Game Review: Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor is the latest offering from Jasper Byrne of superflat games.  It is a 2D sidescrolling survival horror-cum-adventure game wherein you take control of a character known only as, um, you.  So you have been holed up in an apartment while the city outside was evidently overtaken by a plague that transforms human beings into gibbering, featureless flesh monsters.  You spend the game wandering around the desolate world, looking for other survivors, scavenging for supplies, eating crackers to manage your hunger, and having nightmares.

To be quick and to the point, I’d definitely recommend Lone Survivor if you want to play something different and unsettling.  The game is available via its own website or on Steam for a mere ten bucks.  If you want to know more about the game or have already played it, then go ahead and read on, as I have more to say.  If you haven’t played the game, be warned that there will be a small amount of spoilers.

As I said, I very much enjoyed this game.  However, there are some questionable design decisions (like how to get the motherfucking can opener) that can leave you scratching your head at certain junctures.  Also, while the relative simplicity of the graphics is unsettling in its own right — I think there’s some sort of uncanny primal horror for people of my generation about terrible things happening to approximations of SNES sprites — the overall corroded and dim look of environments can make certain sequences rather frustrating to play.  I’m thinking in particular of the basement chase sequence, where the various corridors are so samey that it’s difficult to remember where to turn and which direction to run.

But on the more positive side, Lone Survivor recovers what I feel is an essential problem of contemporary survival horror: player choice.  I mean like old school survival-horror/adventure player choice, things like “I want to investigate this room because it may contain ammo, but that ammo may be guarded by a monster, but if I skip this room maybe there’s also an important puzzle item hidden in a corner and and and and– ”  What I’m getting at is the feeling that the game itself is something you should be scared of, something working against you in unseen and unguessable ways.

One of my biggest issues with, just for sake of example, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, was how it made a big deal of tallying your choices in very visibly flagged arenas, which invites you to game the system.  Lone Survivor owes a lot to the old Silent Hill style of evaluation, where your play style is silently judged according to unknown criteria and you are given access to certain types of content based on your actions.  It’s not an incredibly dynamic and emergent thrill ride (there are only three endings, currently, and two of them are pretty much the same), but it also never claims to be.  If jackasses like me didn’t say stuff about it in reviews and forum posts, you wouldn’t know until the ending screen that the game has been tracking you all along.

Now onto the biggest point I want to make.  People have been talking up the game’s story, which I think is interesting, as the game is essentially sort of plotless.  It’s very similar to Braid in that there’s a collection of disparate narrative cues that refuse to cohere into a single reading, but at the same time these elements are all a lot more thematically unified and cogent than Braid’s self-aware pretensions toward profundity.  At best Lone Survivor is a seedbed for rabid theorymongering in the darkest forums of the internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing; at worst it relies a bit too heavily on David Lynch pastiche, though the Lynchian elements, when they are effective, are effective indeed.  But to assume that any game that is good — as Lone Survivor certainly is — is about the plot dodges one of the medium’s greatest strengths.  All in all, this isn’t a game about the story, it’s a game about an atmosphere, or a feeling — and it conveys that feeling well.