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Puzzle-combat in "I Am Alive"

Playing Bioshock Infinite reminds me how much I wanted to write about I Am Alive, a game I finished earlier this year and found both easier to enjoy and quite uniquely thought-provoking. So let’s do that now.

This Ubisoft-produced survival-horror game appeared as a downloadable console title last year to little fanfare (which is to say, nobody on my Twitter timeline had much to say about it), and I bought it on a hunch, putting it aside for later. Even though it took me another year to actually pick up and play through, I found I Am Alive a delightful and rewarding surprise. While the game’s narrative isn’t spotless, I found the script and voice acting very good, and think the game explores genuinely new directions for survival-horror games in terms of both mechanics and story.

Let me describe here what I especially liked about the mechanics, because that’s the easy part. I hope this’ll be a warm-up for the narrative stuff, which I expect to have harder time writing well about. The game is about a man searching through a destroyed city for his family, and among the various situations he faces while under the player’s control are frequent encounters with opportunistic ruffians. That’s the bit I want to talk about here.

I Am Alive contains a style of tense but enjoyable puzzle-combat involving rules that feel quite coarse and discrete, almost to the level of a turn-based tactical game, even though the encounters unfold in real time. You come to discover, as they grow increasingly more complex and difficult, that surviving hostile encounters in I Am Alive relies very little on controller-jockeying and more on learning how to assess, control and shape the combat situation.

Your character begins the game in possession of a pistol, and one of the game’s key verbs is “point the pistol at the nearest jerk who is threatening me”. (This isn’t a shooter, so your character isn’t perpetually sighting down his gun barrel; it instead demands a discrete action.) Bullets are very rare in the game world, and actually pulling the trigger feels expensive. Both of these are common tropes in the survival-horror genre.

The game’s real twist is that (most) enemies — who are meant to be modern humans, with not a shuffling zombie or slavering hell-beast among them — freeze when you get the drop on them like this. They put their hands in the air, and begin to suggest that you take it easy. This is where things get interesting!

While you have the bad guys’ attention like this, you have a few moments to size up the situation and decide on the least expensive path through it. The pistol trains itself square on the closest baddie with single button-press, and other buttons shift it to point at other enemies; no manual aiming necessary, here. You’re free to move around while maintaining your aim, and you can command your current target to back up a few steps (if you’re far away) or give him a shove back (if you’re close). If you linger too long in this mode, though, the bad guys decide you’re only bluffing, and move in to attack you.

The inverse situation also exists: when you first encounter a group of hostile strangers, they will usually start advancing slowly on your character, who will put his own arms in the air, and mutter his own entreaties. Some of these characters are neutral parties who simply don’t want to make friends, and give you an opportunity to find a route around them, but most are true villains who will continue swaggering towards you, dangling their weapons at their sides. The skillful player will soon learn to use this phase to scan the field and set up the best position to be in before pulling their own weapon and raising the stakes.

Your goal here is to either kill the thugs or intimidate them into surrendering; often the best path involves a bit of the former to encourage the latter. Your secondary goal is to do so while spending as few bullets as possible. After that comes not getting hurt or killed; I usually found it easier to recover from injury, or retrying after a fatally botched combat, than to solider on with overly depleted supplies.

You can always just pull the trigger, which instantly drops whichever unfortunate you’re aiming at, but costs a precious bullet. You can also shove an enemy whom you’ve backed to a precipice over the edge. (Encounters often happen near blown-out plate glass windows, empty elevator shafts, or just bottomless rends in the concrete of the setting’s earthquake-wracked city.) Later in the game you can get enemies to surrender, a technique requiring you to quickly determine (via speech and pose cues) which bad guys are the group’s leaders and taking them out first, one way or another. In any case, it’s up to you to determine how to apply what you’ve learned to tackle each new setup.

My favorite single rule, and the one that made me realize that the game’s combat offered a short of “real-time tactics” approach, is the fact that you are guaranteed to defeat any single enemy in a one-on-one fight, without using any ammunition — but it always takes a few seconds to carry out. If another enemy’s attack interrupts you, your own attack fails. The game keeps you busy by having you spam a button during this “struggle-kill” sequence, so it takes a few instances to realize that the fight involves no arcade skill at all: either you have succeeded in getting a bad guy alone before invoking the rule, or you haven’t. Failure feels eminently fair, more like being on the wrong end of a referee call than screwing up a complex controller maneuver. When all this dawned on me, my perception of the whole game changed for the better.

There are other rules, which the game reveals slowly, often involving new additions to the modest arsenal that you’ll collect over the course of the game. In every case, though, the result is combats that feel to me closer to good boss fights, challenging the player’s perception and judgment in ways I find much more satisfying than the mad bullet-spraying encounters of other videogames I could name, and doing so in an engagingly novel way. Rare that a videogame makes me feel like I came out on top of a bad situation by heroically improvising, but this one did.

Gee, but all of this sure does sound uncritically super-violent and morally questionable, huh. Well, that’s what you get when I skip over I Am Alive’s narrative layer entirely. I look forward to diving into that in a future post.

Posted in Essays, Jmac on Games | Tagged , , | 1 Comment