Alien: Isolation – The Relentless Terror of the Working Joes
The xenomorph gets a lot of credit for terrifying players in Alien: Isolation.For me, though, the most frightening segments have all involved Working Joes. The eerie android staff are supposed to be there to help run Sevastopol station. However, they become determined, relentless, and durable enemies when they feel you’ve broken a rule. And you’ll be breaking their ‘rules’ often. Their design, their behavior, and their chilling, cold voices make them one of the scariest enemies in horror games.
Sevastopol is a big space station. Just massive. It’s also filled with all sorts of machines and mechanisms to keep it running. It’s the sort of place that would have been a nightmare for an entirely-human crew to take care of. The maintenance alone, and keeping an eye on anything that might need repairs or upkeep, would be too much for most people to bear. Luckily, we have the Working Joe androids to take care of things around the ship. Except sometimes the thing they take care of is you. And by ‘take care of’, I mean kill.
Alien: Isolation lets you meet these androids close up early on. At a glance, they’re discomforting. They look humanoid. Cheaply made, but humanoid. They look like someone stretched some plastic, rubbery ‘skin’ over their metallic heads. They speak to you in a dull, lifeless tone. They’re weird and off-putting, but they seem harmless. Sometimes they might even help you with tasks near the beginning of the game. I didn’t feel comfortable being around them at this point, but they seemed mostly innocuous.
Until you watch them beat someone to death with their bare hands.
Working Joes expect you to follow the rules of the station. When someone gets out of line, the Joes aren’t big on warnings. So, if you need to get into an area the Joes say is restricted, you’re going to get in trouble with them. And the first time you watch a Joe beat someone to death over a broken rule, it’s brutal. They pummel that person against the steel walls of the ship, smashing them with a silent, bone-crunching ferocity. There seems to be a quiet rage in these robots just waiting to spill out. Except I know they can’t feel rage. They’re just going about another task in their programming. Which makes it feel even scarier, somehow?
That unfeeling ferocity is always in the back of your mind throughout the rest of your interactions with the Working Joes in Alien: Isolation. With good reason, too, seeing as they’ll largely be trying to kill you for the rest of the game. Fighting them is a scary experience. They take several revolver shots to the head to put down, and ammo is ridiculously scarce in this game. If you try to use melee attacks on them, they’ll just catch your weapon and smack you back. And if they catch you’ll they’ll choke and beat you in first-person, their eyes glowing bright red as your vision blurs from lack of oxygen.
There’s this terrifying closeness in the way they kill you. They get right up in your face, making you watch as they strangle you to death. You can mash a button to break free, but your health plummets while they do this. So many other foes throughout this game will just shoot or stab or bite you. Death comes quick. With the Working Joes, it’s slow. Intimate. It’s deeply personal as you look into their eyes while your life is snuffed out. Just the prospect of those eyes staring at me as I struggle for breath makes me terrified to encounter them.
However, they aren’t trying to kill you ALL the time in Alien: Isolation. Sometimes you need them for help. Sometimes they’re just lying there or standing around doing nothing. However, that potential for violence is always there. It’s not like dealing with the alien where you know you’re in trouble when you see it. Sometimes, you have to creep right up on a Joe or get it to help. That capability for violence is never far from your mind in these moments, though. The tension while walking past a Joe that isn’t attacking honestly feels worse than when they’re actively chasing you.
This all comes to a head in Chapter 12 in Seegson Synthetics. It’s an android graveyard of sorts, with Working Joes strewn all over the place. Many of them look intact, but are standing in weird positions. A lot of them are just lying around. Some of them have collapsed near machinery you need to use to keep progressing. You can feel that one of them is going to come to life throughout this whole segment. This IS a horror game, after all. That potential for violence fills this place, and only grows worse with each inert android you walk past. And yes, a handful get up to come for you, or grab you from the floor. It’s scary as hell each time.
The Android Showroom was what froze me in place, though. Alien: Isolation puts you in a room with eight Working Joes standing in two lines. A door is just past them. You can tell where this is going the instant you step in the room. It’s just a question of when they’ll start moving, and how many of them. When I got the door to unlock, I slowly walked between them, watching their still forms carefully as I made my way to the door. No one moved. Not yet.
It was the voice that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. The Working Joes all have the same monotone voice, and call out with fairly innocent stuff. “Running causes accidents.” “Don’t do that.” And, in this case, “You do not have an appointment.” It’s like getting chastised by a bored secretary, but you’ve seen these androids beat people to death over any broken rule. Hearing those simple words called out from behind my back as the door opened was enough to get my heart racing. Again, it’s that cold, detached promise of horrific violence from the Working Joes – this time through their words – that makes them so scary. Well, that and eight of them marching toward you so they can take turns strangling you.
Alien: Isolation creates some impressive scares with its alien, but the alien always kill you quickly. If you run into the thing or it catches you off-guard, you’re dead. If it sees you, it runs up and finishes you off. However, if the Working Joes catch you, they’ll approach at a walk. They’ll take their time choking you. They’ll continue to follow you at a relaxed pace, but will stomp your head in once they catch up with you. With the alien, death is quick and almost painless. With the Joes, you get to soak in your terror and a sense of inevitability of your death, first.
The Working Joes deserve to be mentioned alongside the alien as some of the scariest foes in horror. They may not have the hunting skills of the alien, but they make up for it with disinterested, chilling cruelty. They’re just carrying out orders, but they’ll crush the life out of you if they catch you breaking rules. They’ll follow you endlessly, are extremely hard to put down, and will call out with those lifeless voices as they chase you.
I’ve never been so scared of not having an appointment in my life.