No, Wait. This Is a Video Game for Grown-Ups

Have you ever made a video game character fear you?

Have you ever imagined you could do that?

Don't think about the ghosts in Pac-Man dashing away from you because you ate the power pellet.

Think about a realistic-looking game set in a quake-broken but realistic-looking city. Think about men in that city, men who will threaten you.

But you can turn the mood. You can make them fear you.

They will approach you, glowering and threatening bad things if you don't leave or even of you try to.

Raise your gun. Make them cower.

Don't let them know that your gun contains not a single bullet.

This is my kind of game.

I'm tired of shooting hundreds of bad guys in games, you see. And I'm having a hard time considering any action-movie-style game as anything close to a mature experience in this occasionally-childish medium. I am, therefore, the right customer for I Am Alive a survival game from Ubisoft Shanghai that we've admired before.

You play as a guy who is returning to a city that was wrecked for some unknown reason. You play part of it as a survival acrobat, climbing across a half-wrecked bridge, using the skills a Lara Croft or Nathan Drake video game hero would to dangle from ledges and leap across chasms without dying. You're curtailed by limited stamina and hunger. You can eat food or drink water to recover.

No, Wait. This Is a Video Game for Grown-Ups

You spend the early chapters of this game doing such ordinary-apocalypse things as wandering through mostly-desolate streets. You hear people getting beat up. An old lady yells at you from a porch not to get closer. Some guys come out and hassle you.

When the guys approach you they don't just start shooting, which is what usually happens when guys approach you in a video game. And you can't just start shooting at them, because, in the hour-plus that I played the first 11% of this game, I never had more than one bullet. I usually had none. You can raise your gun. That will make some guys cower or surrender (you can knock them out). Some guys will still approach (you can knife them). Others won't care and will open fire. Basically, the game's creators have crudely programmed different levels of bravado here. They've given you the ability to intimidate and bluff. This is subtler stuff than we usually get in video games. I like it.

At one point early in I Am Alive, I was on the fourth floor of a mostly-abandoned shopping mall. I heard a man below coughing. He had a horrible cough. I wanted to help him. For a few minutes, I couldn't even figure out how to get to him. Then I did. I climbed down to the floor where he was stranded. He needed an inhaler, but I didn't have one. I wanted to find one, and here we have what a mature game might feel like—or at least what it might feel like to play a game that motivates you by tapping into real human emotions. The man is just a bunch of lights on my TV. His cough is just a sound effect. But I was drawn in. The game got me.

I guess this is a game about climbing and walking through duststorms and learning how to disarm and disable packs of mean men. I think this is a game about trying to find your daughter and survive.

It's the kind of game I want to play. I'm glad, after a somewhat rocky development cycle, I soon can, in its entirety. It'll be out for download on Xbox 360 on March 7, the day after we get Mass Effect 3. Save some time for it.