Wot I Think: Lone Survivor

By Adam Smith on March 27th, 2012 at 2:30 pm.

Lone Survivor is a superb one-man horror show that has a lovely cat sub-plot, the best soundtrack I’ve heard so far this year and an entirely unexpected sense of humour. It’s not the kind of scary that will frighten the toupée off you, but it’s the kind that might just make you think, reflect and then shudder a little. It might even make you all misty-eyed and forlorn. Here’s wot I think.

There were all manner of splendid games released in 2011 but, from my perspective, the year lacked one thing. I found myself resting more easily than is normal, dreaming of dragons and dungeons in elegant fantasy worlds, of the moon and the sadness it contains. Where are my nightmares, I pondered many a morning, where are the faceless abominations that gibber and reach, long-fingered, into the softness of the cerebrum to dredge up the bone-white grinning terror that is the memory of mortality, obscuring and confusing thoughts of a future with the shadow puppets of inevitable demise?

In short, where in damnation was 2011’s standout horror game? Though it was released in 2010, Amnesia, despite what I felt was a limp denouement, contained enough distress and anxiety to keep me going for much of last year, but since then I’ve been sleeping with the lights off, merrily fetching things from the cellar and nonchalantly exploring the abandoned asylum at the edge of Foolhardy Forest, a spring in my step and a song on my lips. Or at least, I was doing all those things.

If something hadn’t come along to knock some sense back into me, ensuring that I once again feared the dark, my own fractured mind and the monstrous nature of man, I might have ended up getting myself into real trouble, so a whisper of thanks to Lone Survivor. I’m pleased to say that the year now has enough horror to tide us through ‘til the end of summer and it’s thoughtful horror of the sort it’s rare to see in any medium.

The horror aside, Lone Survivor is probably best described as a side-scrolling adventure game, with items to collect, characters to talk to and locations to explore. Control is simple: move left and right, push up to hide in shadows where they exist, and press ‘x’ to interact with or look at objects. There’s a great deal of detail in the world, something that really hit home when I examined some shoes only for the character to say he didn’t want to wear them because they make sneaking harder. It was only then that I noticed his bare feet, something the sound of his soles on carpet should have clued me in on long before.

Navigating through the lovingly crafted environments can be a little frustrating at first, or at least it can if your spatial awareness is as poor as mine. I struggled slightly to locate myself in a ‘3d’ space from a 2d perspective, walking into and out of the screen to enter rooms or turn down corridors. It all made sense after a while, although in the middle section, when the surroundings become more clotted and tumorous it’s easy to become lost.

Thankfully, despite the presence of hunting horrors, Lone Survivor rarely wants you to run or be quick on your toes. It’s more contemplative in its pace, although when the time for action arrives, you’ll know about it. There is combat, although it’s a small part of the game and simple enough to be functional if nothing more. This is a game in which you’ll spend more time cooking than killing, unless you’re particularly bloodthirsty, and if you are the death-dealing sort, the game will make a note of that when it decides how things pan out for you.

Fittingly, Jasper Byrne’s game has been released (today!) in the same week that Silent Hill supremo Akira Yamaoka has spoken about the importance of music and audio design when attempting to provoke emotions in an audience. Byrne previously made Soundless Mountain II, a demake of Silent Hill 2, and his new game picks up many of the themes and even settings of Yamaoka’s series, particularly that much cherished second entry.

The more important comparison lies in the sounds of the game though. Byrne has a strong background in the music world and it’s evident throughout Lone Survivor. After an hour of hiding from twitching and skinless monstrosities in an apartment building that seems to be devouring and digesting itself, I came across the first moment that elevates the game from creepy, well-executed survival horror exercise and presents something more fascinating by far.

How to explain it without spoiling it? The music is the way. Melancholy and insistent piano have been the nameless survivor’s only companions for the game’s first act, as he searches for food and finds cryptic messages warning him that he’ll have to kill to live, and that the physical world has become more malleable than he perhaps might remember.

Hissing radio static and industrial horror-scores clank and whine whenever there is danger, but upon reaching a certain room, the sound of an upright bass can be heard through the walls. A jazzy bluesy tune, muffled and indistinct at first, is playing inside that apartment. It’s different, it’s incongruous, it’s the first of many giant question marks about perception and reality, and it’s also the cue for a tonal shift that lingers and toys with both player and protagonist throughout the remainder of the game, beginning inside that room.

Far from being all rust, blood and bile, Lone Survivor has its share of humour and the ambiguity of the scenario and confused narrative leave plenty of room for interpretation. There were points when I thought I’d figured it all out and found the psychological aspect a little lacking, but then another line of dialogue would prompt a new train of thought, a dream encounter would suggest I was wrong.

There’s a wonderfully self-referential moment when the main character comments on the game he’s in, without fully realising the significance of his words. There are several lines he can come out with, one of which, “It’s just another zombie game”, drily accepts that some people won’t look beyond the surface.

There’s light, hope and love in the game, though not as a counterbalance to the death and disease but as a reflection of it. The distortion of joy, the fear of loss, the shortcuts to success, procurement and happiness, they’re all themes the game enjoys playing with. The latter, in particular, waves hello from within the pill mechanic. A mysterious somebody appears to be leaving a supply of pills in the bathroom everytime our little survivor sleeps. Once you realise what they’re for it’s hard not to fall back on them, despite the troubling visitations they cause.

In fact, I was tempted to overdose just to see more of those hallucinations because they contain the game’s most interesting characters, as well as informing the ending of the player’s story. Despite the survival mechanics, which require frequent returns to the apartment to rest (there are shortcuts to avoid excessive backtracking), there’s always a goal beyond ‘eat, sleep, live’, even if the former two functions can absorb a great deal of time. Although there is space for prolonged and freeform survival within its limits, the world isn’t large enough to simply exist in.

Food and drink have had a great deal of attention lavished on them, with the correct containers needed for cooking and brewing, as well as a supply of gas and water. I didn’t even figure out how to collect water on my first playthrough meaning I had to go without my beloved coffee; if that were to happen in real life, I expect the world would rapidly become as disjointed and nightmarish as is depicted here. As it is, collecting the resources to heat a can of beans and then sharing in the joy of eating something other than squidsticks and cold scraps actually made me smile. It’s a world where every pleasure and hope is amplified.

The strongest praise I can supply is that this is a game clearly made by a man who understands why people still hope for a return to the glory of Silent Hill 2. It’s a game made by someone who appreciates that the best way to get under someone’s skin is to make them think about that skin, not just the way that it peels off when a knife is applied, but the way that if feels to touch, the way that it covers our skulls and helps us to express ourselves, and the way that it wrinkles and ages.

I’ve seen two endings and as I write that I realise that ‘ending’ may be the wrong word. It’s the end of the game, sure, but they don’t feel like conclusions. They are reflections again, something the game plays with throughout its duration. For those hours (my first playthrough was around eight, nearly twice as long as my second) there are plenty of familiar psychological horror questions buzzing around like flies on a carcass: who is this survivor? Why is he living in an apartment that isn’t his? How much is madness, how much is monstrous? Why does that man have a box on his head?

Lone Survivor doesn’t answer all of those questions. Sometimes it provides several answers to the same question and leaves interpretation to the player, which did occasionally leave me wanting something more direct, although more often than not its appropriate to the overall sense of unreality. Maybe it’s a game about loneliness, maybe it’s about companionship, but it’s almost certainly about people, and their personal needs, desires and fears. On top of that, it’s about games and interaction, about being watched and controlled.

I hope it’s not the only great horror game of the year but as far as I’m aware it’s the first; beautifully constructed, thought-provoking and, despite the many nods to Silent Hill, pleasingly individual in its pacing, plotting and mood. If you want to see more, here’s a launch trailer. I’d be tempted to skip it if you’re already planning to buy the game because seeing some of these scenes for the first time while playing may well give them more power, but the choice is yours. If you’re not sure what to think yet, take a look or perhaps try the demo, details of which lie below.

Lone Survivor is available now direct from Superflat games on Mac/Windows for $10/£6.50, DRM-free. There is an online demo available on Kongregate.

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65 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    Tom De Roeck says:

    YES. Go and buy, it is teh worth it.

  2. Dominic White says:

    I’ve only had the chance to may maybe 15 minutes of this, but those 15 minutes were more steeped in classic Silent Hill atmosphere than the past half-dozen official (and outsourced) Silent Hill games. Good stuff indeed.

  3. Njordsk says:

    “It’s time to face the outside world”.

    What a frightening game this must be…

    • LuNatic says:

      “But, but…. I want to stay inside and play video games!”

  4. Premium User Badge

    G-Lord says:

    This is exactly why I come here: To be informed about games I would likely miss otherwise. Thanks for the review, I’ll probably get the get for my notebook.

  5. retropixl says:

    This sparks something in me. When I saw the screenies I started remembering my good times with Sanitys’ Requiem : ED. I really have to start playing more horror games again. Starting with Amnesia then this.

  6. WhatKateDoes says:

    Took me a while to realize that the lead character is not toothly beaming like Quagmire, but is in fact wearing some kind of facemask… ah, pixel art :)

  7. Premium User Badge

    cqdemal says:

    Instabuy’d. This sounds absolutely amazing.

  8. Unaco says:

    Interface and graphics look pretty damn horrible. Does the font really need to be that large? And pixellated? Have the devs never heard of rasterisation? It looks like a Console game, from the late ’80s.

    Does it play and act like a console game from that period, or does it make use of modern day PC features, like the Mouse? The demo certainly doesn’t. Can we rebind keys? Play on a pad? Change resolution?

    I was burned by that “Cthulhu saves the world” atrocity, which was basically a port from the NES to modern day PCs, and no one seemed to complain about what a lousy port it was. I won’t be fooled again.

    • madmatt213 says:

      O_o

      Are you having a laugh?

      • wodin says:

        Gotta be mate, gotta be.

        • Dominic White says:

          Yeah. I refuse to believe anyone exists who’d seriously write a sentence like ‘I was burned by that “Cthulhu saves the world” atrocity’.

          • Unaco says:

            Have you played it? Where to start?

            No mouse control. No more than 5 lines of text on the screen at once. No scrolling back and forth through text, just advancement. No menu shortcuts. No ability to name saves. Confusing/Infuriating Rebind keys process (accidentally navigate to that part of the menu and you HAVE to rebind all keys, no cancel/ignore function). No indication of how ‘deep’ you are into the menus. 4 predefined volume levels, no sliders. Full screen, windowed A, windowed B are the only graphics options. What windowed A and B mean, it doesn’t say.

            If a big developer/publisher made a port of a game, from the XBox or PSn to the PC, and it had that litany of problems, it would (rightly) be slated for it. “Cthulhu Saves the World” deserves the same scorn that is given to any bad port.

          • wodin says:

            Actually I wasn’t keen on CSTW mainly down to not being keen on humourfantasy stuff. However I think the graphic style in this particular game looks good and has that modern retro look, over say cave Story that just looked Retro.

          • Unaco says:

            Graphic style being retro, I am fine with. That’s not a problem… I see now that I did say “Interface and graphics”, and it probably wasn’t clear that I’m not having a go at the Pixel art/Retro graphics style. More how the interface appears to be looking. And, with the interface, it’s more than just how it looks… it’s how it’s accessed, how it’s used.

          • Brun says:

            If a big developer/publisher made a port of a game, from the XBox or PSn to the PC, and it had that litany of problems, it would (rightly) be slated for it. “Cthulhu Saves the World” deserves the same scorn that is given to any bad port.

            The RPS readership has a real tendency to fawn over indie games and sing naught but their praises. While I will grant that some degree of forgiveness is warranted by lower indie budgets, that should not exempt indie games from panning due to bad design and aesthetic choices.

          • Premium User Badge

            Rhygadon says:

            I have to say, despite having thoroughly enjoyed CSTW, I can’t argue with these complaints about the controls and interface. Nostalgia for a console shouldn’t extend to reproducing its most annoying features. For example, not having any way to tell which savegame is the most recent one: that’s just bad design.

        • Unaco says:

          Not a joke at all. Completely serious. You might think that poor interface design is a laughing matter. I don’t. Problems with the User Interface were partially responsible for the 3 Mile Island Nuclear accident don’t you know.

          I’m fine with games having a retro-style to them, but we have advanced so far, and learned so much about interface design, that there is no excuse for not incorporating those lessons and advancements.

          • Terragot says:

            In 2012, Jasper Bryn released this, their most accomplished game. I think their undisputed masterpiece is “Lone Survivor”, a game so catchy, most people probably don’t see to the pixels. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the game itself.

          • danijami23 says:

            I love it when people backpedal and lie when their comments are right above them to call them on their own bullshit. Just admit it, admit you said a stupid thing by insulting the graphics and interface of an indie game. Did you play Scott Pilgrim? What about Minecraft?

            In fact, don’t even answer, just go away.

          • Unaco says:

            @danijami23

            I’m not trying to backpedal from anything. I’ll admit it… I think retro indie games, that insist on using a retro interface are terrible. Retro style, retro sounds, retro gameplay and story telling… that’s cool. Make an 8/16 Bit game. But give me a modern interface, modern PC options, mouse control, that sort of thing.

            I insulted Cthulhu Saves the World because the interface was abominable. I tried the demo of this, and the interface was abominable. I’m asking, is the full game any different? I’ll reserve judgement on this one until I hear about that.

            What am I lying about? Or backpedaling about? And why do you want me to go away? Are you scared by the truth bombs I’m dropping? Tell me where I’ve backpedaled or lied here, please, engage with me. Or go away.

          • wodin says:

            Some indie games for me have a retro look like this one as it utilises pixl effects and lightening plus the sprties look cool and have a character . This is a look I like alot. Proper old school retro look like as I mentioned above Cave Story I really don’t like at all.

            I do agree that retro is cool but it has to have a charm and personality of it’s own aswell. Also another thing I will agree with and thats using a small font.

            It’s possible to make a retro indie game that at the same time had a modern looking UI even if it is just a smaller font. Plus throw in some lighting and pixel effects like we have here and I love it.

            A game that takes a retro style, Sprites 2d platform, yet throws in loads of modern graphic tech is Terraria. Though my daughter loved the game it wasn’t for me however I thought it looked superb. I do have a big interest in Starbound which has those sprties which look old school and cool.

          • Premium User Badge

            Gramarye says:

            Are you serious? Are you really actually serious? You’re comparing Three Mile Island to a game developer not including mouse controls?

            I was writing a whole long thing explaining why your quibbles are so…dense, but I doubt you’d appreciate it, and I’m too tired. The ability to bind keys is about the only reasonable request you’ve listed, assuming you have a non-QWERTY keyboard. Ask the dev, they might be able to add it. As it is, the whole reason indie games are becoming better than the mainstream industry is because they have passion that they direct into their games, and sometimes passion lacks polish. I’d much rather have some games the creator(s) cared about without every UI bell, whistle, and ding-dang than a polished turd with quadraphonic sound control and a freaking menu history. (And if you’re talking about changing gameplay for stuff with mouse control…really think about how that wouldn’t work for this game.)

            Guess I did write a whole long thing anyway.

    • Premium User Badge

      Tom De Roeck says:

      YES. You forgot the annoying post effects to make it more survivey. horrible CCTV perspective, and the noise filter. completely wasted.

      • Unaco says:

        Again, I’m not complaining about the art style and the graphics as such. It’s the interface that I’m concerned with.

    • Dr I am a Doctor says:

      No dude, all indie games must be terrible! If they weren’t, what would differ them from games with an actual budget?

    • Lewis Denby says:

      Given that there’s a demo on Kongregate I assume this is built in Flash. I have no idea about the intricacies of Flash, but remember that many indie games are bound by the limitations of their engine. Stuff like billions of graphics options… it’s a total guess, but my assumption is that it simply wouldn’t have been possible for such a small developer to incorporate for this game. And I think, when you’re paying just a few quid for something, those are the sorts of details you can forgive.

      The difference between ‘crap console port’ and ‘low-budget indie game’ is that one’s restricted because of a lack of funds, whereas the other’s restricted because of laziness.

      • Salt says:

        Speaking as a solo developer with a £0 budget, I’d say that if anything it’s the other way around.

        The vast majority of features come down to a simple time investment which is limited by hours I’m willing/able to work on it (a notable exception being server-based multiplayer which means paying for hardware in some form). This could be measured in terms of laziness.

        In a structured business situation a decision to include a feature is much more likely to be directly governed by funding. Dedicating a programmer to a task for a couple of days has a clear and measurable cost which a responsible manager will weigh against the benefits of including the feature.

        Ultimately how many hours an indie developer can work on a game is going to be financially determined as they need to finish and sell the things at a rate sufficient to pay their bills. But I hope my point can be seen.

        • donmilliken says:

          He said, “Indie developers can’t afford to make their games better,” and you said the same thing in a different way. Was that your point?

          Anyway, in many cases this is as much about artistic choice as it is about limitations and constraints. You’re free to be annoyed by the choices a developer makes, but they are choices and not everyone is annoyed by them.

          • Salt says:

            My point was that non-indie developers are also constrained by finances, not just by laziness.

    • menderslan says:

      This post reads almost verbatim like your average “let’s all have a laugh at my ironically foolish statements about gaming, folks” post.

    • orient says:

      Cthulhu Saves the World has decent pixel graphics in the overworld sections — they’re not particularly stylish or interesting, but they serve and evoke the JRPGs of yesteryear. The enemy sprites I was less fond of. They just look a bit amateur, but it’s a frickin’ $2 game or whatever so who am I to complain about the art :-/

      I’m glad that pixel art is accepted as a genuine stylistic choice nowadays. Still, that shouldn’t be an excuse for sloppy art in 2D games. I want to stare at those pixel arrangements in amazement, just like I would a gorgeous 3D environment. I’ve seen a few 2D indie games that look like ass and people just seem to let it slide either because it’s indie, cheap, or they don’t know any better. It’s mostly the latter, probably.

    • dock says:

      What would you want mouse control to do?

    • Pajama says:

      Cthulhu Saves the World was built, from the ground up, to essentially be a “lost” SNES RPG game from the time. Thats why everything in the game are that way, and thus is why it is good. Combat is quick and easy, while still letting you die if you don’t pay close enough attention. The sounds sound as bad as SNES sounds were, and the game looks like a SNES game.

      This, also, has that same quality. My guess is that the point in its style was to make it look pixely was either in order to focus more on his story telling or a brilliant choice. Honestly, only one of the points you made are actually decent and that is the rebindable keys thing. Assasin’s Creed doesn’t let me play it on a pad, therefore Assasin’s Creed is bad.

      The resolution, from what I can tell, auto fits the game to the closest resolution to your monitor. It never looks stretched or bad, once again, due to the style.

      Asking for mouse controls seems like a neat thing, but is completely unnecessary. The game doesn’t play like any other game is a good way to put it, except for if you played his previous work then it is slightly similar.

      Its 10$ and I’m not sure how bad Europeans get screwed over here, but I’m suspecting that it remains at least under the 40 euros. For 10$ you can buy a hell of a lot worse, and maybe better, but if you want a horror fix that is new and neat, here you go.

  9. tanith says:

    Looks Silent Hill-ish.
    Unfortunately 10$ is a bit too much (it wouldn’t be too much if I already hadn’t spent 5$ on that Tower climbing game the other article about. oh you people of RPS! Why do you have to curse my wallet with so much gaming goodness! although I actually don’t know whether these games are good)

    looks interesting, though. normally I am not the type to play horror games but this looks more like mind horror than jump horror.

  10. Synesthesia says:

    I love this guys work. Soul brother has an excellent soundtrack, well worth the buy! Hope i can get my hands on some extra money for this.

    Does anybody know what filter is it that mosaics the pixel art, or how to achieve it in PS or somesuch?? Seems theres some sort of random luminance shift on every pixel. Want!

  11. wodin says:

    Love the permanent forced smile on the main character. Grin and bear it.

  12. pkt-zer0 says:

    “There was a hole here. It’s gone now.”

  13. JonasKyratzes says:

    This is a great game – subtle, intelligent, atmospheric. Totally worth getting.

  14. Trent Hawkins says:

    why does he have that huge smile on his face. Does it cast light like the Milk commercials?

    • wodin says:

      Read my comment above, said same thing. i thought it was a mad forced smile (Grin and bear it) to try and keep sane. But no, it’s a mask.

  15. mrdan says:

    FYI for mac people if you’re (like me) getting a blank screen with just music there’s an alternate version you can download, the link is in your order email

    • Tiemachine says:

      Ah! That was the problem I had! Is that the …/3EK5 link in the Delivery Information email, mrdan? That’s the same suffix as the link on the website download page. /unsure

      • superflat says:

        The link is definitely an entirely different build of the game, and so far everybody has said it works fine, even those experiencing the glitch with the main download.

        It doesn’t use Adobe AIR which is where this unfortunate issue is stemming from (plenty of Mac users have reported the game working, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between the machines which run with the black screen.)

        I’ve sent emails to all people who’ve reported the issue prior to putting the ‘safe’ version onto the store. Fortunately it was only a few people, but if anyone else is not able to play the game, please reply to the purchase email, and I’ll make sure you get the non-AIR version, which works on everything. I believe Adam’s review was entirely on this build, too.

        The only downside is that it uses Flash saved games, and they have a tendency to get wiped out if you reset your browser (not clear cache, but reset.)

        Anyway, I’ve spent the whole day trying to track down the bug, and I’ve left it with a bug report over at Adobe, so hopefully I’ll get some kind of response from them soon.

        Thanks, and once again, apologies for the issue!

        - Jasper

  16. RamoneSXE says:

    Am I the only who need the Launch Trailer song ?

  17. menderslan says:

    Looks great, instabuy. Reminds me of Home by Benjamin Rivers, can’t wait for that one to come out too. http://www.benjaminrivers.com/games/home/

  18. Memph says:

    “lovely cat sub-plot”

    The front page of Reddit awaits..

  19. Premium User Badge

    felisc says:

    oh. this looks great. and cheap. perfect!

  20. Apples says:

    Lot of Silent Hill references here, but I can’t believe nobody’s pointed out Chuck the plant in the trailer video!

  21. Eldiran says:

    Adamn, if you’re looking for excellent horror games, you should check this Half-Life mod out: http://www.moddb.com/mods/cry-of-fear/

    It’s amazing what they can do within the confines of Half-Life 1. Also the game is horrifying.

    • Narbotic says:

      Was trying to remember the name of this mod while reading the article – thanky!

  22. superflat says:

    Thanks for the support, RPS, and I hope you guys enjoy the game!

  23. Lemming says:

    I get that it’s pixel art, but I find it too low-fi for me. I can’t entirely see what’s going on in that trailer. I thought for most of it the player had a big shit-eating grin on his face before I realised later it must be a face-mask. Pixal-art shouldn’t = blobby. Unless I’m making a huge mistake and they decided to zoom in for some reason for the trailer?

    • dorkus1218 says:

      As someone who was also somewhat skeptical of the visuals based on screenshots/trailers, I highly recommend see the demo or full game in action. It looks a lot more natural and stylish in full motion and quality. I really liked the look of the game once I started playing it.

  24. TLGAthena says:

    Why oh why is there not an android version of this…

  25. thebigJ_A says:

    If it’s horror, why does the character have a huge goofy grin on his face?

    I realize it’s supposed to be a mask of some sort, but all I can see is a toothy smile, which ruins the effect rather a lot.

  26. Geen says:

    If you like clean pants, stay away from this.

  27. coreyh2 says:

    anyone figure out how to make coffee? I haven’t had any luck getting water from the bucket into the kettle.

  28. Premium User Badge

    cqdemal says:

    I’ve only tried this for a few minutes and I have to say that the sound alone makes this beyond terrifying.

    I don’t even care what lies ahead. This is already worth $10. And probably more.

  29. Premium User Badge

    equatorian says:

    Eee, was waiting for this since FOREVER.

    /goes and buys