The world fades from darkness to a single striking image. The pixelated face of man in a surgical mask. It’s our protagonist, he declines to divulge his name. It doesn’t matter. He is me.
We’ll learn together.
There’s been an outbreak of some sort. The world is infested with shuffling, sacks of meat which bear only a passing resemblance to humans. Nothing makes sense, nothing seems real. It all seems so thick with possibilities and none of them are good. The whole world is a mystery. A maze with death down every pathway and only a few tools at my disposal with which to solve the enigma I live in.
My first question: am I alone?[drop]Lone Survivor is an adventure game. It mixes object discovery and use with a stealth mechanic and a survival horror feel. It’s stylised to look like the bastard love child of a rotoscoped animation and an 8-bit arcade sidescroller. In its own way, it’s beautiful but it will be an acquired taste and some will discount it because of its “retro” trappings. Persevere though, its simplistic surface is hiding some imaginative storytelling and more atmosphere than ninety per cent of the big budget horror games on your local store’s shelves.
That atmosphere is, in fact, aided by the sparse control systems. Arrow keys to move, the “x” key to interact, “c” to enter shooting mode (once you have a weapon), “m” for map and the space bar to call up your inventory. You won’t need to look away or fumble for anything when the darkness parts and you’re faced with a slurping, skinless monster waddling towards you.
It’s not a jumpy game, at least not in a cheap way. It won’t necessarily terrify you or leave your heart racing. What it does is obfuscate the usual narrative form and that makes it feel slightly out of sync with the world – with itself.
It’s unnerving, unsettling and thoughtful in a way that might make you remember it at odd times, allowing yourself a little shiver before you go back to picking the freshest loaf in Tesco. Lone Survivor kind of stays with you for a while.[drop2]That’s a testament to many of the smart choices made with things like the exemplary sound design and the colour palette but it owes just as much to the character in the game too. There’s humour here and the protagonist, through his interactions with objects, dreams, situations and other characters, is an eminently likeable figure that adds a bit of colour in a world stained brown and red.
The attachment to that protagonist is something which plays out in quite an odd way too. The banality of some of the tasks I found myself taking pleasure in was surprising. Things that should have been tedious felt rewarding because the world created in the game lent them weight. Learning to cook warm food and not having to hear our guy complain about eating the disgusting snacks I’d been finding him when he gets hungry was a simple joy that found more meaning than it really has a right to.
Measure this against another mechanic which sees hallucinogenic pills appear near your bed every time you sleep and you’ll likely find yourself torn between protecting your protagonist and exploring the game’s more interesting scenes.
Lone Survivor is intelligent, thoughtful and thought-provoking with its tonality and themes. Just when you think you might have a handle on how things will play out or what is going on, something changes or some throwaway line of dialogue casts doubt on you. If you can see beneath the pixelated surface of what is, essentially, a flash game, there is real substance and emotional trickery at work here.
Visit the Lone Survivor official website for more information and the game’s demo.