Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jasper Byrne: Lone Survivor

The first time I played Bioshock, I got to the second level, and then turned it off in disgust and wrote a great big blog post (thankfully lost) about how much I was disgusted by its exploitation of violence and fear to prove its point. If you were trying to make a game with a message, I thought, why stoop to that level?

After putting it down for three weeks, I picked it back up again and raced through most of the rest of the game. It won me over. I was just being pretentious. The viscera was pretty thrilling once I got past the shock value. And that game--despite its flaws--is still something of a masterpiece.

I get an echo of that first reaction every time I pick up a new horror game. I’m deathly afraid and a bit grossed out by them. Maybe that’s the point. That hasn’t sullied my eventual respect for many titles, because even if the only emotion horror games can conjure up is fear, that’s a pretty strong feeling.

Predictably, I had the gut-disgust frustration reaction to Jasper Byrne’s side-scrolling survival-horror Lone Survivor after playing the first twenty minutes. Too many scary zombies and darkness and flesh-walls. But I’d heard so many good things. And it looked so neat. And the music was fantastic. And the writing was charming. And I pushed through.

Twenty minutes or so into the game, after it had almost completely frozen my mind with terror, my character trundled up to the first destination; tired, hungry, and scared. And through the outside wall of apartment 204, a faint sound. Could it be? Salvation? Human life?

Cool Jazz. There was a party in there. And everyone was piss-drunk.

OK game, you’ve got me.

But damn, do I still get really tired of dealing with zombies. Add to those shivering undead nightmares an oppressive and not especially transparent system for hunger, as well as for energy, and it’s a game which I find emotionally exhausting to play. A typical scenario follows: being chased by non-descript (read lovecraftly awful) bits of walking flesh through corridors while your character is bleary from sleep and hunger and you know you have only got enough bullets left to take down one of the zombies and they’re right behind you and oh no the battery is almost out on this flashlight and now you can’t see the buggers who are after you and you pause after you have some distance and open the inventory where there isn’t any food to be found and you collapse of exhaustion.

It’s a relief then that Lone Survivor builds in some really interesting ways of dealing with the horror around you. The player character’s comments on his environment are occasionally silly, in the way that someone suffering from cabin fever in an inexplicable situation must be expected to be. Furthermore, a truly surreal scenario is never but ten more minutes of play away, at which point excellent music usually kicks in, and twin peaks inspired oddity ensues.

And if things are getting really trying, there’s always the pills...

Early in the game you find a handful of differently coloured pills which aren’t accompanied by instructions. If you scour hard enough, some vagueities on their purpose can be found scribbled on pieces of paper or alluded to by a man with a box on his head. Through either non-clinical self-trials of these medications or careful extrapolation from the hints I found, I figured out that I could use the green or the blue pills before I went to sleep to end up in a few dream sequences where mysterious individuals appeared to be able to answer my questions. Ah, but of course, as can be expected from narcotics induced lucid dreams, more questions are asked than answers given.

As the horror ramped up, and my concerns about where to go to move on, and where to find light, and where to find bullets, and where to find food began to overwhelm me, I found myself running back to bed more often to eat some cheese and crackers, take the green pill and fall asleep. The man with a box on his head was always there, and each time had a new question for me. Each time, a reveal of what is going on in this zombie-world is teased, and each time that relief is denied. But I take more and more pills. 

“Maybe a blue next? No, why did I take a blue, what a waste of a night, I could have taken another green. He would have had an answer this time.” The whole while the food is running out, the days are passing by, and I’m staying in bed, dreaming.

I haven’t finished Lone Survivor yet because I’ve been busy with real life. Some mornings I wake up, and I don’t want to go to work. The customers can seem a bit like a horde of emotionless zombies. Often enough in real life, I would love to take an ibuprofin and go back to sleep, rather than facing those zombies outside. So while I’m not done with the game, I feel I can safely thank it for giving me another world in which to contemplate staying in bed.

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