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Monday, 19 March 2012


A young lady tells me I "may be the last good man left" as a I plunge a machete into the chest of a man right in front of her. A thug begs me not to kill him because he's "at university". People are eating 'mystery meat' and choking to death in a perpetual fog-like dust cloud. Skyscrapers and tenement blocks lean drunkenly against each other as a fresh tremor shakes the already-ruined city. The apocalypse has happened, but nobody knows what it actually was...or refuses to acknowledge what caused it.

These could be the milieux of any armageddon-centric story, but they belong to a recent computer game called I AM ALIVE. You've spent almost a year walking across America to reach your home, only to find your wife and daughter have disappeared. Are they dead? Have they relocated somewhere safer? The answers might be hidden in the city's ruins, or delivered by survivors encountered along the way. It is a familiar story, but what makes it more compelling is that it's all delivered with a cinematic flair many games don't or can't create. These people are pixels on a screen, but you care what happens to them. You want to look after the little girl you find crying amongst the rubble.You want to find her mother. You want to use precious resources on a stranger, but not necessarily because this is the right thing to do. In this world, you kill anyone who tries to harm you; there is no bargaining, or trading for supplies. It's a bullet between the eyes or a machete through the ribs. There is a lot of blood on your hands, and you need to reassert your moral compass whenever possible.

So, it's a good game, despite a few technical flaws such as repetitive voice acting and general game logic conveniences. But it has an emotional impact more often attributed to films than computer games, and that sort of thing is becoming more and more prevalent as the two mediums mix and merge and swap ideas.

Case in point: another recent computer game, ALAN WAKE'S AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, utilises not just actual live-action scenes, but story elements right out of a David Lynch film. Although, as the story progresses it has more and more in common with the John Carpenter film, In The Mouth of Madness, as reality itself is rewritten and a diabolical enemy seeks to bring nameless horrors into the world.

What American Nightmare lacks in overall originality it makes up for in delivery - game-wise, the controls are solid, the difficulty 'just right' and the graphics suitably decent. But more than these things, it's the way the mythology surrounding Alan Wake (a writer trapped in a place of his own creation) is woven into proceedings. Radio broadcasts reference events in the real world, TV sets show little (live action) missives from Wake's evil doppelgänger/excellent villain Mr. Scratch (whose name is replaced with an actual 'scratch' noise whenever it's said/spoken) and manuscript pages detail events that are yet to happen. One particularly effective radio broadcast has the DJ involved in a debate with a caller as to the nature of free will, but as the DJ talks, his voice is replaced by the narrator of the TV show Alan Wake is (sort of) trapped in. Once the DJ/narrator has finished his spiel, the caller humorously replies "Um...what?"

It's a computer game masquerading as a piece of b-movie horror, but like the best b-movies, it has a subtle undercurrent of intelligence that adds that little extra spark to proceedings. Will more games follow in these footsteps? I Am Alive is one, and there have been others in the past, but can story ever take precedence over spectacle? Most games strive, or are content, to be a summer blockbuster, as that's what the general public wants. But not every body wants to shoot zombies forever, or watch things explode. That sort of thing is nice in small bursts, but there's a reason Michael Bay isn't the king of cinema, and his gaming equivalent (I don't know who that could be) isn't the, er, king of games. And on a final note, we want games to be increasingly more realistic, but does this really necessitate giving a female character prominent nipples? American Nightmare, I'm looking at you!

Yes, I noticed them, but I didn't design the woman with perky nipples. So I ask you: who's the real pervert?

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