Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor is one of the most unsettling games I’ve ever played. In spite of it’s 16-bit style graphics, it caused genuine discomfort in me at times. Sadly, it is punctuated by a limp ending that can leave more questions than answers.
I suppose this is as good a place as any to put a SPOILER ALERT.
The game begins with a young man on a stage, which acts as your tutorial. When it ends, it’s revealed that the stage was simply a dream, and our young man believes himself to be the Lone Survivor in a world torn apart by a vile infection that turns people into skinless, flesh hungry monsters (they might be classified as zombies, but it’s hard to say, as they don’t resemble most ideas of what a zombie is and how the infection is passed on is never covered, by the end of the game, the point is moot anyways). He is out of supplies in the apartment he’s been hiding in, and needs to venture out. The fire escape is locked. The main stairs are destroyed. Every way off of the 2nd floor is out of order, which raises the question, how exactly did our hero get in?
And this is what draws you in. It is very obvious from the beginning that something is amiss. Our hero is plagued by strange dreams, his memory is spotty at best, and he occasionally meets people who seem to know nothing about the world outside. A party continues unabated in his apartment complex, with the guests ignorant of the terrors outside. How is this possible? A girl gives our hero a gun, the vanishes into thin air.
Disorientation is one of my biggest personal fear centers. It’s why Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street is one of my three favorite horror movies of all time (the others are Evil Dead 2 and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if you’re curious). The dreams in that film have the distinction of creeping up like real dreams. You don’t realize the characters are dreaming until totally unhinged shit starts happening, and even then, the person who’s dreaming doesn’t think it’s all that weird. So, when I’m put in the shoes of someone who is unsure of the world around him, and can’t explain why the things that are happening are happening, I tend to get a little freaked out. This is also the reason why Silent Hill 2 is the gold standard in interactive horror for me (side note: Jasper Byrne did a demake of Silent Hill 2 before Lone Survivor. I’ve not played it, but I hear good things. You can play it here).
Anyways, our hero can avoid monsters or take them on, and he finds pages of a journal from someone named Draco, who seems paranoid to say the least and advises killing everything in sight. We find another letter that advises us against listening to Draco. These authors are never revealed. And this is the first symptom of my problem with the game. It’s not that we never find out who Draco is. Who Draco is isn’t important, but what Draco represents is too many things unexplained. Who is the man who trades with you? Who is the man in the gun store? Why does eating jelly beans help you to remember? Remember what, exactly? Who is Chie, and why does she give our hero a gun? Why don’t the people at the party know anything about what’s going on outside? What is the thing growing in the basement? We never find out ANY of these answers, and while I don’t need every one, I started to feel like it was just arbitrary. Perhaps it wasn’t. In fact, I would wager it wasn’t, but there are so many loose ends that it becomes hard to identify what the important symbolism is and what can be more or less ignored.
There’s also a complicated system of cooking/prepared food and drinks, and I completely ignored it, seemingly to no detriment. I had so much leftover coffee and espresso, it was hard for me to figure out why it was in there to begin with. The game is ambitious, perhaps to a fault. But it’s still exremely creepy.
Our skinless monsters make horrifying sounds, and every time our hero takes a pill and goes to sleep, he has dreams that I wouldn’t say it’s a stretch to call “Lynchian.” And all of this is to great effect. This man is clearly unraveling, and there seems to be nothing he can do about it.
Furthermore, the need to eat (eat anything, you don’t have to cook it, but you can, as I said) seems to become more frequent, and the life of the batteries in your flashlight seems to become shorter as the game progresses. It gets very tense. All of this culminates in some horrifying boss encounters. One of which simply requires running, but the creature is huge and runs faster than our survivor. The second requires you to fight, but the monster is a horror that screeches and has blades for arms. It is a truly tense experience.
The sound design is something I really need to call out as well. The ambient noise, the monsters, the weird phantom Robert Smith character (seen in the first screenshot) has this ragged breathing. All of it is really great, and, as I’ve said before on the show, horror games depend on good sound design to be effective. This game has it in spades.
However, the game ends with a giant question mark, and while I’m the last one to complain about things being wrapped up with a nice little bow, I felt like I had no better idea at the end than the beginning about what exactly is going on here (author’s note: I got the “blue” ending. The “green” ending, which I watched afterwards, makes a little more sense, but not much). The best I could tell, it was all a hallucination. Every moment of it. And this bothers me because I feel like my actions have no meaning or consequence (though they do, as the game has three endings). Nothing I did affected anything in the real world. It feels like a bit of a cop out, but since I’m not even sure that’s the intended interpretation, it’s hard to say.
But while the end left a slightly bad taste in my mouth, the overall experience is a delight. I fully recommend playing Lone Survivor. And I recommend doing it alone. In the dark. With headphones. And I hope you like being scared.
- Released: April 23rd, 2012
- System: PC
- Publisher: Superflat Games