Lone Survivor

Lone Survivor

I didn’t finish it.

I guess that’s a good place to start. I dunno, I generally feel like I should finish these games if I’m going to write about them, but if I’m not that into playing it it can take me a really long time to make any progress and I end up just falling further and further behind – so, rather than go through that whole process I think I’m going to cut my losses here.

Fortunately, I can still discuss why I think the experience didn’t work for me, which I think is actually a rather interesting case study.

My initial impression upon playing Lone Survivor was that it was confusing, both in ways that were obviously intentional and ways that were less so. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt to a certain degree, since uncertainty is an important element of horror storytelling, but the more I played the more I kept seeing inherent conflicts in the foundational design choices of the game.

First, the game has a strong element of survival: You scavenge food and other resources from the apartment complex to survive, and as time goes on your character becomes hungrier and more tired so you have to regularly return to your apartment to sleep and eat. So far so good, right? However, the game has a strong narrative element of uncertainty, of not knowing what exactly is going on, what caused it, or what your role in the proceedings is. These two elements are both good and interesting, but the combination of them is conflicted. You get a lot of items where you don’t know what they do, and the survival element strongly suggests the idea that you should save them for later, which means you’re unlikely to find out. It’s implied very early on to be possible to bypass enemies, but you can only discover how that works by experimenting and finding that flares stun enemies, which seems completely unintuitive given how little of a shit they give about the flashlight you carry around all the time, which seemingly casts much brighter light. Perhaps there’s a justification somewhere – I never found it.

Not only are you implicitly discouraged from experimentation, but it can easily become apparently impossible to proceed, if you find yourself low on ammunition and flares enemies are insurmountable barriers, completely blocking you from progressing further. I discovered after reading some information on the game that actually you can take one of the mystery pills you find to meet a guy in a dream who will give you more ammunition, but taking these pills will reduce a hidden mental health stat which apparently affects the ending you get. Once more experimentation is discouraged, and counter-intuitive mechanics go unexplored. Even if it is possible to acquire more resources, if you don’t know it’s possible and it can only happen once you’ve completely run out, the constraints on your play are exactly the same.

Are these two driving aesthetic choices inherently unresolvable? Within this format, and not making any concessions, I suspect they may be. If Lone Survivor was developed as a roguelike style game, where each run could end in failure and demanded experimentation as a survival strategy, the tension between these ideas could have been brought to the surface and played with as a gameplay trope instead of merely confusing and derailing the player. Or, if more concessions were made on the uncertainty aspect, such as making it intuitively obvious what all the game-objects did but mysterious how that function fit into a larger narrative, that could have worked as well  Something needs to give, though, since these two driving concepts, within this framework, would inevitably come into conflict and undermine the expressive intent of the author.

All in all, I think the game has strong aesthetics and a lot of love put into it, but it is hampered by a poorly thought out combination of ideas. I may try playing it again someday with a walkthrough, since the world is intriguing but the process of exploring it is so tedious and frustrating, but for the time being I’d like to move on to something else.

[Next time: Revisiting The Binding of Isaac and playing the remake]

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