October may be officially over, but this is still the week of Halloween. That’s enough of an excuse for me to squeeze in one more horror related post about Lone Survivor (as if I needed an excuse) because if any game deserves a second, deeper look, it’s Lone Survivor.
This post contains spoilers for Lone Survivor
As I wrote before, Lone Survivor is a psychological survival-horror game mixed with a survival simulator. It mixes these genres on a mechanical and a thematic level.
A man wakes up in a world overrun with monsters. He explores an apartment building for supplies, encountering weird and cryptic survivors along the way, one of which is a girl that looks familiar who keeps disappearing. It’s clear that the man has forgotten something important, and it’s haunting him. Which isn’t to say that the monsters aren’t real, but it’s hard to tell which monsters/people are real and which are not. Crossing into spoiler territory, in the most explicit ending we learn that the man lost a lover and that’s the source of his trauma.
This quick recap reads like a typical survival-horror story from the PlayStation 2 era, an impressive attempt to mimic Silent Hill 2. It’s an archetypal story about a character traumatized by loss who must face the horror of a gloomy world. In facing these horrors, he has to come to terms with his new world and try to find some new baseline normalcy within it. In essence, this character is trying to figure out how to survive emotionally in a new and darker world.
This is exactly what the player does through the simulation, but we come at it from a physical angle rather than from an emotional angle. When the game begins, we’re thrown into a frightening and unfamiliar world. Our survival and the quality of our survival depend on how well we can adjust. If we ration our supplies properly and explore enough to find the proper tools, we can establish a shockingly normal standard of living within this monster-infested world. Or we can live day-by-day, meal-by-meal, and always remain an outsider in this world.
Both the character and the player are searching for their own kind of peace, and the results of our search inform the character’s search. The better we are at adapting to our new life, the better the character adapts to his new life. This is the narrative that surrounds the core gameplay conflict of playing it as a stealth game or an action game.
Do you fight against this world, killing as many monsters as possible? This offensive approach changes the world to suit our convenience, preventing us from adapting. As a result, the character never comes to terms with his loss. He never finds out the identity of the mysterious girl.
Or do you sneak by monsters using the endless supply of raw meat in your fridge? This defensive approach is all about adapting to the environment. We learn enemy movement patterns, we learn where the safe rooms are, and we learn how to bait enemies away from important doors and items. We learn how to live within this world rather than to change it. As a result, the character remembers his past and accepts it.
The best thing about Lone Survivor, however, is how it avoids the standard “good” ending and “bad” ending. This even applies to the third ending in which it’s implied that the character kills himself.
All of these scenes actually end on a rather happy note since the character always comes to terms with his new world, if not his loss. The “offensive” ending has him looking over the city with the mysterious girl at his side, confused but happy. He accepts a life of ignorant bliss. The “defensive” ending has him looking over the city in clothing suited for a funeral, alone but content. The third ending is actually the same as the “offensive” one, suggesting that the two lovers might be happily reunited in death.
Each ending provides its own kind of closure that is unconcerned with morality, subverting our expectations of “good” and “bad.” The game doesn’t portray the protagonist as a hero or a villain, but instead as a guy working through his problems in his own way. Just as we are doing in the sim.