Living at the End of the World: Lone Survivor
I’m not the right person to talk about horror games, because deep down (this is a secret, so please don’t tell either of the people that are under the impression that I’m undiluted awesomesauce), I’m a weenie. I thought Doom 3 was really scary. System Shock 2? Never beat it. Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Played twenty minutes and had to take a shower. Terraria? Well, that floating eyeball boss is troubling.
When Lone Survivor was first released, I was working my way through NEO Scavenger, another game that takes place after a mysterious cataclysm that has resulted in sticky mutants, desperate scavenging, questionable mental health, and constant reminders of the needs of your stomach. I was originally going to write about these games side-by-side, and talk about their differing takes on the apocalyptic landscape. While I did manage to write about NEO Scavenger, I ran into a major problem that put the kibosh on my hopes of a comparison article: Lone Survivor had me too involved. Whenever “You”—the only name given for Lone Survivor’s protagonist—rounded another shadowed and potentially horror-filled corner, I had to fight against the urge to switch off the game. It didn’t help when I had You sit at home talking to a kitty plush, slowly trading sanity for a bit of relief. One day, I hope my heart will mend.
This is one of the primary things that Lone Survivor does right. It’s a personal story, totally unlike the sort of post-apocalyptic game that sees you customizing a character by picking stats and perks. Now, I love those types of games, and I imagine there’s a reason that character creation often fits snugly with after-the-disaster narratives. I expect it has something to do with the rugged individualism needed to survive and flourish in such situations. Where this differs from Lone Survivor is that You really isn’t the sort of kid you’d expect to qualify for the position of Wasteland Savior. This is partially dependent on how you play him, of course—there are multiple endings (three as of today), which permits some latitude in your role—but at first it seems like he comes preloaded with the “sensitive” and “cuh-razy” traits. What I’m trying to say is this: Where other post-apoc games turn me into a badass, Lone Survivor transforms me into a fretful protector.
This works to Lone Survivor’s benefit. Aren’t the best horror stories fundamentally psychological? (Listen to me, saying this like I’ve ever finished a horror film/game) And what better way to toy with your head than to cast you as a vulnerable youngster who lacks not only the ability to defend himself, but mental fortitude as well? Lone Survivor introduces nagging doubts about your sanity early on and never lets up—one of the first details you learn when you begin exploring your apartment building is that even common certainties aren’t entirely reliable. Locations that were once blocked might be clear the next day, and supplies that were previously scavenged might be restocked later.
These uncertainties come into play when navigating You’s apartment building. While you will visit each of the game’s areas in turn, there are plenty of options for exploration along the way. The game’s map system is great, though it takes some dedicated mind-power to figure out at first. Time spent experimenting will be well worth it once you need to move about the area, as You is never very far from mortal danger. It’s possible to sneak past enemies if the terrain has a darkened alcove, and sometimes it can work to lure monsters away with chunks of rotting meat, but the rest of the time you’ll have to rely on fast-dwindling resources. Although you find a gun early on, You isn’t trained in its use—a plot point that makes the clunky aiming system, in which you can’t turn around with your gun drawn and landing headshots takes real effort, feel like part of the narrative.
I’m hesitant to talk about how well Lone Survivor manages your character’s sanity, as that seems like a big mechanical spoiler. In fact, I’d even say that if you haven’t seen it already, you should skip the game’s trailer. There are so many things that I’d love to talk about that I feel I can’t—even things that happen within the first fifteen minutes of the game are so impactful that I’d rather leave their discovery up to you. I may discuss them at a later time, but for now I’ll just say that Lone Survivor offers plenty of tempting shortcuts: trade a little sanity for some helpful items here, a cleared hallway for an extra nightmare there. And all of these are logical enough (and the threshold for the “good” ending is broad enough) that so long as you take care of your brain, it’s possible to make it through the game in one piece.
At one point during my first playthrough of the game, I thought I had become stuck. I had traded too many of my resources (mostly bullets) for convenient empty hallways. As a result, I found myself jealously counting every single ineffectual round in my gun’s magazine. I contemplated starting over. I had plans to do just that—I was going to travel more slowly, leaving hallways near my home infested with those horrible static-blaring monstrosities (great sound and music design, by the way). I was going to venture farther from the security of my apartment. I was finally going to find that damn can opener (which turned out to be really close to home).
But then something clicked and I pushed on, the way I imagine You would have. I counted my bullets and meat chunks and food rations and water. I died a dozen inglorious deaths, but finally I managed to make it out alive.
And man, I’m glad I did. It was brutal. It was possibly one of the trickiest balancing acts I’ve performed in a game in years. But in the end I dragged myself out of that impossible situation, bloodied but breathing.
And here’s the core of Lone Survivor, and the reason it’s the indie that I’m most enamored with this year: It rewards small things. Figuring out a steady source of water feels like a major milestone on your way to establishing sustainable survival. Getting to the end of a hallway, or deciphering a radio frequency, or finding gas for your stove so you can cook beans and brew coffee, or clearing a safe route between your room and another that you plan to visit regularly, or just being decent and watering a plant—these are all little human accomplishments that are titanic in the face of the game’s backdrop of despair. I loved that my character’s standard of living was nearly bearable as I approached the end of the game.
I’ve seen a few complaints, but those pale in comparison to what Lone Survivor does well. Yes, the graphics are as blocky as a cross-stitch sampler, but they do a completely adequate job (more than adequate, in my opinion) of being simultaneously clear and obfuscated. Yes, the last area is a bit thinner than the rest of the game, though I feel this drives the momentum of the final chapter. Yes, the pixelated text could be cleaner, but… well, yeah, I guess the text could be cleaner.
My final score is that this is a powerful game. It’s focused with laser intensity on You and his quest to set… well, himself right. After all, what else is there to do at the bare edge of the world? Buy it, please. This is exactly the kind of game we should be supporting.