Lone Survivor finally crawls out of the darkness and into the light of release. The timing behind it could not be more perfect with Capcom announcing that the horror genre is just too small for the Resident Evil series. With game like Anna, Phobos, the new Amnesia, and Lone Survivor now leading the way; indie looks to be taking up the mantel of making games that keep you awake at night.
Even from the very beginning of the game, Lone Survivor makes you feel weary of who or what to trust. As the possible last human survivor of an epidemic, you try to piece together what happened to humanity and try to survive. With gun in hand and food in your pocket, you venture forth as you solve puzzles and avoid monsters when you can.
This is not a pleasant place to explore, but you trudge on through every abandoned room and puss-covered hallways in order to survive. Lone Survivor brings a strangeness and uneasiness to it that I loved in classic horror games like Silent Hill 2. You might not always understand the trouble you’re in, but you know enough to get the hell out of there and just keep running.
For all the crazies you run across, no one matches the madness of your own character. You eat, sleep, and start to lose it every so often. From the occasional nightmare to the odd visions, you feel as though you’ve joined someone just as demented as the world around you. Like the horror games of yesteryear, it was never about saving the world, only survive the little that’s left.
Like any good horror game, there’s a fog that engulfs the pixilated art. And much like the world, you get a grip of just enough to understand what’s going on, but only a little more than that. From everything from creepy to down right sinister, Lone Survivor creates a world that keeps you moving forward because you’re scared to look back. The audio puts you into the middle of the horror with every breath and terrifying noise echoing down the lone corridors. Even when you look away, you cannot escape the horror echoing in your head.
For those few brave souls still out there who can stand up against the darkness, Lone Survivor will not disappoint the horror fan inside of you. Speaking from experience, place this game at night at your own risk. Sleepless hours and troubled dreams await you even after you turn off the game.
We were fortunate enough to get in a quick word with Jasper Byrne, the lone creator of this game, about his inspiration behind it, and what players can expect when you download Lone Survivor today.
What were some of your influences behind the game?
Well I think the obvious ones are Silent Hill and David Lynch - I wanted to go further down the route they traveled in Silent Hill 2, the more lonely, psychological kind of horror. But as the game went on I think it actually ended up taking a lot from games like Metal Gear Solid 2, Deadly Premonition, and Yakuza; games with lots of weird hidden rules and mechanics, seemingly pointless things to do, which sort of add to the atmosphere and general weirdness. As for Lynch, well I wanted to make a game that was more based on human horror... paranoia, psychosis even, drug use, agoraphobia, rather than something fully supernatural, using dream-logic to put the player on edge.
The other game I think that had a bit of a eureka moment for me was Chrono Trigger. There's this scene a few hours in where you're brought up in court, and they analyze your actions during a very early scene where you first bump into the princess, noting things like whether you went to pick up her necklace, or to help her up first. Silent Hill 2 also works like this, determining your ending from a hidden set of criteria, such as how often you examined certain items in your inventory, or how often you ran around with low health.
I loved this idea, it's in essence what artgames such as Jason Rohrer's seem to be trying, applying meaning to the mechanics... but I felt that neither Chrono Trigger or Silent Hill 2 went as far as they could go. The whole of Lone Survivor works like this, with every seemingly inconsequential act logged, which ultimately all have an affect on the outcome of the game (All actions contribute to your mental health, which ultimately turn determines your ending.)
From your blog, you've shown off a number of previous looks to the game. Why did you choose the form that we see now?
I've been trying to make an adult adventure game for quite some time now. At first I tried it in a very high resolution, and as each revision went by I actually went for less detail, but more texture. The simple reason being that I fundamentally wanted to make a very large game, for it to have the resonance and weight I was after, but to produce art at that detail level would have made it impossible. Not only that but I began to appreciate what a lower level of detail gives you - the imagination of the 'pixels between the pixels' - your mind fills in the gaps better than an artists ever could, and I think this is especially effective in horror, as what you can't see properly is much more frightening.
How did you did you get the sound of Lone Survivor the way you want in the game?
I think at first I started with fairly standard ambient drones, emulating the sound in Silent Hill, but as the game progressed it took all kinds of strange turns, depending on my mood. The music touches jazz, blues, indie rock, Stone Roses-style 7-minute jams, trip hop, all kinds of styles really. I guess I wanted it to feel like a soundtrack consisting of lots of different licensed tracks from different artists, like a movie would be, so I even tried to give each tune it's own production sound.
Sound design-wise, I tried to avoid too many clanking industrial machines and ghostly choirs, the usual backing track to this kind of game. Most of the game is actually set to ambient sounds only. Akira Yamaoka quite rightly said that silence is one of the most powerful sounds. There are lots of variations of 'silence' in the game, from empty hallway tracks, to gusting fog, or just the faint breathing of you under his mask. The monster sounds (particularly the Thin Man, the enemy you see in most screenshots) took a lot of revisions to get right. I wanted a sound that you didn't want to hear. And when you heard it, you wanted it to stop! So it's this kind of distorted electric drill / hoover sound full of static (when they are alerted to your presence) which just makes you sort of uncomfortable. I tried a lot of more human, or animal type sounds, but ultimately I went with something that felt more like a pain in your own head.
How do you go about designing some of these scenes and areas that you've created in the game? Do you start of with an idea and see where it fits or do you build it as it goes?
I remember David Lynch saying once that he has these sudden visions of certain scenes, and he works backwards from there, finding a way to make a story around them. There's a few pivotal scenes like that in the game, such as the party scene, which I sort of had this picture of in my head, and I knew what feeling I wanted, so I built it and as I did so, all kinds of other ways of tying it into the story started forming. This was almost three years ago, but right up until this month I've still been adding more hidden lore and connections between this scene (as an example) and the endings and content I made afterwards.
What has it been like to work on the game by yourself?
At times, wonderful. At times, a bit of a living hell. I feel a lot older! I don't know if that's partly down to having a little girl two years ago, though... I've basically been crunching for 9 straight months now, 6 days a week minimum, with whole months of working 12-16 hour days. Recently my wife and daughter went to Japan to visit my in-laws, and I had to stay behind to finish the game. I basically hardly even ate for six weeks, the whole day would go by fixing bugs, and I'd just forget. So it's not for everyone!
But then again I absolutely loved every minute of it (except the month spent making the map.) I do get over-tired and grouchy, and that can take its toll on family life, and I do get terribly worried about money, but hopefully if this game goes well I won't have to push it quite so hard in future.
You mention in your blog that there was a real turning point of whether or not you would continue with the project. What convinced you that you to finish Lone Survivor?
I basically figured I might never have another chance to make a big game. I'd invested half the money from Soul Brother by that point, and if I chucked it in then, it would be back to square one, I'd probably have to to back into the industry. So I picked myself up after a bout of serious burnout, and somehow got back on the horse, where I'm still just about sitting!
Players can buy the regular game as well as the "First Aid Edition." Tell us about what extras we get in the special edition as well as the thought behind your decision to make a second edition.
I'm looking into a really nice art print, one that will last forever and be really nicely made. Then there's the soundtrack which will be selling later on for $5. The side-game, LS3D is the main perk. It's something I'll eventually release to everyone, but I thought I'd give it to the supporters of this edition first. This is fundamentally a donation package, so I can't afford to put too many great and unique gifts - I've tried to make it clear that this is to support freeware development, something I feel passionately about but am not able to do because of my low income... and if I were to go all-out with a physical copy of the game and so on, it would probably not make very much money for this purpose.
Did writing in your blog and keeping a running account of your project help or change the way you approached Lone Survivor?
It's hard to know. Since I got back into making games in about 2005, I've always shared the development process, if not the builds of the game (Lone Survivor has had hundreds of testers all along the way, mostly from a couple of private forums such as The Poppenkast.) I honestly don't know if I could make a game in secret! That said, it's been a tricky balance trying to keep the story side of the game a mystery for those waiting to play it!
What are you most proud of in the game?
Just that I finished it, and it is pretty much the game I had in my head four years ago, for better or worse. I guess you could say I'm pleased with the atmosphere and feeling in the game... people have said they had an unusually strong bond with You, that they felt a closeness that was quite powerful, emotional even. Maybe that comes from the writing. My dad was a writer, and I guess I would feel pretty proud if people liked my writing.