How Lone Survivor Gets Horror Right
‘Fear is only as deep as the mind allows’.
This short Japanese proverb that I pilfered from the putrid bowels of the internet provides us with an insight into the nature of fear. It’s the mind that is the driving force behind our deepest and darkest terrors. The foul creatures brought to life by our imagination are infinitely more terrifying than anything experienced by our accumulated senses. An unfamiliar noise, a distant blur in the darkness, a foul stench in the night or an imagined touch of a ghostly presence can all act as triggers for your psyche to conjure the most heinous of otherworldly beasts lurking amongst the shadows. This fright-filled corner of your mind is where Lone Survivor sets up its grim abode. From there it tugs and twists at the strings of your imagination, provoking a feeling of tense horror that few games are able to achieve.
Lone Survivor sprung from the mind of Jasper Byrne, who made waves in the indie scene with ‘reincarnate-em-up’, Soul Brother and the acclaimed Silent Hill demake, Soundless Mountain. After a few minutes with Lone Survivor, Byrne’s appreciation for the Silent Hill series is easy to identify. The crushing atmosphere looms over you like a hovering spectre, whilst the limited means of combating the shambling horrors that stalk the halls sparks an eerie sense of déjà vu for those versed in survival horror. Yet, Lone Survivor far surpasses any of the latest visits to the town of Silent Hill and breathes new life (so to speak) into the underrepresented genre. As, unlike a lot of modern horror titles, it’s actually scary.
The post-apocalyptic world of Lone Survivor is one of grave isolation. You wake up muddled and alone in a mysterious apartment from a sleep plagued by nightmares. Unearthly monsters scratch at the walls as you cower in the home of a stranger. You may have found a modicum of refuge for now, but to survive much longer you’ll have no choice but to brave this hostile new world and track down anyone else who might have avoided this grim plague.
”The 2D visuals may come across as rather basic, but the rudimentary visuals are easily offset by the overwhelming sense of atmosphere”
The other survivors you meet are often distant and cryptic, and it’s difficult to ascertain whether they’re solid flesh or just a figment of your terror-addled imagination. Something seems oddly amiss with everyone else you encounter, as though they’re all are party to some blindingly obvious fact that has sailed by you entirely. It’s hard to be certain whether what they’re seeing is anywhere close to the horror that surrounds you. From my perspective, the unnamed protagonist was the one hint of normality that could see that deranged world for what it was. What’s truly unsettling is that as the game progressed it was becoming slightly more apparent that he may have been the craziest of the lot.
A big part of Lone Survivor is the rapidly deteriorating mental state of your player character. Subtle hints appear that offer nods to your protagonist’s level of sanity. You have the option to merrily chat away with a stuffed cat and shoot the breeze with a potted plant, with various other choices that can help or hinder your descent into madness. As you stumble around the gloom-ridden hallways you’ll happen across an array of abandoned medication to help you through this post-apocalyptic nightmare. Red pills help stave off exhaustion, whilst the green and blue pills trigger lapses into a nightmare world where (possibly) imagined characters pose a stream of incomprehensible riddles.
The extent to which your wasteland prescription effects your mentality is never certain, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that each pill you pop is having a detrimental secondary effect. Pharmaceutical drugs are common in our society; you’ve probably got a bathroom cabinet stuffed with them.Yet, an air of mistrust surrounds every capsule we swallow thanks, in part, to a barrage of media scare-tactics. In Lone Survivor this apprehension is taken to its extreme, and we’re shown an everyday item (which most of us own and use regularly) bringing a grown man to the brink of a full mental collapse. Just one of the small connections to the real world that makes Lone Survivor all the more unsettling.
”A big part of Lone Survivor is the rapidly deteriorating mental state of your player character”
Take for instance the surgical mask stretched across the visage of your character. It may be a small touch, but it augments the atmosphere so subtly it’s easy to disregard it entirely. Synonymous with the fear of a society-toppling illness is the image of the surgical mask. Whenever a potential outbreak is rumored, the fear of a widespread epidemic infects the media and spreads through newspapers faster than any virus. Shots of both doctors and patients donning surgical masks to avoid viral transmission are seen everywhere when epidemic scares flare up. They’ve become so widely recognised that the mask itself has become almost an embodiment of panic and unease. We saw it with S.A.R.S, with the H5N1 strain of Bird Flu, and the more recent scare of Swine Flu.
Lone Survivor subtly takes a real world concern and accelerates it to its most radical conclusion, playing off the over-exaggerated manner in which the media foreshadows epidemics. Here we’re delivered a contamination that lives up to the media scaremongering of our real world infections. Wiping out a whole society and leaving only small pockets of humanity scattered and alone, whimpering for help in whatever bolthole they can come across.
The sights and sounds of Lone Survivor are perfectly utilised to send sweat trickling down your spine and propel your heart rate into overdrive. What at first can seem like a generally sedate soundtrack can turn into a volley of terrifying shouts and screams when a monster catches wind of your presence. The heartbeat of your character beats an unnerving drum roll that keeps time with your own terrified pulse, with the key moments of the game being interwoven with some fantastic music that intrigues and terrifies in equal measures.
”Lone Survivor far surpasses any of the latest visits to the town of Silent Hill and breathes new life (so to speak) into an underrepresented genre”
The 2D graphics may come across as rather basic, but the rudimentary visuals are easily offset by the overwhelming sense of atmosphere. In many respects the lesser detail aids the terrifying enemies and environments. As the tattered remnants of infected humans shuffle aimlessly around the corridors it’s hard to pick up on any detail that gives a hint to their pre-zombified existence. All that remains is a vaguely human-shaped husk that lives for nothing but to consume. With such a low resolution approach, the ghouls seem far more detached from our perception of a normal human. Apart from their general shape there are no visible clues that these abominations were once anything close to you or me: no eyes, no noses, and no features whatsoever. Any essence of individuality died alongside the poor souls that were transformed into these creatures. All that’s left is an incredibly disquieting human-shaped blob; I was petrified of them. With so little to go on your mind is left to fill in the blanks and what it creates is far more chilling than anything a big-budget title has to offer.
Quite frankly, Lone Survivor is one of the most bloodcurdling games I’ve ever had the good fortune to play. Images of its emaciated monsters often find their way into my mind’s eye when I’m walking through a dark street and unease has taken the reigns of my imagination. If you’ve recently become jaded at the state of the genre, then Lone Survivor might be exactly what you’ve been waiting for. It has a fine focus on psychological horror that sends unnerving creeps pulsing through your body and keeps you glued to the screen with an immediate sense of well-crafted tension. Even after completion it’ll sit like a heavy weight on your mind, and no Google-harvested proverb will come anywhere close to describing what makes it such an instant survival horror classic.