For all the genres that got their start back in the 8-bit era, survival horror was not one of them. You’d never have guessed though after taking one glance at Lone Survivor. Unlike recent indie favorites such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Lone Survivor isn’t so much interested in reinventing the genre as much as it is reinterpreting the past. This pixel art-based, 2D side-scrolling survival horror game takes all the elements of the genre, boils them down and brilliantly squeezes them into the restrictions of two dimensions. More than the game’s stylish retro look and creepy atmosphere, Lone Survivor‘s subtle, but dramatic social commentary that lingers throughout the game is what truly makes it special.
As suggested by the title, Lone Survivor starts you off waking up alone in a seemingly abandoned apartment complex. It’s not long before you realize that it’s been overrun by — you guessed it — an unknown disease that has turned the building’s residents into zombie-like creatures who want nothing more than to feed on your pixelated flesh. As you slowly make your through the different rooms of the building you’ll have to fight off both your deteriorating psychological stability and zombies alike. Everything from how you manage your items to how you aim down your sights has been simplified for the game’s 2D world. Surprisingly, almost everything works pretty intuitively once you get used to it.
Like your typical survival/horror game, ammo, health, and light are all scarce commodities. Until you get the power going in the building again, your sight is limited to the small space around you that your small flashlight and its diminishing battery life can reveal. It’s not as easy as just keeping your batteries stocked though. Zombies that lurk in the dark will come rushing toward you when you’ve got your flashlight on, leaving any hopes of sneaking by or conserving ammo behind. The game isn’t only about trying to creep you out and getting you eaten for dinner though — it’s got its fair share of philosophical moments that make you stop and think too.
One of my favorites happens when you finally come across other human beings for the first time. Your character hears music coming from the other side of a door and his heart races in hopes of finding other survivors and possibly being saved. But what you see when you walk in is the bizarre sight of three people nonchalantly hanging out, bobbing to some tunes, and sipping on drinks. When you try to convince them that they should be a little more concerned about the state of the world around them, they simply say something to the effect of “Relax, what’s new? The world has always been a mess. Just sit back and enjoy the tunes.”
I won’t mention what soon happens to these calm and collected people who just wanted to relax and party, but the scene had an eerie, surreal quality to it. I couldn’t help but think about our own entertainment-driven culture that we live in. Have we become passive about what’s going on around us? Are we content to just hanging out and relaxing as the financial, political, and spiritual institutions literally collapse around us? Even worse, can our endless pursuit of entertainment distract us from how seriously troubled our world is? These were the questions on my mind as my lone survivor found out that he was still pretty much all on his own in his struggle for survival. Or at least so it seemed.
As you attempt to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this infested apartment complex, you’ll encounter the appearance of mysterious figures that lend a helping hand, unarticulated visions that provide hints, and strange dreams that end up restocking your barren inventory — each of these indicating that something bigger than just your own survival is at stake. It’s as if Lone Survivor was trying to teach me that no matter how grim the circumstances seemed, no matter how adept the people around me acted, I really was being looked after by higher forces. But just like in life, merely surviving isn’t the goal. And neither is being entertained to death. These higher forces in the game aren’t restocking my flashlight battery so I can sit in my room with my flashlight on. There is a world to explore. There are mysteries to solve. There are people to save.