Lone Survivor: review & analysis
Jasper Byrne, AKA the one-man studio who is Superflat Games, recently published his first “you can purchase this” kind of game ever. Well, excluding his days as a teenager trying his hand at creating adventure titles for the Euro-chic AMIGA computer/console. We have an interview with him in the next podcast, and I’ve spoken at length about his Flash-based hit SOUL BROTHER in past episodes of the podcast (soundtrack review for that game here).
I’ve really taken my time with playing Mr. Byrne’s latest creation, because it deserves paying attention to detail. This retro-style, side-scrolling pixelated survival horror comes with enough visceral “eww” to make you think of conventional survival horrors (zombie apocalypse and whatnot), but with enough psychological horror to make you think of David Lynch (one of Byrne’s admitted influences).
In Lone Survivor, you control… “You.” The introduction is perfect, giving you everything you need to get started in this deceptively small, self-contained world. Images flash by, you’re introduced to the most generic form of foe in the game (a “thin man” is a creepy, fleshy zombie-thing that will eat you alive), and you quickly learn that you’re likely the only living person for miles around.
Except, of course, that there are hints all over the place that such might not really be the case. Scraps from a diary, hallucinations of parties, writing on walls, even your dreams … it seems you’re not necessarily alone. But there is someone you’re missing. Someone you’re forgetting.
Before I wax philosophic any more about what I think this game is really all about, let’s talk about the game’s technical aspects.
Though exploration, inventory management, and other “maintenance” activities are important in this survival sim, the excitement always comes with the combat. There are a few ways to handle combat. The first tool you’re given is the tool of stealth: ducking behind walls, sometimes accompanied by a hunk of meat to distract the fleshy fiend from your presence. After that, you get the handgun. Six bullets bring down a thin man, or three to the head will do the trick. If a foe is too close for your liking, or they’re ganging up on you, a shot to the knees causes them to stumble backward, giving you precious time to escape. As the game progresses, you find different enemies with different tactics and skills — some crawl on the ceiling, others “play” dead and then crawl after you.
All this shooting is simple, but it’s not necessarily clunky. The aiming is designed to give you the benefit of the doubt. Ammo conservation aside, killing them is easy. But it’s also the path to the dark side. … sort of. You see, alongside those hunks of meat and hidden walls, you can eventually start trading in ammo for light flares. A light flare will stun all enemies in range for a period of time, allowing you to run by unharmed. If you can plan your routes in such a way that you don’t have to do any revisiting, flares take less time and require less bloodshed than the conventional “kill ‘em all” route.
Everything about this game is fun and engaging, though. Running from and/or killing monsters is satisfying, and LONE SURVIVOR offers just enough variety from room to room, from building to building, so that you aren’t ever stuck in one mode. Yes, you can spend an entire day (or days, if you really want to) just taking care of business near your home base (room 206 of an abandoned apartment). After doing enough exploration that you can reach the first floor and even the basement, you’re likely to have enough tools to really start having fun with the game’s sustenance system. Cooking food, combining food types, brewing coffee, even choosing to ingest disgusting stuff (see “obviously bad milk” above): you can really go to town with this. Later on you can also play a handheld video game to help keep up your mental health. In fact, by the end of the game, you discover that your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and you’ll have to determine what activities help keep you in a good state of mind. There is, furthermore, an endless supply of pills, which come in three colors. They have a lot to do with the game’s branching narrative, but they alone won’t determine your end path, only nudge you in one or the other direction.
The graphic style is retro-perfect. The native resolution for the game is something like 180 pixels wide, but it stretches easily to whatever you have your monitor set to in a forced full-screen mode, and it looks brilliant because of all the filters and effects applied to the pixels. Each pixel is ever-changing, ever-moving, blurring and bending the colors. It really is a testament to Byrne’s inventive style that he can work with these primitive tools and then, right at the end, put all the right polish on top to set the mood of a true horror game.
As for the soundtrack? I have a review in the works for Original Sound Version, but until that’s ready, let’s just say that it’s awesome. Not just the dark creepy stuff, or the haunting “memories from my past” music when the girl in blue appears. Even the little things, like the party music, or that mellow jazz when you meet the cat by the hospital — I just love that stuff. That Mr. Byrne thought up this game, did all the art on his own (with a handful of exceptions), and produced the entire soundtrack, just shows that he’s a renaissance man. That, or he simply doesn’t play well with others.
This game is great. It’s absolutely worth the current asking price ($10), and if you’re feeling really charitable you can spring for the $50 LE, which includes an art print mailed to your home. Below are the usual review stats, and past that are my (SPOILER!) thoughts on what this game is really all about. Comments section is free to be a place for other players to speculate on the game’s intended meaning.
Played: 6 hours
Price: $10 (available here)
LONE SURVIVOR STORY ANALYSIS
What really happened here? I think all this post-apocalypse “zombies everywhere” stuff is an intentional facade, both playing to current popular trend and fitting well within the narrative of a disturbed mind. “You” are the survivor of an accident: specifically, an automobile accident. You survived. The girl in blue, “Her,” did not (I’m pretty sure she’s your sister, but I didn’t get enough concrete details from observing the chalk in The Director’s room before he died to be sure. Might need another playthrough with more fruit drops consumed?).
This is, first off, my best explanation for the Kenny / Benzido / Chie party scene. After your physical recovery, you are still so totally out of your mind about Her death (that, perhaps, you caused? Were you the driver?), you are freaking out in the middle of a chill party. From the player’s perspective, and running with the assumption that we’re in Zombie-apocalypse mode, it’s clear that something isn’t right, and either Kenny+crew don’t exist, or they’re tremendously stupid. But, with this new frame of reference, we see it’s “you” who’s off. As for Chie, the doll, and the gun, I would take that all metaphorically. In the “real world,” wherever it is, you don’t wield a gun, and no one even gives you a gun. Chie may well be the wise part of your brain that knows there’s a fight ahead, the “wise mind” in New Age terms (note: Chie = Wisdom).
But she also warns you to only use it when necessary. Force, as a solution to all of life’s problems, won’t work. What happens when you take that route? Well, you become someone other than who you once were. This, of course, gives us the answer to who Draco is. In fact, I’m fairly confident that it is Jasper Byrne’s intention to suggest that “Man With Box On Head” and blue-pill-guy (Draco) are both “you,” in the sense that they are one of two people you will become. How you choose to survive in your pitiful, disgusting, lonely, shocking world post-car-accident-that-killed-your-sister determines which person you become.
That the Green Pill, “hide whenever possible, use violence only when necessary” path is the better ending only reinforces the idea that there is a clear, simple moral framework within the game. And I think I’ve already stated exactly what that morality is. You become a violent dick if you solve all your problems with violence (Draco), and on the flipside, people won’t know who you are if you’re always hiding. Is there a middle ground? Maybe, but if there’s not, err on the side of non-violence. Plus, everyone knows that playing stealth is more fun than killing everything in sight.
Death = being completely inside one’s own head
Life = the world
I’m frankly convinced that the entire apartment complex is a fabrication, made completely in “Your” own head. The surrounding city is where the inner world of your mind begins to reach its boundaries and collide with the actual world. I’d argue that “Hank” represents a fellow sufferer of mental anguish. If you give him blue pills (i.e. – advise him to use violence as a defense/coping mechanism), you ruin him. If you find and give him health tonic (i.e. – the rare and wonderful insight that helps us move forward), he slowly but surely gets better. As for the cat? Eh… cats are just awesome. My cat makes me smile, anyway.
I wouldn’t have come up with any of this if it weren’t for the scenery surrounding the bus. The narration “You” provides when looking at the set pieces coming up to the bus really help solidify my theory.
I could be way off, and I’d love to hear alternate theories. As you’ll hear in our upcoming interview on The Jurassic Hour, I doubt Byrne will ever fully disclose what was going on in his head when he put this game together. But it’s fun to speculate. So go at it, people!