Finally; “a game that gets me”, I think as my character scoffs down some cheese and crackers before concluding that it didn’t really fill him up. You’re right, guy, cheese and crackers isn’t a viable dinner substitute – neither in our world, nor the zombie-invested world of Lone Survivor. In comparison, the heated tin of baked beans that gets demolished later seems like haute cuisine. No wonder this poor little fella’s mental health is deteriorating on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis.
Welcome to Lone Survivor (Director’s Cut) – part atmospheric 2D survival adventure, part ‘what’s for dinner’ simulator. You play as an unnamed protagonist (“You”), on the verge of mental collapse and desperately clinging to the hope that other people are alive and up for a chat and some company. You navigate multiple levels of an apartment building, solving largely straightforward puzzles that will unlock the next area and take you deeper and deeper into the (literal and metaphorical) chaos. Along the way, you’ll need to avoid, shoot or run from the infected ‘thin men’ that have infested it, all whilst grappling with inventory scarcity and increasingly visceral dreams and hallucinations. The gameplay lacks any real innovation but moves at a decent pace and is varied enough to never feel overly repetitive.
In some ways, Lone Survivor is a hard game to review because every criticism I could make of it risks showing that I’ve missed the point. Struggling to see in the dark, orientate using the map, and shoot the enemies? Of course – that’s the exact challenge the poor player character is facing. Annoyed by the continual, naggy messages to eat, or the visual effects that denote increasing tiredness that force you back to your bed? Well yes, “You” is suffering from severe anxiety or depression, has no to little food, water, or human contact – so is unsurprisingly struggling to function.
Maybe I’m giving the developers too much credit, but every one of these decisions contributes to an effectively built sense of dread and despair. The use of pixel art, whilst not typically my cup of tea, makes things hard to see and decipher, and forces reliance on your other senses, such as sound. The noise the thin men make is truly disturbing, unpleasant and unworldly. Even the way that the game hurts my eyes (playing in the dark on a 1440p monitor) helps spread the pain and suffering that the protagonist is experiencing.
The game only lasts 3-4 hours on the first playthrough, which is a good length given that it benefits from multiple runs. Mechanics such as the hunger system initially frustrate and add seemingly artificial friction the first time round. But on subsequent play-throughs you start to better appreciate how these previously mundane decisions about how often to eat, drink and sleep impact on the game feel and, ultimately ending. And in playing through again you can spend even longer fully appreciating the wonderfully effective soundtrack in all its glory.
It’s impressive how a 2D pixel art indie game can put you so on edge, a feeling that persists even beyond the time the credits have rolled. At this point, you’ll also have a chance to piece together the narrative clues that are drip-fed throughout. Lone Survivor doesn’t provide explicit answers to all of the questions it raises – something that will disappoint those who like a neat conclusion – but trusts the player will push through this to make their own sense of it all. Ultimately, this is a fitting way to conclude a game that asks you to get comfortable with the uncomfortable – easier said than done as you are pressured into swallowing your third cocktail of random pills and ambient dairy product, with a prawn cracker chaser.
A lesson in creating a lot from very little, Lone Survivor offers a tense and affecting take on the zombie genre, despite offering little challenge or mechanical innovation.
This game was played as part of my attempt to clear my games backlog.