripley actually had an alien child. That was very strange for the audience I think–not that it wasn’t interesting. But the themes of motherhood are very specific to Ripley and we tried to take it more in the direction of the marines. One of the ways they handled marines in Aliens was as an allegory for the conflict in Vietnam. There was interesting balance thematically–and it wasn’t a political thing. It was the way they talked and the way they smoked. These aren’t the “greatest generation” anymore, and I thought that was a really great parallel. Nowadays, we’re getting to a different time and we had to update the game.
But do we update the uniforms? No. Do we updated the technology? No. All that needs to be there. But we can update the story, and we can actually use the war in Afghanistan and especially how professional soldiers are now compared to Vietnam. We invented a whole new military language based on modern marine phonetics. Everybody has correct call signs and there’s a higher level of professionalism. Also we’re dealing with more than 400 marines on a ship, so we wanted it to feel like a real war, a real conflict. There’s no political bent to the Afghanistan allegory and I would never intend to imply one, but there’s so much there with how the soldiers carry themselves. That’s more what kids dig now: Generation Kill, Blackhawk Down, obviously they’re playing a lot of modern military shooters. We needed to make the soldiers feel more like that, and that’s where we updated things thematically.
There’s a much greater sense of careerism with the military now compared to Vietnam when so many people there had no choice but to go. The growth of military contractors adds a lot to that as well–people who are there to do a job.
One thing that speaks to us more now is corporate influence. We get to deal with Weyland-Yutani as a corporation way more than anything in the franchise ever has. We’re actually the last thing in the canon that deals with Weyland-Yutani at all, so we have a lot to say there. If we’re having a war between Colonial Marines and Xenomorphs, what is Weyland-Yutani doing there? How are they profiting? I think there’s a great connection to Afghanistan with that. Damn, it did get political! [laughs]
Have you worked at all on making the role of the Xenomorphs more sympathetic or are they just pure evil hunters?
I think the corporate influence comes in there as well. If you jump over the fence at the zoo and poke the lion with a stick, do you blame yourself or the lion?
You get what you get.
Exactly, and I think that’s still there. One of the other things that’s really important to the franchise is not to ever say too much or explain too much. If I were to ask you, based on your knowledge of the movies, what does a Xenomorph eat?
People? I don’t know.
Nobody knows. They’ve never said. But we have to think about that. We know they probably get sustenance from somewhere. They hatch, they’re only alive for three or four days, which is closer to where Ridley Scott was starting from. That history is really important to the franchise. You can add to it, you can raise the questions. But you never answer them. You never say, carrots. It’s carrots, Xenomorphs eat carrots. The Xenomorph is the most terrifying monster ever in a movie, and mystery is a huge, huge part of that. We encountered a lot of issues like that.
I did get to add to the alien lifecycle in a really cool way, something that now goes along with the canon of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. It’s awesome, but it’s also terrifying. I’m such a big fan and we wouldn’t have done this if we weren’t going to do a real sequel. Something big and epic and crazy. This is definitely the biggest the franchise has ever been. There’s the colonial marines, tons and tons of Xenomorphs, and they’re coming from somewhere, and there’s the Weyland-Yutani influence. The scale on which this thing is happening is astronomical.
Did you play around with any of the surrealist overtones that were in Jeunet’s movie?
We’re very much a sequel to Cameron’s Aliens. The idea of Colonial Marines is really sticky. The way I like to think about it is if you look at Aliens and took those characters put them in The Poseidon Adventure it would still be awesome. That movie was the stickiest of all so we’re very much in that aesthetic. We’re dealing with Sulaco, LV-426, and the derelict.
How did the process of writing this game coincide with the actual game design work? Do you start with a master script or do you kind of go off what the physical levels are going to be and write for them?
We definitely put together what we wanted to do from a high level with all our designers. When we figured out the locations and what everything was going to be, me and John Mulkey, who’s the design director and is a genius–I can’t speak highly enough of him. We sat together in a room with a whiteboard that was 18 feet by 10 feet and we wrote out every beat of the game from start to finish. We looked like crazy people because we covered the entire wall. But we had the process down so solid that when I went to write the script it only took me six days.
It was the fastest I’ve ever written anything in my entire life, it just poured out. I was so pumped, then I got scared again when it circulated in Gearbox because we have a loop for our editing process that can be really, really hard. But nobody had any notes. It was crazy. When Randy [Pitchford, President of Gearbox] finished he told me, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written. This is the best thing we’ve ever done. You’ve made Alien 3 better.” That’s the best compliment anyone’s ever given me. But it was really the energy of the team and the energy of John Mulkey especially that allowed us to make that process so rewarding. I have contributed to Aliens canon, I’m the luckiest person in the industry. That’s so mind-blowing to me. Best job in the world.