Thunderbolt logo

Deconstructing Horror: Lone Survivor

-Warning. This article is spoiler heavy and discusses many narrative points of interest within Lone Survivor

There’s an unsettling moment during the early stages of Jasper Byrne’s 16-bit horror adventure, Lone Survivor, in which the surgical mask wearing protagonist (enigmatically named ‘You’) comes across a family who appear to be partying. Smooth jazz blares out in the background of their apartment and two adults jive along to the beat, casually clutching cocktails in their hands. It’s all perfectly normal behaviour, except for the fact that the corridors you have just crossed to get here were filled with skinless shuffling monstrosities – the zombified products of an infectious plague that has wiped out a large proportion of the human population.

You can question and rebuke their apparent ambivalence toward the situation surrounding them and they simply tell you to chill out, relax and go home. Are they hallucinating? Are you hallucinating? You head out onto the balcony and acquire a handgun following a strange encounter with a disappearing woman. Returning to the apartment you find that the atmosphere has somewhat soured. The smooth jazz has been replaced by a far more disconcerting sound – that of the industrial washing machine humming drone that signals the presence of Lone Survivor’s infected monsters. And those two adults who were jovially celebrating mere seconds ago now lie slumped and bloody in the background; their bodies mutilated and replaced by a pair of slowly approaching, limping terrors. Instinctively you fumble for your newly acquired weapon and squeeze off a few rounds in the right direction, stopping their fleshy sacks inches from your face.

It’s an unexpected and terrifying moment that succinctly demonstrates Lone Survivor’s successful blend of setting, tone and mechanics to create a horrific gaming experience. But why is it so effective? What elements of its simplistic design work so well? And what can the successes of this unassuming indie title teach us about gaming’s approach to horror?


Narrative Dissonance

Ask any psychologist and they will tell you that fear is all in the mind. The human brain is scared of nothing more than what it doesn’t understand. It’s why a dark cellar, an empty old hotel or that first encounter with Pyramid Head was so terrifying. It’s those unknown variables, that uncertainty about your own personal safety which evokes the most basic of survival instincts, fear.

In narrative terms Lone Survivor absolutely nails this pervasion of uncertainty. Every encounter is clouded with a Lynchian air of surrealism, exemplified through the disjointed behaviour of each character you meet. There’s the aforementioned apartment scene, as well as the frequent drug induced dream encounters with mysterious figures: A suited man standing outside on a blustery night wearing a cardboard box on his head, staring off into the distance and an old man sitting beside you in a darkened blue theatre. Both question your presence and knowledge of them, but neither provides you an answer of any discernible coherence.

It’s never quite clear what exactly is happening in Lone Survivor’s oddly shaped jigsaw of a narrative, which makes it all the more terrifying. Is there really an infectious virus that has wiped out humanity? Or is it all a nightmarish aberration manifested in the mind? It’s a psychological hot pot that recalls the disjointed nature of Eternal Darkness and successfully taps into our primal fear of the unknown.


Player Weakness

One of the biggest failings of many modern horror games is the way in which they empower players to fight back. Just look at the arsenal of weapons a Resident Evil, Dead Space or Alan Wake grants you. It seems that horror has taken a back seat to action in many instances. Videogame tension should be born out of weakness, a feeling of vulnerability against a powerful entity, which is somewhat diluted when you yourself become that powerful entity. Byrne’s lonely survivor however is a much more fragile little figure.

For a good while your only means of progression is to sneak about corridors, avoiding monsters through a mechanic in which you can press yourself into shadowed indentations. For such a simple bit of gameplay it creates an awful lot of tension through the fact that exiting this safety must to be perfectly timed in order to avoid being eaten. Even the acquisition of a gun proves something of a double edged sword as its use leaves you vulnerable: Shooting is purposefully clunky and slow, with reloads taking an irritating amount of time. And access to your inventory (and therefore healing items) is restricted when you wield a weapon. The shambling monstrosities you fight might be slow and clumsy, but equally then, so are you.

Likewise your need to eat and drink in order to stave off madness creates an air of human fragility around the protagonist that can commonly be lost in videogame horror. This is reminded to the player as he consistently remarks on how aged he looks when peering into a mirror, or complains of hunger and other ailments.

Lone Survivor creates pressure in each of these elements through a lack of resources, portraying a protagonist left with a terrifyingly Amnesia or Dark Souls like weakness in comparison to those that would eat him. It constantly leaves you with a feeling of vulnerability that creates a very effective, nerve shredding sense of tension.


Aesthetic discomfort

If Lone Survivors’ gameplay mechanics are designed to shred your nerves then its visual construction has been assembled to scratch at your corneas. It has a rusty complexion, which paints a convincing portrayal of post-apocalyptic dilapidation, palpably pulsing with pestilence and decay. And yet it also has an incredibly simplistic style, composed of 160 x 90 pixels in two dimensions.

There’s an irony to the point that Lone Survivor proves about the relationship between videogame visuals and horror; simultaneously showcasing that graphics do and don’t matter. On the one hand its reduction to 16-bit sensibilities means it has an incredibly simplistic look. Yet on the other, it’s the way in which this basicity is utilised that creates some brilliantly complex and harrowing environments. Would Lone Survivor be any more terrifying had it been rendered in DX11, 1080p with ultra-high res textures? Not at all. But the thoughtful employment of its graphical construction is vital to creating a place and feel.

In some ways it almost benefits from being as far removed from realistic as it can, which is an idea put forward by Jim Sterling last year – that in gaming graphical terms, ugly makes scary. And good god Lone Survivor is a beautifully ugly game, a meticulously detailed depiction of rot and filth that successfully marries pixel art vulgarity with its gameplay mechanics and narrative tone.


Atmospheric Depression

Stephen King once said that alone is the most awful word in the English dictionary, worse even than murder or hell. That all of Lone Survivor’s disparate elements marry up and equate to a brooding cacophonic atmosphere of loneliness is perhaps its greatest success. The game itself is by no means perfect, but it is surprisingly eerie given its simplicity, fostering a feeling that always puts you on the back foot, always leaves you worried about what is lurking around the corner and a little confused as to what is truly going on.

It is a game that, much like its greatest inspiration, Silent Hill 2 (of which Byrne has previously created a direct demake named Soundless Mountain 2), foregoes the cheap and easy thrills associated with jump scares and dares to rely on the cultivation of atmospheric tension as its primary scare tactic. So whilst it may have been constructed from relatively simple building blocks in comparison to its big budget brethren, Lone Survivor showcases a few salient points about the construction of effective videogame horror, and proves that big gaming scares can indeed come from little packages.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2012. Get in touch on Twitter @matski53.

Gentle persuasion

You should check out our podcast.