Thursday, February 07, 2013

Just wanted to talk about an indie game

I haven't talked about Lone Survivor before now. Probably because tonight was only my second time playing it. I don't take to survival horror well, apparently. Or maybe I take to it too well. I'll get to that. The point is, this is a game I will likely reference a lot in the future and say "See, this is how survival horror games should be made, and this is why."

Now, I'm not going to write a review on this. For one thing, more credible gaming-columnist-types have reviewed this fine piece of indie gaming before. For another, I've only logged just over an hour, and I play very slowly, so I can't exactly review the product as a whole.

(image borrowed without permission from, because come on, it's not like they made it)

So, why am I going so slowly through the game? Well, aside from being a bit of a wimp, I seem to worry a great deal about the main character's well-being. Really, that's a good thing for a horror game. A lot of modern "survival horror" games are really just action games with creepy monsters, because that's what big developers think people want.

Here's the thing: you do encounter and sometimes fight monsters in this game, but in the time I've played, one of the more unsettling parts of the game in my opinion has been the creeping dread that my character is going to slowly starve to death because he's been stuck in this apartment building for a week and has barely found any food. That's putting emphasis on the "survival" in survival horror.

Tonight, I ate the last of the beef jerky I found the other day and was still hungry shortly thereafter. I tracked down several cans of goods but was without a can-opener. Meanwhile, my character complains constantly of hunger and is acting delirious. I wound up popping some mysterious pills out of desperation. You can't imagine the wave of relief I felt after fighting my way to a neighbor's kitchen, where I found the sought-after can opener, and a fresh ham. Never in my life have I been so elated by the sight of ham. Now, if only any of the ovens in the building were working...

That brings me to the other half of what's great about this: there really is no clear metric for how well your character is doing. You know you need food to survive, but don't know how much is enough or when the hunger will go from a minor annoyance to a mortal concern. The same is true of sleep. You know the pills you find can probably be useful, but it's not clear how, and they probably have nasty side-effects. You know monsters will hurt you but you don't know how much. Your odds of survival are always an unknown.

On the other hand, you're keenly aware of the amount of charge remaining in your flashlight, the number of bullets left for your gun, and the number of edible food items you've located, all of which are ever dwindling. Well, at least there's a stuffed animal I can tell my woes to.

So, to my point: many games are popular because the player gets the opportunity to control a powerful avatar and go on epic adventures. But when you're making a survival horror game, you want to go the other direction and make the player feel relatively powerless. Cowering in the dark, eating rice pudding and talking to your stuffed animal might not sound like great fun, but it makes for a very engaging horror experience.

Obviously, this can be tricky, because if a game makes the player feel too powerless and lost, they'll just get frustrated. That's why it's important to remember the power of that fresh ham in the refrigerator. Those little moments of hope can keep the player going. Couple that with a story that is slow to betray the secrets of the world we're trying to survive in, and you'll keep players intrigued and emotionally invested in the game.

Anyway, that's about all I wanted to say tonight. Hopefully I'll have something more universally engaging to talk about soon. In the meantime, I need sleep.

Peace and love, you wonderful reader people. May life hand you a fresh delicious ham when you least expect it.

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