7 Ways Alien: Isolation Helped Me Accept My Anxiety Disorder

The Creative Assembly

My name is Daniel, and I suffer from a mental disorder. Specifically, I have severe anxiety, which often manifests and renders me useless in social situations and leaves me afraid of everything up to and including my shadow. It’s more than a little ironic, then, that I love horror in all of its mediums: film, literature, comics, take your pick. While I might avoid anything remotely tense in everyday life, I enjoy the primal thrill of being scared by a movie or book. Consider it a form of exposure therapy.

With Alien being my all-time favourite film, I was extremely pumped for Creative Assembly’s video game sequel, Alien: Isolation. Though overly long and – I should impress this – ridiculously stressful, Isolation is by far one of the best games I’ve ever played. Not simply for its mechanics or extreme faithfulness to the source material, but for how it allowed me to better understand the disorder that has plagued me for most of my adult life.

If you’ll bear with me, consider…

7. Anxiety – and the Alien – Can Happen Anytime, Anywhere

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Alien: Isolation owes a lot to Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast, wherein you play physically vulnerable and resource-stricken protagonists who must hide or flee from enemies rather than taking them on in combat. Isolation switches things up by giving you guns to fight off paranoid survivors and rogue androids, but firearms are essentially useless against the titular creature, which can kill you in one go if it catches up to you. Also unlike Outlast and Amnesia, your primary enemy doesn’t stick to a set path or routine. Rather than being purposefully scripted, your encounters with the Alien are seemingly random, and it will track you from area to area whether you like it or not (spoiler: YOU WILL NOT LIKE IT).

While the prospect was intimidating at first, I gradually realized how similar this was to the condition I’ve put up with for the last several years. You see, even with proper medication and psychological preparation, anxiety can still spring up when you least expect it – and invariably when you least want it to. You have to be on the lookout for certain triggers. I’ve seen many people scoff at the thought of trigger warnings, but when you do suffer from anxiety or depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, the slightest thing can set you off and bring The Fear screaming back. In the context of Isolation, this can be a loud, carelessly-made noise that draws the Alien’s attention. Fretting over this can make you horribly avoidant – and, according to my friends, somewhat of a killjoy – but this doesn’t mean you have to go through life or a mission in Isolation being an insufferable worrywart. In fact, it can be quite useful, because you see…

6. Paranoia Can Be a Blessing

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Though I’ve been taking medication for more than two years, I’m still a pretty paranoid person. I check and recheck alarms I’ve set for myself just in case I put them at too low a volume or messed up my wake-up time (I say alarms because, yes, I have backup alarms; don’t judge me). I describe myself as a “people-watcher” in public places, but really I’m mostly scanning the area for any sign of danger and/or people covertly mocking me (Person Casually Glancing At Me + Looking Away And Talking To Their Friend = Oh God They’re Making Fun Of My Clothes). It’s not at OCD levels but it can still be excruciatingly annoying, especially when you’re just trying to have a quiet meal with a friend and okay Jess I swear that guy is looking at me he’s been doing it all night.

But playing Alien made me realize this isn’t altogether bad. Paranoia – or as I’ve rebranded it, Heightened Situational Awareness – will save your life time and time again in this game. You become accustomed to and internalize every little sound in the game, from the high-pitched beep of the Sevastopol‘s precious save stations, to the hum of a bothersome security camera, to the low hiss the Alien makes when it’s waiting to ambush you from a ceiling vent. A lot of time you’re erring on the side of caution, but that’s a good type of erring. Anxiety has made me a more cautious person, and while that might sometimes get in the way of my asking someone out or applying to a job, I think it’s also made me more mindful of my surroundings and how my actions affect others. It’s also stopped me from becoming a hapless jackass which, make no mistake, the game will punish you for, as…

5. Rushing Into Things Can Make Them Worse

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In Outlast and Amnesia, if a murderous patient/horrifying monstrosity catches sight of you, your first and best reaction is to put some distance between the two of you. If you sprint to the next room, hide in a corner and wait – chances are the limited AI won’t be able to make heads or tails of where you’ve gone. Not so with Alien: Isolation. You can run from the Alien, sure, but it is always – ALWAYS – faster than you, and the only thing you will get for your troubles is a barbed tail through the torso. A more effective tactic is pulling up your motion tracker, ducking whenever you see a blip on the radar and, if you’re in a locker, holding your breath (by way of L2/left trigger/right mouse button). Even walking thoughtlessly into a room can get your ass dragged into the ceiling because you didn’t hear the Alien’s aforementioned telltale hiss. Taking your time, even in a stressful situation, can work wonders.

And that’s very true to life, especially when you’re working at a hectic Starbucks for over two years (really smart career move there, Daniel). In the heat of the moment, when you have a billion things going on and external and internal voices are yelling things at you, it’s tempting just to give in, to flee, to say the Hell with it and do the rash thing. But it’s surprising how much a breather, even a little one, can help. In the game, this could be ducking into a dark corner and assembling one of a myriad of little devices (noisemakers are the best); in real life, it could be stepping into the back room and counting to ten or – my personal favorite – singing a song to get into the rhythm of things. It can seem pointless, or even a little silly, but a little self-care goes a long way, even if it does involve singing “Dayman.”

…”Champion of the Sun.”

4. Setting Goals Works Wonders

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Isolation can be extremely overwhelming at times… well, pretty much all of the time, now that I think of it. You’re constantly eyeing a motion tracker, the slightest sound from an overhead duct can make you freeze up, save points are few and far between, and of course there’s that God-damned Alien. It also has particularly high consequences for failure: with a few exceptions – like between major story moments – the only saving is done manually and at designated computer consoles. So if you make a wrong move and get your face inner-jawed, you might end up having to repeat a nerve-wracking stretch of the game.

Likewise, giving into your anxiety at the wrong moment can hurt your work, or even your friends (we’ll get to that in a bit). Though looking at the big picture can be helpful, in the heat of the moment it’s better to focus on little details that one can handle rather than on a larger, seemingly insurpassable obstacle. In Isolation, that can mean planning on just getting to the nearest save station rather than thinking of all the tasks you have to complete. In real life, such as with working on an essay, it could be writing the opening and closing sentences of a given paragraph or properly formatting the quotes. These are tiny, easily traversable steps up a large mountain – though it certainly doesn’t hurt to watch out for the Alien/anxiety that’s waiting to throw you over the edge like the huge, eyeless dick it is.

3. Other People Get Caught in the Crossfire

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You’re not the only person stranded on the Sevastopol in Alien: Isolation. Briefly putting aside the Alien and the creepy, creepy Working Joe androids, there are a few dozen confused, panicking and, yes, lethally armed survivors trying to get from one point of the ghost town space station to another. Not all of them will be friendly, and in fact a fair few will level a gun at you and fire if you get too close. In such cases, you may have to sneak around them; in more difficult scenarios, you might end up throwing a noisemaker their way so the Alien will swoop down and dispatch them for you. Survival can be ugly.

That’s a pretty messed-up notion, using your anxiety as a weapon, even in self-defense. And I guarantee you that everyone who suffers from it has wielded it like a sword on one occasion or another, myself included. Maybe it’s accidental, maybe it’s done intentionally, but it sucks. It’s inaccurate to think that mental illness is a lone person’s cross to bear. Like physical disease, friends and loved ones and even total strangers get dragged into that muck. It’s certainly a lesson

Well Jesus, that was dark. Here’s the chestburster scene from Spaceballs to liven the mood.

2. The Alien Was Inside of Me All Along

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I promise that the above subheading is neither a cheesy truism nor a chestburster-related spoiler.

Our species has an annoying habit of anthropomorphizing anything and everything, attributing very human traits where none exist. Disease and disorder are frequent targets of our, say, narrative addiction. We “fight” cancer and “battle” AIDS, as if they were enemy warriors and not explosive cell growth and a virus, respectively. I’m certainly guilty of this as well. Though my anxiety is nothing more than a neural misfiring – a glitch, as it were – I occasionally feel that there’s malicious intent to that intimidating, self-defeating part of me. I’ve nicknamed him “other Daniel.” We make up stories and attach narrative because it’s our way of coping with and making sense of things that are themselves senseless.

In his annotations on Alien: Isolation, game critic Brendan Keogh noted that the Alien’s tendency to intrude on every aspect of the game is “almost like a computer virus in the software.” His idea of Alien as virus/glitch struck a shockingly resonant chord with me. Then I realized why. Its pervasiveness? Its seemingly unstoppable nature? The way it exudes dark intelligence even though it’s really something primal and animalistic? It was all too familiar: the Alien was other Daniel. After years I had come face to face with my long-time nemesis, and it was the movie monster I had adored and feared since I was 11. While this didn’t put a human face to the broken part of my brain, it did give a more tangible, understandable appearance – though I suppose I have to find a way to account for all of its accompanying sexual imagery.

1. I Can Survive It

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Forgive me if this last bit isn’t a particularly sentimental note to end on, but it’s necessary.

My anxiety will be with me for the rest of my life. Unlike in fiction, psychological disorders don’t vanish after some tearful breakthrough in Robin Williams’ or Judd Hirsch’s fatherly embrace. To get rid of it, you’d have to go back to when I was gestating in the womb and make sure my neurotransmitters were in proper balance. Like a bad knee, it’s always there. You have to fight each battle with it, look for it at every turn so you can avoid it.

Sound familiar?

But while it’s always with me, I don’t have to be subservient to it. I don’t have to be its prey. It’ll find me, sure. It’ll tower over me, it’ll grin its grin, a thresher of metallic teeth that’s inhuman yet very, unnervingly human at the same time. But then I can just grin right back, and blast it in the face with the flamethrower. Another day over, another battle won.

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Fuuuuuck you.

Previously by Daniel Link

7 Reasons Outlast Is the Horror Game You Need

5 Reasons Ground Zeroes is the Best Metal Gear Game Ever Made (and 3 Ways It Isn’t)

7 Lessons Game Designers Can Learn From Telltale’s The Walking Dead

7 Reasons We’re Going To Miss Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man