Wait, what the hell? I thought I saw something. Through the dust. Is it a man? It looks like it’s dancing. Or in pain. It is severely deformed. I can’t reach it because there is a dangerous chasm separating us. Has it noticed me? I hope not, it’s terrifying. I should move on. The city of Haventon has succumbed to many horrors following the unknown, cataclysmic ‘Event’ but this thing is truly creepy. I have no idea what it is or what it wants. Best to leave it alone.
I honestly couldn’t tell you why I’m attracted to the concept of despair in video games. I don’t think it’s a reflection on me. As far as I know, I’m not utterly depressed or disturbed. But something about artistic hopelessness greatly appeals to me. I just want to dive head long into it. To see if I can overcome their challenges? Perhaps, or maybe to see how easily the dark, depths of humanity can fit into a video game format. My tastes don’t lean into gore or full-blown depravity in games but the more unconventional fare certainly makes me sit up and take notice.
2012 had a heavy dose of this. Stories that began with a distinct feeling of dread. Something in the back of your mind telling you that everything will end badly. I think it is healthy that more game developers are trying their hand in this area. Whether they’re downloadable or retail games, it’s exciting to think risks are being taken and new efforts are being made to stretch this medium beyond its original intent. There certainly is room for the yearly sports game instalment or the military shooter but it seems more games are embracing bleak, ambiguous tales that don’t fit neatly into boxes and leave more questions than answers.
One of my favourite films is The Hitcher. A modern-day yet dystopian nightmare story of a young man who is assaulted, systematically harassed and psychologically broken apart by a deranged hitchhiker. The killer (played with dripping menace by Rutger Hauer) wants his young victim to ‘stop him’ and won’t stop destroying his life until he does. Hauer’s character is relentless and so mind-bendingly mysterious that you being to wonder whether he even exists at all. The entire story seems to take place on another planet. It is set somewhere around Nevada or Arizona but it might as well be on Mars. It’s that shock of emptiness that grabs hold of me. A dusty road. A clear blue sky. A minimal but foreboding soundtrack. All these elements combine to give the viewer an immediate sense something horrific bubbling under the surface. Roger Ebert called it “reprehensible”. Newsweek said it was “as beautifully designed as a guillotine”.
In development hell for many years, when Ubisoft’s I Am Alive was finally released it absolutely floored me for many of the same reasons I liked The Hitcher. For a whole year, the nameless main character has been making his way across the United States. When the game begins, he has reached his home city of Haventon, recording a diary on a video camera at regular intervals. At some previous date, an unknown disaster of biblical proportions tore the country apart and left Haventon crumbling. A permanent dust cloud blankets the city, rendering any sort of long-distance vision inert. Streets are deserted, blocked with abandoned cars and huge chasms filled with the dead. Earthquakes still ravage the city. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a terrified woman being chased by gangs of ravenous men. She screams for them to leave her alone. They laugh as they all disappear into the dust. Early on, it is clear things have gone very wrong in Haventon. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.
Amidst the ruins, random gangs and nervous survivors inhabit the alleyways and apartments. Most residents who aren’t terrorising other people are desperate and on the verge of death. Some call out for your help, which you can give. A med kit, pack of cigarettes, anything to relieve the hell they are living through. This city is beyond saving but there is still some hope left in the lost souls that crumple in stairways and burnt-out living rooms. Some of them don’t want assistance and that’s where the first hint of unique character interaction comes into play. They are all scared out of their minds and view anyone approaching them as a threat. Brandishing weapons, they yell at me to back off. Don’t come any closer. They’re not bad people. I don’t even know them. Do they have bullets in their guns? Possibly not, but they seem nervous enough to make me find out. I have options of rushing them or remaining calm and walking away. Most of the time, it pays to leave them alone.
During his trek across the country, the main character picked up a handgun. He has no bullets but in I Am Alive, that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. Apart from the nervous folk protecting their territory, there are gangs roaming the city. These people are actively looking for trouble. Leopards searching for deer. Some are armed with machetes, others have guns. If they see you, they will call you out. Surround you like predators. Here’s where the full depths of the innovative combat system emerge. Every single encounter could mean an early death. There’s no cover-based shooting here. Tension creeps in even if there’s only two people harassing you. One or two bullet wounds and the game is over. Enemies are not to be trifled with in Haventon. They are all deadly serious.
Here’s an example:
I’m walking through an intersection when three men appear from a doorway. Two of them have guns. I only have a machete on my back and a handgun with no bullets. The apparent leader walks towards me with his gun, abusing me. Asserting his dominance. I have to act fast if I hope to survive. Quickly, I use my machete to slash the leader’s throat. The other two are stunned which gives me enough time to point my gun at the more dangerous of the two. I might not have any ammunition, but they don’t know that. I can prompt them to back away. Get some breathing room. The longer I hold my gun on them, the more suspicious they become. Do I have the guts to shoot? Is my gun empty? They start to lower their arms.
It is now that I strike. I struggle with the first of them, disabling his gun and stabbing him in the gut. The whole altercation is messy and filled with tension. After he is fatally wounded, my assailant stumbles around like a dying animal. Death isn’t quick in Haventon; it lingers for more time than most games would feel comfortable in portraying. Fortunately, the other attacker didn’t get to me in time (secondary enemies can attack while you’re attacking the primary) and I point my gun in his face. After the gruesome death of his friend, he is now frightened. He’s telling me to take it easy. He seems to be aware my gun now has a single bullet that I retrieved the man I just killed. I prompt him walk backwards and he complies. I’m not prepared to waste this precious ammunition (finding more than one or two bullets is rare) so I back him towards a chasm edge, lower my gun and kick him in. He screams as he falls to his death. Something tells me the main character has been no stranger to murder during his trip across the country.
Every enemy encounter in I Am Alive needs your strict attention. One wrong move and a few bullets or machete strikes will cut you down. It might be a foolish act, but putting on a brave front towards enemies when you know you don’t have any bullets is the most fascinating combat experience in 2012. How long before they start to suspect you? Do you want to fire at them at all? You could gun them down but what if you need the bullets later? One option is simply tell them go away and then run for your life. Sometimes, that even works.
Traversing the city is equally as stressful. Climbing buildings or bridges is required for certain objectives and the mechanics to do so are precise and interesting. You have a stamina meter which begins to drain as soon as you start to climb. There’s no hanging by one arm for indefinite periods of time just to admire the view in this world. Either you keep moving or your stamina drains completely and you fall to your doom. If it gets close to running out, your stamina meter shortens permanently. It can only be restored through certain foods found in the city. Until then, you have to be even more careful.
Julie and Mary are the main protagonist’s family. There are hints of something coming between them before he left Haventon. By the time he arrives at their apartment, all that remains is a wide open door and a dusty, year-old letter. It tells him that Julie will try to keep Mary safe and get out of the city. He makes another regretful and heartfelt entry in his video diary. That feeling of dread returns. Later in the game, a nervous and wheelchair-bound man (played with tense worry by Elias Toufexis) begs me to look for the missing mother of a little girl he has been caring for. She was last seen in an abandoned hotel. He gives me supplies so I feel obligated to help him. I don’t want to spoil any more of the story but I will say that the inside of the hotel is the most disturbing thing I witnessed in a video game this year.
Granted, this isn’t a great looking game when compared to today’s triple A titles. The edges are rough but ironically, that’s where its atmosphere shines. Being constantly enveloped in dust allows the limited draw distance of the downloadable game budget play into the story. I bought into it hook, line and sinker. Of course everything looks grey or brown. That’s how it would be if this had actually happened.
This is at the heart of how I Am Alive grabbed me. I was drawn in to its atmosphere and utterly taken in by its universe. Nothing else came close in 2012. By the end, some loose ends in the plot are left hanging. They are implied or simply hinted at. This ambiguity only strengthened my appreciation of the boldness in every corner of the game. Great risks are being taken here and I believe they will prove to be seminal in years to come. The combat, the climbing, the bleak and unforgiving world are all parts of a whole that I absolutely loved. It is a daring masterpiece of open-world survival horror and is the best game I played in 2012.