“Interesting” is an interesting word, in that it can be either positive or negative. You might say “Wow, that looks interesting” when you see an advert for a film. Alternatively, you might say “Wow, that’s… interesting…” to be polite, when a friend has you taste-test a new recipe involving fish heads and chocolate.
I Am Alive is… interesting.
It’s a game built, I think, around two concepts. The first is in creating an oppressive atmosphere in a post-apocalyptic world; our nameless hero has trekked back to the city where he lived in order to find his wife and daughter, a year after a mysterious event (known, naturally, as The Event) left the world ruined, lawless, and covered with a choking toxic dust. This is a world in which some people are merely trying to survive, while others have fallen to their baser impulses – bullying, robbing, and killing at will.
The second is in forcing you, as the player, to actually survive in this world, in which resources are scarce and compassion is scarcer still.
Those concepts aside, the game boils down to three distinct elements. There’s climbing and platforming, as you clamber around the ruined city of Haverton. There’s combat, as you deal with the less civilised aspects of Haverton’s not-so-thriving society. The third, which ties the other two together, is resource management.
See, everything you do in I Am Alive comes with a cost. Getting shot or stabbed reduces your health, obviously, but it’s the second bar – the stamina bar – that’s most intriguing. Our nameless protagonist (who I’m just going to call Nameless from now on) isn’t Ezio, or the Prince of Persia; he can only scale walls and sprint at full-pelt for a short period before he starts to get tired. Resting regenerates your stamina almost instantaneously, so thankfully there aren’t any long, forced pauses.
No, your problem comes when you really have to exceed his limits – like, say, scaling the outside of a ruined skyscraper. Nameless can only get so far before his stamina empties out, and that’s when you need to make decisions.
You can open your inventory and use a stamina-restoring item (although how Nameless manages to drink a soda while hanging from a window ledge I don’t know). You can ram a piton into the wall so that Nameless can hang safely and recover stamina while suspended from a rope. Alternatively, if you’re nearly at a place where you can rest, then it might be worth your while “exerting effort”. Nameless doesn’t fall immediately when he’s out of stamina; you can mash the right trigger to force him on a little longer at the cost of lowering your maximum stamina – which can only be replenished with items. And items of all kinds are, for the most part, distressingly rare.
The combat works off the same resource management elements. Bullets are ridiculously scarce in the world of I Am Alive, and so there’s far more of a focus on picking a target order, bluffing, and using the environment than on fast-paced twitch action.
The average battle will start with cocky enemies swaggering towards you and pushing you around; they won’t attack until they either get bored or see you as a threat, giving you ample opportunity to figure out how best to deal with them. In general you’ll get one free, instant kill – a surprise attack with your machete – before things get tricky. Your machete’s really only good for an opening kill or a one-on-one fight, as against an alert foe it triggers a button-mashing minigame which other enemies can interrupt. In other words: Mr. Machete is not your friend. Sadly, Mr. Gun isn’t your friend either, because you will very rarely have the ammunition to use him.
Fortunately, you can rely on bluffing and threatening to get by; if you take out the more confident enemies, the others may buckle and surrender. While enemies with guns are always a threat, foes with machetes won’t attack if you’re waving a gun in their face (whether it’s loaded or not) and this gives you opportunity to force them to back up to a precipice and kick them off. Again: managing your limited resources, and thinking your way through encounters.
In short, I Am Alive is a far slower, more thoughtful game than it might look – albeit one that’s punctuated by staccato bursts of sudden violence and action. These elements are really, really effective, too; they add a very unique twist on what could otherwise have been a bog-standard third-person shooter with some climbing and exploration. Adding to the tension is the fact that lives (returning you to a checkpoint rather than the start of the chapter) are rare in one of the game’s two difficulties, and non-existent in the other. Every failure, or every time you retry a segment in order to succeed using less items, is another step closer to utter failure.
There’s just one minor problem: I’ve just explained, in-depth, pretty much every mechanic in the game.
Okay, sure, you get new bits of equipment periodically. A bow acquired around the end of the game’s first third gives you more combat options, and there are a few other bits of equipment that offer protection against some of the game’s more problematic elements, but it doesn’t change the fact that you’re either climbing and trying not to use items, or working out which enemies to kill first.
It might seem a bit unfair to condemn I Am Alive for this in a world where most games can be summed up as “point gun at alien/robot/soldier, pull trigger”, but when a game’s mechanics rely on thought and planning, things fall apart a bit when you work out how to deal with pretty much everything you encounter, and if you’re careful and do a bit of exploring then you’ll be stacked with items by the halfway point anyway (presumably to make it harder for players to get into an unwinnable position). Really, I Am Alive just doesn’t go quite far enough for my liking. It’s a bit like the first Assassin’s Creed in that respect – a wonderful and novel idea, but the game doesn’t really do enough with it.
But there is one thing the game does really, really well, and that’s build an incredibly evocative world where tension is paramount. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said, up above, “compassion is scarcer still” – that’s a genuine feeling that the game world instilled in me. From the very beginning, I Am Alive pounds into your head that this is a world where survival is king, and the game can be surprisingly suggestive about the way this impacts those living in it.
You meet people other than hostiles during the course of the game, you see. A few are plot relevant (early on in the game Nameless saves a child and much of the game revolves around keeping her safe, which is surprisingly compelling if you’re as much of a sucker for bizarrely not-annoying children as I am). Some are distrusting types who will warily force you out of areas at gunpoint, but won’t attack if you don’t make any threatening moves. Some are victims who require your all-too-rare items in order to survive; passing them up incurs no penalties, but helping them out gets you an extra life and a bit of backstory as to the nature of the Event and its aftermath.
Some locations tell their own stories, too, particularly in the infrequent moments when you’re given the opportunity to just explore. Whether you’re checking out an subway community, blundering into a survivor enclave hidden above prying eyes, or stumbling through the dark into a corridor blocked off by rotting corpses, even the locations imply things about the people around. Which, for a ruined city, is pretty impressive.
There are shades of greatness in I Am Alive. When it works – when you’re stalking through a dust-choked street, at night, with no visibility and no idea what you’re going to encounter, or when you’re scaling the side of a building with few restorative items and a rapidly dwindling stamina gauge – it’s a marvellous and evocative experience that deserves to have words like “tense” and “haunting” thrown at it like confetti. This game does desolation, hopelessness, and creepy atmospheres almost as well as Metro 2033 and STALKER, but with a very different ultimate feeling. And without monsters.
But when the pacing is off, or when the slightly iffy controls cause you to lose stamina through no fault of your own, or when the balance falls apart and you have far too many items for anything to be a threat, it becomes something much less than it deserves – and these are issues that crop up more often than I’d like in the five hours the game lasts. There’s a sense, too, that it wants to be more than it is – there are hints that I Am Alive was at one time a more open game, and there are shades of moral choices as you can theoretically butcher less-aggressive survivors to steal their items or indulge in some rather unsavoury practices to survive, but items are common enough that it’s rarely worth considering. While these hints at what could have been are a tad disappointing, they certainly don’t detract from what the game is.
I Am Alive is a brave experiment, and one that works more often than not. In terms of creating tension through a scarcity of resources, creating combat that relies on something other than twitch action, and creating an atmosphere so thick you can taste it, it’s a total success. It’s a shame that it doesn’t do more with all of this, and that the mechanics in question are never really pushed, but if you’re interested in spending a few hours with a very unique game possessing a very unique atmosphere then it’s certainly worth your while. Even at its absolute worst, it remains… interesting.