Creating a sense of vulnerability without frustration is no mean feat. No wonder, then, that the entire survival horror genre has found itself eclipsed by games which permit a more empowering response to threat – say, a roundhouse kick to head. It’s fallen to indie games like Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor to reinstate the level of confusion and fragility from which the mass market has shied.
This does mean that the post-apocalyptic Lone Survivor is at times an annoyingly opaque experience. Stuck in a decaying apartment block full of ghoulish, skinless monstrosities and your own hallucinatory nightmares, the game gives you little useful orientation. What’s real or imagined, vital or trivial, are things you must slowly learn through trial and fatal error. Its 2D world of dim pixely corridors, meanwhile, struggles to articulate the structure of the apartment block with coherence. And so you fumble forward, cautiously feeling the way through the dark, hoping that you’ll identify a survival mechanic before you die of hunger or your torchlight sputters out.
It’s a grim old place, made grimmer still by bewildering interactions that are sometimes prescribed, as in a point-and-click game, and sometimes systemic, as in a simulation. But once the parameters for failure are established, the game settles into a rewarding routine. This is more ‘survival and horror’ than it is ‘survival horror’ – you awake each day and make a sortie, slowly mapping out the useful resources available to you, the likely danger zones, and the shortcuts between and around each.
Every day you get hungry and must eat. Every day you get tired and must sleep. And then the process starts again, creating a save point with each daybreak. You’ll get a little further, unlock new routes, and along the way assemble items that will elevate your life from mere existence. Find a new gas canister and you can cook food. Find a bucket to collect that persistent drip from your apartment ceiling and you have a supply of fresh water. These are the first foundations for greater mental stability, and as you improve your standard of living, adopting a cat in the process, your character’s observations become more upbeat.
Eventually, you’ll hope to forge a path to the outside world and escape the city. What kind of redemption awaits beyond that is determined by how you play the game, and the small scraps of hope you are able to gather as you do. There’s always a sense you are fighting against the tide: you tire and hunger rapidly, and your character never stops reminding you of these insistent bodily demands. Dismissing the prompts every few seconds is irritating, but then so is starving to death.
Despite the pixel-art style and a smattering of horror beats that are too referential to be truly shocking, the game does effect an atmosphere of dread and decay, compounded by an equally unsettling soundscape. The building itself creaks, clanks and groans, while the demented things which share the space issue distorted hisses and burbles. As your predicament gets more desperate, the thumping of your character’s heart grows to a distracting crescendo.
Eventually, however, hope begins to take root amid the delirium, and it’s a more than satisfying restitution for the struggle. Lone Survivor is an uncompromising game – perhaps braver than it is strictly enjoyable – but without that bitter pill it wouldn’t be able to offer that feeling of transcendence. Its clumsiness of presentation and lack of explanation might be partly excused as aesthetic choices that enrich even as they frustrate. But perhaps its truest accolade is in returning the horror of survival itself to the survival horror genre.