Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I Am Alive (Original Concept)

Ever since I Am Alive was first announced at E3 2008, I was intrigued. I found the concept of it fascinating, the idea that you must survive the aftermath of an earthquake in Chicago until the military arrives, all while making hard decisions along the way. So engaged was I that even when I had become aware of its troubling development history, including shifting the developer from Darkworks to Ubisoft Shanghai, I stuck alongside it and even pre-ordered a copy the day the option was open. It took a long time for them to put it out, but I’m glad that they stuck with their vision and released a game that, despite the troubled development cycle, managed to pull it off wonderfully and even go to depths I never knew it could.

The story of I Am Alive follows Adam Collins, a 27-year-old office worker who happens to be in Chicago when a 10.9 magnitude earthquake strikes. After three days, Adam manages to dig himself out of a large pile of rubble, only to find the city in complete ruins. The first thing that concerns him is finding his ex-girlfriend, Alice, who he still has feelings for; this is because he wants to make sure that she’s safe. As he begins his journey, he finds out that there’s a base camp somewhere in the city and if he can get there within a week, the military will come and rescue whoever is there. With this new knowledge, he finds himself having to make some difficult choices, banding with fellow survivors along the way as he tries his hardest to survive the powerful aftershocks and overcome his greatest obstacle: the city itself.

Chicago before the quake.

To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure at first what to think about the story, considering that there’s a very novel concept for a game but people have been burned before when it comes to other media with the same premise. However, I was surprised by just how well the developers pulled it off. While some time is spent establishing just how much of an impact the earthquake had on Chicago and its surrounding areas, as well as hints of how it affected the economy, they went for an interesting twist and decided to spend a majority of the game showing us how the quake affected people on a smaller scale. By gradually dripping out information through each character Adam comes across, the player is able to, by the game’s end, weave this incredible tapestry of personal suffering and just how far people would really be willing to go to survive or protect what they cherish most. The major revelations that come up about each character can be very shocking and enlightening and by the end we are forced to ask ourselves if we’d react any differently were we in the same situation as them.

Adam gets pretty roughed up during his journey.

What helps this is that each of the survivors is rather unique in that while their descriptions make you anticipate one thing, their personalities are actually more three-dimensional and go deeper than appearances. For instance, soon after the game begins, you find a survivor who is heading for a refugee camp, which is where you meet other survivors like Peter, a disabled ex-fire captain responsible for setting it up. Peter at first seems ineffectual to the player, but he quickly demonstrates that he doesn’t let his disability get in the way of helping the others out, especially when he consoles the survivor you met regarding his losses. When you find out about the military arriving in about a week, Peter asks you to go out and see if anyone else is alive so that they can all be treated and rescued at once, which sets up part of the basic structure of the game.

One of the first, and major, survivors you come across is Riley, a female doctor determined to save as many people as she possibly can. When you find her she’s in the middle of a supply run in a hospital and is surprised to see Adam. She has a warming personality, though she is initially a little hostile toward Adam before he explains his intentions. After they gather up supplies, she leads Adam outside the hospital to another important character, Virgil, an African-American former soldier trying to protect a group of survivors. Like Riley he is at first unsure about helping him, but only because their supplies are limited and they have a large group already. When Adam mentions the refugee camp, Virgil gives the matter a lot of thought before deciding to go to the camp as well. I liked that there was some back and forth between each of the characters, as well as the survivors, and that they carefully discussed the matter by taking several factors, including the environment and the possibility of aftershocks, into account. It showed that, even in the darkest of times, people can still work together and reason out a solution which works for everyone, an element which is expanded upon at the refugee camp itself. Rather than go with the grim future a lot of disaster media tends to go with, they instead show the camp gradually forming a close-knit community who is more than willing to help each other survive such an awful tragedy and see a better tomorrow.

Riley as she appears in the game.

Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t people in the game who will try to stand in your way. As you go back and forth between the camp and other settlements, there are groups who either can’t be reasoned with or wish to see others, including Adam, dead. This is where the combat takes over and it works surprisingly well. It’s simple, but effective, with Adam being able to switch between different weapon types on the fly. The blunt objects available to him are mostly ones he finds in the environment and ranged weapons are hard to come by, along with limited ammo. There are also some throwable weapons, also in short supply, including the almighty gas grenades. The smoothness of the combat is excellent, but I also like that this is really more of a last resort type of thing, since some encounters can be diplomatically talked out of and the survivors can join your party back to the camp. Other ways of dealing with survivors, especially hostile ones, would be to use the environment to your advantage, with one trap mirrored from the first E3 trailer where you can sacrifice a precious water bottle to force a group through glass and let you be on your way. Water is a little like gold, which can influence how encounters play out, but at one point in the game you find a cache of it and must decide what to do with it, which is one of the most important decisions to make in the game. I won’t spoil what can happen, but it’s interesting to play the game multiple times just to see how much different it can turn out.

Water is also a pretty effective healing item.

Overall, I liked that the gameplay, rather than be a complete dystopian lone wolf scenario, instead focuses more on gathering up enough people and supplies for the expanding refugee camp. I suppose I could liken it to the earlier Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, but on a smaller scale (there aren’t an infinite number of survivors you know). Adam is still heavily focused on finding Alice, which he does eventually accomplish, but he also realizes the value of teamwork and how that can be effective in accomplishing your goals.

As far as the graphics go, I found them to be very good. The game is rendered in a way that it seems to have its own style, but in a way that takes full advantage of the systems it’s released for. Chicago is heavily detailed and the city is lovingly reconstructed with some minor artistic license here and there in order to make certain sections work well for the game. There is no loading times anywhere, as the game seamlessly transitions from cutscenes to the game world and everything is loaded at once. I also liked the voice acting and music, both of which are really top notch quality. Emotionally driven performances combined with a very moving orchestral score always make for a good combination. I especially love a recurring piece that serves as an effective leitmotif and highlights a lot of the more memorable moments.

The Northstate Bridge is home to one particularly climactic moment.

I Am Alive is a fantastic game. Its premise is pretty unique and pulled off exceptionally well. The characters are all three-dimensional and the main themes not only get us to think about what we would do in the same situation, but also how we can be better prepared for it. Where Darkworks began, Ubisoft Shanghai finished and the end result is a game I’d recommend anyone to try out.

Unfortunately, this game doesn’t exist, though I wish it did. Happy April Fool’s Day!

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