Backtracking Shouldn't Be a Bad Word in Gaming

Constant momentum in games like Alien: Isolation means I'm always engaged as a player, but that engagement comes at the cost of fear.

It has been months since I played Alien: Isolation and going back to it now feels strange. It’s still the most impressive big-budget horror game to come out in recent years, but compared to Resident Evil HD Remaster, it also fails to live up to the horror standard of 1996.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the mansion in Resident Evil as its own tragic character, a once lively place that has now lost its mind and is being rotted from the inside. By contrast, Sevastopol station from Alien: Isolation feels like a cohesive place thanks to the practical level design that went into creating it, but it never feels like more than that. The mansion may be impractical, but that’s part of what makes it memorable. The Sevastopol is simply too efficient.

That's partly because we’re always on the move in Isolation. Granted, since it is a stealth game, we're not exactly running down its halls, but this is still a game that’s chiefly about getting from point A to point B. All the horror and tension of the place comes from the obstacles put in our way, whether that be an alien, android, or human. In general, once we get to point B, we never going back to point A. We’re always moving forward, always pushing ahead. Compared to Remaster, there's a relentless sense of progression and momentum in Isolation that undermines its horror.

I’ve praised Remaster and Dark Souls for their excellent pacing which force us to explore an unfamiliar environment until it becomes familiar. Then, once we feel relatively safe, we’re forced out of that comfort zone into someplace new and scary. This repetition creates an ebb and flow of tension. We’re scared until we feel safe, and then we're made to feel scared again.

Isolation, with its constant momentum, doesn't have this same ebb and flow. We’re always exploring someplace new. Theoretically, this should mean that we never feel safe (which certainly fits the design philosophy of the game), and while this is initially true, a constant sense of danger over time inevitably comes to feel less dangerous. The danger becomes familiar, so even though we don’t feel safe, we also don’t feel scared.

By comparing these two games, it would seem that modern horror games are afraid of slowing down. Most big horror games since Resident Evil 4 all share Isolation's relentless momentum: Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, the Dead Space trilogy, The Evil Within, Outlast, Daylight, Dead Island, Dying Light, Alan Wake, etc. These are all games about fighting to get ahead. The environment becomes more than a tunnel, not a character.

The one exception from that list is the original Dead Space. It's telling that I still remember the name of the ship from that game, the USG Ishimura, but I can't remember the space station from the sequel or the planet from the threequel. The Ishimura was memorable not just because we spent the entire game on that one ship, but because we spent the entire game going back and forth across that one ship, visiting and revisiting old locations -- backtracking.

GiantBomb defines backtracking "as a derogatory term used to describe a situation in a game where the player must return to previously encountered locations in order to continue advancing the game." I can remember a time when "backtracking" was a bad word, a mark of lazy design, and maybe it's still perceived that way and I just don't hear that conversation because so few games implement it anymore, but backtracking can be helpful for a horror game. We feel safe in familiar locations, and it's easier to scare us if we feel safe.

Constant momentum means I'm always engaged as a player, but that engagement comes at the cost of fear. There is a great moment in Remaster when I first left the mansion for the garden, and as I walked down a dark and wet path, all I wanted to do was run back inside... back to the zombie mansion. The garden was terrifying, and it was made all the more frightening because I had a place to retreat to, someplace to tempt me away from the rest of the game. Just because I didn’t feel safe on the Sevastopol doesn’t mean that I was scared; I was scared of the alien, but the space station was just, well, a space station.

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