The much-hyped Ridley Scott movie Prometheus isn't the only big Aliens-related project that might change the way we think of one of sci-fi's best series.
The next Aliens video game counts. It's canon. And the people who are making it think it might finally solve some key mysteries in the film—and even make the films a bit better.
"It's all connected together," Randy Pitchford, head of Gearbox Software said to me recently, as we sat down in a convention hall in Boston to chat about Aliens: Colonial Marines, the big new game his team has been working on for several years.
Just before we chatted, another Gearbox developer had played an early part of Colonial Marines in front of me, blowing my mind a bit as he controlled a post-Aliens space Marine boarding the massive Sulaco. You might remember that ship from Aliens as the final battleground between an angry alien queen and a furious, mech-driving Ellen Ripley. The Marine was a member of a battalion that will be featured in the new game. He's attached to a recovery crew that links their ship to that huge, famous ship, the USS Sulaco. The Sulaco is floating in space above LV426, the planetoid on which much of James Cameron's Aliens and its predecessor, Ridley Scott's Alien, occurred.
The Marine heads into the loading bay, where the bottom half of the android Bishop lies, last seen when the alien queen ripped him apart at the end of Aliens. In this early bit, our Marine chats with some of the other recovery personnel in the bay. He heads past some monitors that just might hold hints to what really happened—what moviegoers were never told—to Ripley, Hicks and Newt between Aliens and Alien3. That's still a big question. What did happen on the Sulaco between the movie that ended with those three in cryo sleep and the next, which left two of them dead and Ripley, impregnated by Alien, ejected from the Sulaco onto the prison planet of Fury 161?
The Prometheus Connection Trailers for Ridley Scott's Prometheus movie have shown what appears to be the Derelict ship from Alien but the filmmaker has been cagey about how neatly his new movie fits into Alien lore. "On the one hand, you can feel the DNA of the Aliens franchise in it," Pitchford said of the upcoming movie. "If you ask Ridley, he'll tell you he's certainly borrowed things from the universe… He's not developing it as true canon. There are some inconsistencies that he accepted in order for his film to be the good story he wanted to tell there. To the extent that it is part of the Aliens universe, it's prequel material. We're sequel material. Having said that, the endpoint of our adventure is the Derelict which is also the starting point on LV-426 with the Space Jockeys. There is a bit of a link there."
"To make the sequel to Aliens as a video game was our prerequisite," Pitchford told me, grinning. And the studio behind the movies, 20th Century Fox, obliged. "The commitment they made was, 'Yes borrow the franchise for the purpose of doing the next story in the succession of those storylines.'"
While Pitchford stresses that his team "wants to tell a new story" and won't re-tell the films, he can't help but have the game intersect. We will board the Sulaco; we will be joined by a synthetic who was the same model as Bishop and will therefore look like and be voiced by Bishop actor Lance Henriksen; we will head down to LV426; we will check out the ruins of ruins of Hadley's Hope, the human colony set up by the Weyland-Yutani corporation after the first Alien and whose residents were annihilated by the aliens just before Aliens begins. Those aliens came from the mysterious Derelict, the space-ship seemingly driven by something called the Space Jockey and filled with alien eggs, as seen in Alien.
"We don't treat the fan-service as the point," Pitchford said. "It's not the center of it, but it's there." It's there because Aliens: Colonial Marines really does sound like the logical tale of what would happen next. It's a shooter but it is seemingly also going to be a detective story.
How it all fits together
Pitchford and his team have a very good grasp on Alien series lore. They've absorbed the films, spoken to Ridley Scott, discovered back-stories that didn't make it into the films and identified what's canonical. They know What Happened and that helped them shape their story.
Here's Pitchford, with some asides from me, walking me through the fiction of Aliens and Alien3 while zeroing in on the mysteries he hopes to help players solve with the new game.
"At the end of Aliens, Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop go to sleep and are presumably going home. At the beginning of Alien3 something happened. We never knew what or why. But something caused them to be ejected from the Sulaco and they ended up on this prison planet.
"The Sulaco is there at the prison planet." [Note from Stephen: Right? It's definitely not over LV426, which is where it appears to be in the start of Colonial Marines. Logically, it'd be near the planet it ejected Ripley onto.]
"Everything that Ripley dealt with on the prison planet ends with her martyring herself as Weyland-Yutani is trying to collect the specimen." [Note from Stephen: That's the end of Alien3, of course.]
"Weyland-Yutani actually … boarded the Sulaco." [Note from Stephen: I did not know this, but it makes sense. Menacing corporation that sets up Hadley's Hope and wants to retrieve alien queen embryo would obviously track down the Sulaco and search it.]
No Easy Bug-Hunt Video games tend to have higher body counts than even the most violent movies, which relegates many movie-related bad guys in games to cannon fodder. But Gearbox doesn't want to turn the fearsome xenomorphs of Alien and Alien3 into easily-swattable bugs. "We're going to need to defeat some things but we are also going to need to feel the deadliness of them," Pitchford said. "The actual game is pretty lethal. The skill test is anticipating or reacting. If you are good at anticipating and reacting you will be killing lots of xenos and you will be effective at it. You have the tools to do it. But when they get you, they frickin' get you. You'll die. You'll die a lot. I don't know if we're as far as Dark Souls. We're still tuning it, but it's going to be pretty brutal."
"Something happened before that Ripley doesn't know about that led to the ejection [from the Sulaco.]. If Weyland-Yutani can't get the specimen from Ripley, and they are on the ship, what would their next step be? It would be to turn the ship around and go back to the source, LV426.
"So the Sulaco gets back to LV426. Now, [in the game], we're part of the contingent that's the rescue crew. Remember, Ripley asks how long before we're overdue can we expect a rescue and Hicks says 17 days. And Hudson says something like, ‘17 days? We're not going to last 17 hours, man.' That creates the opening for the ship that's going to go deal with the fact that something happened. Now the Sulaco is reported destroyed. They didn't send it in 17 days, but they are going to investigate. 17 weeks later, Weyland-Yutani has had plenty of time on LV426.
"Now, LV426 is actually a moon around a ring planet. It's actually not a planet itself. But it's a big one. It's a shake-n-bake colony, so there's a bit of an atmosphere. The atmosphere processor blew [Note from Stephen: during Aliens]. That is about 3 kilometers away is where Hadley's Hope is, and it's taken a lot of damage because that was about a 40 megaton blast. About 1000 kilometers away from that is where the derelict was. That's the big ship that had all the eggs in Alien.
"We know where Alien begins, there's a Derelict on this alien planet and we also know from Aliens that, when they finally found Ripley and Burke sent a report, that got the colonists out to see what is this. [They were told:] ‘Go to this grid point, see what's there.' And that's when they stumbled into the eggs and that's when Hadley's Hope was taken over."
I thought I knew the movies well, but much of what Pitchford told me here went over my head the first time. Hadley's Hope? That was were Newt lived, right? (Right.) The Derelict? We never really saw much of that, just glimpses, right? (Right.) But the more I thought about it all, the more I looked over what Pitchford told me, the more neatly it all clicked together.
This is a sequel that matters. That's clear. Hopefully, it is one worthy of the films it ties together.