Lots of games have plopped the player into a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the color brown has taken over the Earth. But most of them, being video games, focus on giving you power and agency, using the collapse of civilization to flatter you with visions of what a badass you’d be if there were no stupid rules to keep you from cappin’ a fool. I Am Alive, by contrast, creates a world where everything is brutally difficult, and each accomplishment is a finger-scrabbling, barely there wresting of survival from the claws of inevitable death; you’ll never get to feel like master of the wasteland, because no one could be.
The foundation of I Am Alive is the kind of third-person platforming familiar to any veteran of games where the word “ledges” comes up frequently: you grab pipes, you climb handholds, you drop short distances…you know the deal. What makes I Am Alive unique is its unforgiving stamina meter, which determines how long—and it’s not long at all!—you can do any of those acrobatics. Just hanging off a ladder burns stamina at an unnerving rate, and running out of stamina before you’ve gotten to solid ground means instant heart attack.
When you get to the end of the meter, you still have a few seconds of platforming in you, but it permanently burns stamina capacity, which can only be refilled with all-too-rare pickups. So every time you climb, you have to engage in tense resource and time management that never ends as painlessly as you’d wish. The gradual drop in your stamina acts as a kind of gameplay analogue for your survivor’s trauma: Everything you have to do in the wasteland takes a toll on you, and by the end of a level, you’re a lot less whole than you used to be.
Of course, the end of civilization, like the Republican primary, always brings out vicious thugs looking for a fight. But I Am Alive’s take on combat is even more unique than its platforming. Bullets are outrageously scarce in this game, so you want to resolve as many situations as possible without shooting. But that doesn’t mean your gun isn’t useful! Because even when you don’t have any shots, you can still use your gun to threaten enemies, drawing your pistol on them in the hopes that they’ll drop their weapon or fearfully back into an open pit.
Of course, if you hold it on them for too long, they might guess that you don’t have enough bullets, and just rush you. And some gang members are more willing to surrender than others, especially if you kill the toughest one in the gang. Figuring out who’s straight-thuggin’ and who’s just a poser isn’t a tremendous challenge, given their on-the-nose dialogue. But anyone who’s played Western-style video games has spent their life ignoring hours of NPC Bad Guy chatter in the background; this is the first game I’ve played where you actually have to listen to what they say.
This is something of a pattern all through the game; the mechanics are more creative than the writing they’re wrapped in. While it’s a nice change to play as an ordinary family man, and your limited climbing ability does a lot to convey the feeling of being a typical guy thrust into an extreme situation, the whole “I must find my daughter” story never becomes more than a generic motivator. Worse still is the little girl you actually have to carry through the wasteland; though you only have to spend about a third of the game with her actually on your back, she may be the single most annoying small child in the history of entertainment. It never seems to have occurred to the writers of I Am Alive that small children are really surprisingly adaptable, and a child who grew up in a wasteland of resource scarcity would be more suited to this cruel new world than its elders, not less. Similarly, the game’s insistence on never making clear what The Event was makes the whole scenario seem more like a compendium of apocalypse clichés rather than a specific thing that happened. It’s hard to feel completely immersed in the world when that world isn’t quite solid enough to believe in.
A more fundamental problem is the way the gameplay conflicts with the visual aesthetic. Platforming, especially the no-errors-allowed platforming that I Am Alive uses, depends on being able to clearly see your destination on each move, as well as how you’ll get there. But apparently the wasteland of the future looks like an industrial-size episode of Hoarders, with shattered beams, crumbled brick, and general clutter covering everything, including wherever you’re trying to go. That means it’s often difficult to know what can be grabbed and what can’t, and since the game ratchets up tension by only allowing you to retry three times, I sometimes wished they’d just show the invisible walls instead of pretending there was a full world around me.
But a certain number of missteps are inevitable when a game is doing something this different, and I’ll put up with imperfection when the result is so consistently gripping. I Am Alive is the first game I can think of to be visibly influenced by the combination of resource-management and platforming that was created by Shadow of the Colossus, but while that Eastern game created a sense of calm attentiveness in the heart of a storm, the Western-style I Am Alive works to evoke feelings of rage, terror, helplessness, and panic. And if those are things you like feeling during your leisure hours, you can be assured that it does that very, very well.