I Am Alive has had a turbulent history. Announced to be in development in 2008, the game since slid in and out of public consciousness, often being relegated to the status of vaporware, another title that, when announced, had looked to have an extremely interesting concept, but was eventually quietly canned, joining the ranks of such other dubious great in concept/fully absent in execution games such as Project H.A.M.M.E.R.
However, miracles do happen, and just as Final Fantasy XIII, Duke Nukem Forever, and Gran Turismo 5 finally saw release, so I Am Alive has finally been released, four years after its original announcement. To many who were eagerly following the game’s troubled development, just the fact that they finally get to play it will be reward enough. However, what about others who were perhaps only vaguely or tangentially interested in the game, and need to know if the game is a worthy purchase? What about those who perhaps didn’t even know the game existed until they stumbled upon it while browsing their console’s online marketplace? Is I Am Alive worth the price of admission? Was it worth the excruciatingly long wait?
Let’s get the game’s strongest selling point out of the way- it has an incredible concept. Taking cues, perhaps, from the minimalism of games like Shadow of the Colossus, a concept that is perhaps rooted in games like Disaster: Day of Crisis, and an atmosphere that evokes Will Smith’s I Am Legend, the game tells the story of some unspecified disaster- we don’t know what it was, we don’t even know if it was natural or man made- hitting the country, and taking it entirely offline. There is a complete absence of governance, there is no police force, and it’s pretty much every man out for himself, a pure survival of the fittest. In this desolate, concrete, post apocalyptic jungle, the law of the jungle- eat or be eaten- applies.
In this context, we are given control of the game’s protagonist- his name is unknown. he travels back to Haventown, from across the country, a trek that takes a year, to find his estranged wife and daughter in the aftermath of the disaster. Why are his wife and daughter estranged? We don’t know, we’re never told. What we do know is that as soon as the protagonist enters the town, he finds a young girl surrounded by several men, whose intentions are more than suspect. He saves the girl, and she then accompanies you. Helpless, sweet Mei helps you to form a bond with herself, and by extension, with the game itself. The bond evokes the bond that Ico in Yorda shared in the seminal PS2 game, or the one that, to a lesser extent, the Prince and Farah shared in Ubisoft’s own Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
The game’s great concepts aren’t just limited to narrative devices alone- they also extend to the gameplay. In true survival game fashion, you’re given a gun, but no ammunition. Bullets are scarce, and every time you find one, it’s a small victory, a ray of sunshine in a bleak and inhospitable landscape. To fight, you can pull your gun out. Maybe the people who threatened you wanted to fight you, but are afraid of your gun. In that case, expect them to try and attack you again as soon as you put the gun away. Or maybe they are people trying to survive, help themselves and their families, and they hope to get something from you that will make it easier for them. But they don’t want to fight you. Will you attack them because they threatened you? Especially because they probably have something, valuable, something that will make survival for you and Mei easier? Or will you turn away and walk on?
The game shifts the burden of emotional weight entirely on you. The world is a bleak place, and you’re in it. the people there are desperate for survival, and you’re one of them. When society and all its structures break down, do the standard human ethics and morals still apply? In a jungle where the only law that applies is survival, would you be justified if you killed someone else and stole their stash, especially since they would probably potentially do the same to you?
The best part is that unlike many modern games that try to deal with themes like these, I Am Alive is successful, largely because it never says anything specific, never tells you anything. Everything is left up to your imagination, fueled only by the vaguely disturbing hints and leading questions that the game drops over the entirety of its seven hour playtime.
However, most of the fighting that you do in this game will not be with the other people, but with your surroundings, which are unforgivingly hostile. The disaster- whatever it was- left behind a huge, persistent dust cloud that pervades everything. Stay in it for too long, and you die. Buildings fallen over and cars strewn all over the place mean that you have to climb and scale your environments a lot. The game’s Shadow of the Colossus-esque stamina bar raises tension, as often you need to time everything just right if you are to reach safety and prevent yourself from falling to your death. Happily enough, the game often gives you items to recover your stamina while you’re climbing, which have to be accessed via a rather jarring looking inventory.
As a matter of fact, I believe this is the one fair criticism that I can level at the game- its HUD, its menus, its interface, everything, is completely at odds with its aesthetic. It pulls you out from the game’s flawless immersion, and it reminds you that yes, you are in fact playing a video game, an illusion the game works so hard to dispel otherwise.
I Am Alive is, therefore, a great game. Like Assassins Creed in 2007, it has an incredible concept that can carry the game all by itself. The problem is, what you take away from I Am Alive is directly contingent on what you went in with. Use your imagination just a little, and I Am Alive comes together beautifully, like it did for me. However, if you don’t use your imagination, you are left with a combat heavy game that gives you no ammunition, a game replete with heavy platforming. The people who persistently attack you now become dumb AI opponents. Everything falls apart.
It’s not a game for everybody, but for those who believe they will appreciate a game that spiritually evokes some of the best titles ever created, and who think they can actually use their imagination in conjunction with the game to create a beautiful, emotionally moving drama, I Am Alive is heavily recommended. It might be the most unexpectedly good game you have played in a very long time.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
Great concept, beautiful graphics, emotionally moving, minimalistic style fits the game perfectly, highly immersive
Jarring interface; what you take away fromt he game depends entirely on how much you are willing to invest in it