The gameplay of I Am Alive [Interview]

29 Nov 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Following on from our ‘The business of I Am Alive‘ interview, we once again spoke to the game’s creative director Stanislas Mettra. This time we go in-depth on the subject of the gameplay itself.
Read on to get the skinny on combat, survival game mechanics and how to balance difficulty levels.
IG: What is it makes survival games popular?
SM: I don’t think they are that popular on a commercial level, but they do hold a special place in the heart of many gamers. They were the first games to properly embrace 3D technology, Alone in the Dark was the first proper 3D adventure game. Resident Evil took that idea and really increased the sense of immersion.
Plus, survival games tend to have very geeky, nerdy worlds that encourage you to play alone in your room with the lights off. It’s a genre that is generally only liked by the core gamer audience.
But the genre needs to be refreshed. There have not been that many games of this sort that have come out recently… Alan Wake and Dead Space and that’s about it.
IG: One of the ways it looks as though you’re trying to refresh the genre is by including elements of platforming/climbing. How difficult has it been to balance that kind of inclusion in a survival game?
SM: The climbing system itself wasn’t really the problem, the problem was making that seem plausible and realistic in this kind of setting and atmosphere. We didn’t want to have too many elements in the environment that looked nice but that you couldn’t interact with because that just creates disappointment for the player.

IG: This being an Ubisoft title, was there any communication with the Assassin’s Creed team when it come to those sections? Some of the movements look quite similar…
SM: Not really because we’re using the same engine as them. Assassin’s Creed is a massive team and a completely different kind of project with the open-world focus. Those guys have been doing their thing for many years and they’re excellent at it. But it really is a completely different kind of thing.
IG: You showed in the demo that there are different ways of approaching the same combat situation. Is it realistic that someone could play through the whole game without firing a bullet?
SM: Well, no matter what you do you’ll usually be able to do it better. There’s always a way that will save you more bullets but some of the thugs you’ll come across are so aggressive that you will need your gun.
We would have loved to have a really open system with moral choices about whether you leave people alive or not, but that something we couldn’t achieve within the scope of this game. We have lots of ideas about how we can deepen the system and how we can provide more options for players, but everything has to be meaningful and we’re not going to put something half finished in.
IG: You’re got a ‘retry’ system which essentially works like traditional ‘lives.’ That’s unusual for games today. Why have you gone down that route?
SM: Yeah, the retry is a bit of an old-school mechanic; in games of five and 10 years ago and before you would often have a limited number of lives. We brought it back because we really want you to care about dying and make you do anything to prevent it.
Resident Evil used to be like that but in Resident Evil 4 they made a big switch and went to a much more action-style system that allowed you to die hundreds of times in the same place without much punishment. They lost a lot of that survival aspect by doing that and removing the ‘Ink Tape’ system of saving.
The limited lives approach can be frustrating in places but it brings with it a great tension in that every choice you make comes with a lot of impact. We’re a survival game and we wanted that aspect to be very intense.

IG: Do you think a lot of people are going to find I Am Alive particularly difficult, given the modern diet of infinite respawns and constant checkpointing?
SM: I think it probably will be difficult for some people, especially the tactical aspects like the combat. But it’s not possible to create believable scenarios where you fail a fight but you’re allowed to continue despite that. In those moments where you haven’t played well you’re given a chance to improve yourself by trying again rather than having the game skip you past it or making it easier.
IG: It must be difficult, from a level design perspective, to place objects in places where they’re valuable but don’t make the game too easy. Are items in I Am Alive (such as health) placed in set locations, or are they generated based on where you are and your status?
SM: There’s a back up for those instances where you might arrive in an area with nothing but you’re expected to perform a difficult task. But that’s not something the player should notice unless they play through multiple times.
For example, if you approach a big building that you’re expected to climb and you’re without any piton pegs to help you then there will probably be one in an obvious place somewhere. We want the game to be hard but that underlying system means it’s not impossible.
IG: Is the ending definitive, or is it left up in the air?
SM: There are a lot of unanswered questions and that’s something we wrote in on purpose. We think this has the potential to develop further so we left some bits open. It’s impossible to set up this kind of world and then answer everything in a single game.
Even in post-apocalyptic movies, many of them barely refer to how the situation arose in the first place.

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