You sit, in a desolate room. There’s no light, no music, just...nothing. Random pills are strewn on the floor and the fridge isn’t exactly full of food. As far as post-apocalyptic scenarios go this one isn’t exactly looking peachy, and oh God I think there’s something wandering around outside the front door! It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, right?
Maybe that above section should have started with ‘You sits’, as throughout Lone Survivor your character is referred to only as You. He makes it clear fairly early on that he knows his name, but he’s not telling you. Starting out in an apartment with almost no supplies your job is to guide You as he enters and travels through this nightmare of a pixelated scrolling 2D world, looking to survive, looking to escape. Basic needs such as food and sleep must be met, and the longer you take to address these needs the greater the cost will be to your mental wellbeing. Almost everywhere around you are thinmen, pale skinned enemies that are attracted to light and flesh, and in all of this you are isolated and totally alone.
But, not quite. If you look, signs are everywhere that your situation might not be quite so dire, that you might not be quite as powerless to rectify your situation as you believe. Hallucinations, drug-induced dreams, garbled radio messages and even a diary slowly begin to point you in the right direction, if you would but pay attention to them. Lone Survivor has been hailed as an example of psychologically confusing gameplay, Twin Peaks often cited as an influence. Perhaps comparing it to Lynch’s masterpiece would be going too far, but as a game it is more than happy to mess with the mind of You, to mess with you as a player both in terms of how you play the game and how you interpret the game.
But enough of this potentially spoiler-filled road. As a port from of one of the new wave of indie games to find success over in PC land, Lone Survivor: The Director’s Cut, can be held up as a demonstration piece on how to move from one environment to another. In fact (and apologies for this, PC aficionados) the game feels like it was invented to be played on a handheld with a pad and buttons, your crouching over and gazing into the screen only heightening the sense of immersion. New endings and screens have been added, cross-buy and cross-play are enabled, and obviously the game comes with trophy support. Existing PC owners should be aware that there are plans afoot to make the Director’s Cut available to them, but as a one man band it might take Superflat Games a little while to get it to you. For a full breakdown of the changes you can check out Jasper Byrne’s own words here, and a (non-rotting) meaty list it is too.
Mechanically the game works as well as you would expect, although there are a few clunky moments. Enemies come mainly in one of two forms, both of which can be dealt with in a variety of ways. Seemingly always hungry, these monsters can be distracted by meat placed down on the floor, stunned by the bright shine of a flare or just plain shot, preferably in the head. The gunplay can get messy in sticky situations, with the new ‘face enemy on gun draw’ functionality not always working when you are also trying to put some distance between you and your target. Of course, being survival horror, you never know how intentional slightly troublesome combat controls are, especially when there is such an overt cost to your mental health if you decide to run’n’gun everything you see.
Inventory management takes the form of an old school adventure game, with sliding item bars of pixel art allowing you to access your items. It is gloriously clunky, although thankfully the only really painful element comes from the combination system only working in a certain order (it’s cheese and then crackers, not crackers then cheese dammit!). There is a quick way of deploying non-violent combat items (hit the left shoulder button and then one of square, triangle or circle) but this actually feels like a bit of a strange addition; the game is far, far tenser if you force yourself to hit triangle, scroll through your inventory, select the desired item and then deploy it. The thought process of ‘Oh God, oh God, where is it? Where is it? I’ve gone past the bloody thing! Argh, it’s on me! ARGH!’ feels far more natural for the game than the quick deployment ever will.
As we’re talking about things feeling natural we may as well chat about how the Vita handles the game. As you start there’s a mini immersion guide, advising you to play in the dark, with headphones on and so forth. It’s key to the play experience that you follow these instructions as well as you can – Lone Survivor helpfully allows you to quickly and simply edit the gamma levels of the game if you simply have to play it in full daylight, but the experience still won't be as effective as if you are curled up in a dark room at home with your headphones on, your full concentration aimed at the Vita. And once you’ve prepared yourself – wow, what an experience. The pixelated art manages to convey perfectly the precarious state of You, the dilapidated corridors of the apartment building juxtaposing frightfully with the monstrous horror that can appear. Screen flashes and bursts of white noise coincide with periods of stress, affecting you as the player as well as showing the strain of You. And You? Well. He might not be crazy in a conventional sense, but the insistence on walking around barefoot as well as in his surgical mask certainly demonstrates the fragile state he is in. The mask, in fact, serves well to hide You from you as you play – not only do you not know the survivor’s name, but you can’t even see his face. It even acts as a rictus grin each time you move You into the shadows, leaving You looking fairly demented, a natural part of the world he finds himself in.
But the real beauty in Lone Survivor isn’t found in any of these graphical touches, or even in any of the overtly presented story, but rather in the hidden hints that there is a wider story, that something else is going on. Areas examined over and over that give a series of furtive one-liners, items that unlock new insights as you take them. In this wider context your mental health matters even more, and to get as full a picture as possible will take multiple playthroughs with different states of mind, each one helping you tease out tiny revelations. Or, maybe not. As with any decent subjectively-decided story every player that gets to this level will likely put the jigsaw pieces together differently, but hey, that’s fine – any analysis here is going to be as relevant, the important aspect is that you, as a player, get here. In many ways the journey of the player through the game mirrors You’s journey in-game; the first playthrough feels very much classic survival horror – fear of the dark, twitchy reactions to danger, a rising sense of panic over ever-dwindling resources. As you gain experience and are able to keep your mental health topped up then your focus will gradually switch – thinmen are now objects of pity rather than terror, resources are found to be more than adequate for your needs, and you are now able to pay attention to all the little things that seemed so superfluous at first.
Lone Survivor is a survival horror and it isn’t a survival horror. You may not believe that while running through the basement for the first time but it’s true. It’s a game about enforcing routine, it’s a game about empowerment, it’s a game about learning to take appropriate control and choices of and in the world around you. The thinmen, the fatmen, the dark, the aural assaults, the horrific backgrounds You is forced through at times - all of these exist only to act as the stage for you to act out your play. Maybe you could stick Lone Survivor into a box called ‘Concept adventure narrative with a survival horror facade’, but it would probably get lonely being actually on its own. It should be enough to accept that Lone Survivor is a game that rewards players who invest time and, more importantly, attention into it, and however you decide to run through it you should have a disturbingly confused hoot.