It's been more than 44 years since Alien first terrified audiences but it still holds up remarkably well today. Alien completely reimagined the sci fi genre in the 70s, ditching the well-lit, antiseptic Star Trek sets for a grimy, industrial, blue collar setting. It also set the gold standard for modern horror - true horror, not the cheap thrills of gore-fests like Saw and Hostel. I love running horror adventures, something that I've tapped into as I develop ALIVE INSIDE. Below is everything I've learned about running horror games from Alien.
*This blog posts contains spoilers about Alien. If you haven't seen the movie, watch it first and then come back to read this post!
Horror vs Terror
First, let's make an important distinction between horror and terror. Horror is the slow build up of creepiness and anticipation. Terror is when all of your worst fears come to fruition. These are two key parts of the same equation. I think the best way to conceptualize horror is to compare it to a joke. Horror is the setup where you introduce the characters, the elements, and slowly build up to the climax. Terror is the punchline - the climax where you see the monster and it attacks with lethal consequences. Terror is where you get the biggest payoff but the level of payoff is completely dependent on how well you set up the horror. In general, your game should be about 80-90% horror. The anticipation and dread maximizes the punch of the terror.
In Alien, we see the horror play out as the crew awakes on a cold, desolate ship eight-months away from anyone who can help. The crew receives a creepy distress signal on barren, inhospitable world. They investigate a derelict space, all the while our subconscious is screaming "get out of there!" The terror comes when Kane looks into an egg and an Alien leaps at his face with shocking speed.
Use Your Senses
Want to get an even greater visceral reaction from your players? Describe your scenes using multiple senses. Consider the sound effects from Alien. As the crew awakens, the ship is deathly silent. Each click and beeps is startling. As the crew chases the acidic blood from the alien, fearing it will melt through the ship's hull, we can hear the sizzle of melting metal. The soundtrack is creepy and unpredictable. Even though we can't feel the movie, Kane tells us that as he goes deeper into this derelict ship, it grows warmer, a cue that he's approaching something. When he lays on the bed in the ship, we can see the drops of sweat on his skin. Moments before Brett first encounters the Alien, we can almost feel as he cleans the sweat and grime from his hair and face as he stands under the trickle of water. Engage your players senses and you will inevitably hook them deeper into the horror of the game. Don't go too far though - two or maybe three senses is enough to immerse the players in any given description. More than that and it becomes distracting and can take the players out of the dream of your world.
This is something that will occur more during game prep rather than game night. I like to think of the environment as a character - or monster - all on its own. Where ever your adventure will be set, think about how the environment can create a sense of dread and even pose a danger. In Alien, LV-426 is a barren and foreboding landscape. The derelict spacecraft is completely bizarre and disorienting. And when the Alien is unleashed on the Nostromo, suddenly the ship's own design allows for the monster to move freely about while the characters are nearly helpless to defend themselves. And as the movie approaches its greatest beat of terror, the environment itself (the ship) is set to self destruct becoming the greatest source of danger of all.
Raise the Stakes
One of the biggest differences between a normal high fantasy adventure and a horror adventure is lethality. Player character death can be a thorny subject nowadays but when running a horror adventure, I would encourage you to unshackle yourself from this thinking - and do it early. If you can kill off a PC, and do so early, it will immediately raise the stakes and the tension for the remaining survivors. As soon as your players know they they can die, and die easily, the real horror begins.
In Alien, the first character dies at lunch when the crew of the Nostromo are getting ready to go back to sleep. The audience is completely disoriented as Kane begins choking. We know that something is wrong and something terrifying is about to happen, but we don't know what. When the chestburster explodes from Kane, we are shocked and terrified. And later, when Dallas, the ship's captain who is portrayed by Tom Skerrit, the most recognizable actor in the film at the time, dies, we know that absolutely no one is safe.
Hide the Monster
This final lesson is one that ties all of the others together. One of the most recognizable tropes from the Alien movies is the use of the motion tracker. If you're familiar with the movies, you can probably close your eyes and see the 80s-style computer screen showing an amorphous blip inching closer to the characters (horror), and the uncaring monotonous beep as it gets closer (senses). We know the monster is approaching but we don't know how or where (environment).
One of the reasons Alien has aged so well is because of how little screen time the Alien actually received. I've seen some deleted scenes from the movie, including one where we watch the Alien crab-walk toward lambert. The movement looks bizarre but also comical. By simply showing Lambert's reaction and the shadow of the monster eclipsing her, we get a much greater sense of horror than if we were to see both of them together in an extended shot. Never forget that one of the greatest fears that people have is of the unknown. As soon as the monster becomes known and quantifiable, it loses a huge source of its horror.
Alien is my absolute favorite horror movie of all time - and Aliens is my favorite movie ever. What's your favorite horror movie and what lesson can it teach us? Let me know in the comments below!