My god, I come across as a negative bastard, don’t I? So far the Game Pile project’s highest water mark seems to have been saying that as long as you can ignore the central character, Arkham Asylum is really quite good, with a fantastic pacing and some quip about my balls. Between this and running through Greenlight projects with a red marker pen that seems to serve better as a large stamp that reads ‘F, SEE ME,’ I wonder if I’m slowly mutating in time to being an avatar for the twisted parody of Yahtzee that people on forums claim he actually is.
Bearing that in mind, I figured it was time to make a conspicuous effort to stop talking about the things in my game pile that pissed me off and instead bring to light something that brings my heart joy, and therefore serves as a counterpoint to the non-stop complaining and woe. So here’s Lone Survivor, a videogame about a mentally ill man trying to survive a post-apocalyptic landscape and the dissolution of his own mind.
LS is a side-scrolling 2D survival game set in the ruins of something, in which you play a nameless protaganist who can’t seem to open his mouth without letting some of the last of his sanity escape into the air like a particularly methanic belch. The game is built heavily around atmosphere and mystery, with a lot of its initial premise and introductory sequence forcing you to ask questions that aren’t necessarily going to be answered.
The game opens with a simple screen and an echoing, disquieting guitar track, an arrangement that gains some weight around the time you’re deciding if you want to play it or not, then throws you into the game after the most perfunctionary of introductions. You get one of the few clear pieces of art in the game, showing the protaganist, a black-haired man of uncertain racial background wearing a surgical mask and a business shirt, slumped down and looking into the middle distance away from the viewer. What follows this opening is an oppressive, moody tale that focuses very heavily on storytelling through impotence.
Most videogames I’ve played lately, and indeed, most of the videogames I love have had a strong emphasis on a player avatar who can only be described as powerful. Sometimes that power is contrasted to greater levels of power, such as Faith of Mirror’s Edge possessing a level of athleticism that is still not quite as good a superpower as body armour and bullets, or the Prince of Prince of Persia‘s stylish swordsmanship and free-running athletics being a neat set of powers, but nothing against the inevitability of any man to turn back time and resist the pull of eternity. LS is not like those games, not by a long shot. No, the LS protaganist is a gentleman who cuts rather close to the knuckle in a lot of respects.
Survival Horror is a group that has of late been glutted with games that do not even begin to deserve that title. Most games that bill themselves as such are action games with horror aesthetics, or worse, action games with jump scares. Arkham Asylum had phobia-driven psychological horror sections, but no matter how you cut it, you can’t really horrify or scare Batman because he’s fucking Batman. LS is a true survival horror game in that the game itself makes you feel uneasy and horrified, and if you lose yourself in the immersion – as I did – then you genuinely fear for your own survival. More than just the survival of your flesh, though, is the potential survival of the self, something that much horror touches on, but does not usually put front and centre.
The game subtly implies to you that you’re the only person alive in the opening, then seems to indicate otherwise while you roam your apartment complex trying to find some way out of the box in which you’re trapped. It’s possible as you make your way to even come to like some the NPCs, or at least, respect them, even when some of them appear in thoroughly creepy ways. Yet even as you progress, parts of the world feel very wrong from the get-go, with some doors and passageways being pointedly one-way, and yet the strange teleporting ability of mirrors goes unexplained.
Throughout this exploration, you have to take care of your levels of sleep, make sure you eat regularly, keep drinking water and make sure you don’t run out of ammunition for your gun or batteries for your light. One or the other, you will come to love these tools – they will comfort you in the most unpleasant of times.
One thing the game loves to use as a tool for unsettling you is a feeling of containment. You have to find a housekey before you can escape your starting area, and you have to find a gun before you can escape that level, and so on, with the loops getting larger, but never stopping being loops. The cage you’re in is inside a bigger cage, which is inside a bigger cage, and every time you break free you only find yourself with a new set of bars to escape. What’s more, now some of the outside is in your smaller cage, so you can’t even retreat to what used to be ‘safe.’
The need then to maintain sleep cycles and stay healthy is furthered by there being basically one functional kitchen, one water source, and one bed, meaning that even as you make your cage bigger and more dangerous, you still have to traverse old pathways and see how your escapes have changed things. It’s a tether, a chain, and it’s one of many ways the game can yank on you. Worse, it’s a very arbitary-seeming but utterly fair yank. The timers on food are based on how fulfilling the food is, the wear on your body is hurt by your morale, and your sleepiness is influenced by how much work you do, how much effort you put forth, and if you’re in the middle of something fairly attention-critical when you start to feel aches of pain or the crush of weariness, it’s not the game deliberately dicking you – it’s you doing something very hard while ill-prepared, because you haven’t been taking care of yourself properly.
Now all of this may sound blisteringly complex, but the game emphasises its themes by providing you with basically fuck-all information about how well you’re doing. You have mental health to deal with, measured on a general bound between ‘stupidly pacifistic’ and ‘homicidally insane,’ your diet influences your sleep patterns, your sleep patterns influence your diet, your mental state influences what you can do with your environment and things you’ve seen influence your appetite and mental state, all of which is a complicated web to maintain and would make for a nightmare of a character sheet to keep straight, which is why the game doesn’t give you one. You get messages telling you when you’re hungry, agitated or tired, but that’s more or less it, and you won’t conspicuously notice these prompts. In an ideal sense, you get a rhythm for what you should be doing, chowing down on food when you’ve just done something strenuous, or finishing up an extensive running section with a relaxing nap. It’s better at making you feel the state of the game than a character sheet would be, which in turn is better at making you feel the state of your character and the tone of the game. It also adds to confusion when things start playing with your senses – and play they do.
An aspect of games that often sets them apart from the survival horror genre and into the realm of guns-and-zombies crowd that features Doom of all things, is the combat system, and here is where LS strikes most close to home. Your protaganist is a very, very good representation of you. Statistically speaking, reading this, you are at best a slightly large person who has had a life of relative safety and luxury, got into a few fights at worst and mostly just relied on social rules to avoid ever having to swing or take a punch, perhaps having used a firearm for some form of protection or intimidation. That is the main character of LS, whose combat ability is near non-existant, who moves as quickly as he can all the time in the ruins of the world, and whose capacity with a gun is somewhat on the laughable side if it wasn’t all that stood between you and a face-eating. No run-and-gun malarkey, no, your best bet is usually to run away from fights, sneak past them, or if those aren’t an option, waiting until your opponent is close enough that you probably couldn’t miss even if you were blind.
I don’t want to give away too much of the game itself, because it’s a properly great game, and it’s also very cheap, meaning I want people to buy it and play it if they think they’ll like it based on this summary. Doing its job well, the game will draw you into feeling it, and that will make the horror more horrifying, the relief more relieving and the catharsis and confusion of the game more empathetic. The emotions of the game are as a finely-tuned guitar, and much of its preamble is a very careful attempt to tune you, the player, to the same resonance – whereupon the game plucks you in the arse and brings your attention all the way back around to something that an attentive mind should have noticed on the very first screen.
Now, that’s not to say the game is perfect, by any means. The 2d-3d translation is sometimes confusing, with it very easy to become disoriented without the use of a map. It is very challenging to get a solid enough footing in the game to really progress to the end, and several of the later-game areas are a little bit trial-and-error perhaps relying on you noticing a way to generate resources with a lot of fiddly travel time between them. There’s a major bit of exploration that can just be stopped short by you opening the wrong door and therefore being trapped in a small room without even the dignity of being killed, and the heavily ambiguous storytelling does make the ending fall a little flat. These flaws do not disqualify the game from being truly great, however, because while they make the game worse, the game is good enough at what it’s trying to do to make a few dickslaps acceptable.
It’s something of an urban myth that it’s easy to write negative criticism, something with which I’d like to disagree. Negative criticism is quite challenging to write, both as entertainment and as insight into the subject, because the critic’s job is to bring to bear information that is neither obvious and then make that information lodge in the brain of the reader. It’s challenging to do as a form of entertainment because it’s really damn hard to just keep coming up with colourful ways to say ‘It’s shit.’ The other thing is, when you have a reputation or style that seems negative, people think you’re more negative than you actually are, a problem I encountered in my Magic: The Gathering writing.
Recognise that and try to keep it in focus as I say that Lone Survivor is a breathtakingly good game, enormously atmospheric and so engaging that not counting deaths, I started the whole game over three times to just try for better paths through, when I’ve thrown whole games down the toilet for having slightly worse controls in a much prettier package.
It’s available on Steam, for slightly more than you’d spend on a large doner kebab from a roadside stand, and while both might have you shit your drawers or vomit inappropriately, Lone Survivor is the one that’s actually trying to do that, so you should probably go for that. I’d hope we can forgive a few minor gremlins on the way to a really fantastic exploration of storytelling through videogame mechanics, after all.