Lone Survivor: First Thoughts

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I suppose I’m not a gamer, because I don’t really play games any more. I like thinking about games, and what they do and mean; but the last time I actually played a new game until completion was Resident Evil 4, in 2005. So when I think about games, I’m at a severe disadvantage – because I often don’t know what it is I’m thinking about.

Which is why Humble Bundle is so appealing. In April I picked up the Humble Botanicula Debut bundle, which included four other games and a short film, that you could buy all together for about $2 per item, if you divided up the minimum cost. Then yesterday, I bought the new and (this is pretty widely accepted) absolutely brilliant Humble Indie Bundle V. The Humble Bundles give me, a gamer of childhood, an excuse to get back into gaming, to buy games from indie developers, and also to try games that aren’t dominated by console wars, as mine were as a teenager.

Psychological horror

Yesterday I began Lone Survivor, one of the bonus games in this latest Bundle. While I can’t say it’s better than anything I’ve played in years (see above biographical caveat), I can say that this game – whose first scene is a close up of a sad, sunken and hopeless face, rendered in a noir-cartoonish glory – is among the best I can remember playing.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the game (and again, I can’t say whether this is common of games, now – I’m an old timer) is that, within 10 minutes of playing, I’ve had my conceptual world shifted several times.

I begin by seeing the line ‘My name is…I guess it doesn’t matter now’; I continue along a dark, eerie corridor (looking surprisingly eerie, for 2D); I encounter a strange and already fearful creature; I hide; I navigate past it; I black out; I open a door; I talk to a girl, who disappears; I touch what she drops; I black out; I wake up in bed, claiming to have had a night terror.

Lone Survivor offers a disconcerting level design and adds to it something more frightening: time loss. That the time loss is experienced by the player, though, is an incredible device; you’re thrown into this world (“thrown-into-beingness”, I’ve heard it called in other contexts), have absolutely no idea what’s going on or who you are – and this isn’t your avatar, but you the player, as well – and then thrown in and out of it, two or three times, in just the opening 20 minutes of play.

It is an odd experience, not being able to set the playing of a game within a framework. I’ve played Lone Survivor for just over a quarter of an hour, and I’m already hooked. I need to know who the girl was; what happened in those brief flashes of my screen, when everything flickered and disappeared before coming back again. And I need to know if they were future-shocks, flashbacks, or dreams.

Out of control

And what the hell are those monsters?

At this stage I can only speculate. But like the first two games of the Resident Evil series, I get the feeling (or maybe want to believe) that Lone Survivor will appeal to that rigour for conspiracy, for subversion, that made investigating the mansion of Resident Evil, and the police station of Resident Evil 2, so memorable. Even at the beginning of this game, I feel like I’m the subject of a cruel joke – just as Resident Evil 2 created the sense that Claire Redfield and Leon Kennedy were pawns in a game played by a corrupt superpower of a cosmetic company and the local law enforcement.

Things have already surprised me. I am waiting for revelations – similar to those which made Res 2 so profound. I want Lone Survivor to do what those earlier games could do, which was to question the role of certain, seemingly stable, entities. It’s no mistake that, while Resident Evil 2 made me think about things, and while it remains one of my favourite games to continue thinking about, I stopped playing games regularly after Resident Evil 4; because as fun as it was to play, I had no interest in saving an American president’s daughter. It didn’t draw me to question anything – while Res 2 threatened me to question much.

Maybe Lone Survivor can continue that tradition. Maybe that’s asking too much. But like the aforementioned Capcom classics, the game heightens all these considerations by having slightly awkward controls; making its assailants, and its dark corridors, much scarier than if the game was polished like a shiny button. Set in 2D, it really feels like you have absolutely nowhere to run; nothing to do but plough on, in this most mysterious of circumstances.

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So, for around $1 per game if you pay the minimum, I’ve picked up Amnesia: The Dark Descent, LIMBO, Psychonauts, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP., Bastion, Braid. Super Meat Boy and Lone Survivor.

You’d be a fool not to get it. On my PS2, all of these would have cost me around £40 each: so about £280. But they didn’t. They cost less than a tenth of that – and the total purchases of the Bundle (at the time of writing) has racked up around $5m for the developers, a charity, and Humble Bundle Inc.

Lone Survivor, plus being able to get it through Humble Bundle, has probably got me back playing games properly again.

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[ 3 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. I can’t help myself – I buy every Humble Bundle. I already owned 6 out of the 8 games. What is this sorcery?!

    EDIT: Sorry, “sworcery”.

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