Survival of the infinitest is the rule by which Horace lives, and it one which we should all acknowledge. But we can't all be endless, and that's a truth which is evidenced by our ninth advent calendar window. Open it. OPEN IT.
It's... Lone Survivor!
"It's time to face the outside world..."
There's a world of trouble in that ellipsis. It's a hesitation, a journey outside that is already threatening to push back on itself and turn inward. Here there be monsters, skinless and shuddering, but anxiety, and an inability to connect and interpret are the greater dangers. Lone Survivor's safe zone is an apartment, a cradle in the night, a place of relative order and sense. But the world outside is fractured and sharp.
Like Hotline Miami, to which Byrne contributed a shimmering collection of soundscapes, Lone Survivor is a singular vision. Both titles allude to other games and wider cultural artefacts, but they conspire with and against their inspirations, acknowledging and mutating them. Lone Survivor is infected with themes and moods that would fit (un)comfortably in Akira Yamaoka's Silent Hill, but everything from item pick-up noises to the shifting of realities is in a slightly different key.
The first great tonal deviation occurs early in the game when the player character, only ever referred to as 'You', discovers a party, the music spilling out from a brightly lit room into the rotting corridor. It's a moment of brightness that colours the remainder of the game, a scene almost indistinguishable from the nightmares, dreams and medically-induced hallucinations that punctuate the daily struggle to survive.
Lone Survivor is, for me, a game about hope. The darkness, grime, rust and blood cover a world that is still capable of surprising with joy and beauty. There is immense warmth and pleasure in a can of beans, heated on a barely functioning hob, a remedy for the crunching, dessicated snacks found in abandoned rooms. There is a cat to care for and to love. The world may be ending (then again it may be carrying on just fine without You) but that doesn't mean there aren't reasons to cling on to the good that remains.
Almost everything, from the sophisticated gloom and warp of the graphics to the story's more personal elements, is the work of one man and Lone Survivor demonstrates the strength that can be found when a game entirely forgoes the industrial process. Although sometimes obscure, the possibilities suggested by the narrative are of horror without a supernatural element. Byrne understands that the most memorable monsters are metaphors, and that unnerving and confounding an audience is far more rewarding than a hundred sharp shocks. In doing so, he delivered a game that lingers in darkness but finds its most brilliant moments in the occasional flickers of light.
My experience of Lone Survivor might be described as somewhat... atypical. It's a game I'm pretty sure I needed at the time I played it, and I thank Jasper Byrne tremendously for that. I'd just hastily packed my bags and moved to San Francisco – far away from my birthplace and home of 22 years – and I was pretty much lost. Don't get me wrong: I'd relocated to an amazing place, but I felt like an outsider. I didn't know anybody, and I felt woefully unwanted. It seemed like every face I passed on the street was glowering disapprovingly at me for the simple act of existing. I was, yes, quite lonely. I didn't deal with it particularly well, either. I frowned and sighed and never stopped working and lost track of things like eating and hygiene. Because you can always rely on the good ol' human brain to bellow, “FUCK SURVIVAL I'M SAD.”
Then Lone Survivor came out. It sounded super interesting, so I flung my depression zombie husk body in its general direction and eagerly latched onto its clavicle. And I hated it. For the first couple hours, it frustrated the living daylights out of me. I kept dying, progress felt negligible for how hard I was fighting to earn it, and my character wouldn't shut up about his dumb problems. “I don't even recognize myself anymore.” “I'm losing it here.” “I'm tired all the damn time waaaaah.” Dude, seriously? Just deal with it.
And then something clicked. I realized I was treating my character like I was treating myself. I was angry at myself for handling my move so poorly. Furious, even. But I didn't think I deserved to be depressed, because I was in one of the greatest cities on Earth. What was I even doing? And whatever it was, why wasn't I doing it better? Guilt had wrapped its oily tendrils around my eyes and mouth and throat. I was suffocating.
I stuck with Lone Survivor. After my lowest, cursing-est, spitting-est point, I had nowhere to go but up. What really hit home for me, though, was how my character reacted once I finally got my act together. Slowly but surely, his disposition became more cheerful. He pointed out how well-rested he felt, how much he enjoyed his daily coffee, how wonderful it was to simply scarf down a warm meal. It wasn't just about survival anymore. He'd remember how much he loved living. So he ventured further and further out. He adopted a helpless stray cat. He did his damndest to save some poor man from transforming into a gurgling wad of screaming flesh. And eventually, he confronted the source of all his suffering and guilt head-on.
Or I guess I did. But on some level, I needed that example. I needed something to show me that I could regain control, walk out into the sun, and do some actual good with my life again. Lone Survivor gave that to me. It woke me up.