The background is always arresting in I am Alive. The TLC given to the environment is 100% on display with art direction to enhance the visuals and set a tone even if the graphics are slightly below the current standard.

Note: I played this game on Xbox-360 but it is also available on the PS3.

The story of Ubisoft’s “new” arcade game, I am Alive must be an interesting one. The first marketing materials were shown years ago (hence “new”) and I’m pretty sure a lot of people wanted to see/hear more about this straight-faced, realism-skewed survival game. Now that it’s here, it’s interesting to think about how the direction of the project probably changed over its development. Once, it was probably going to be a full release game and at some point, it became a 4 hour installment of what feels like a longer story. I’ll get into how I feel about that release style and how it works for this game but first I should confirm that I am Alive is a great game.

Its greatness is not a matter of mechanics, graphics, or even story. The climbing/exploring mechanics are semi-recycled from Assassin’s Creed, not that this is a problem as they are used effectively, and the combat is purposely unwieldy and unforgiving (to the game’s credit). The graphics are a little dated but the art design is effective. The story is sparse, episodic, and a bit anticlimactic. What makes I am Alive great is a matter of atmosphere and tone. These are important qualities that are often second class in games, deprioritized in favor of mechanics, graphics, but seldom story. I also don’t want to make the mistake of suggesting that those first three things I mentioned are unsatisfactory in I am Alive because that is simply not the case. It’s merely that they are not what this game does best. Also, this is easily one of the most adult games I’ve ever played. It’s not racy or anything, just… mature and sophisticated in dealing with adult content such as cannibalism, violence, sexual slavery, etc. It’s all softly touched, never used as plot points but more as background detail, world-building.

The story is simple, told via an episodic framing device as the unnamed protagonist records himself in a series of video letters to his wife and daughter. After a mysterious and never explained “event” rendered at least North America apocalyptic, our hero crossed the country on foot to Haventon, where his wife and daughter hopefully wait for him. Unfortunately, the world has largely gone to shit. Fortunately, the guy is apparently and expert climber and generally resourceful motherfucker. Like so much of the character development, of which there is plenty but mostly past-tense, his skills are implied rather than described or defined. You get to know what he’s capable of by playing him, through the exhilaration of a daring climb through eerie, dangerous, and sometimes beautiful ruins to the desperate moments where fight for flight are the only options.

Imagery like this help make the game something that is a true experience, a superlative not reserved for games but uniquely equipped to sum up what they are capable of at their best.

The city of Haventon is in total ruins. Buildings are falling or teetering with only other buildings to keep some semblance of balance. Railways are destroyed, as are bridges and roads. There are refuges, however, and little pockets of humanity here and there. The game quickly informs you that dealing with other survivors is a crapshoot: some will want to kill you even for seemingly no reason, but presumably for your meat or the shit you have on you, while others will just want to be left alone and willing to show force to ensure they are. But there are those out there who need a hero, which you can play to if you choose. The game uses an old school “lives” system where dying costs you “retries”. The normal mode is pretty easy so I never got to find out what happens when you run out, but there were times where I’d die several times in the same spot and really worry about it. Managing retries becomes as much a fixation as managing food and water, necessary articles to keep you from gassing out your stamina or succumbing to the wounds you will sustain. Retries can be found rarely in the world, rarer even than bullets, but the best way to get them is to help people. The game rewards you for being a hero, but doing so will often cost you precious resources which means there’s a more immediate reward for being selfish. If you’re confident you won’t die and don’t feel like patching up a son’s broken bone for his paniced mother, or even bringing a dying man a last cigarette, you have the option to ignore them and move on. Some of the people who need you are hard to find, but you can often hear them calling out plaintively through the thick dust. I didn’t find everyone, and I actually care that I didn’t. This game has a way of getting under your skin, which I’ll talk more about a little later.

For the first chunk of the game, you’re trying to track down your wife and daughter. Soon, you get wrapped up in the affairs of a young girl named Mei and her missing mother, Linda. They are sort of a surrogate for your own family, and to its credit the game never states this outright but leaves it as part of the unstated characterization of the protagonist. It’s pretty clear though, especially considering that they are the only people you have no choice about helping. Though he’s never a bad guy, the protagonist’s ignoring of other needy people (if you play him that way) is certainly justifiable in the circumstances. This is a guy whose whole life is now about two people that Mei and Linda are too reminiscent of to ignore. Plus there’s that wheelchair-bound Henry keeps dangling information about survivor camps, where said family could be, in exchange for your help.

For obvious reasons, the dynamic with Mei worked for me. Especially the parts where you’re slinging her along on your back while she makes precocious commentary about the men you’re forced to kill. Yes, that’s a thing that happens and it’s unsettling.

So most of the game is arranged around simplistic objectives that are so obstacled up by the environment and belligerent survivors/raiders that they become tense, challenging exercises in patience and some surprisingly simplistic tactics that are sometimes incredibly difficult to employ. Basically, the most tense moments are when you’re suddenly face to face with four guys. Machete wielding enemies are manageable as long as there aren’t too many, you can hold them off to get an advantage even with an empty gun… at least for a while. Enemies with guns are more threatening and can kill you but fast. Then later there’s the ones in body armor… Though the basic flow of combat is predictable and simple, it never ceases to be a challenging experience as the game is very clever in tossing curveballs such as hidden enemies (who will flank/ambush you) or ones who call your bluff when you don’t shoot fast enough. Though there are a lot of “enemies” in the game, you aren’t often allowed to feel too much satisfaction in ending them. Much of the time, they won’t die right away. They’ll beg you, plead with you, call you murderer. They react to that you’ve killed them by not dying right away, and it’s really affecting. I’m not surprised more games don’t do this because it’s completely unsettling and mixes the messages you might reasonably expect to be receiving from any game that features combat and killing, even in self defense. Sometimes you can’t help but coup d’etat a prostrate, writhing fucker who just tried to to slice you in half a second ago. This often felt like mercy killing, but every now and then you’re honestly pissed at how close they came to killing you and sapping another precious retry and you kill them for spite. It’s really involving and unlike most games, makes you question your actions as a player. I say again, this is rare.

In many ways I am Alive can be best described as The Road as a game. It is not quite as relentlessly bleak, but it maintains a poetic quality and a talent for understatement which characterize that obviously influential book/movie. There is cannibalism and desperation but also parcels of humanity and grace.

Fighting is never graceful. It’s brutal, rapid, and chaotic. You have little time to react or strategize with enemies all too often with a terrain advantage that mitigates any attempt to be stealthy.

The only real criticism I can apply to the game is that normal mode is too easy and the stealth mechanic doesn’t really work or isn’t used often. Or maybe I was too frantic to use it properly. I look forward to trying the game again in the hard mode and seeing about the survivors I missed who need my help. And maybe I’ll get the hang of sneaking up on assholes rather than always having the drop gotten on me.

*SPOILERS TO FOLLOW*

 

So I’m not sure what Ubisoft’s goal is with I am Alive. In some ways it feels like an experiment. If it is, I hope it sells well enough for them to continue with this setting/story. The game is not complete as is. There’s an anticlimactic “ending” to your role in Linda and Mei’s troubles, followed by a vague epilogue where someone is watching the last footage and weeping, signaling the end of the framing device. With the hero going back into Haventon to continue the search, it seems obvious that this is just one chapter in a longer story. I hope so! This means I’m obligated to make some kinda gaming politics statement about parceled game content, in this case releasing chunks of a game in meal-size 1200-MSP packages. I don’t mind, if the game is as choice as I am Alive. It’s an example of the long ago prophesied model that digidistro provides for at work properly. It’s sort of the anti-day 1 DLC in some ways.

Some of my favorite things in I am Alive are the types of moments this game does best. Ambient, blink-and-miss type shit. The top 3 are:

1. Across the gap left by a broken road is a little tent and bonfire where a shambling, hunchback looking man-thing goes around in a constant circle. It’s like something out of a Lynch film. If there’s a way to access him/it, I never found it. Always there, though, the handful of times you come across the area. It’s especially unsettling at night. It’s a completely unexplained element. I love that.

2. In a high-rise that’s partially settled by (mostly) friendly survivors, I stumbled across a group that started hollering at me. I was flush with ammo so took on a shoot-first stance and wiped them out. Two floors up I came across some friendlies, including some kids who offered me some of their fresh tomatoes and asked innocently whether I’d seen their parents, 2 floors down. :S

3. This one’s just how the game handles the specter of cannibalism. In the sewers and at least one more time you’ll come across “strange meat” that is the best healing item in the game but is definitely human flesh. You can eat it, and the game will deduct points from your score at the end if you do. That isn’t the interesting thing, though. The interesting thing is that this being the best healing item, you may be left in a situation where survival means chowing down on some long pig. I was never in this situation but I definitely felt the moral quandary that the game subtly presents you with this item. It’s a great fucking touch, as is the moment on the occupied ship where you find the closet where the sons of bitches occupying it have stashed the skeletal remains of their food. Christ.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far than you know all the reasons why I liked this game. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but hey, it’s something somewhat fresh and different and challenging and we need more of that in games.

He is alive because he has an uncanny ability to not fucking fall to his death. Good job, sir!

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