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The edge of civilization in I Am Alive


For a game set in the aftermath of a disaster of enormous magnitude, I Am Alive looks to be composed of small triumphs and intimate terrors. Every ledge climbed is an achievement. An unloaded gun might be as useful as a full magazine. And the scariest thing around isn't the crumbling remains of a fictional US city – it's the people that are left to pick up their own pieces.

Gallery: I Am Alive (10/27/11) | 4 Photos

Ubisoft Shanghai isn't showing much of I Am Alive, but for the first time this week at an Ubisoft event in San Francisco, they were doing live gameplay demonstrations of the long-delayed title. What they have now is somewhat different than before – the protagonist Adam is no longer looking for his girlfriend in a destroyed Chicago; instead, he's searching for his wife and child in a fictional US city.

But not everything is different. I Am Alive remains an exercise in moment-to-moment survival by all appearances. While the climbing and traversal of various surfaces is reminiscent of Ubisoft flagships like Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed, Adam is no superhero. A stamina meter decreases as Adam runs, climbs, or jumps, or even holds on to a ledge unsupported. If he doesn't find a place to rest by the time the meter runs out, he'll have to continue on through sheer force of will – which means you'll be hammering on the right trigger until you can find a place to rest.

It's a disconcertingly contrived mechanic, sure. But it hammered the point home, no pun intended, that Adam is a more human, fragile protagonist than we're accustomed to seeing. He's not weak, and he's got skills, as belied by his climbing gear and form. But he's at the mercy of the crumbling world around him.

The equalizer in I Am Alive, and the thing that makes it really interesting, is that aforementioned fragility. While Adam is at the mercy of a world where death hangs over everything, NPCs behave as if they're in the same situation. That unloaded gun doesn't have a sign on it that says as much, and NPCs are more likely than not to fear the potential of violence as much as violence. And while Adam is a sympathetic character, he has the same capacity for violence as many of the more hostile survivors – demonstrated as he brutally cut down a surrendered gang member with a machete, or kicked another into an open fire.

Food is important to maintaining your stamina [...] but are you willing to eat meat I Am Alive all but tells you used to walk, and talk, and have a family?

Participating in Adam's struggle for immediate survival via trigger-mashing machete-struggles with another person hold the potential for some pretty disturbing points of reflection. There's an opportunity for I Am Alive to explore darker questions of the will to live. Food is important to maintaining your stamina – if you push yourself too hard, it won't all recharge automatically. But are you willing to eat meat I Am Alive all but tells you used to walk, and talk, and have a family? And are you going to lash out at the people you see eating that meat?

How much are you willing to sacrifice to feel better about the nightmare scenarios around you? You might use a bullet to shoot a lock off a cage, or the chain on a handcuff, in order to save someone else, but that's one less bullet (out of the one or two you might be carrying at any given time) that you might not have when you encounter someone that doesn't back down when you point your gun at them.

There's a moment where a little girl named Mei is strapped to Adam's back for her own safety. After navigating a cluster of men who tried to kill Adam and take Mei for... something awful not explicitly stated (but heavily implied), Mei timidly asks why everyone is mean now. Then she asks Adam if he's mean, and he promises he isn't.

But I'm not so sure. Maybe using one of your limited number of bullets to free a cannibal tribe's would-be dinner will make you believe otherwise, but I'm just not sure.

That's interesting, if nothing else. I Am Alive is slated for early 2012.

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