Life on the ledge.
Like it or not, our industry lives and dies by the clichés of its most successful predecessors. A game like Call of Duty or Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto sells a few zillion copies, and you can bet your button-exhausting extremities that you’ll see fifteen sequels and 30-plus coattail-riding copycats hoping to ride the wave of retail regurgitation all the way to paydirt but, every now and again, a game comes along that just says “f*** it.”
Just when I had given up on anyone doing something interesting with the idea of civilization’s inevitable demise, along came Ubisoft’s I Am Alive, a game that doesn’t find itself falling all over the latest flood of undead angst or radioactive revelry but, rather opts to deliver on a far more sinister enemy:
“The post apocalyptic genre is pretty rich in books and movies,” says creative director Stan Mettra, “but in games it’s somehow limited to the sci-fi, cartoony side of things—big guns, mutants, zombies…ok, we have this, but about a human-centered story? That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Centered around the tale of a father who finds himself stuck on the other side of the country after a natural disaster of unknown origins, I Am Alive isn’t filled with aliens, brain-biters or post-nuclear knuckle-draggers, focusing instead on the simple yet daunting task of navigating the devastation and danger left when the world goes to hell in a handbasket.
“What we’re trying to make is really a game about surviving the human condition, without any supernatural elements. It’s a world that became very hostile in the aftermath of a natural disaster,” says Mettra.
Mixing a healthy helping of Uncharted’s platforming aspects with the quiet creep of Silent Hill and a tasty chunk of Cormac MCCarthy’s The Road, Alive is less about blowing s*** up than it is putting the pieces back together, an aim that Mettra feels is a tough mark to hit. “Videogames tend to be very mature; very action-oriented,” he says. “I but I think it’s time to explore more adult game mechanics. It hasn’t been easy.”
Not unlike our unnamed protagonist’s struggle, the path to retail has been plagued by the plentiful pitfalls of the road less traveled. “There’s lots of challenges,” Mettra confesses. “One of the key elements of the game is realism, and realism isn’t always compatible with things that are common in games. For example, you want action..you want fun—everybody wants fun—but how do you define this? Making a realistic game, where weapons are very dangerous —one bullet and you’re dead. Keeping the character very lonely, and not having hundreds of guys coming at you and still have combat that’s interesting. It’s a good example of something that’s difficult to do with this kind of premise, because you’ve only got a few bullets.”
Not unlike the quest for guzzoline in Mad Max, resources are few and far between, and most survivors would sooner kill you for your cat food than listen to your story, making for an undeniable amount of tension in each new encounter, and it’s an area that Mettra and the team at Shanghai Studio felt compelled to explore, hoping that gamers agree.
“It’s extremely important,” he says, “and I think some big games are already going into a more cinematic experience, making you care about more than just the challenge and succeeding and upgrading your character and beating the game. They make you care about the story and what you discover.”
Lofty, yet admirable, no? Even more compelling is the fact that I Am Alive faced its own brush with death, nearly hitting the chopping block after an ill-fated attempt at a blockbuster production.
“The game was started a long time ago and, in fact, there were two periods in [I Am Alive’s] development,” Mettra points out. “The first game had a ‘AAA mandate’ but, after several years in production, it wasn’t quite satisfactory, and we brought this game to Shanghai Studio to basically close it and release it, but in the end, the experience was not there. It was suffering from a lot of compromises and it just didn’t work out.”
“So,” confesses Mettra, “it was either cancel the game or continue with a new objective in mind, and that when, roughly a little less than two years ago, we decided to go XBLA and push the levers to ‘extreme.’ Of course we knew it would be less ‘mass market,’ we knew it was a bit risky.”
That risk, though, is what defines the experience in Alive. The landscape itself is littered with crumbling architecture, draped in a mysterious, deadly “dust” rendering much of the city impassable but for a few short seconds, and as you climb and dash through these natural obstacles, you’re forced to keep tabs on your character’s stamina, which can dip into critical levels, forcing you to abort a given path. What’s worse is that once it drops, your ceiling for athletic activity falls with it, returning to normal only after you’ve spent precious resources to reset it, making timing a matter of life and death and each choice a critical crossroads of life and death.
Not unlike Namco-Bandai’s Dark Souls, I Am Alive uses this “tough love” mechanic to place a premium on life and death, and its rewards are far from the typical shoot and loot we’re used to seeing. According to Mettra, this idea is at the center of the game’s sweet spot: “We’re not the type of product that has very ‘gamey’ rewards—you kill an enemy, there’s coins falling out of his pocket and you can go to a shop and some guy open’s his coat and he’s got tons of guns to choose from. We don’t have that. Respecting the setting is very key to the experience. The reward is in exploring that setting.”
Luckily, Ubisoft appreciates the risk involved for both gamers and the dev team, allowing Shanghai Studio to push the envelope in ways that often seem unthinkable in modern game making, looking at downloadable gaming as a true platform for differentiation in today’s market.
“It’s not a 60 hour game,” explains Mettra. “It’s not Assassin’s Creed, so we can allow for something that’s a bit more austere in that respect. There’s still some reward in there, but the weapons are always plausible, respecting the idea that each is extremely precious and dangerous. The challenge is more on the tactical side. We renew the challenge by varying the situation.”
As our conversation with Mettra comes to a close, it’s clear that this challenge is very personal to his team, and while I Am Alive may not be the type of title most folks are expecting, it certainly strikes us as the sort of experience gamers need to play. I Am Alive is set for release as a digital download this winter; let’s hope it has the grit needed to outlast the cold.