You’d think a dark, moody, super retro survival horror game presented in a heavily pixellated side-scrolling style would be a game right up my alley. I certainly thought so, when I first saw Lone Survivor‘s trailer on Steam. But alas, this would prove to be one of those times when appearances turn out to be deceiving. Too bad really, because by all accounts, Lone Survivor is a game that many that played it immediately fell in love with. For me, it was an unnerving, disconnected stumble in the dark that I was glad to leave behind.
I think my first misstep, no doubt brought about by the graphical similarities, was my assumption that Lone Survivor would somehow be reminiscent of old point-and-click adventure games. Of course, going into the experience expecting one style and getting something quite at odds with this is a surefire way to feel dissatisfied. And this one’s all on me. Instead, the game has a lot more in common with Silent Hill more than any other survival horror franchise – environments are dark and disturbing, enemies twisted forms of tortured flesh. Even the sound design took a page from Konami’s horror series, with scratchy feedback noises announcing proximity to some unseen enemy lurking in the dark just ahead.
I guess I should take two steps back by recognizing that being compared to Silent Hill isn’t a bad thing in any conceivable way; the series is deservedly venerated in its own right. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it didn’t break the experience for me either. What kept me from digging this game is closely tied with the narrative that’s been pinched at the corners and inserted into this otherwise straightforward stealth-horror game.
I just didn’t ever feel that I understood Lone Survivor‘s world, and thus never had any true immersion within the game. Yes, I got the fact that a lethal virus has infected and wiped out the whole area (definitely the town, maybe the whole world), turning the afflicted into zombie-like monstrosities. As far as that goes, it’s pretty standard fare, and easy to keep up with. But where the game goes from there – run-ins with other oddball survivors, enigmatic hallucinations and daydreams that confused me more than they cleared up, the actual in-game dialog which seemed like a badly stilted translation – makes it pretty confusing and surreal. It’s not that I’m looking for more realism in a zombie horror game, but I’ve got to believe in the world in order to invest in it emotionally.
Things weren’t helped any by a major source of frustration I had (which I later learned was all my fault and could have been avoided), which was that I couldn’t call up my map at will to help me navigate the corridors and interconnecting rooms of the apartment building and surrounding streets and alleys. Much as in other game (the one I remember most vividly is, again, Silent Hill 2), Lone Survivor carries with him a map of the apartment complex, on which he’ll take notes, mark objectives, and denote locked doors and blocked passages. When I selected my difficulty level at the outset and feeling like a badass, I unwittingly chose the option that actually disabled map usage for the duration of the game. This fact somehow escaped my notice. So, for the rest of the game, I only got to see maps when the story directed Lone Survivor to have a look at them; anytime I actually wanted to see one for navigation’s sake, he’d flat-out refuse, and I’d be left to stumble around in the dark, utterly lost until I memorized my route on my own. It got to the point that I actually thought the home console version must have disabled maps for added difficulty.
Needless to say, I felt like a real dolt when I realized what I had done, though by then I had completed the game without a map – a feat I’m not just a little proud of. (Especially the basement – that basement was a bitch to get through with no map!)
Well, apart from my own failure to pay attention to the game settings I chose, there were some actual design aspects that didn’t sit quite right with me. I always dislike the inclusion of basic human needs like food and rest in games. And having to backtrack back to Lone Survivor’s own apartment frequently to cook a dinner and take a nap broke up the tension of even the scariest of dark and spooky places. Maybe if there had been some sort of meter that displayed how hungry he was getting, or one that showed how his lack of sleep was affecting his mental health, I could have tried to manage the system much more to my own liking, instead of blindly winging it.
Doing a little bit of research on the game after finishing it revealed a whole litany of optional actions I never performed, items I never took the time to find or properly use. Sadly, much of this is wasted on me; on the scale of ‘Work vs Reward’, I don’t particularly see myself returning to replay the game to uncover all its secrets, or reach all of its endings. Even the story itself – which has inspired much speculation across forums and blogs – is too vague to have ever captured my attention. I guess that was probably the designer’s intention; I’m not saying I need the obvious spelled out for me, but I feel dissatisfied when I can’t even connect the simplest of dots, and that’s what Lone Survivor seemed to try to excel at.