Silver Lining: I Am Alive's unfeeling world

Taylor Cocke
T. Cocke|05.25.12

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'Silver Lining' is an ongoing column from freelancer Taylor Cocke, dedicated to examining the hidden potential in recently released, critically panned games. Even in the mediocre, we can find a silver lining.

As I began my time with Ubisoft's downloadable title I Am Alive, the most striking aspect of the game's art style was the high-contrast, almost black and white way it depicted the destroyed city it takes place in. The world feels dead, as it should. The lack of color depicts a space devoid of life, dotted by humanity huddled around the bright oranges and yellows of occasional makeshift fires. At least initially, there's a sharp, distinct difference between the world and those who struggle to live within it. Very quickly, though, it becomes apparent that the distinction exists purely between the protagonist Adam and, well, everything else.

I Am Alive's greatest failures don't lay in its shoddy controls or dated visuals. For me, it was never able to establish a feeling of desperately fighting for survival. At least, not in the same way the non-playable characters are very clearly struggling. Very early, Adam runs into a man sitting next to a fire, who immediately draws his weapon and demands Adam back away. Right away, I Am Alive establishes that its world is one that you shouldn't trust anyone if you value your safety.

Soon after that, Adam comes across a mother and son, the latter of which has been harmed by roving bandits and needs help to survive. Unable to move, they need Adam's help to survive. You can give them a medkit, perhaps forsaking your own safety later on, or simply move on. Again, this pair does its best to show that this world is a frightening, dangerous one.
%Gallery-145458%So why doesn't I Am Alive treat Adam the same way? Adam is a separate entity than these people; he's able to bounce back from just about any physical suffering with little to no issue. Just grab one of those inexplicably still edible scraps of food that are laying around in plain sight, and ta-da! He's all healed. Gunshot wounds, long falls, stabbings, all these can be solved by snacking. While the NPCs of the city Haventon have to fight for survival, I never felt like Adam was in any real danger.

A lot of folks complained about I Am Alive's length. In my mind, how short it was could have been used to its advantage. I could have allowed for the fine folks at Ubisoft Shanghai (and formerly Darkworks) to toy with permanent consequences of your actions. With a four hour long experience, why not have some real, solid consequences if you stumble into a dangerous situation? If I get shot, make me feel it. In such a short game, there could certainly be a mechanic in place that punishes you for goofing up.

The stamina bar concept nearly works as such. Spend too long climbing, and Adam's stamina bar takes a semi-permanent hit. He can't run for as long, and his ability to climb for any extended period of time is impaired. It's a fascinating idea for a mechanic, and I would have loved to see it explored even further. It's too bad that you can immediately regain lost stamina through eating. Most of I Am Alive takes place over the course of a couple of days, so Adam would have very few opportunities to actually stop and take a rest. Why not build suspense through his slowly advancing exhaustion? In a game whose conceit is so focused around long-term survival in a harsh environment, the game's shortness could paradoxically be its greatest strength.

Any time spent in the deadly dust hints, in small doses, of this motif of exhaustion. Adam's trips to the lower parts of Haventon are struggles against the suffocating dust, which slowly drains his stamina until, well, he dies. He goes until he can't go anymore, and then collapses. And that's really cool! It adds tension. That finality is something that is missing in just about every other part of I Am Alive. I was never afraid for Adam's safety, only annoyed when I had to start a long section over due to the game's poor checkpoint system.

After doing such a great job to establish stakes in the early section of the game, I Am Alive quickly dashes them by throwing enemy encounter after enemy encounter at you. Essentially, these encounters fall into two camps: aggressive and defensive. The majority will come after you, attempting to, presumably, kill you and rob you of all your stuff. This happens far too often, and results in a complete loss of moral ambiguity. Just about everyone is evil, and Adam just ends up killing most of them. With so much combat, that "oh shit" moment of only having one bullet to take on three psychopaths has no weight. Around the fifth encounter, they stopped feeling like a threat.

So how could I Am Alive fixed its issues? Well, treating Adam like it treats its NPCs is a good place to start. Let the world torture him like it's clearly tortured these broken souls. Instead of letting me move through Haventon relatively unscathed, show the pain that Adam is going through, both mentally and physically. In short, let me feel his suffering.

Taylor Cocke is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who has written for 1UP, Official Xbox Magazine, Playstation: The Official Magazine, VG247, and more. Follow him on Twitter @taylorcocke.
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