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DOA: Why "I Am Alive" Fails to Make Your Pulse Race

"I Am Alive" has a lot of interesting ideas, but poor design decisions rob the game of the emotional heft it wants to have.

Game Developer, Staff

May 23, 2012

9 Min Read

[Ubisoft's survival action game "I Am Alive" has a lot of interesting ideas, but poor design decisions rob the game of the emotional heft it wants to have.]

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

I let go of the ledge and drop into the bowels of the darkened subway.  For a brief moment my flashlight flickers on and off, absorbing the impact of hitting the ground. The little girl strapped to my back emits a muted gasp.

“It’s okay,” I tell her. “We’re okay.”

Stretched out ahead of us is a pitch dark subway tunnel, long since out of service. My flashlight barely cuts three feet ahead of me, and I walk slowly, softly, studying the creaks and groans of the rail line for any noise that’s out of place.

Then ahead of us, I see something. I think. The outline of a person, just barely visible through the fog and darkness. I take a step forward, and like a mirage the shadow disappears. I pull out my gun and stand for a moment, debating if I should continue forward. To the right, a storage room catches my eye. I have a ration, and not one bullet in the gun I’m clinging to. Decision made. I creep into the storage room and do some rummaging. A couple of cans of fruit and a piton. Not a bad haul, but no bullets.

As I head out of the room, I hear a loud metal clang emanate from down the subway tracks. I shine my flashlight down the tunnel, but still can’t see anything.  There’s no other way to go. Shit.

I walk as if I’m being watched, checking the sides of the tracks to make sure there is nothing waiting for me in the darkness. Shadows bounce. My footsteps echo.

Then I see the bodies. About a dozen altogether, scattered along the line like breadcrumbs marking a trail. The little girl winces.

“Close your eyes.”

I step over a body. Then another. I walk slowly, taking care not to trip over anyone. I wonder what might’ve happened here. How did so many people wind up in the same spot? Did they get trapped when the tunnel collapsed? Did they take refuge? Were they all brought down here?

“Get him!”

Before I have time to think, three of the bodies stand straight up. In an instant their machetes are out and they are racing towards me, ready to cut me to pieces.

I jump and nearly chuck my controller into my TV.

This is “I Am Alive” at its best. When you’re scared, depleted, and unsure of just how you’re ever going to make it out of its fictional city—when a good set-up and startling unpredictability combine to craft a truly memorable moment. Unfortunately, the game almost never reaches this height again, crumbling under the weight of its own poorly designed mechanics and sloppy narrative, and falling well short of engaging you on the emotional level it wants to.  As opposed to keeping you teetering between fear and distress, tedium and frustration take over as a flurry of bad design decisions impede your every step.

Let’s start with the combat. While at first original and intense, it eventually reveals itself to be a repetitive puzzle, one whose solution is almost always the same. Early on, you’re shown various tactics for dealing with hostiles—let one get close and slit their throat, pulling a gun on the rest to control them. Maybe you back a guy near an edge and kick him over, or get into a struggle with another while you try to jab a machete through their chest. And then there are the personalities: some characters are more aggressive, others are weaker. Some will notice when you don’t have bullets in the chamber, others will be oblivious. You begin to think crowd control will require good instincts and split-second decision making.

Except it doesn’t. Very quickly you learn the same tactics will work over and over. Lure the guy with the gun to you. Cut his throat. Shoot the next guy who rushes you. Do what you want to the rest.  Rinse, repeat.

At a certain point, combat is neither difficult nor frightening, and this is partly because of a how predictable the system is, and partly because THERE ARE NO OTHER OPTIONS for dealing with foes. For example, it bothered the hell out of me that there was no way to surprise your enemies. It seems like a no-brainer that a game with combat scenes that are mainly you and a rusty machete would give you opportunities to sneak around enemies, or creep up and silently slit their throats. No dice. You can’t even run from fights thanks to the way they are scripted. Because of a lack of options, combat becomes dull, and functions as nothing more than a door you must open to progress further (and coincidently, most fights are placed next to gates that you can’t lift until enemies have been eliminated).

It’s the same with the platforming.  At first the need to pay attention to your grip strength while jangling violins warn you of your waning stamina is nerve-wracking, but as soon as you realize that EVERY time you grab hold of something “danger” music is going to start to play (even when you’re dangling from such precarious heights as 3 feet off the ground), the tension evaporates. On top of this, constant need to find high ground to keep from suffocating eventually becomes one of the most annoying mechanics you’re likely to come across in a game. You’ll find yourself spending an extra 20 minutes in every area because you can’t explore more than a few moments without having to shimmy up a pole and catch your breath. You want to see the city, explore its nooks and crannies, but eventually you stop caring because you don’t want to have to keeping sliding up and down lamp posts to stay healthy.

“I Am Alive” is filled with great ideas that are simply not expanded upon enough to stay engaging throughout the experience. Eventually you start to see the strings holding everything together, which absolutely ruins the immersion—the key factor in keeping somebody emotionally engaged. If the mechanics had been thought out better, this would be a much easier problem to surmount, but unfortunately the shortsightedness bleeds into the other aspects of the game, specifically the narrative, as well as the atrocious “lives” mechanic.

Now before I really tear into the lives system, let me ask you: What is the last adult oriented game that actually used a life/continue based system? Name it. Go on, I’ll wait. There is a reason it’s been exercised from design—at this point, it just comes off as sloppy or gimmicky, and this mechanic is certainly both. For one, it seems as if two completely unrelated systems were Frankensteined together in some sort of half-baked attempt at making each more important. I can see the thought process: Ubisoft needed a way to increase the difficulty; to punish the player for dying and therefore make them stress over simple actions, and fell back on the old continues system to create this tension. In the meantime, they wanted to “challenge” player’s morality, and have innocent people out in the destruction that you can choose to save by giving up some of your rations. So if we tie saving people to earning more continues (at the expense of items) they each become more important.

Except they don’t. For one, tying them together defeats any sort of “moral” issue the game would like to put in your mind. Why haven’t developers realized that ANY TIME you tie a gameplay reward to a narrative choice, you have effectively eliminated the context of the choice. Of course I’ll save everyone, cause that’s how I get lives.  The continue system makes these decisions negligible, and while I think the developers believed sometimes you’d be too afraid to save someone for fear of not having necessary supplies, it’s basically a non-issue. By the halfway point, I had enough equipment to safely scale the Rockies.

If they wanted to ratchet the tension, why not just have a save point based system? Die before the next save, and back to the old one you go. Why not make some civilians double-cross even if you help them, thereby enhancing the players fear of not knowing if the trade off is worth it? Why not actually add some nice conundrums with the people you try to save, as opposed to make them wailing “1-up” icons? There was no reason to graft these two features together, and once again, it feels too “gamey” and robs the rest of the title of any sense of reality. It doesn’t feel like an experience, more a series of mechanics grinding along each other’s fault-lines and failing to fit together.

Lastly, we have the plot. The harrowing journey of a father trying to find and save his family in a destroyed city…or not. “I Am Alive” chucks this premise out the window early on, instead focusing on protecting a little girl and rescuing her relatives as you move through the city, and all but completely ignoring the search for your own. There are several problems with this. One, the story is uninvolving because at a certain point you’re wondering why the protagonist continues to engage in glorified fetch quests for a family that isn’t his. Two, most of the characters are never around enough to really warm up to, merely banking on you sympathizing with them because they’re weak and/or not trying to kill you. In fact, the most interesting character is Henry, who’s mutually dependent on everyone else for his own survival, yet he is barely in the story, and basically gets an off-screen death at the end of the game for his trouble.

But the biggest narrative mistake?  If they were going to force you to help a little girl and her mother throughout the entire game…why not just make it your own family? It seems to be the most obvious choice in the world—if you’re going to make me go through the motions anyway, why not up the stakes a bit? Some may say they’re saving it for a sequel, but uh, if you’ve finished the game, you can clearly see he won’t be saving his family anytime soon. It baffles me, and tears a large chunk out of the emotional connection you may have felt to the story.

In the end “I Am Alive” is a hodge-podge of interesting ideas that fail to really connect to one another, and it leads to an underwhelming experience that never pulls you in. When you’re trying to tap in to someone's  emotions (in this case fear and distress) a person must be immersed, and this contradictory design pulls you out of the experience, making “I Am Alive” fall well short of its initial goal.  

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