An Account of Uncommon Darkness: 'Lone Survivor' on Its Fifth Anniversary
Jasper Byrne’s survival horror remains a singular descent into discomfort. We speak to the solo developer.
After venturing into the basement of his apartment building, where there's little light, labyrinthine corridors, and monsters around each corner, the eponymous Lone Survivor finds himself before a bizarre sculpture.
"Help me someone, anyone," he cries. "Help me." As he collapses to the floor in agony, our screen fades into a beautiful, sunny hillside; accompanied by soothing guitar music, the Lone Survivor sits alongside a woman, who assures him: "It's been a long time since we left the city."
For Jasper Byrne, Lone Survivor's lone creator, this moment boils down the entire game into a single vignette.
"The basement scene is the hardest part of the game," he tells me. "It's deliberately confusing and frustrating. It was a horrible thing to make. So I felt like the character needed a moment of lightness in there, an idyllic image amongst all the darkness. It was basically a sketch I did, just the two characters sitting on a hill having a conversation, but it sums the game up. It's a positive game. It's about healing. You have to get into your psychology and burrow around, and that hilltop is where you're ultimately trying to get."
Five years old to the day, the retro-styled survival horror Lone Survivor remains a rare example of a video game willing to make its character suffer. Created across four years, it charts a young man's descent into—and hopefully, emergence from—guilt and grief. The title is a double entendre. Rather than the ostensible viral plague that has eradicated mankind, the player's character is the afflicted, hallucinating lone survivor of an unspecified personal tragedy.
Every fantastical thing he sees, fights or runs away from is an analogue for life experience. Monsters are named "Mother" and "Daddy". Unfamiliar medicines have uncertain effects. The only character seemingly at ease is a man with his head in a box. Where its heaviest influence, Silent Hill 2, is a verbose, 10-hour odyssey, Lone Survivor, from its conception in 2008, was always intended to be concise.
"I'd heard about an independent game jam, called the Bootleg Video Game Jam, where the idea was to make bootleg versions of famous games," Byrne explains. "So, I did this NES-style version of Silent Hill 2, called Soundless Mountain, and it won the competition. That gave me a lot of comfort. I was working at Frontier at the time, on Kinectimals, and I wanted to do something that would get me out of that job. I knew now that 2D survival horror could work, so I created a minimal guideline—one gun, one environment, one kind of enemy—and Lone Survivor spiraled from there.
"The thing I thought was revolutionary about Silent Hill 2 was that it cottoned onto invisible actions from the player to determine the ending. It's quite basic, how the endings are interpreted, but the process is never made clear to the player. Morality meters and sanity meters rub me the wrong way. Why do you need to show that? Silent Hill 2 isn't explicit about the effects of your choices, and I wanted to take that aspect and fuse it into every part of Lone Survivor. Anything added to the game had to reinforce what I was trying to say. And that's how it grew, all the weird stuff and side quest stuff—I tried to make everything contribute to the ending."
"Games are incredibly sheltered, and games without strong themes don't interest me." — Jasper Byrne
After selling Soul Brother to then-emerging publisher Adult Swim, Byrne was able to quit Frontier and finance Lone Survivor from his own pocket. Based on a prototype game he'd made while living in Japan, Byrne also created his own programming language and tool set. "It's very similar to SCUMM," he explains, "the language Ron Gilbert made to create Maniac Mansion."
With those practical elements in place, Byrne began building Lone Survivor in earnest. First came a single, "vertical slice" level, released in Flash, which served both to demonstrate the game's combat and lighting effects and create word of mouth publicity. Several years since the release of a core Silent Hill game and during an era when "action horror" affairs like Gears of War and Dead Space predominated, Byrne believed a slower, gloomier, more psychological affair would be of interest.
After that came various, other obligations. A former indie guitarist turned drum and bass musician, Byrne wrote and recorded Lone Survivor's soundtrack himself. "I used the guitar I'd bought when I was about 11," he says. "It was crap, but it had a good kind of scratchy sound."
The actions that would influence how the game finishes—for example, using too many health tablets—were created alongside the multiple endings themselves, ensuring consistency across replays. But it was only partway through Lone Survivor's development that Byrne realized what could set it apart from other games about trauma.
"When people ask me for advice on making games, I tell them to go out there and experience stuff. That's how you find your stories." — Jasper Byrne
"The darkness needed a bit of light," he explains. "The revelation I had was to split the game basically into two paths. If you were playing a certain way you could eat a rat to survive, or something, but if you did it the other way, played sensibly, gave yourself a treat and looked after the character with cups of warm coffee or finding music to listen to, he could come out of all this pain. It became about recognizing there could be something wrong in your nature, but with nurture it could get better."
So became Lone Survivor's central theme. Rather than avoid confronting one's pain, the game implies that ordeals and the act of dealing with them can be contributive and curative. To suffer the world is to know it more intimately. To see him break down in the basement and fantasize about a better reality, is to see the protagonist of Lone Survivor understand that pain can lead to fulfillment: On waking from his daydream, though still trapped in the dark basement, he reminds himself he's strong and he "can do this".
Byrne himself, while creating the game, underwent a similar process. His wildly fluctuating personal circumstances are readily observable in the ups and downs of the Lone Survivor.
"I'd just lost my father from cancer, and I think that had a huge bearing on it," he says. "At the same time, I had a newborn daughter—on the weekends I'd sit with her on my knee, making the game. I was right in the thick of it back then. When the character breaks down and says, 'I can't do this,' that's his epiphany. He sees the truth of his situation."
Its dark interiors and intimidating enemies suggest otherwise, but five years since its release, Lone Survivor remains one of the few games about anguish and mental illness that both illustrates the deepest pits of life experience and insists they can be escaped. Where some of its contemporaries circumvent or make digestible the realities of loss and struggle, Lone Survivor, albeit through allegory, puts them on-screen. It impresses, with the benefit of its creator's perspective, that hardship is long lasting but can eventually be wielded; and that when armed with the experiences of grief, turmoil and recuperation, life and relationships become fuller.
That complex and perhaps contradictory story is why Lone Survivor, even today, is true where other games ostensibly about adulthood can feel false. Like Byrne himself, who over the course of its four-year creation experienced both immense pain and reward, Lone Survivor attests to uncertainty.
"There aren't enough games that don't try to appeal to a broad market, or that appeal to me as an adult," Byrne says. "And even when they deal with adult subject matter, they're often still aimed at young teens, more about angst than genuine, long-term suffering. Games are incredibly sheltered, and games without strong themes don't interest me. I'd rather attempt, humbly, to advance good writing. Now, when people ask me for advice on making games, I tell them to go out there and experience stuff. That's how you find your stories."