Hot Alien-on-Alien Action
I didn’t actually watch Alien as a kid. Worse: my friends described it to me on the playground. It has been said that nothing is more terrifying than the unknown. That’s preposterous. It’s the half-known that’ll keep you up at night. To grub-form Dan, nothing was more terrifying than the prospect of Alien. Not even, when I finally got up the nerve to view it, the film itself.
Over the past month, I’ve played two separate releases that attempt to adapt the breathless horror that was initially brought to life by Ridley Scott and given an uncomfortable phallic pulse by H.R. Giger. And even though they’re remarkably similar in some ways, one of these games is among the year’s best while the other is merely fine.
In a nutshell, the crews of Lifeform’s Valley Forge and Nemesis’s, um, big spaceship (is it named the Nemesis or what?) are having a very bad day. If you’ve paid even the slightest attention since 1979, you already know the setup. An unknown life signature has been detected aboard, there’s a corpse resembling shredded pork outside the hibernatorium/galley, and nobody is packed for the escape pod. Time to split up! We’ll cover more ground that way.
Almost immediately, Lifeform and Nemesis make chiral mirrors of themselves. Even past the whole alien-on-a-galleon thing, the similarities are pronounced. Both are about gathering sufficient equipment to secure your crew’s survival, including, naturally, a flame-thrower, because what could be better suited to the oxygen-rich enclosure of a space vessel? Speaking of space vessels, both feature dimly-lit ships that occasionally raise some menace of their own, filled with special rules, icons, and heaps of OSHA violations. Both crews are tasked not only with gathering said equipment, but also with fulfilling minor errands that somehow compete with “avoid having an alien appendage forced into your orifices.” Other likenesses include multiple decks, a possible climactic battle, and the very real possibility of being eliminated before everybody else. Unsurprisingly, both titles are a little too packed with things to keep straight; for example, neither game includes a current player token, most likely because the current player will always be thumbing through the rulebook.
Weird! It’s almost like they’re drawing from the same source material.
Then again, apart from a few other cosmetic similarities, that’s where Lifeform and Nemesis part company. And while it’s amusing to poke fun at all the ways they march in step, their divergences are far more interesting. Their principal difference is one of expression. Namely, you’re trapped aboard an isolated spaceship with an alien creature that has evolved to treat humans the way we treat the wrapper around delicious candy. When such a creature is hounding your steps, what do you do? How does that dread play out?
In Lifeform, the answer revolves around intelligence. What’s more frightening than a hungry tiger? Trick question! The answer is a hungry tiger that’s smarter than you. That’s why the titular lifeform is lent such gravity. As in the original Alien, there’s only one monster. It’s swift, insatiable, and nigh-invulnerable. You can injure it or frighten it off. But such moments grant reprieve, not triumph. So while most of the people around the table are laced into the boots of the Valley Forge‘s hapless crew, one person is given direct control of the creature. One versus many. A thinking mind with the teeth to back up its whims.
But knowing the creature’s location would undermine the entire point of emulating Alien. Think back on the horror of not knowing where that slippery malevolent dildo was lurking aboard the Nostromo. Crud, think back on the horror of not knowing where anything is in Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space. Remember, it’s the half-known that truly makes the hairs on the back of our neck stand at attention. You know all too well what’s waiting out there in the dark. But where in the dark?
Lifeform’s response is to place its monster right there on the board, but with duplicates to mask its actual location. Early on, there are two monsters; later, a third might appear. Only one of these is real. The others are “images,” representing your imagination or false motion sensor readings. As the crew, the problem is that you don’t know which monster is real and which will dissipate as soon as you swing a flashlight its direction. So you creep across the Valley Forge, gathering fuel and equipment for your shuttle, always giving those monster standees a wide berth. Every so often you’re forced into proximity. Hopefully you’re holding the proper cards to stun or flee from the monster. Otherwise you’re dead.
That’s the other thing Lifeform provides its monster: absolute lethality. Sharing a room with the lifeform means death. The only way around it is to play a card the lifeform can’t counter. If you don’t have the proper card, or if the lifeform can trump it, you’re pulled pork. Expect this to happen early and often. There’s a reason each player is given control of more than one crewmember. If your people die early on, Lifeform suggests you take control of another player’s spare. If there aren’t any of those left, you’re given control of either the ship’s cat or its doomed mainframe, like the universe’s rawest deal on reincarnation.
Nemesis goes in an entirely different direction, both with its monsters — yes, plural, there are loads of the buggers — and its characters.
In both cases, Nemesis is more familiar fare. From the starting hibernatorium, your crew is tasked with exploring the ship in order to check the engines, ensure the right coordinates are punched into the helm, and then reenter cold sleep for the jump back to Earth. That or squirrel yourself away aboard an escape pod.
Now, you may have noted an odd word up there: exploring. In Nemesis, your crew has no idea of their own ship’s layout. I suppose it isn’t beyond possibility that, despite designations like “pilot” and “captain,” they were deadheading. That or space amnesia is the culprit. Either way, where Lifeform begins on one end of the ship and races to the escape shuttle on the far side, Nemesis begins in the middle and sees you ranging back and forth. Maybe a fire sparks somewhere, or an alien nest needs venting into space, or your soldier needs to backtrack for extra ammunition. Thank goodness this crew is sturdy enough to bear such mileage. Minor wounds are readily absorbed and eventually become major wounds, each with their own card designating bleeding or a broken limb, which in turn can be dressed and alleviated. Guns are plentiful. Dice will roll. Aliens will be splattered.
On the topic of aliens, there’s no intelligent mind behind these monsters. Instead, they appear thanks to event cards or because of the crew’s noise. Noise is a constant foe, every move kicking up a ruckus. As soon as enough of a clang has echoed down any one corridor, the offending crewmember draws at random from a bag of alien tokens. It isn’t long before this bag is the object of much disgust, spitting forth larvae (which yearn to embed themselves in human hosts), larger specimens with meter-long claws, or even monstrous breeders and the dreaded queen. Even though it’s possible to test out the ship’s generous arsenal on these creatures — or craft a flamethrower — often your best bet is to flee.
In contrast to Lifeform’s lifeform, driven by fearsome human intelligence and possessing its uncanny lethality, Nemesis could almost be regarded as a low-key dungeon crawler, with its randomized locations, loot draws, and battle encounters. Traditional, in other words. Don’t be fooled. It’s a horror game through and through — and by far the better of the two.
Lifeform’s troubles begin with its scattershot rulebook, extraneous status tracks, and lack of player agency, but they don’t end there. The real issue is that Lifeform so slavishly recreates the beats of its source material that it overshoots and misses the core experience entirely. There’s a rule for everything. The cat has rules. The mainframe has rules. Each character’s different abilities have contrasting rules. At a certain point, the ship android wakes up and begins a slow march to the shuttle, with intent to destroy. To counteract this, an electrified floor plate and emergency door are also given rules — but only in one specific chamber and along one specific corridor. There are so many one-shots and exceptions, each essential for the exact moment they’ll be triggered to halt someone’s advance or fry a monster or trigger a particular tool. Because the xenomorph of Alien boarded the shuttle as it escaped the Nostromo, so too should the same happen in Lifeform, prompting an embarrassing icon-matching minigame, as though Warrant Officer Ripley voided her tormentor via Dance Dance Revolution.
Nemesis is also brimming with rules. Sometimes to excess, some of which are fuzzily explained. What’s the difference between an emergency room and a surgery room? Between the engine rooms and the engine control room? Between dressing a wound and removing a wound? Between analyzing a contamination by resting, with a scanner, using an antidote, or performing self-surgery? There are so many shades of distinction that it occasionally teeters over the line into nuisance rather than nuance.
The major difference, however, is that Lifeform’s rules exist to tell one story, whereas Nemesis services the telling of many stories. Its rules and components are a toolbox. Doors function one way, and will always function that way. An alien ducking into a vent places its token back into the draw bag, ready to emerge again later. There are exceptions and special circumstances, but they’re tied to tiles or items, ready to be sprung. And, helpfully, they’re clearly labeled. The rulebook will be well-thumbed after a few games, but those games will have been starkly memorable. Lifeform, on the other hand, feels too much like a match of Red Rover in the dark, more blind groping than anything resembling willpower or direction.
The point is, Alien wasn’t merely a sequence of story beats. It was the terror of the unknown and eventually the fear of the half-known. The trouble with both is that the act of unveiling, of putting the unknown beneath the spotlight, robs it of its ferocity. Lifeform tells its tale first to frustration and then to repetition, plus or minus the occasional beat. Nemesis, on the other hand, continues to spin new stories, complete with fresh unknowns. And it does so by providing a monster even more horrifying than its aliens.
Yes, I’m talking about you. As far as twists go, it isn’t exactly the most novel.
An effective twist, though? Definitely. Both games open with objectives. In Lifeform these are tasks everyone works toward as a team, diversions that prevent you from blitzing to the shuttle at too brisk a clip. A fighting chance for the lifeform player. In Nemesis your goals are spring-loaded with razors and loose nails, because there’s a very real possibility you’ll be asked to betray your friends. This isn’t inevitable. Sometimes everybody wants to save the ship, burn the alien nest, and sing campfire songs over the flaming corpse of the queen. Other times you’ll want to redirect the ship’s trajectory, or send a mysterious signal, or murder a particular player. Why stop there? Maybe you’ll need to murder everybody.
In this regard, Nemesis makes good on the promise of Alien. The danger isn’t only what’s out there, but also what’s in here. That the person fighting beside you might turn his flamethrower your way, or sprint down the hall and lock you out, or slag the ship while he slips into an escape pod. That your schoolyard friend turns out to be the bully. Now that’s memorable.
Lifeform captures the details of Alien. The drab setting, the seemingly invincible monster, the climactic showdown in the shuttle. But Nemesis captures the spirit, encapsulated by the sinking hole in your stomach as you realize Ash has been working against the crew this whole time. To accomplish that, it’s necessarily messy. Someone might die early. A rule might be missed. That’s a small price to pay for a game this sublime, this assured, and this evocative of the most universal half-known, that the space behind somebody’s eyes might hide a friend or a killer.
Both a jumble, then. But where Lifeform remains messy throughout, Nemesis quickly clarifies into its purest form.