The Seeds of The Last of Us in I Am Alive
As most people who frequent this site could probably have worked out, I’m currently wrist deep in my playthrough of The Last of Us (apologies if that conjures an ugly mental picture) and as I explore what has been heralded as the “Citizen Kane” of gaming – I’m struck by how the original genre might have been misdiagnosed.
From the outside, it’s easy to pass off The Last of Us as a typical zombie game. You have a male protagonist, a worldwide pandemic which leaves a large percentage of the population craving human flesh and are stuck in a decaying city fighting off the “infected” hordes – occasionally even with a shotgun, the staple weapon of zombie hunters everywhere.
And all of these things are no doubt true, but The Last of Us is so much more. In fact, there are often hours between encountering zombies – where your problems stem from other survivors or just from getting around this twisted, post-apocalyptic world. And it’s here that the true genre of this game shines through, far from being just another zombie title – The Last of Us is perhaps the best survival game of this generation.
What’s the difference between a zombie game and a survival game? Well maybe the easiest way to explain would be to say that the one game that The Last of Us reminds me of the most has nothing to do with zombies at all.
Because The Last of Us is often strikingly similar to Ubisoft’s “I Am Alive”.
For anyone that didn’t know, I Am Alive was a cross-platform console and PC survival game released towards the end of last year. It put you in the shoes of a survivor of “The Event”, a mysterious well… event which included large earthquakes and dust storms which basically screwed life as we know it. As a result mankind has descended into anarchy, with mob mentality taking precedence and bands of brutal hunters and other survivors running rampant.
Basically a zombie apocalypse games sans zombies.
I Am Alive was memorable in the way that it handled your encounters with other people. Often emphasizing the humanity of some of the people you came across while demonising others, the moral ambiguity of the character you played was fairly unique at the time of release. On top of this, you constantly needed to scavenge to survive – food restored your stamina, necessary to climb and explore as well as survive dust storms. Another unique feature was the palpable lack of ammunition, something you don’t necessarily expect in what was by-and-large a first person shooter. I Am Alive took this to extremes, even so far as to letting you threaten other people with an empty gun (because how would they know what you’re packing?). To put it into perspective, I think the most bullets I ever had in my gun was 4 for the entirety of the game – and late game you can find a bow with reusable ammo, but there are only two arrows in the entire game as far as I could find.
How does this compare to The Last of Us? Well I’m sure anyone who has played it is already connecting the dots.
Let’s put it this way, the number one thing I found myself spending my time on as I played through the Last of Us was searching for supplies. Not gunning down zombies, not exploring an open world, but sifting through drawers in the hopes of finding an extra rag to turn into a med pack or a couple more bullets for my revolver.
In fact, it’s the very lack of supplies that make the tense sections of The Last of Us so palpable. I mean, let’s face it: gunning down a room of zombies with an assault rifle with near infinite ammo isn’t exactly scary. Entering a room with 6 zombies (or “infected” as Naughty Dog seems to prefer) while you only have 3 bullets in your revolver, a shiv which will break if you use it more than once and a brick which you can use as an impromptu melee weapon or to distract them with the sound of it breaking – that’s where you need to get a little creative.
For me at least, it was incredible to see how Naughty Dog has actualised the gameplay elements which made I Am Alive so unique – only strapping them to a far more appealing story and setting. I Am Alive was received to mixed reviews due to its ambiguous story and shaky visuals, whereas The Last of Us is praised on both of those points above all.
It really goes to show you that the seeds of a great game often exist in a title which tried to do something new but maybe didn’t manage to quite pull it off.
Remember kids: while the early bird gets the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese.