You can hear them at home in the darkness. Scheming, retching like evil drunken bastards. But you can’t see them. You can’t drop a slab of rotting meat, which you would normally do to distract them, because where will you hide when they come for you from both sides? You’ve not nearly enough ammunition to deal with more than one of them because you’ve been too gung-ho in your haste to avoid having to sneak past them until now. You make out at least two, slithering in the shadow. Possibly three.
The screen throbs violently. The beasts that scrape through the inky void have opened a channel directly into your brain and they are humming spiteful tunes. The little man on-screen protests. He is tired and he is hungry. You have no map of the immediate area but damn it all to hell, you know this is the way to go because you’ve been everywhere else. Right? Maybe. What do you do? What can you do? You could open fire, but they will surely get you from behind. Plus, you can’t be sure of their numbers. You can’t run past them. They won’t allow it. Go back? You’ve been back. There’s no food back.
You open your inventory because what else is there to do but stay or die of hunger or fright? You work your way past an irradiated orange you cannot eat. Past a tin of beans you cannot open, let alone cook. Past a stinking pack of rotting flesh you cannot put to good use. You work your way past all these things to the Plushy Cat. You look at the Plushy Cat. You find solace in the Plushy Cat, for all of a single solitary moment.
You speak to the Plushy Cat.
You hope. Oh you hope like you’ve never hoped before. You pray to Gods that you never thought real but the cat does not trade in words, only stares shot through with loathing. The cat does not share the fear. The cat has no need for the fear. The fear is yours; a survival instinct wrought from the happenings on a screen home only to 8-bit horrors. A marvel of technology and artistry lost on you right now.
The little man reminds you, ‘he’s losing it here.’ You lost it five minutes back. You’re attempting discourse with the Plushy Cat. Anything to distract from not knowing what to do.
You can bear it no longer. The flashlight bathes the surrounding area in a wretched orange hue. Batteries low. The sound of unknown terrors winding up in the darkness. Radio static fused with feet that pound with purpose. Run! Shadowed figures slice through the gloom ahead. Door on the right. Fumble. Rusted shut. Next door. Open.
You are in a room. The room is well-lit. There are people here. Normal people, you think. People with faces and hands and intestines in all the places where people’s faces and hands and intestines ought to be. But these people, they’re not right either. Not right at all. They can’t be. They’re here. They’re dancing. Dancing! Drinking, too, and listening to jazz music at full volume.
“Don’t you know?! This is the apocalypse, man!” They don’t acknowledge you. “THERE ARE THINGS OUT THERE! THINGS THAT WOULD TERRIFY THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!” Relax, they say. Have a dance, they say. The time for dancing has passed!
Everything here feels wrong. It’s worse than outside with all the writhing unspeaking things. At least you knew where you stood with them ones. This? This is straight up fucking nightmarish. It makes not one jot of sense, and that is far more intimidating than things that want to eat your kidneys like oversized jelly beans. You leave the room. Wait, you want answers. You go back. They’re all dead. The lights are smashed. The music has flatlined. Blood on the walls. Monsters in the corner. Hell. Horror. The devil’s work? WON’T SOMEBODY EXPLAIN?
You talk to the Plushy Cat and wait paralysed for answers.
Lone Survivor is an exhausting, gruelling, funny, terrifying and wretched journey down into hell viewed through the eyes of a man who can no longer trust that which he sees with those eyes and so neither can we. It thrives on the same intoxicating air of chaos and confusion and mistrust that the early Silent Hill games did, wrapping that up in a blanket of surrealism that is both persistently discomforting and, at times (mostly toward the start), legitimately scary.
A rudimentary appraisal would peg Lone Survivor as a 2D indie title that looks as though it’s been hauled out from the Gameboy Color’s glory days. Most of the game is spent interacting with objects in the world and reading curt text that describes how the character feels about these things. But Lone Survivor is a survival horror game in the truest of senses: its peers are the Silent Hills and Resident Evils of yesteryear. Like those games it is consummate in making you feel both helpless and, crucially, mortal – an essential survival horror praxis that survival horror has all but forgotten.
You control a man referred to only as ‘You’, the last survivor in a world that gas gone plunging down into the abyss with some gusto. Everybody else is dead and quite how you’ve survived is a mystery left unsolved for the most part. In place of friends and neighbours come gruelling nasties that reek of Silent Hill’s featureless baddies with heads that vibrate uncontrollably and svelte, macabre bodies like those of starved men who have spent their twilight years in a crypt without sunlight.
The game takes place almost exclusively in an apartment building; a labyrinth nest of rooms, corridors and fetid basements that evoke the feeling you’re burrowing through the bowels of some unknown living terror, not an old home-cum-tomb. The world itself isn’t especially large, but, like all the greatest horror landscapes, it’s a world you become familiar with in time. Crucially, it’s through this familiarity and the resulting false sense of comfort that the developer is given plentiful opportunity to subvert your expectations, which he does to pretty good effect.
Survival means more than simply making it from one deathly meet to the next as you piece together bits of the story and eventually wriggle free from your apartment prison. You have to eek out a living here, wrestling with real things like sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst and the character’s deteriorating mental state. Juggling these needs while making tangible progress can be exhausting. Do you interrupt your expedition into the basement for a nap, or renege on caffeine and strange pills to keep you going – pills that wreck the character’s fragile mindset and send him catapulting into a fever dream in which inexplicable strangers give him valuable ammunition or food? Do you take time out to find a can opener, gas and food so that you can use the cooker in your apartment to make a proper meal, or do you solider on with a belly full of crackers, cold squid-sticks and festering meat? Kill the stinking beasts that have taken up residence in your home or sneak by using chunks of flesh as a makeshift diversion?
How you tackle these routine problems influences a story that deviates based on your character’s mental state. But there’s no gauge to tell you how he’s faring – because that would be too easy. How the character interacts with the world offers up some sign of his mental stability, but there’s nothing truly conclusive.
And this feeds in to Lone Survivor’s winning trick: it conforms to that essential horror mantra that dictates this: that which we don’t know is more terrifying than that which we do and can therefore rationalise. Mystery is key, and Lone Survivor bleed mystery from its every pixel. It’s the most basic rule of horror, but it’s one contemporary scarers across all mediums tends to eschew in favour of things that go bump in the dark. Things go bump in the dark here, don’t worry, but that’s a frisson of terror that quickly folds beneath a tide of lead and offal or fades into the background after a last-ditch retreat. Lone Survivor is better than that. It bores into your head and plants something far more unnerving. Stumbling across a party in swing is, at best, surreal having seen the chaos and commotion outside – we can’t rationalise any party caught in the throes of this apocalypse. It’s fucking creepy.
The game’s knack for persistently throwing up ever-weirder scenarios is its golden ticket into the hall of fame. By the time the curtains draw on its gloomy stage, there are so many questions gone unanswered – or whose answers are tucked away beneath cryptic clues saved for round two – that the world sticks with you long after you leave it (although that’s not to say the ending is in any way lazy, far from it).
It owes an obvious and great debt to both Silent Hill 2 and the hallmarks of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but weaves its inspirations into something so compelling, shot through with such mastery, that it often betters them, conjuring the sensation of a nightmare with surgical precision like we’ve not seen since Konami’s masterpiece.
It also, perhaps, relies too heavily on its monsters during its final act, axing some of the weirdness in favour of less cerebral shooty-shooty scenes that, while avoidable, aren’t much fun regardless of how you approach them. There’s a boss battle, too, which is very silly, and the map kind of sucks until you’ve fathomed left doesn’t always mean left. Sometimes it means down.
But then you remember how rich and how masterful the rest of it is. You remember that the character doesn’t wear shoes, by his own admission, because shoes make noise and noise attracts the monsters. How wonderful. How real!
You remember that he’s utterly useless with a handgun, unable to turn or run with it equipped; only able to point up, forward or down in awkward ways that make it so monsters have to be within fondling distance before you can truly put them down – exhuming glorious memories of the original Resident Evil and all the fear wrought through its [wrongly] maligned clumsiness.
You remember that time you went bawling back to the inventory in the hope that you’d have time to find and ignite a flair only to be punched by the cruel clenched fist of truth: this inventory is unwieldy and life doesn’t pause whenever you rummage through your rucksack, chump. YOU ARE DEAD. Real survival horror!
You remember the first time you skulked past a Skinny Man, using an inglenook in the wall to creep by as he gobbled up foul meat you’d left as a lure. The air of fear thick and the terror that he might see you palpable.
You remember the soundtrack. Good Lord, the soundtrack! A perfect storm of intimidating and outright weird that somehow finds room for electronica alongside rock, jazz and finally what you might expect from a horror game.
You remember the debilitating sense of aloneness that survival horror games once-upon-a-time thrived on.
You remember how it conjures a persistent air of unpredictability and unease with a deft hand.
You remember how a wave of terror washes over you every time you forget to turn the flashlight off as you push through a door, or wander into a room you thought was full of oddball party goers to find them all dead with the flies having long-ago left with full bellies.
You remember the exhaustive psych report at the end that goes into wild, ludicrous detail about everything that fed into the ending you got. We’re talking which food you ate, whether you turned your flashlight on at a certain time and whether you bothered to sleep. The thought and attention seeping through the cracks between its every pixel is extraordinary.
More than anything, you remember that, like the games it derives so much from, it is utterly, stupidly, wonderfully brilliant.
(Light out. Headphones on. There’s no other way to play it.)