It has been about six months since my graduation to ‘bachelor of multimedia-design’. My school career ending as it were with a thesis on horror game-design which I aim to ‘publish’ in the near future. Having researched many horror games it seems strange that ‘I am alive’ stayed under the radar for me. Only having heard of it recently I decided to try out this game that in so many respects piqued my interest.
Word on the street was that the game had some nice ideas but its long development cycle with many setbacks were its downfall; great concept but poor execution. This made me hesitant at first to try it but in my opinion people who try to do something original but inevitably fail due to these kind of issues still deserve to be rewarded. So I paid my dues and gave this game a go.
You play as an unnamed father who has traveled for a year by foot after massive earthquakes devastated the world leaving it in a never lifting dust cloud. His destination is Haventon; the town where his wife and daughter were when it all happened. The game starts as you arrive at Haventon where you need to find your way around, helping other survivors in an attempt to find your family. Along the way you team up with three characters; Henry, Mei and her mother Linda. The father records some of his actions using a cam-corder through which he addresses his wife and daughter, telling them of his progress. In between chapters we see the cam-corder sitting on a table with footage being watching by a woman, presumably one of the father’s kin.
I’m inclined to write about more aspects of ‘I am alive’ at a later date but now I’d like to touch on one particular topic; the ending.
— [Spoiler Alert: the ending will be discussed] —
Throughout the game you come across several people who, in some respect, you feel attached to and want to protect. It seems odd then that the game ‘rewards’ you after lighting the fireworks on top a sky-scraper ( in order to signal in a rescue boat to take Mei, her mother, and Henry out of the city ) with them having left their safe-zone without you. That’s not to say an escort mission would have been better but having them be gone by the time you get back feels strange; you are the one with all the weaponry, Henry is in a wheelchair and has no weapons we know of (next to the bow he gave us). It seems very irresponsible and downright backstabby that they would leave you behind like that. Now this is not even the main issue here but when you arrive at the docks it becomes apparent that; Henry has been taken hostage (he possibly knows where your wife and daughter may be, – your true objective – ), Mei (a little girl) has run off leaving her mother a shambles. You decide that she checks out the left side of the pier while you take the right.
During this sequence you encounter many enemies and it may even feel like the greatest battle you’ve encountered yet. But through it all you survive and find Mei unharmed. You take her to her mother and they both leave without you as you wish to stay; to find Henry and ultimately your wife and daughter. This, to me, felt like I was about the embark on the final chapter of the game in which we safe Henry and end eventually with uncertainty; either Henry stays alive but you die but somehow you know your wife and daughter are okay. Or that Henry attempts to find them, giving them the cam-corder your are carrying around. This would account for the between-chapter cutscenes which show a (sad) girl rewatching your steps on said cam-corder.
But actually the game just ends there. You speak into the cam-corder saying something or other about how you will save Henry and find your wife and child. Then we zoom out of the cam-corder being watched by (presumably) your wife or daughter who starts sobbing implying your demise.
I can understand that due to budgeting reasons the game was made shorter than it was supposed to be, ending about half-way through. And actually it could have ended there and be fine. It would’ve been a hint towards a possible (but unlikely) sequel. But instead they closed the series (with the current main character that is) by sealing the deal on his death with the sobbing of the character watching.
The reason why I find this ending to be disappointing is because throughout the entire game I’ve been in charge of my character’s life. In a sense I’ve mastered the environment; I know how to traverse the dusty wasteland without suffocating, I am able to help other survivors, I know how to deal with bandits through means of intimidation and carefully placing my shots. And then after I’ve mastered it all the game ‘rewards’ me with the notion that my character is dead, just like that, no sacrificial scene, no tragic battle in the end, no dying for a good cause. He’s simply dead. Out of my control my character has been killed. Now one can argue this a base for a good horror story, and possibly a good horror ending but it is overshadowed by the fact that:
If you are, throughout the game, directly in control of a characters life.
He/She should not able to be killed outside of the player’s control.
Now I can imagine situations in which ignoring this is qualified; such as the ending of Fallout 3, which stirred up a lot of dust back then, but that in a sense is within the player’s own control. You decide to end your life there and then.
By ignoring this I think the ending of I am alive feels unrewarding by being unnecessarily definitive. I would have prefered the same ending but without the sobbing. That would have left a lot of things unanswered and may have enhanced the ‘why stop now’ feeling that it already stirs up but to me it would have been a better fitting ending to a game that left a lasting impression on me.
If like me you like game where you can lose yourself in the story, in the environment, in the characters. Then I suggest you try walking (not running) your way through I am alive’s dystopian streets of Haventon.