There's a moment near the start of Cormac McCarthy's gripping post-apocalyptic novel The Road when a father holds a up a gun to protect his son. Their lives hang by a thread -- their assailant is alone, but his friends are near, and if the man pulls the trigger, he and his son will doubtless be discovered. And unbeknownst to their assailant, the man has only two bullets and will likely never find a third.
It's one of the most screamingly tense scenes I've ever encountered in fiction -- there are so many things that could go wrong and only one thing that could go right. The awful, doomed desperation of the situation is palpable.
The Road seems to be having quite an impact on video games lately. The makers of Resistance 3 openly cited it as an influence on their bleak road-trip story. And in Ubisoft's upcoming downloadable adventure game I Am Alive, McCarthy's influence is even clearer. With a few caveats, it may well be the closest thing yet to an interactive version of The Road. This week, I had a chance to see the game in action at a Ubisoft event in San Francisco, and I was impressed.
Our demo started with the protagonist speaking into a handheld camera, recording himself. Ubisoft Shanghai creative director Stanislis Mettra (who held the controller) said the main character has no name, much like the protagonist of The Road. He's pretty much a guy with climbing gear on his back and some cool little dreads in his hair.
The Man (as we're going Road here, let's call him that) has come back to his hometown looking for his family. "I'll find you Julie, without you and Mary," he says, "none of this makes sense. I'm almost home." As Mettra took control, the man was standing at a massive metal bridge spanning a rushing waterfall -- across the bridge lay the ironically named "Haventon", his home and the setting for the game's story.
It's unclear what happened to cause the devastation all around, and Mettra said that this was by design. Ubisoft is portraying it as it would feel to a sole survivor -- there's no big explanation or ability to know what happened. Characters refer to the apocalypse as "The Event", and by doing side quests and speaking with characters, it's possible to hear their recounting of what happened and get a better feel for the broader scope of The Event. But still, it will remain somewhat mysterious.
As The Man started to climb up into the structure of the bridge to make his way across, I noticed a bar at the top of the screen -- half-white, half-red. Mettra explained that this was the stamina bar, and that exerting oneself in the game causes it to drain. As The Man climbed, the white bar steadily depleted, and Mettra hurried to get to a level platform to let him rest.
The Stamina System is central to I Am Alive's challenge. It makes the platforming, which otherwise wouldn't be too different from Uncharted, into a tense game of resource management. As Mettra made his way across the bridge, at one point his stamina ran out while climbing. He was prompted to do a "burn", which involved hammering RT to push The Man upwards to a ledge.
Doing a burn costs you a permanent chunk of your stamina reserve, which can only be reclaimed by using items like heath kits, found throughout the world. Items are extraordinarily rare, however. Mettra described the game as fundamentally one of resource management -- there are two difficulties, normal and survivor, and the main (possibly only) difference is that on survivor, there are far fewer items.
I Am Alive is a remarkably beautiful game. It's almost Uncharted by way of Limbo? The game almost looks black-and-white, it's over-saturated and washed-out, sunlight filtering through thick dust.
Behind the bridge, a massive ship lay beached in concrete and rubble, looming over the piled-up cars and occasionally blocking out the sun. Below, water churned forward into an impossibly violent waterfall. Everything in I Am Alive is dark and foreboding, but also starkly beautiful.
After making his way across the bridge, Mettra loaded up a later level, this one within the city. The in-game map looks like an open-world, but Mettra made it sound like the game will be broken into discrete levels.
The Man was now in the city, where he had to keep well above street level. Down on the street is a thick, choking dust, which causes stamina to deplete until eventually, death. However, there are items down in the dust and occasionally mission objectives, so some street-level navigation will be required.
The Man made his way up over a rooftop, where another survivor was standing. Mettra assured me that most people won't be outright hostile, that they're more scared than dangerous. This man waived a knife and yelled threats: "Go away and maybe you don't get cut." Mettra did have a gun, but with only a single bullet and no reason to kill this guy, so he skirted around the survivor and over to two more people who lay crying on the rooftop.
Laying there were a woman and a man and she was letting herself starve to death -- Mettra volunteered to help them find food. He explained that there's no morality system, but that when you help people in need, they give you information that helps increase your completion of the game. Helping people also give you more "retrys", which function like a limited number of checkpoint-loads before having to restart the level.
We were running short on time, so Mettra jumped us forward to a later level, when The Man had made his way underground to rescue a young girl and, hopefully, reunite her with her lost parents. (It was possible there was more of a narrative connection between The Man and the girl than just that.) He made his way underground, carrying her on his back with a harness he'd fashioned out of climbing rope.
As he made his way through a parking garage, he came upon four threatening-looking men standing around some bombed-out car husks. It was a uniquely frightening moment, with each man waving a weapon and saying threatening things to The Man and the little girl. He had only one bullet and no way to take out all of them... and here I had a visceral flashback to The Road, to the terror and powerlessness of the lone under-armed protector facing ravenous, faceless killers.
As the men got closer, Mettra pulled out his pistol and shot one. He immediately went down and the other three men panicked and threw their hands up in the air. As it turns out, they're unaware that The Man only had the one bullet and as long as players don't pull the trigger and reveal the gun to be empty, they'll remain cowed.
Mettra then moved The Man over the body of the guy he'd shot and... the bullet he'd shot appeared to pop back into his inventory. Hmm. I might have mis-seen that, but if it's possible to do that, it will do a lot to remove almost all of the tension from these sorts of encounters. I can just imagine players shooting a guy, running over his body to pick up the bullet, then shooting another guy...
But like I said, it wasn't totally clear what I saw. I asked Mettra if he'd just picked up the bullet he shot, and he said "yes", but it's possible he misheard me. But yeah, put that down as a video gamey thing that might undercut some of the tension.
Regardless, Mettra then led the man through a quick fight with the other three guys, burning one, shooting another. The last man surrendered and got down on his knees, and Mettra knocked him out.
I was impressed with what I saw of I Am Alive, less for any one aspect of its gameplay than for its uncommon grittiness and focus on survival over action. It's not quite a playable version of The Road (what could be, really?), but still it looks like a tense, darkly beautiful experience.
As the folks from Ubisoft Shanghai were quick to point out, I Am Alive is very much a AAA game, but the fact that it's being released digitally means that it can be more of a risk. It's an original IP, and doesn't have the mass-market appeal of an Assassin's Creed or a Ghost Recon. I'm glad to see that all these years, it's finally complete and even gladder to hear that it will be releasing in a few short months. (Mettra said the closest he could say was "This summer".)
The Man and the little girl left the bodies of their four assailants lying in the parking garage and made their way towards a stairwell.
"Why is everybody mean now?" she asked in a small voice.
"Not everybody, Mei," replied The Man.
"Are you mean?"
"No. I promise, I'm not."