Publisher: Ubisoft / Developer: Ubisoft Shanghai / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: 1200 MSP / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Written by Cormac McCarthy, The Road tells a dark and poetic tale of a father and his young boy as they journey across a desperate post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature but I don’t think I would ever recommend it. I mean, it’s incredibly effective but as a result, woefully depressing. I Am Alive, a game that has been endlessly compared to The Road, is a similar victim of its own success. Ubisoft Shanghai’s vision of what happens when the thin threads that hold our society together fall apart is a brutal and realistic one. But too often their adherent commitment to this vision results in an experience that, while tense and hopeless, isn’t always enjoyable to actually play.
I Am Alive’s narrative is one of survival. The nameless protagonist (perhaps a reference to The Road) returns to his hometown a year after a catastrophic event has left it decimated. Skyscrapers lie on their sides, dust storms virtually blackout the streets and frequent earthquakes rattle the city. The other survivors that you meet who aren’t dying of fatal injuries or starvation are ready to stab you at a moment’s notice for a bottle of medicine or some canned fruit. As a place to be it totally sucks. But that’s kind of the point, right?
It’s not long before you discover that the wife and daughter your protagonist returned for are nowhere to be found. From here the narrative unravels a bit. The main character’s motivations of saving his family shift on a dime once he encounters another character and he eventually turns into an errand boy, almost never coming back around to the reason he started his journey in the first place.
The intent of the design of I Am Alive’s mechanics is clear and focused: create tension. Your traversal is dictated by a stamina meter that empties as you jump, run, and scale up buildings. Enhanced by increasingly swelling music, long climbs can be nailbitingly hazardous if you don’t plan accordingly. Combat is just as intense. You’ll often find yourself in situations in which you have three enemies approaching but only one bullet in your gun. Figuring out the proper order of operations of whom to blast and whom to shiv with your machete turns combat into an interesting puzzle.
Bottled water, rat meat and various other consumables can be found strew across the city, each of which will restore your stamina and/or health. Knowing the right time to take them when you’re stuck in a dust storm or mid-climb is key. The twist is that occasionally you’ll come across a helpless survivor that needs a specific resource to stay alive. Will you give up your health pack to a stranger so that they might enlighten you about the events surrounding the crisis? Some solid voice acting combined with your own curiosity might make the decision harded than you’d think.
But it’s a thin line that I Am Alive straddles. Success is always satisfying but failure almost makes the whole process not worth it. The tension-inducing design present in I Am Alive’s mechanics extends to its checkpoint system, which I would describe as torturous. Each time you die (which will happen often), you’ll lose a retry. Lose all your retries and you’ll be brought back to the last save point. Save points that are very infrequent. Having to redo 10 or 15 minutes of an area is a bummer but the real crappy part is that the by fifth or sixth time you’ve restarted a section, the tension the game was so good at creating in the first place is lost entirely.
I hope you have a favorite shade of gray because it’s sure to appear in I Am Alive. The city streets where dust storms limit your visibility to almost nothing: gray. The dark and disturbing subway tunnels: gray. The interior of abandoned hotels and malls: grey. As a vision of the post-apocalypse, it’s haunting and realistic. But it’s also a drab, unvaried world that’s not very fun to look at.
Game design is not just about developing to the strengths of the medium but also about realizing its limits. Harsh consequences can undercut strong narrative elements. And what might make sense for invoking an emotion in the player might not be very fun to play. The apocalypse gets glorified pretty frequently in our media and I appreciate I Am Alive’s shrewd and sobering approach to it. But in doing so they’ve sacrificed delivering an entertaining experience.