I’ve been playing a lot of 2d games recently, which is weird for me. I used to have no interest in 2d games, but now I’m almost starting to lose interest in 3d games. Ok, well, that’s probably not true. I’ve just realized that there are just as many, perhaps more, interesting 2d games as there are 3d, so it’s silly to dismiss them offhand. Two of the recent 2d games I’ve been playing are retro-pixely horror games: Benjamin Rivers’ Home, and Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor.
This post focuses on Lone Survivor, and a separate post about Home will come soon, and maybe a third focusing in on the audio and visual elements of these games.
I found out about Lone Survivor thanks to an excellent interview with Jasper Byrne on Rock, Paper, Shotgun in which he talked about David Lynch and burying information and not telling anyone about it. Those are two of my favorite things, so of course I bought it at as soon as it was released on Steam. Unfortunately, I think Lone Survivor is much better on paper. Especially looking back at the interview now, I really want to go back and play it more, but every time I play it it leaves me somewhat disappointed.
Lone Survivor is steeped in video game tropes. The game–so far, I think I’m about halfway through–consists almost entirely of finding ways to get passed locked doors. For some reason, there’s combat. The first monster was scary, then I shot it a couple times in the head and it died. Everything after that was just a nuisance to be shot at or snuck past. Your character gets hungry, so at many points you have to go search for food, which is supplemented by a crafting system of questionable necessity. The menu system is overly hard to read and use.
But in a weird way, a lot of this actually makes perfect sense. Lone Survivor is all about what the title suggests: being a survivor, alone, in a strange and messed up world. It fits that after a time the monsters rampant in your apartment complex start becoming familiar nuisances rather than horrors. It fits that a lot of your time is spent scrounging for food and trying to get past arbitrary obstacles. The combat–well, the combat is still just distracting and dumb. Lone Survivor is a perfect example of a game that could use some Ico style subtractive-design. With all the unnecessary tropes and mechanics removed, I think it would be a much more compelling game. Or at least a game that I would personally like more. Maybe these non-necessities are what makes Lone Survivor so unique.
Same goes for all the David Lynch influences. After playing it for a while, I realized that Byrne was mostly just emulating things about David Lynch’s movies that he likes, rather than taking inspiration from the core concepts and doing his own thing with them. There’s a slew of enigmatic Lynchian characters: “The Director”, “Man with a Pale Face”, “Man with a Box on his Head”, and that strange girl wearing the Lynch-blue dress. If there was just one it would be awesome, but with so many it becomes somewhat dull; they all lose their mystery because their existence becomes the norm. And even these become video game tropes. All The Director does is give you free items once in a while (although he might do more later on in the game); instead of being an enigmatic character he becomes a mere resource.
I can’t comment much on the story itself at this point since I’m not even half way through the game, but so far it’s intriguing. It is indeed rather Lynchian, this time in a good way. It’s about a character lost in darkness, with bouts of colorful surrealism and surprisingly funny humor.
I feel like Lone Survivor is Jasper Byrne using a puppet made out of pieces of David Lynch and Silent Hill. That sounds like it’d be great, but it ends up being just that: a puppet. Regardless of my opinion on the game I have a lot of respect for Jasper Byrne. Which is why I’d rather see Jasper Byrne’s hand stripped of that puppet.
Thinking about it, perhaps even the game’s puppetry fits. It’s a game full of surreal imaginings, where you’re never quit sure what’s in the character’s head and what’s real, if anything even is real. Almost every aspect about it is weird, and that is a good thing. Obviously Lone Survivor continues to fascinate me even though I haven’t played for a couple weeks. But this again brings up my impression that it’s much better on paper: on an analytical level it’s fascinating, but I find the act of actually playing it somewhat dull. Regardless, it has me intrigued enough to want to finish it. Hopefully by the time I get to the end I won’t be disappointed.