Lone Survivor: review & analysis

Apr 07

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).

LS's equivalent to X-Files' Smoking Man...?

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.

I've got a handgun and a sweet surgical mask. You got nothin'.

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.

Every little decision you make has some effect on the outcome (this was one of 11 pages' worth of my endgame stats).

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 more surprising, and more savory, than a sweet little fruit drop. Even pink grapefruit.

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
Platform(s): PC/Mac
Price: $10 (available here)

 

~~~~~~~~WARNING! WARNING!~~~~~~~~
~~~~~THAR BE DRAGONS! SPOILERS!~~~~~

 

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~~~~~SPOILERS AHOY!~~~~~

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.

This is your brain on Lone Survivor.

Through the serendipity of the Twitterverse, I recently stumbled into a little journal note penned by Susan Sontag in 1964:

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!

13 comments

  1. ScorpionWasp /

    Hey there. I have a slightly different interpretation of things, based on a few details. In the basement, the protagonist remarks about an old newspaper story, saying it is about someone who died in a bombing incident during a war. “Which is odd, because wars are a thing of the distant past” – he remarks. As he’s exploring the city, he’ll come upon a few badly damaged buildings and remark that they appear to have exploded. “Who could’ve done this, the survivors?” In the green ending, the girl in blue tells the protagonist to leave the town as soon as he’s able, suggesting something dangerous/undesirable is going on there.

    That’s why I think his sister/daughter (at first I thought it was his wife, but your version makes more sense. She DOES have a doll and likes to play tag) was actually victimized by an explosion in a war.

    His psych report details – almost “police-like” – how many times and where the protagonist shot (his?) “mother”. That’s why I think the gun isn’t exactly metaphorical.

    The protagonist is clearly in denial about who he is, as seen in the blue ending, as well as his reactions when you examine things in a particular room in his apartment. “They’re not mine, damn it. Not mine. Not mine.” It’s also interesting to note most pages of Draco’s diary are found within his own apartment. “And they thought *I* was ill! They’re all diseased, gotta shoot all survivors in the head. And in the knee caps just for the satisfaction of seeing them squirm!”
    Someone is clearly losing it here. The DANGEROUS type of “losing it”. And I think the “survivors” underestimated just how much. War ain’t no fun thing after all. There’s no functioning police around to maintain order; supplies (including stuff such as food and medicine) become a luxury; people start growing desperate. It’s not exactly a safe environment, and if a loved one were to request a firearm here, your normal sanity standards for granting the request might loosen somewhat. “He’s just grieving his sister. There, he picked her doll up and brought it to me. He’s making progress. He’s moving forward.”

    Tellingly, as soon as protag gets the gun, Chie’s two guests are replaced by thin guys. “They’re all diseased” after all. And that’s how, amidst the rubble, without police to keep him in check, our protagonist Draco went on a killing spree. Dozens of thin and fat people – how many dozens depends on the player. His own mother too. In fact, the site where you fight “mother” is referred to in the radio as “where it all happened”. If memory serves, both the exploded building and the bus are very close by (the bus lending more credence to your version, the building to mine. But whereas a ruined vehicle is not out of place in a war-torn scenario, an exploded building is in a simple car accident one).

    “Always at night, when they’re more docile and less numerous.” – says Draco. Notice how it’s never day in the protagonist’s world? Is he just following the psycho’s questionable advice without even fact checking? They may be attracted to a flashlight, but on the other hand bright light sends them into a panic. Contaminated people apparently become photo-phobic. You’d guess it’s worth at least a check. Unless you ARE Draco, then obviously you’re going by your own advice… :)

    So, my guess is: this guy has been living his paranoid, violent delusion on no-man’s land, then eventually the war is over, civilization is restored, they find the freak there and realize he belongs in a mental institution. Just HOW insane he is depends on what his exact history there was like. Which he’s now reminiscing about inside his own skull in a cell, taking strong medication.

    Some loose ends:

    * Is there a red ending? I haven’t seen it.
    * Who does the white faced man represent? He says he’ll only say anything meaningful to you on your third encounter, yet (on the blue and green ending) he only shows up twice in the game.
    * How about the helpful director? The director of the mental hospital? Would he really be that sympathetic to a dangerous sociopath? He says he misses “her” too, and the pictures/chalk drawings are in his room…
    * The box that the green pill man wears has an unique image (a cross) and it appears in the director’s room and in the supermarket. In the basement, there is what appears to be a torture/interrogation room with a cross. The protag is not keen on it.

  2. Gameodactyl /

    ScorpionWasp,

    Excellent interpretation. I think this, too, could work, but for one exception: why would submission result in death / game over? If the thin and fat men were just random human beings, why would they kill him? Also, how would signal flares help him?

    In the green ending, the white-faced man does show up a third time. An image of him is overlaid (50% transparency) with the picture of you in the bed with the mask on. Afterwards, you’re sitting outside the city with the doll. In the blue ending, you stay in denial and sit with “Her” outside the town (at night time, IIRC?). In green ending, you move on. See track titles 17 and 18 on the soundtrack.

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a red ending, but there might be a third ending buried somewhere in the game. I’ve searched the ‘net and not found anything; Jasper said in the interview (again, coming soon) there were two endings, but he might be hiding things from us. :)

    Also, just a thing on The Director: to me he represents some kind of father figure, if not the actual father. As for who white-faced man represents … ya, there I have absolutely no idea.

    Well great, now I want to go watch Twin Peaks and top it off with Mulholland Drive. :P

  3. So glad to see an analysis floating around somewhere! I loved this game and its multiple playthroughs.

    I agree with ScorpionWasp about the theme of war. There are references to bombings/war all around the place – the civilian in the car bombing is most probably Her, and if you listen to the radio, it also hints that The Bus is where it all happened.

    The fruit drops are also a reference to Grave of the Fireflies, a Japanese film of the effects of war on innocent children. (I’ve confirmed this via a tweet to Jasper Byrne.)

    I did think she was a lover too, but yeah… the doll probably makes more sense if it’s a sister? I’m not sure, because she sounded very adult in the ending cutscene – her telling him to move out of the city after her death and move on, etc.

    On ‘mother’, it’s been suggested that You caused ‘mother’ to manifest (which killed the father figure to You), so I’m wondering about this bit… It’s honestly more than a little disturbing!

    As for the Box guy, I think he’s You’s way of dealing with the grief – note that he only comes out when you eat the green pills, and after about five pills, he tells you that you should probably stop eating them (over-reliance on medication, as in depression, when the real treatment should be counselling and managing your emotions). He leads You to question him(your?)self and admit that he’s not alone, that he DOES have people to help him, and that he CAN ask for help.

    I read this entirely as a metaphor for the protagonist’s journey through overcoming depression and grief at the loss of a loved one – note the emphasis on exploring outside your boundaries, little by little, and looking after yourself, and eating and sleeping well. Caring for the cat and the plant is therapeutic and helps in the ‘mental health’ points which contribute to the ending ranking – and there’s also a section which mentions “opening up” to the cat.

    I agree that the Man in Blue is probably the violent/cruel side of You. (lol, shining a light on Hank contributes points to that, btw). It’s pretty evident as in the blue ending, it’s him who stays with Her (when she’s obviously dead), and it’s due to You shooting him (yourself?)

    I think the real question is, who is the White-faced man?? You obviously is afraid of him and he seems to signify death… IIRC, if I talked enough to the cat, he would mention White-faced man there as well.

  4. rahul /

    my main question is…is ‘you’ actually moving about and killing people since he interprets them as monsters?or is this all happening inside his head??and why is the white faced man shown in the green ending??
    i think the white faced man is the ‘man who wears a box’ but does no wear a box when u dont sleep.since both of them wear a suit with a red tie…

  5. Nick Byrne /

    Hey, I’m Nick, Jasper’s brother, LS playtester of 4 years, and huge huge fan of the game – bias or not!

    Just wanted to stop and say ‘wow’: the review was amazing, one of my favourites that’s come out. And as for the interpretations..well let me tell you they are some of the most considered on the net, and reading them sent shivers down my spine the whole way through. Thanks for supporting this awesome game.

    Hey, the wiki’s coming along nicely- check it out:

    http://lonesurvivor-thegame.wikia.com/wiki/Lone_Survivor_Wiki

    Cheers : )

  6. Gameodactyl /

    Rahul — I’d like to interpret it as, if it’s the blue ending, you’ve actually been killing people. if it’s the green ending, it was all just in your head.

    Nick — Wonderful to hear from you, sir! Your brother is a true rockstar through and through, eh? Thanks for the link to the Wiki. It’s going to help me for subsequent playthroughs (I had to go and buy it *again* since it’s on Steam. Support Indies 4 life!)

  7. rahul /

    And about the endings…ive played through the game twice and got both endings.i think that in the green ending ‘you’ forgives himself about what happened to ‘her’ and continues with his life.while in the blue ending he descends into madness and then after that i am not sure whether ‘you’ dies or hallucinates being with ‘her’.can someone clarify this?also are these interpretations somewhat believable?

  8. Irsoploas /

    This game’s complex story literally boggled my mind. There is no real direct answer to most things, though there are various hints and marks that build the story, which I never noticed till I read this review.
    I find he ending very bittersweet in both endings I’ve seen, which is an ending I’m usually never fond of.

  9. I just played the game this week. The analyses here are great to see, really thought provoking. The war themes and mental health recovery themes are clearly crucial, and the breakdowns of how various elements here fit with these has helped me get my head around the game. I’m only commenting because I kept thinking about one other point that I haven’t seen mentioned and I wondered if anyone had thoughts about how it might fit.

    ‘You’ is an old man, coming to the end of his life, with few companions left in the world – the lone survivor. He has estranged yourself from everything else, becoming withdrawn from those around him, avoiding them, treating them as strange creatures, and struggling with simple daily tasks. Yous image of himself is still as a young man – he frequently looks in the mirror and says things like ‘not so bad’ – and is surprised when he sees himself as an old man (which he really is). I can’t remember the exact text, but it seems like he is shocked and wondered how the old man got there.

    He is struggling to hold onto memories of his old life, his friends at parties, his wife/sister/daughter, they all seem surreal to him now. They transform into dead bodies when he stops remembering them.

    Maybe the war themes fit with this idea in that if he was in a war many years ago it has left an indelible mark on his psyche. ‘Wars are a thing of the distant past’ – people don’t understand – further estrangement.

    Maybe the mental health themes fit with this idea too. Old people need to take very good care of themselves to maintain physical health – and probably it is hard to take good care of your mental health when you feel like a ‘lone survivor’ of your generation. I agree with the interpretation of the dream guys as possible versions of You, or sides of his personality maybe. The man with the box – he is asking why he is wearing a box, why he is shutting himself off from the world – I don’t think he has a good answer to that, and then he provides a battery for your light to remind You not to live in the dark like he does.

    Anyway, thats what I was thinking about while playing, especially when he morphed into the old man at the end (I think I had the blue ending?). There are certainly many parts to consider in any interpretation, with all of the characters, mechanics, symbolism and atmosphere packed into this great little game.

  10. Tim,

    Great analysis, I’m humbled to have it as a comment on my site. Trauma from war and mental health issues tend to go hand in hand. I think your interpretation is more than merely valid — and an important one for gamers to consider as they play.

  11. sweetooth706 /

    I think the idea of war is probably the most present idea in this game after playing the game and reading through these great interpretations.

    One thing I would like to point out is the fact that he is wearing a mask to keep himself from the disease that is going around. its possible to make the connection to the surgical masks they wear in Japan due to fear of radiation, so he may believe the mutations came from radiation in (at this point) THE war itself, so maybe this game is just about PTSD.

  12. Not you /

    “Plus, everyone knows that playing stealth is more fun than killing everything in sight.”

    Maybe for your ilk.

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