The Only Thing Videogames Haven’t Stolen from Aliens
When it comes to videogames, Aliens is the most influential movie of all time. From 1990’s Xenomorph to this year’s Gears of War 2, with all of Halo in between and Sega’s Aliens: Colonial Marines yet to come, this decades-old film has lent its claustrophobic terror, punctuated suspense and seductive action to dozens of games. More than any other element, however, Aliens‘ depiction of futuristic marines – foul-mouthed, attractively armored and wielding chunky assault rifles – has endured, defining the sci-fi fighting man for a generation. The space marine is a cliché, but, like all clichés, it has a worthy origin: Aliens is one of the greatest movies ever made.
The irony is that the most innovative aspect of Aliens is the film’s hero: a fighting mom, rather than a fighting man. Sigourney Weaver stars as Ellen Ripley in all of the Alien films, and nowhere does her sex have more importance than in Aliens. At a fundamental level, Aliens is about motherhood and the superior strength of mothers over that of male warriors.
“Nuke the entire site from orbit” – that’s her line. It’s Ripley who straps and tapes together a flamethrower and an M-41A Pulse Rifle (with over/under 40mm grenade launchers!), creating the most super-badass jury-rigged weapon of all time. It’s Ripley who kills the Alien queen. She saves a marine and a little girl. Yet games have never explored the archetype of the Fighting Mom in the way that they have the Parasitic Alien or the Space Marine. What gives?
How About the Boys?
The influence of the Alien films on games is immense and precedes the release of Aliens in 1986. Ridley Scott’s Alien, released in 1979, has profoundly affected the aesthetic of the digital beasties we’ve happily gunned down and the environments in which we’ve hunted them. Ancient titles, such as Contra and Metroid, took style cues from the biomechanical designs Swiss artist H.R. Giger produced for Alien, as did the recently released Dead Space. The idea of a creature that fatally parasitizes its human hosts and integrates its hive with starships seems both natural and horrifying. Games were smart to steal it.
But as much as videogames have profited from Giger’s art, they have made a killing from Aliens director James Cameron’s depiction of space marines. Cameron wanted a Vietnam feel for his sequel to Alien. He wanted to show advanced weaponry and training failing against a low-tech enemy, and he also wanted to depict the military defending corporate interests. Thus, the mightily equipped Colonial Marines ship out to planet LV-426 to advance the interests of the Weyland-Yutani corporation. These soldiers have dominated the imaginations of game developers ever since.
Who can blame the gamers? Cameron delivered the most compelling depiction of futuristic soldiers ever. Look how raw they are: stubbled, sleeveless and pumped. Look at their gear: a sort of neo-motocross body armor, personalized with graffiti and stickers; blunt, hard-nosed vehicles, overflowing with missiles and turrets; giant guns, whirring and phutting as they blow shit apart.
The marines themselves have charm, too. They express their contempt for civilians, joke about shore-leave sex with other species and force one of their own to serve as the dummy for a knife trick. What’s not to like?
Plenty, it seems. Indeed, Cameron meant us to sympathize with the Marines, but to see their weaknesses as well. The reason for this is that Ripley, the civilian woman, would prove to be strong precisely where the marines were weak.
Unfortunately, game developers and fans have missed out on this crucial point. To see why, we need to take a look at how Cameron developed the marines’ fatal flaw, and to do that we need to examine the place he stole it from.
Paternalism weakens the marines. The soldiers sent to deal with the aliens lose their first battle – and most of their numbers – because their commander, Lieutenant Gorman, stinks. He’s a greenhorn, incompetent. His subordinates groan when they learn that he’s experienced combat only once before this mission. He fails to account for the battlefield where his squad will fight, and consequently gets most of them killed.
This failing, too, has a parallel in Vietnam, with its numerous incompetent lieutenants. But more than Vietnam, a science fiction novel from the 1950s holds sway here.
Cameron had the actors playing his marines read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers before filming. It is a terrible book. Starship Troopers is both a paean to fascist militarism and a didactic novel. Heinlein wrote it for young boys in order to instruct them in the ways of citizenship as he understood it, meaning unquestioning service of the state, ideally in a military capacity. He explores in great detail the passing of responsibility from father to son as a metaphor for the education of a citizen.
Here’s how he describes the relationship between soldiers and their lieutenant: “The Lieutenant was father to us and loved us and spoiled us and was nevertheless rather remote from us.” For Heinlein, the Lieutenant was “the head of our family from which we took our name, the father who made us what we were.”
Heinlein takes this shit seriously; he believes in it; he advocates it. Cameron is serious, too, but he wants to offer us something different. In Heinlein’s view, the death or failure of the father makes way for the son to take command responsibility, preserving the old order. In Aliens, Ripley steps up when Lieutenant Gorman proves himself incapable, but she doesn’t exert authority in the military way. She’s pretty much in charge, but she doesn’t make the marines who they are; she doesn’t give them her name. This difference is what has always been missing from depictions of space marines in games.
The Lieutenant is Dead. Long live the Lieutenant.
Aliens reveals the weakness of military paternalism, but it does so while casting the troops in a favorable light. Everybody likes Privates Hudson and Vasquez, Corporal Hicks and all the rest. The film then provides an alternative source of strength in the form of Ripley. Cameron critiqued the military in Aliens. Videogames have missed this point entirely.
Instead of exploring the notion of a kick-ass woman whose frailty and hardness intertwine and ultimately make her stronger than soldiers, games just offer better soldiers. Game developers got all turned on by the depiction of space marines in Aliens; they ignored Ripley and got in bed with Heinlein’s Starship Troopers instead. Their response to the defeat of the colonial marines is to replace Lieutenant Gorman with a soldier who isn’t an asshole. Then we’ll see how the aliens like it!
Follow the story of a space marine like Marcus Fenix, hero of the Gears of War franchise, and you’ll find a celebration of precisely the authoritarian militarism that Aliens argues against and Heinlein argues for. Fenix is fatalistic, stoic and a supremely skilled soldier – just what humanity needs in its struggle against hostile creatures. He shares his duties with men like him, a squad that exhibits much the same charm as the marines in Aliens. He lives in a world at war, in which a military action is always the correct action. As with all games starring space marines, the threat in Gears of War exists only to excuse the players’ indulgence in a militarist fantasy.
The Fighting Mom
Ripley defies militarism, and yet she still gets to blow shit up. Her motivations oppose those of the military when it comes to the aliens. The military-industrial complex wants to capture the aliens in order to make weapons out of them. The marines fight because that’s their job. Ripley wants to wipe the aliens out, and she returns to their nest to resolve the psychological trauma of her first battle with them.
When the situation goes fubar (because the space marine family relied on an unfit father), Ripley takes charge, sometimes with unilateral action, but more often by facilitating consensus. She does not replace Lieutenant Dad. Nor does she reject military means out of hand. One of the marines teaches her how to wield an assault rifle, and she gets good, messy results with this training. She’s never indoctrinated, however. She also relies on skills she developed as a futuristic longshoreman. In the famous climax of Aliens, Ripley beats the crap out of the Alien queen while wearing an exoskeleton designed for cargo loading.
More important than her methods and her initial motivations is the ultimate reason Ripley finds to struggle against the aliens: motherhood. When she and the marines explore the human colony that the aliens have themselves colonized, they discover an orphaned girl who survived the onslaught on her own. Ripley becomes her surrogate mother. Rescuing this child is the reason Ripley straps on those guns and enters the queen’s egg chamber. Ripley exercises her strength, her competence and her will in the service of protecting her adopted daughter.
This makes all the difference in how we perceive her heroism. An editorial decision made in the post-production of Aliens emphasizes this point. Initially, the film explained that Ripley had had her own daughter years ago, but while Ripley was lost in space her little girl grew up and died without her. The girl she saves from the aliens replaces her blood daughter.
The cinematic release was right to cut this storyline. Ripley doesn’t need to have lost her own child to feel motherly toward the one she finds. Without this personal loss, her motivations become more universal; human or even animal, rather than individual.
This is what we’ve been missing in videogames. The figure of the Fighting Mom embodied by Ripley dominates Aliens, but games have ripped off everything from this film except her, in favor of indulging the “boys’ own adventure” embodied by the space marine. Indulgence can be fun, but it’s not what games are best suited for. We don’t play games to indulge ourselves; we play them because we enjoy how they frustrate us. You can’t lose to a movie or a book; you can lose to a videogame. Games are a medium suited to frustrating expectations.
Playing as a space marine, an “ultimate badass” in the immortal words of Private William “Game Over” Hudson, indulges my inner 11-year-old quite well – and my outer 34-year-old man even better. That’s precisely why I’d love to play as a fighting mom. I want to experience fighting with the motivation of a mother, rather than that of a soldier. I beat the crap out of Gears of War 2 in a day, and I did it not to save the game’s fictional world but rather to enjoy the combat set-pieces. It really doesn’t matter to me when all of humanity’s at stake and I lose. But a child? When I’m the mother? If a game could convey the kind of desperation Ripley felt as she descended into the alien hive to save her little girl, then I’d never want to lose. That’s a great reason to keep playing.
Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston. He would like to dedicate this essay to the memory of Sarah Palin.