Thursday, 20 October 2016

October Nightmares II #20: Lone Survivor (2012) - Saving Mark Wahlberg

One interesting consequence of technological progression is the romanticising of technologies and techniques which were the ‘best we had at the time’. Creating a film in black and white, or without sound, is now an artistic choice and no longer a necessity owing to limitations of technology. 2D side-scrollers, once the kingpin of arcades, may now mostly be the preserve of dodgy takeaways which have that one beaten-up arcade cabinet with Streets of Rage, Metal Slug, and Bust-A-Move 3 on it. But they’ve also become the go-to format of choice for amateur game developers, and not just because they’re considerably easier to design. Again it’s an artistic choice, like deciding whether to use a sock or toilet paper. 

Once such Indie developer, Jasper Byrne, cut his teeth demaking the Silent Hill games into old-school side-scrollers; an influence which has seeped into his debut game Lone Survivor. A 2D side-scroller initially seems an unusual format for a psychological horror game, akin to writing the Great American novel in Excel. But it works precisely because of the format's limitations. Lone Survivor is an emulation of the heyday of the side-scroller, complete with a pixelated visual style and simplistic soundtrack. The graphics are deliberately blurry and distorted in a bid to seem authentically retro, and also to keep the horror aspects ambiguous. Similarly, the soundtrack is made up of miscellaneous instruments overlaid with creepy ambient noises and has that strained midi vibe which resembles Harvey Fierstein trying to sing Ol’ Man River.

Lone Survivor is indebted to the Silent Hill franchise – particularly Silent Hill 2 & 4 – a parasitic twin feeding on its sibling. The player is placed into the shoes of ’You’, a strange man who religiously wears a surgical mask like a Chinese tourist. I'll admit that I thought the mask was a big grin akin to the one Doomguy adorns whenever he picks up a chaingun. You’s apartment complex has become a dilapidated ruin, everyone’s either disappeared or become a monster, and You is slowly descending into madness. And no, Ali G didn’t write that last sentence. This is your standard psychological horror game set-up – rocks have fallen, everyone’s died, and it’s up to you to find out why the rocks have fallen. Or haven’t fallen. 

Eschewing the Orpheus myth-esque narrative of Silent Hill 2, which saw protagonist James descend into the abyss to save his bird, Lone Survivor is structured more like an unholy hybrid of Silent Hill 4, Twin Peaks, and The Sims. Each day You has to leave the sanctuary of his apartment to complete a variety of standard video game objectives - go here, unlock this, turn the power on, write a scathing criticism of Donald Trump online – before returning home to recover and begin the next day anew. I liked the effect this created, impressing the survival aspects as you’re forced to scavenge for food and attend to You’s needs. The needy bastard. 

The drudgery of You’s daily routine plays into the psychological aspects of Lone Survivor. You're given just enough ammo and resources to deal with all the pulpy nude monsters you encounter, but the game's survival horror leanings encourage you to take the more thoughtful approach of running, hiding, and baiting the enemies. Being stealthy and non-lethal requires more patience and dedication from the player and you can see how You would slowly lose his mind over this endless toil. Like the start of every Mad Max film after the first one, really. For a horror game, Lone Survivor is fairly understated. You shouldn’t go into the game expecting an experience that’s bombastic like The Evil Within or Dead Space. Sure, it has visceral elements such as the zombie-things, gore, creepy ambience, and horrifying scenery and situations. But Lone Survivor is more about the toll of isolation and desperate survivalism: You’s perspective is increasingly distorted and Lynchian as the game proceeds.  

You's tranquil apartment, not unlike the one from Silent Hill 4, becomes the sole place of solitude in an otherwise nightmarish world - helping him to restore his shattered mind. Knowing you can just pick up your ball and go home whenever you want does ruin the feel of descending into Hell, however. Which is a shame as Lone Survivor features an excellent moment early on in which you step through a gory tear in the fabric of the apartment and cross a dreamlike landscape. Initially it feels like a watershed moment of crossing the threshold of realities. Turns out, however, that it’s less Marco Polo stepping on to the mysterious shores of China for the first time, and more like popping to the corner shop for a pint of milk.