The critical and commercial success enjoyed by Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic adventure The Last of Us shows that plenty of gamers are interested in dark, survival-themed videogames set in bleak places and times, and which often place a human face – an ugly and primal one – on the horror they convey. But while The Last of Us garnered a massive amount of praise upon its release in 2013, the previous year saw the release of a post-apocalyptic game which has largely gone unsung and which I think deserves more attention than it seems to receive: I Am Alive.
Developed by Darkworks and Ubisoft, and also published by the latter, I Am Alive was digitally released on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC in 2012, and it’s the PS3 version which I’ll be writing about in this feature. The game is set a year after “The Event”, some kind of devastating occurrence which has transformed North America – and presumably the rest of the world – into a ruined, post-apocalyptic wasteland. You play as an unnamed protagonist who has spent the past year trekking across the country to return to his home city of Haventon and the wife and daughter he was apart from when the Event took place.
When you find your house empty, you take on the task of reuniting a lost girl named Mei with her mother, which then leads to your introduction to a man named Henry, and this small group of survivors makes up the supporting cast you interact with while simultaneously trying to learn where your wife and daughter have gone. Outside of the supporting cast, your journey through Haventon will bring you face-to-face with numerous other survivors – some beg for your help, some simply want to be left alone, and some will of course want nothing more than to murder you and loot your corpse for anything useful.
The gameplay in I Am Alive consists of exploration, combat, climbing and resource management, all of which are heavily influenced by the game’s harsh, post-apocalyptic focus: exploration is sometimes made more dangerous by choking dust clouds; combat is swift and brutal; climbing is essential in navigating the ruined streets and buildings of Haventon; and careful resource management is vital to your survival, what with supplies being as scarce as death metal albums at a nunnery.
The harsh world of I Am Alive comes through in the graphics and music as well as the gameplay, the game’s soundtrack being subtle and haunting, befitting the desolate atmosphere. The same can be said of the graphics, as although some in-game objects appear technically rough when viewed close-up, this is more than made up for with the general quality of the visuals and art design, the game-world being a grey, bleak place presented through a heavily washed-out colour palette. The environments and scenery also help to immerse the player, whether it’s dull daylight filtering through dusty and cloudy skies, ruined and half-toppled buildings, empty vehicles and emergency shelters, or dark sewer tunnels.
Ambiguity is used to great effect in the presentation of the game’s world and story, as seen in examples such as the protagonist’s name never being mentioned, and the exact nature of the Event being unexplained. It seems clear that the developers chose to omit details such as these not because they were lazy but because they were making the point that the details don’t matter. The protagonist’s name doesn’t matter, what matters is his mission and the choices he makes; the nature of the Event doesn’t matter, what matters is the condition that the world is in now.
This subtle, ambiguous approach also means that cut-scenes are used sparingly, with the majority of story elements being presented in-game. It’s worth mentioning that the cut-scenes themselves add an emotional and mysterious hook in the way in which they are presented: via a video journal kept by the protagonist, one he updates at certain points during the story, and which in the cut-scenes is being watched at some point in the future by an unidentified woman. Right from the beginning, this narrative framing device draws you in and has you wondering about the identity of this woman and the eventual fate of the protagonist.
A thoughtful approach has also been taken to the combat, even though the violence itself, when it does happen, is abrupt and hard-hitting. The thoughtfulness comes through in the way in which encounters are handled, as the majority of times you face a group of aggressors – there are almost always more than one – the encounter is a tense and surprisingly strategic one, and this is due to several reasons.
Firstly, there’s the simple issue of the tools and resources you have to hand. Sure, you start the game with a pistol, but it’s empty and bullets are extremely few and far between, so “guns blazing” simply isn’t an option. And although you acquire other weapons such as a machete and bow, the former is designed for sudden, solitary kills while the latter naturally relies on arrows (which are also rare, although they can be retrieved when possible).
Secondly is the fact that, in another of the game’s nods to realism, you can’t endure much harm before you die – for example, two pistol shots will be enough to kill you. The knowledge that you’re vulnerable emphasises the point that you should treat each encounter with respect because death is never far away.
Finally is the psychological element present in the majority of hostile situations, one which can have a huge influence upon how a confrontation plays out. Say your pistol is empty – well, your attackers don’t know that, so point it at them and they’ll usually assume it’s loaded, which might make them back down if they’re not carrying their own firearms, giving you control of the situation. Of course, there are also things which you have to rapidly take stock of when threatened, such as the number of aggressors you’re faced with, what weapons they’re carrying, and ultimately in which order it would be safest to dispatch them. And although a pair of aggressors can usually be handled with a little quick thinking, things become much more complicated and dangerous when you’ve got a larger group hungrily surrounding you like a bunch of obese people converging upon a packed buffet table.
Hostile survivors aren’t the only danger you have to overcome, as progressing through Haventon frequently requires you to climb over and through hazardous ruins, and although the protagonist is an agile fellow, he’s still only human and is thus at the mercy of a stamina meter when carrying out strenuous physical activities such as climbing or running.
As your stamina meter gets lower and lower, anxious music begins to play, heightening the tension and urging you to hurry – but of course, you don’t want to panic and make a mistake when you’re dangling a hundred feet above the ground. During particularly long climbing sections, you can plant a piton in the wall to refill your stamina, although once again the issue of resource management rears its head here: should you play it safe and use up one of your pitons or will you take a chance that you’re close enough to the end of your climb to make it?
If you do totally drain your stamina meter then you still have a very limited window of time to reach safe ground, although during this time your maximum stamina capacity is gradually decreasing, so your actions can have long-lasting consequences to your own capabilities unless you happen to possess an item that can restore your maximum stamina capacity.
Speaking of items, you’ll learn to treasure every single useful object you can get your hands on in I Am Alive as they are few and far between and can very easily mean the difference between life and death, with the majority of non-weapon-related items assisting you in terms of your health or stamina. You can’t afford to waste your items, which really adds to the tension and emphasises the survival aspect of both the gameplay and the fictional world presented by the game.
Choosing when to use your items isn’t the only issue you’ll have to consider in regard to them as during the game you’ll encounter scattered survivors who ask for your help, such as one woman who asks if you can spare some tins of food, and another woman who begs for a medical kit to save her son who has been stabbed.
Although you receive an additional retry for helping a needy survivor – when you use one of your limited number of retries, you restart at your most recent checkpoint, while if you use up your final retry then you revert to your most recent save point, which is further back – not to mention some brief snippets of backstory concerning the Event and Haventon, these moments naturally present a dilemma. Retries are very useful, yes, but as I already explained, your items are incredibly important, so do you help the person in need or leave them to fend for themselves? It’s always your call and sometimes it’s a tough one to make.
One of the things I admire and enjoy about I Am Alive is its level of challenge. While many modern videogames are keen to patronisingly hold the player’s hand and not test them at all, I Am Alive has no interest in this, instead forcing the player to deal with difficult situations, problems and choices that make sense in terms of the world in which the game is set – it’s a harsh world where survival has become paramount, after all. And while the Normal difficulty setting is already no pushover, if you fancy an even more challenging experience then Survivor mode makes things harder by limiting available resources and your number of retries.
There are a couple of flaws present in I Am Alive, such as the climbing controls sometimes being not quite as precise as you’d like, along with the presence of one of the most annoying game design “features” of modern times: obnoxious red shading appearing around the borders of the screen when your health is low. Also, it’s accompanied here by the sound becoming slightly distorted, a further unnecessary annoyance. I have two functioning eyeballs (not including the collection I keep in a jar in my basement / dungeon) and there’s a health meter on the screen – I can see that my health is low. But these are only minor complaints in a game which does so much right, and shouldn’t dissuade anyone from picking it up.
In case you hadn’t gathered by now, I Am Alive is a bleak game. In fact, one of my enduring memories of the game is when I came across a woman sitting on the opposite side of a barred tunnel. We spoke briefly and then I left. When I returned that way later, I found that the woman had hung herself. It was an unexpected and jarring moment, and one amongst many that drove home the cold and dark nature of the game-world. But of course, bleakness isn’t an inherently negative thing in terms of fiction, and I Am Alive is all the more memorable and effective for taking such an approach. At the same time, the game isn’t a total downer – there are moments of hope and beauty amongst all of the despair, along with concepts such as loyalty, determination, love and the inclination to protect those who can’t protect themselves.
I Am Alive is a fantastic game, one that offers a challenging, immersive, tense and often emotional experience that will stick with you if it manages to draw you into its post-apocalyptic world. You wouldn’t want to live there but it’s a great place to visit and I recommend you do so.