Dealing with Aliens: Thanatos Encounter was a surprisingly satisfying experience. At first, it seemed to have a frustratingly vague and thin storyline, but eventually, it turned out that the game allows a possible interpretation that makes the events much more specific. But let’s start at the beginning…
Aliens: Thanatos Encounter is a video game for the Nintendo Gameboy Color and was released in 2001. It’s a nice little game, transferring the gameplay of the classic Alien Breed (which itself was a shameless Alien ripoff) to the Aliens universe. The story outline is, as I said in the beginning, very vague. The intro tells you this: Marines returning to Earth from a training mission receive a distress beacon from the freighter Thanatos. MOTHER awakes the soldiers, and and they board the Thanatos to see what’s wrong. Xenomorphs, that’s what. That’s the basic setup for the story, and the game doesn’t get any more specific. The game gives no direct reference to when the Thanatos incident is supposed to take place. Yeah, we know Colonial Marines are involved, but that gives a timespan of roughly two centuries.
Let’s take a look at the vehicles and weapons in the game. The intro already shows one hallmark of USCM tech as we saw it in Aliens, the Conestoga-class space transport, though turned upside down in the graphic. The Technical Manual states no introduction date, but says that the Conestoga ships are to be replaced by the Bougainville class in 2180. However, we can’t use the 2180 date as it only marks the beginning of a replacement period with the commission of the first Bougainville ship. How long this period lasted we don’t know, but we can assume that it took several decades to replace the ships. Additionally, the vessel here belongs to a training squad, so the ship could have been used as a training vessel even after the regular Conestogas were sorted out. So, we’re out of luck here.
Shortly after, we get to see a UD-4L Cheyenne dropship. This one is the first hint that narrows down the time frame. According to the Technical Manual, the Cheyenne was specifically built to accommodate a manifest for USCM operations called „Marine 70“, which was enacted at, you already guessed it, at the beginning of the 2170s. Ergo, the game can’t take place earlier that 2170, which rules out the first 70 years of the corps’ existent. But that still leaves us with a huge timespan where it could have taken place. Again, „Marine 70“ gives us a clue.
In one mission, you rescue a scientist who tells you that there is a prototype weapon stored in the living quarters. This weapon turns out to be a Smart Gun. Unfortunately, the section covering the smart gun gives us no introduction date. So, I looked up „Marine 70“ again and was rewarded with another hint.
The article mentions the M56 smart gun as new technology. I quote: „Squads now have two elements: the M56 smart gun team[…]and the rifle team.“ And later: „The M56 is an excellent example of the way in which new technology and concepts have helped increase the tempo of operations.“ This implies that smart gun technology is fairly new, even in 2179 which is the in-universe date of the Technical Manual’s release. Now, Thanatos presents us with a prototype weapon called „smart gun“. This leads to the conclusion that the game has to take place before the movie Aliens, where smart guns are used by regular squads. This further narrows down the time frame to between 2170 and 2179, i.e. the 2170s.
Unfortunately, I found no more clues that would narrow the date down even further. The game gives no indication whether it takes place before Earth War, when no one but a few people knew of the Xenomorph, or after the Earth War, when the Xenomorph had become public knowledge. The Pulse Rifle weapon icon in the HUD is somewhat different in appearance to the M41A1, with a shortened carrying handle that might point to an earlier model, but that could have been merely out of reasons of space, as the „Equip Left“ or „Equip Right“ text had fit into the box with the icon. In the end, the final result is the conjecture that Aliens: Thanatos Encounter takes place in the 2170s.
Perhaps now you can image imagine why this little treasure hunt was an exciting and satisfying experience for me. The fact that many Aliens comics and novels don’t bother to properly date their stories is something that’s been frustrating me since I started thinking about the chronology of the Aliens universe. At first, Aliens: Thanatos Encounter seemed to be another such unpleasantness, but eventually, the game provided me with enough clue to develop a conjecture that narrows it down to a single decade. Considering we started out with a time frame covering the whole existence of the USCM corps, I think this is not a bad end result.