Electron Dance
18Sep/12Off

Destroy After Playing

Lone Survivor: Protagonist meets suspicious looking man in trenchcoat

As the final scene fades away, the game drops a bombshell. I need to play again, it says, batting its eyelashes at me. I close the game, open a browser, head into YouTube and type in LONE SURVIVOR ENDING.

Play again? No. I don’t think so.

For the Love of Silent Hill

Survival horror Lone Survivor (2012) was the personal obsession of Jasper Byrne, starting life as a project called Amnesia eight years ago. It cycled through different visual styles and was shelved more than once.

Byrne is not an unknown developer; he’s made a number of games, most notably the upbeat Soul Brother (2011) – a platformer where soul-hopping is a mechanic – and a TIGSource competition winner, Soundless Mountain II (2008). The latter flaunts Byrne’s romance with Silent Hill II (2001) which is a key ingredient of Lone Survivor. Lone Survivor has received plenty of praise and RPS liked it so much they indulged in a two-part interview with Byrne on the development and plot of the game.

Let’s start with this: I’ve never played any of the Silent Hill series. I didn’t own a console when they were unleashed on players worldwide and missed the boat when some of the titles were ported to PC. So I approached Lone Survivor fresh, minus any expectations of reliving the magic of Silent Hill. It would be what it would be.

And I didn’t really enjoy it. This is a personal reaction and I'm not suggesting for one moment you shouldn't go out and play the game right now. It does some interesting things and I know a lot of people will dig the game in a big way.

So what gives? Why am I talking about a game I don't like? Well, Lone Survivor raises a game design question that we need to talk about.

The Best Ingredients

Lone Survivor is a beautiful thing. Byrne’s custom-built graphics engine allows him to run away with all sorts of crazy visual tricks that are uncommon in similar lo-fi titles. Don't trust screenshots: they are unable to demonstrate the pop and fizz of the game's disturbed, broken reality.

Byrne has also crippled the player's range of visibility to heighten the tension and induce paralysis. I’ll just stand right here, you think, and talk to the plant instead. To progress is to face your fears.

Byrne's background as a Drum’n’Bass producer and DJ are put to good use in crafting a unique and disquieting soundscape. Outside the apartment the player starts in, the corridor growls. Something is out there, out of sight. Within the first few minutes, the audio put me on edge... and abandoned me there.

The player is dropped into the game without any introduction about what is going on. In fact, ambiguity is Lone Survivor's motif, and the game sets players the following task: to tease out narrative debris from the environment and, like The Infinite Ocean and Dear Esther, figure out the bigger picture.

So it’s striking, haunting and ambiguous. Tick, tick and tick. The ingredients are excellent. What went wrong?

Work

The first problem was getting lost. Lone Survivor’s world is physically three-dimensional but projected into two-dimensional space (strictly speaking, it’s actually one-dimensional). This means left and right do not correspond to left and right on the map, but depend on how the room is oriented on the map. This makes for lots of frustrating wrong room again moments and, in a particularly long chase sequence, reliant on memory to choose the exits perfectly.

On top of this, there are things everywhere. You have a choice of stealth or blasting and I chose blasting most of the time, simply because stealth meant those things would persist for the rest of the game. It would make game progress slower and more terrifying. Stealth doesn’t offer the same Tetris joy that a gun commands. (I say this as a fan of Thief stealth but note Thief: Deadly Shadows made a mistake by persisting guards throughout the city. Walking around the city, which was essential to go from one mission to another, became a tedious chore.)

Scarcity of resources is one of Lone Survivor’s prominent themes. While the game has a fall-back position in case you do run out of food or ammunition, that doesn’t help when you’re trapped in the basement depths, terrified of the creatures scuttling across the ceiling with only one bullet left in the chamber.

Lone Survivor - A map

Crafting is something the game encourages. I’m not really much of a crafting freak – the idea of trying to combine random objects into new random objects has never really appealed and I’m not a Minecraft player. I was happy to have discovered cheese and crackers but I never figured out how to cook ham.

Between the crafting, the backtracking through dangerous areas, the scarcity and the getting lost – the game began to feel like work. Although I would never quit the game out of boredom, I found it difficult to go back in. Between play sessions, weeks passed.

Protracted play is always a problem with complex games. Lone Survivor isn't just a bunch of fetch quests and I was often relearning how to play and trying to recall where all the resources were. This also affected story because it's fed to you in fuzzy jigsaw pieces that don't quite make sense or fit together. Start to forget those and you're in real trouble.

In the end, I found the game’s predilection for ambiguity overwhelming. I knew by the halfway mark that the game was not going to come out singing and dancing revelations in epic scenes of exposition. So I wasn’t shocked that the ending of the game left me adrift on the surface of its dark, forbidding narrative sea.

But right there at the end, after all the holding back and obfuscation, the game confesses a sin to you. It hits you like blunt trauma to the head.

I’m afraid I’m going to spoil a little in the next bit.

Diminishing Returns

I've come to resent multiple endings over the years. Often multiple endings are touted as "you get to decide how the story ends" but most players want to see all the endings, all the embedded content. Either they reload the game to critical decision points or just watch it on YouTube. So what's the point of these multiple endings? If you see them all, did your actions mean anything at all? It's another statement of the save game problem: if you can undo your actions at the drop of an F9 key, where is all the personal investment?

Modern game design has adopted the habit of narrowing time between decision and consequence; while it liberates the player from potential frustration, this has the downside of making decisions look paltry and reversible (via game save). We're now seeing some pushback. Developers are attempting to reinstate serious consequences in games such as One Chance, Cart Life, Dark Souls and also... Lone Survivor.

Just like Polymorphous Perversity’s end of game sexual diagnosis, Lone Survivor reveals it has been developing a psychological profile of your character. How often did you push the character through exhaustion? How well did he eat? Did he spend quality time with a cat? How many pills did he pop? What horrors did he witness?

It’s incredible to see the game spying on you in such detail, a silent digital psychotherapist who has cameras capturing your every move. And then making a judgement. It is awesomely clever. It highlights everywhere you gave in to player desires rather than do what’s best for the protagonist. It’s a joke on player behaviour. You fucking soulless psycho.

Lone Survivor: Protagonist says "I see that girl"

I think most players will end up with the same ending, following their battle-hardened player instincts to force the protagonist through shit for their own benefit. After judging the player, the game intimates that if we want to see more, we will have to play again. And play better. This is what Byrne hoped for as he admitted in the RPS interview: "I’d prefer people to get [that ending] first because there’s more of an incentive to go back."

So rather than have mechanical repercussions throughout play, Byrne opted to transmit feedback at a single point, at the terminus.

Let me draw a line here and be clear: that, in itself, is not a problem.

The question is whether narrative-based games really earn that second playthrough, whether a narrative tweak to the last few seconds is worth the additional hours that will be poured back into it.

I've said before I love ambiguity but it's a fine subjective line between lying awake at night sifting through information for the key to understanding and...  feeling rejected. I'd spent hours working through the game for a message that was tantamount to "nice try, please have another go". It was deflating to realise that what narrative data I'd assembled so far was insufficient to solve the whole, because it was the end of my game.

Usually multiple endings are like DLC, something to do after you've completed the game. But in Lone Survivor, multiple endings are woven into the tapestry of the game. Byrne expects you to quest for an alternative ending and it is the only way to get closer to solving the game's enigma.

This expectation is built atop a new assumption: that players will want to play it twice. If you were exhausted by your first go and were looking forward to a little closure, you're going to be disappointed. That was my reaction, thinking I'd got to the finish line for the game to tell me I was only halfway.

Moral of the story: I would caution developers against an endgame revelation that is Zeno's paradox.

Postscript

  • Okay, so the ironic thing is now that I've written this, I feel like playing it again.
  • If I replayed, I know I would find things I missed first time around. Lots of dialogue in there that you don't see on a first attempt.
  • Even if I didn't enjoy it, Lone Survivor is still instructive in terms of story-driven game design.
  • Jasper Byrne has just teased his next game.Lone Survivor: Protagonist faces away, into mirror.

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Comments (12) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Okay, I skipped the part that warned of spoilers, but devoured the rest. Lone Survivor is one of those games I’ve been meaning to get and never got around to it, but with it on Steam and all I think I’ll take the plunge. You make it sound fascinating, and occasionally… well, “broken” isn’t the right word; maybe… “skewed.” But still I’d like to give it a try. The preview videos have always intrigued me.

    Besides, anything you describe as “a dark, forbidding narrative sea” is worth my time. Thanks HM!

  2. Yes I would still recommend this– the atmosphere is unbearable at time especially IN THE BASEMENT. The enigmatic story will be fascinating to some especially as some of the messages in the game (going by the RPS interview) are much deeper than you’d expect.

  3. Interesting. I’m supposing the feeling you got at the end (I did read the spoiler parts) is a distant cousin of how we all felt at the end of Bioshock — a bit used, but reflective. It may have changed the way you’ll play games in the future, but not necessarily want to play this one again — is that right? I may check it out, knowing what I know, just to try and get the better ending.

  4. It’s nice to see someone eloquently disagreeing with the game. Or at all, really. I’d argue that the backtracking and clueless crafting were part of the desired vibe, though, emphasizing how lost both you and You are.

    I loved it. I loved the fact that most of the snippets didn’t make any sense whatsoever to me. But I won’t be replaying it anytime soon (maybe even at all). And I am more than slightly puzzled that Jasper originally planned for players to go through it more than once.

    Basically, as I’ve said countless times, I refuse to replay certain games in fear of turning the extraordinary into mundane. The same reason why I never want to rewatch Twin Peaks. Understanding something often takes the back seat to being bewildered by it. Is that an odd approach? I do love being bewildered.

  5. Jordan, I’m not sure. We play games in this way because games have made us this way. The story is important. The achievements are important. The score is important. If anything, I think it’s more a critique of game design than player instinct.

    Only certain games succeed in subverting those instincts and make you care deeply about the moment-to-moment lives of the little computer people. Cart Life is my favourite example of this. Lone Survivor definitely tries but is not as effective, partly because it is being deceptive about the process.

  6. Oh, there you are Ketchua! I knew you’d jump in here at some point.

    I completely agree – unravelling game systems and surprises is another reason I don’t like to play a narrative-driven game multiple times. In Lone Survivor’s defence, I would argue that it’s so mired in mystery that a second play is likely to leave you with more questions (I doubt anyone would figure out what the pills actually represent as Jasper explained in the RPS interview). I’ve watched Twin Peaks twice and I am still bewildered – and still love it.

    I had no intention to take a hatchet to the game because I was pretty sure I didn’t like it for personal reasons rather than fundamental flaws. I could see that all the enforced backtracking and lack of direction was deliberate, that it was meant to add to the confusion and terror. It just didn’t work out for me. That made me kind of sad, actually.

  7. Argh, being a spoiler sensitive guy I was hesitant to read this but I did (I missed out the last part though). I own this and like a great many games in my repertoire, haven’t played it yet. It certainly sounds like something I could enjoy but based on how annoyed I get when games don’t play it ‘straighter’, so to speak, I might very well jerk against it. There’s only one way to find out. Nice to know you’re getting stuck into a few games again as well HM, feared we’d lost you forever to (quality!) writing ;-)

    I need to play the original Silent Hill and its sequel, it bothers me having not played them. Like Amnesia, whether I’ve got the brass for them is another matter…

  8. Gregg it could go either way, in terms of whether it would suit you or not.

    Oh I’m always playing something Gregg. I just don’t always get a chance to write about it because I’ve got series and interviews taking up every slot for four months. That kind of thing…

  9. @HM: Hrngh. Decisions. You make an interesting point, and I am inclined to believe you, but I DON’T WANNA. The fear is too strong. But I do feel as though you’ve swayed me towards a replay. I just need to give it some more time.

    The comment about making you sad made me sad. It always stings a bit when people don’t connect with works of art that I love so much, but this is the first time I’ve heard someone regret the fact.

  10. @Ketchua, I actually wrote about that feeling of self-flagellation a long while back.

    I would play a narrative-driven game a second time if I thought I was going to have a good time again. I really enjoyed a second play of F.E.A.R. for example, just because the shooting was fun and the opponents responsive. Although being so time-stressed and committed to write about what I’ve played these days, a game really has to promise new riches for me to go back in.

  11. You’re either very convincing, or we have similar taste in games (probably A). Though this game is graphically very appealing to me (and that’s a lot), almost everything you mentioned about it is a downer. I completely agree with this thing about multiple endings and replay, though there is a number of players who are willing to play through any game again because of minor details.

    One thing you mentioned, and that left me wondering, is how much developers make assumptions about how people will play their games… and they’re often wrong.

  12. Hi Nicolau. I’m not sure where we are going with replays in general.

    There’s a generational divide with some younger players, who have more time on their hands, not thinking twice about playing that second game, whereas those burdened with full-time jobs and family (like myself) are going to be really picky about playing any game more than once.

    But we also live in times where the cost of games has collapsed. When I was growing up, games were incredibly expensive and you’d play a title to death simply because you had no option. Replays were a fact of life, they were normal. (I’m referring to cartridge-based gaming which avoids the question of what piracy did for player tolerance.)

    Title longevity vs price crash is something I will (probably) be looking at in two weeks time.

    On developers making assumptions about how players use their games, I think it depends on the developer and how much user testing they do. Obviously mainstream games do extensive player testing and get feedback on how players react to the game (Valve is famous for this). There are also the more organic sandbox type affairs, like Minecraft, where player engagement is incredible.

    When you move to the little guys writing software in their bedroom, then there may be a lot of assumptions going on especially if you leave player testing until very late in the day. I’ve been part of the beta testing for both Proteus and Kairo and the developers (Ed Key, Richard Perrin) have been listening closely to feedback.

    It’s the same principle as in broader software development. After writing something, you really need to see users trying it out to see where your interface design has screwed up, or the odd ways in which your product is being employed. Joel Spolsky tells the story of working on the Microsoft Excel team when they realised that most users were just using Excel to maintain simple lists and not complex spreadsheets.