Whereas other horror games want to explore the psyche of a character, Lone Survivor wants to explore the psyche of the player.
Lone Survivor is a compact, hardcore survival-horror game. Clocking in at around 4-5 hours in length, it’s long enough to effectively squeeze as much horror as possible out of its little world, but also short enough that it never becomes tedious or repetitive. It’s filled with frightening imagery, half of which might just exist in my head, since the great pixel art leaves a lot to the imagination.
It wears it’s inspirations on its sleeve, evoking Silent Hill and David Lynch on a regular basis, but it’s not a slave to these inspirations, and that’s what makes it so great. Lone Survivor is very much its own thing with its own twist on the typical Silent Hill psychological horror tale. Whereas that iconic series always seeks to explore the psyche of a character, Lone Survivor explores the psyche of the player as well as the character.
The game tells the requisite psychological horror tale. It opens with you waking up in an apartment building, facing another dreary and dangerous day of scrounging for supplies. Of course, there’s more to this story than mere survival. The protagonist has a traumatic past and everything is just surreal enough that it might be a dream, but then you go to sleep and your actual dreams are even more surreal.
His present, which is also your present, is just as traumatic as his past. As per survival-horror standards, monsters will tear you apart quickly and your offensive options are severely limited. There’s always a non-violent solution to every encounter (a refrigerator in your apartment refills each night with rotting meat that makes great bait), but every creature left alive is a creature you have to deal with again in the future.
There’s a heavy focus on eating and sleeping in order to sustain your mental health. Cooking is quite complicated. To even begin you have to find gas for a stove, then you need pots and pans, then you need to cook ingredients individually before combining them into a full meal. Or, if you’re starving/impatient, you can just eat the ingredients raw, as you find them. Do you want it fast, or do you want it done right?
Such an in-depth cooking system is not exactly a typical survival-horror trope. It’s more a survival simulation along the lines of Minecraft. This is where Lone Survivor diverges from its inspirations. It’s a sim game and a story game.
Lone Survivor tells two stories in parallel. The story of a character uncovering the mystery of his past, and the story of a player surviving in a crazy world. These stories exist in different genres, but they play off each other thematically. There’s a reason that the protagonist doesn’t have a name. He’s only referred to as “You,” even by other characters. He represents the classic paradox of the avatar, this character that is me and is not me. He has his own life, his own past, but he’s also an embodiment of my choices. Is he giving, or is he a hoarder? Is he patient, or is he aggressive? Does he eat well, or does he let himself starve? Is he a pill addict or a chef? These are the traits that I give him over the course of the game, and the resolution (there are multiple endings) has as much to do with him as it does with me. His coming to terms with his past parallels me coming to terms with my present.
These stories interest explicitly during your dreams. If you take a colored pill and then sleep, you’ll have a dream meeting with a David Lynch-ian character: An old man on a stage or a Man Who Wears a Box on a cliff side. They’ll talk to you, interview you, and the themes that they evoke relate to the psychological story of the character but also to your own philosophy of survival, which then determines the specific supplies that they give you. Are you more internally focused and passive, and are thus given food, or are you more outwardly focused and violent, and are thus given ammo?
Lone Survivor grabs your attention as soon as it begins. The music for the main menu is melodic enough to stick in your head but off kilter enough to be unnerving and just low-fi enough to fit with the pixelated aesthetic. From there it begins like any good survival-horror game, but Lone Survivor isn’t just a good survival-horror game, it feels like a new kind of survival-horror game.