Eight years is a long time, especially in the gaming industry. A development cycle spanning this long for a game has two major effects: it raises the expectations of potential players, and costs a lot of money.
Darkworks began working on I Am Alive in 2003 (later to be finished by Ubisoft Shangai (between 2008-2011), which suffered a development that saw eight years and two studios working on it before it was finally released. I was particularly excited after stumbling on the trailer in 2010, two years after it was announced at E3. Two and a half years later I finally realized it had been released under the radar and raced to Steam to pick up a copy. I was initially disappointed by the subtle release and diminution from full-blown-title to bite-sized-downloadable-game; however, I bit my tongue and played through it. Safe to say, I definitely like what I got.
The game revolves around the somber theme of survival after a life-shattering event (literally referred to as The Event). It uses its elements of story, gameplay, graphics, and even sound to reinforce this almost horror aesthetic. It explores humanity’s downward spiral after a social and environmental collapse, possibly on a worldwide scale, using a series of earthquakes as the springboard from which this degeneration was propelled. Using this theme as an umbrella, the game stands underneath it and focuses on the importance of family in such a world, as seen primarily in the story.
The protagonist arrives in Haventon
I Am Alive is heavily focused on delivering a strong narrative that deals with themes of isolation, and thus only has one mode – no multiplayer, just a single player story-mode. The story follows an unnamed protagonist as he arrives in the fictional town of Haventon, one year after a catastrophic series of earthquakes known as ‘The Event’ demolished the better part of the US. The fate of the rest of the world is unknown, and any established Government is completely absent, hinting that either they have given up on the affected areas, or the rest of the world is just the same. The game begins in medias res, showing survival gear, various pieces of equipment, and a woman starting up a worn video camera. The video opens, showing the protagonist entering the outskirts of Haventon, having walked for a whole year from where he was when The Event took place. His objective is to find his wife and daughter, Julie and Mary. Along the way through Haventon, you discover other survivors, chief among them are a young girl, Mei, her mother Linda, and an ex-firefighter named Henry. After stumbling upon Mei the protagonist mistakes her for his own daughter, and because of this resemblance he agrees to help her, and as a result you must brave thick dust clouds, ruthless bandits, and the ever-looming wreckage that was once Haventon to reunite her with her mother and get them out of the city.
I Am Alive uses several story-telling techniques to its advantage: at the beginning of each chapter a cut-scene plays in the form of the unknown woman watching footage taken by the protagonist; the protagonist talks himself through what’s happening through out the whole game; and survivors that the player encounter each reveal a different piece of what has happened in Haventon since The Event – and a possible location for the protagonist’s wife and daughter. All of these elements make for an impressively told story.
While the graphics are not as polished as other titles of the same year (the year that saw Halo 4, Assassin’s Creed 3, and FarCry 3), they definitely help achieve the atmosphere that the developers were trying to create – one of isolation and destruction. The protagonist makes a comment at the beginning of the game that Haventon had more dust than any other city he’d seen, and the developers catered to this comment through the whole game. The sun is partially blocked out, and the only light to hit the player is always filtered through thick layers of dust and dirt. The color palette used contains various shades mainly consisting of brown and grey – darker, more somber colors – to highlight the severity of the situation and to reflect humanity effectively going back in time at the loss of all the technology, back to when films and TV shows were filmed using such palettes.
Haventon makes for some gorgeous scenery, so long as you watch your step…
The controls, camera movement, player movement and other gameplay mechanics are all wound tight, laying any fears of buggy issues and broken gameplay to rest. I Am Alive, at its very core, is a third-person survival game, only breaking perspective when aiming a weapon, shifting the camera into first-person view. This use of different points of view is effective because the former allows for a broader scale of the destruction of Haventon, while the latter allows players to experience first-hand what the character is undergoing during the intense and suspenseful combat sequences. These sequences are relatively easy towards the beginning of the game – round a corner to find a lone bandit; maybe two at most – but soon develop into harrowing fights for survival as the player encounters more and more at a time towards the end of the game.
The mechanics of these fights are what make them so special. The protagonist puts his hands up in defense when encountering a group of thugs, and the player has the opportunity to perform a ‘surprise kill’ by tapping the ‘E’ key when one gets close enough. In many situations this frightens the other bandits and takes one from their numbers, giving the player a slightly better advantage. Holding down the right mouse button, the player can then aim down the sights of his pistol and shift the focus of power from the group, switching between auto-locked targets with a flick of the mouse to the left or right. Pressing the space-bar whilst aiming at a bandit will have the protagonist yell at them to back off, and they often do, which is handy if you want to back them up to a ledge and kick them off. This also works in the form of bluffing if you have no ammunition left for your pistol. Such tactics are especially useful considering the scarcity of bullets – more than once I was facing a bandit one on one when he pulled a gun on me, and I fired in a panic, only to discover afterwards that his gun had no bullets in it, and I had just wasted mine.
Other gameplay mechanics are very well implemented, such as the almost fetch-quest-like moments when you encounter a survivor (there are 20 in total) whom you can help for information and an extra ‘Replay’. Replays are the game’s version of ‘retries’, one being used up each time the player dies or reloads a checkpoint.
One of many encounters the player will have to deal with
A more controversial element, however, is the inclusion of the stamina bar. I have heard some people call this stamina bar “the reason I Am Alive isn’t any good”. Such a claim is quite harsh, especially considering that the game would have been far more boring and less exciting had they not included it. The stamina bar sits next to your health bar and is of equal length. Whenever the player performs any tiring actions – such as sprinting, climbing, jumping, being in thick dust for too long, and so on – the stamina will diminish. When the stamina is completely drained and the player is still climbing or running, the bar itself will begin to disappear, forcing the player to rapidly click the left mouse button to stem the drain until they have stopped climbing or running. If the bar itself is drained completely, the protagonist will die. The player can consume a number of items found in the world to restore the capacity to its full length, and the stamina itself recharges automatically when at rest; while climbing, however, the player can also consume items that will increase the stamina until they can make it to such a place. This stamina bar makes for exciting and adrenaline-fueled moments while climbing skyscrapers or escaping from gangs of bandits, and its exclusion would simply make a less exciting game.
That being said, I Am Alive is not without its faults. The dense dust and fog fail to disguise the obvious 2D backdrop surrounding Haventon, the replay-ability takes a hit in terms of the linear storytelling, sometimes directions aren’t specified clearly enough, it’s a fairly short game (granted, it isn’t a full-length title), and the ending kind of arrives out of nowhere and leaves the player confused and wanting more.
Despite its few flaws, I Am Alive is a solid title and deserves more time to shine in the spotlight. Its immersion doesn’t quite rival that of Metro 2033 or Bioshock, but does incredibly well within its own right – from the main menu to the between-level cut-scenes; the darkest sewers to the tallest and brightest buildings; the characters and their voice actors to the intelligently implemented moral choice system relevant to the player more so than the character, and everything in between. I am very glad that it was finally announced that I Am Alive was ‘still alive’, and I highly recommend at least one playthrough of this great game.