Sunday, November 2, 2014
Lone Survivor - Thoughts
Jasper Byrne's stylish 2D survival horror game Lone Survivor is a puzzling product. It finds itself wedged between the likes of Silent Hill and Clock Tower, being a game about minimal combat, psychological trauma, and the collection of a wide variety of items. It has a very distinct personality and flavor, but I can't exactly say it offered me a platter I enjoyed. By the end of the journey I felt very alienated from the author and his message, uncertain if it was worth the time I sunk into it.
Make no mistake—the game is competently programmed and very frightening. Despite being comprised of colorful pixels, the post-apocalyptic world you explore evokes an unsettling atmosphere thanks to some smart lighting and disturbing monster design (audio especially). Areas feel cramped and dim as you wander around, and you're never sure whether turning on your flashlight is going to reveal a hidden goodie or pull nasty nightmares lurking in the dark to your position. At first I found the blown-up resolution unbecoming, but wound up appreciating how much space the game occupied, constantly being in your face at every moment. The use of the dithered display is quite clever as well, and conjoined with some spooky sequences, Lone Survivor can get easily get under your skin (the use of intestinal imagery in one of the endings is fantastic).
Yet the survival aspect of the game is both less evident and unrefined. In the genre, I believe the most important conditions you must prime players on in is what they need to be monitoring for their survival. In Resident Evil, it's things like ammo, herbs, and ink ribbons—each being necessary to stave off the player's doom. In Lone Survivor, your goals are far more obscure. You have health, but no health bar (outside of a flashing red screen). There's food, but no way of telling how hungry you are. You also have to manage sleep, flashlight batteries, and ammo on top of this, all without knowing what penalty you'll receive if you happen to run out of any of these. On one hand, it keeps the player from obsessively checking a stat screen to make sure they're in the clear, but on the other it can be aggravating trying to determine whether a warm meal or crackers would sate the main character's (noisy) appetite. All of these factors tie into what ending you receive too, and it was a bit disappointing to find that out only after the story was over.
Speaking of, it's a somewhat unspoken idea that horror games are, to a degree, dependent on their stories. Though there are spooky games bereft of exposition like Slender: The Eight Pages and Kraken, a lot of horror games can become significantly more disturbing due to their lore, such as Five Nights at Freddy's and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. However, Lone Survivor is far too muddled in its own madness to make any kind of coherent sense. The game has five separate endings and not a single one clarifies anything that happens throughout the plot (in fact they only serve to compound it), and when the credits roll around I was left asking "that's it?". Perhaps the subtlety of the story went over my head, but when you can't make heads or tails on whether the main character is absolutely bonkers or not, the plot winds up feeling like a string of trippy scenes from Twin Peaks, just without the nuance or payoff.
Lone Survivor may be worth a playthrough if you love the ruthlessly dark and oppressive atmosphere that games like Silent Hill and Clock Tower ascribe to, or prefer to unravel its mechanics by your lonesome. But if you're looking for an interesting story fraught with complex symbolism, you'll have to dig inconceivably deep and make some mental leaps that I'm concerned the text doesn't support. Byrne showcases some really neat ideas wrapped up in an intriguing style, but Lone Survivor is too abstruse to ultimately avoid its exasperating disappointment.