There’s doing it wrong, and there’s doing it right. We play games for lots of reasons, but the bottom line is that we play games to have fun. If we’re not having fun, we’re doing it wrong.
This is the first of a pair of articles in which I’m going to compare and contrast two recent games. The games are I Am Alive and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Both are short-ish downloadable titles. Taken together, they can represent the Very Very Good and the Very Very Bad in gaming design.
First: The bad.
I Am Alive, from Ubisoft Shanghai, is a game I’ve looked forward to for some time. I finally started playing it last week and boy am I disappointed. No, I’m not disappointed. I’m chapped.
Before I begin the rant, let me set up the game for you:
I Am Alive is a survival action game. The main character is a young husband and father who was on the opposite side of the country when The Event happened. The Event is a vague, civilization-destroying disaster that has something to do with lots of big earthquakes and poison dust in the air.
The backstory of the game is that Our Hero has spent an entire year walking across the country to try to get back to his wife and daughter. The game begins when he finally arrives back in his home town, a fictitious mid-sized American city.
So there’s the setup. It’s perfectly okay. Young guy on a tough and dangerous mission to recover his family in a spooky wasteland.
You control the lead character in an over-the-shoulder third-person view. There’s combat and there’s platforming. So far so good.
But it doesn’t take long for the game experience to go off the rails.
Want to Make a Bad Game? Follow These Simple Steps
Give me a compelling mission. Then abandon the mission with no explanation.
The reason you’re back in town is to find your family, right? And for the first fifteen minutes, this motivation carries you forward. You have a couple of encounters with bad guys, you help out an ailing victim or two, you engage in some platforming to make it over the obstacles in your way, and then, Eureka! You find your family’s apartment!
Naturally your wife and kid are not there. You find a message from your wife containing virtually no helpful information about how to set off finding them.
So you stumble outside, notice a little girl, run to help her...
And the game turns into being about you and this little stranger. Seriously. It’s as if the mere sight of another young female child wipes the hero’s memory clean of his own family.
At first I thought, "Oh, I get it, this little kid is sort of an emotional stand-in for his actual daughter." But that only takes you so far. Eventually you’re thinking well, hell, if he doesn’t care about his missing family anymore, then why should I?
One of the most unforgivable sins of any game: Unreliable controls. The game contains lots of parkour/platforming, which I normally love in a game.
But not in I Am Alive! In I Am Alive, platforming is as fun as drinking a nice hot cup of lard. Why?
1.In an attempt at “realism,” your hero doesn’t have superhuman fingers. As you hang from a precarious perch, your “stamina” bar counts down. If it gets to zero, you fall and die. Plus, your stamina capacity itself gets damaged, and can only be repaired by finding rare items in the environment.
Number 1 might have been tolerable, except it’s coupled with...
2. Lousy controls! When every second counts during a climb, the controls must work. The controls MUST be tight. However, I’d frequently use up half of my stamina bar just trying to get the stupid guy to grab the pole I was telling him to grab, or to go up instead of down, or left instead of right. This is a persistent problem throughout the entire game.
The city our hero is scurrying through is hostile and harbors many dangers. I’m fine with that. It’s a video game, after all. I don’t mind that there’s going to be conflict and combat.
1. Bullets are rarer than good Brendan Fraser movies. So it’s always a major decision to use one of your precious hunks of lead to stop a bad guy. This is stressful when there are three of them flanking you, and two of them are armed.
And by the way, speaking of the armed bad guy?
2. It only takes a couple of hits from him to kill you. But WAIT, there’s MORE!
3.You only have a few “retries” before the game forces you to begin the entire long chapter again! So failure has a cost.
Bad Health Management
1. As mentioned above, it only takes a couple of hits to kill you.
2. Health never regenerates. Never. As in, not ever. You can ONLY restore health by finding VERY scarce resources in the environment.
3.Did I mention the bit about health NEVER regenerating? Even after successfully completing a difficult chapter, if you ended it with two hit points...you start off the next chapter with two hit points!
4.And since the only way you can restore your health is to look for items in the dust-poison lower depths, it stops being fun real quick. Wait, Killer Dust? Read on.
Any game like this lives and dies by how fun it is to explore the game world. And I was perfectly interested in exploring the sad, broken world of I Am Alive. Except the game kept that from being fun. Why?
That’s right. Most of the town is enveloped in dust that damages you by simply being in it. Your stamina meter is draining every second you are on the ground trying to “explore.”
The only way you can recover is to scamper back up a pole or a staircase, get above the dust layer, and get your wind back.
If you take too long, you begin losing health and very quickly die.
Which means that, even though thoroughly exploring the environment is essential for success in the game, exploring is a huge and costly chore that completely discourages you from making the effort.
So, to review, it’s a game about exploration that actively discourages you from exploring. It’s a game about finding your family that forgets about your family fifteen minutes in.
I got so frustrated that I went to the Internet to find a walkthrough, and pretty soon, I realized I was simply following the instructions of the walkthrough line-by-line. When that happens, I think it’s safe to say it’s time to stop playing the game.
It’s such a shame. I Am Alive could have been scary, thrilling, exciting, and rewarding. I would have loved to have fully explored the broken and hazardous city, looking for people to help, dealing with bad guys, and uncovering clues about the whereabouts of my missing family. But the game just made that too much of a chore.
It failed in the most basic way a game can fail: It did not create a world I wanted to spend time in. A good game calls to you when you’re not playing it. This one was all too easy to ignore.
So not only do I regret spending the dough to get the game, but I’m going to remember “Ubisoft Shanghai” and think twice (nay, thrice!) in the future before spending any of my hard-earned dough on a game from that studio.
Next: How to make a GOOD game!