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Lone Survivor: A Breakdown

March 28, 2012

As I mentioned this weekendLone Survivor, the newest game from indie developer Jasper Byrne, came out on Tuesday. There’s been a new launch trailer which you may enjoy if you haven’t heard much about the game yet:

Now that it has been out for a couple of days, today I’d like to discuss a few things about the game, namely my analysis of its meaning, and what parts of it I think were particularly well-designed. Naturally, you shouldn’t be reading this post if you plan to play the game, but if you’ve had a chance to play it already, then sally forth.

The End

To begin, a warning: I have played Lone Survivor only once, so I haven’t experienced everything that the game has to offer. In particular, this interview with Jasper Byrne reveals that the ending you receive is based on the mental health of You. Myself, I ended with a B+ and had the following ending. After defeating the “mother”, I found The Director mortally wounded, and, on his body, a note with the passcode to the hospital. I go there and find a clipboard with my name on it. At the end of the hall is my room: I enter, swallow a pill on the table, and crawl into bed. As You falls asleep, the image of the pale man faded into view in front of the scene, then You is standing at the side of the bed with the girl lying on it. From what she says, she’s clearly dying, and she tells You that everything will be okay and suggests that “after things are back to normal, [he] should leave this city.” The game ends with a man (presumably You) sitting by the tree overlooking the city, wearing a black suit, with a stuffed animal sitting next to him. He stands up, faces the camera, and he looks older or perhaps tired.

Before I even begin to try to make sense of this, I think it’s important to establish how I interpreted the game’s major elements, namely the monsters and the visions of people.

Catastrophe or Crazy?

The first issue to consider is whether the monsters and the outbreak even exist. If they do, the most likely explanation of the game is that You is weary and lonely from the isolation and the constant struggle to survive in a shattered world—he constantly has flashbacks to the times before, and is losing grip with reality.

Although this is not an unreasonable explanation, the game seems to be deeper than this, so I believe that the monsters do not exist. This opens up two distinct sub-possibilities: You is outright crazy and has no good reason to be imagining an apocalypse, or You is traumatized over something and isn’t seeing reality accurately. Unsurprisingly, I choose the latter—the former is not really supported by the events in the game, as I’ll discuss below.

So, in summary, I believe that You is deeply scarred by some event and pictures the world as devastated and overrun with monsters.

Working backwards from the (my) ending to the game, it seems that a girl about whom You cares deeply—for brevity, let’s just assume it’s his wife—was sick and died. He is clearly haunted by this, seeing her appear before him every so often. And overcome with depression, reality slips away from him. In turn, he withdraws, viewing his friends and neighbours as monsters that interfere with his now difficult life, and who he avoids by sneaking past whenever he can.

Other things get tied in as well: the constant struggle to find food indicates how challenging everyday tasks are when you’re depressed—it’s often easier to just eat some prepared food rather than go through the trouble of cooking something yourself. But when you do, it’s especially wonderful (e.g. the ham). And a trip to the grocery store involves avoiding everyone (the “monsters”) and quietly getting a single item—what a struggle that is!

The People

As for the visions, I believe that the ones when You is awake are glimpses of reality. For instance, at Chie’s apartment, You finds himself at a party. But whereas his friends are enjoying themselves and relaxing, in his state of depression You cannot believe that such happiness could be real, eventually viewing them as twisted human forms. This interpretation is further supported by the score screen at the end of the game, which tells you where you earned points for positive/negative mental health. I had three entries related to the party: “Took the time to talk to Benzido/Kenny” and “Talked to Chie before getting the gun”. I suspect that these added to my mental wellness since it shows that You tried to reach out to his friends, tried to stay rooted in reality (though he failed). On a side note, I would be interested to see what would have happened if I had never picked up the gun at all…

Now consider the other people in the game: Hank (in the gun store), the pale man, the man with a box on his head, the man on the stage, and The Director. First, I’m pretty sure that Hank is the only real person that You sees as real—and notice that he’s addicted to drugs: like You, he is unable to cope with reality. As such, You, who now the views the world without hope, accepts only those who are equally distressed: other people are not seeing the world as “honestly” as You and Hank do.

The pale man is undoubtedly You, as is revealed at the end with his image flashing over the screen, fulfilling his prophesy from the first encounter with him in which he said, “Until we meet for the 3rd time…” (this was my third time). As for the man with the box on his head, I suspect he might also be You, with the box representing You’s desire to shut out the real world. I did not see the man on the stage in the chair more than once, so I’m afraid I have little analysis to offer there.

The Director

Finally, we have The Director. Once more, I believe this is You. Specifically, I believe that’s it’s You’s happy, healthy self, and his deep desire to be well again. The Director supplies You with lots of useful gear, and offers harmless flares in exchange for You’s bullets: he is trying to encourage You to take care of himself and to come back to reality.

He also gives You purpose by asking You to retrieve the Sleepy Cat comics that The Director enjoys—and, judging by You’s own reaction to the stuffed Sleepy Cat, that You also enjoys. Furthermore, the whole story of Sleepy Cat is that the cat ends up solving problems by going to sleep at the opportune time or place: likewise, You recovers a little each day by sleeping, and ultimately admits himself to the hospital and goes to sleep there. Lastly, The Director gives cat food to You in return for the comics, thus enabling You to befriend a cat that roams the streets, further improving You’s life.

The Director’s final act is to provide You the motivation to admit himself to the hospital so that he might get better. Previously, he was reluctant to go there, imagining that he is blocked from entering—it required a “code”. And You, recognizing that he cares about The Director (his true, happy self), is distraught at the idea that The Director might be dead for good, and thus uses his strength to go to the hospital and take the first step to recovering.

This all seems to come together, doesn’t it?

Wrapping It Up

With all of these game and story elements perceived thus, it seems very reasonable (and likely) to me that You is indeed depressed over the death of his wife and has become disconnected from the real world. Healthy friends and neighbours become twisted monsters, since they do not fit in his dark view of the world. And he finds help and strength deep inside of himself, which takes the form of some of the people he meets. In the end, You is snapped back to reality, finally facing the truth of what happened to his wife, and admitting himself to a hospital to recover.

Upon his recovery, You sets out for the tree outside town, remembering his wife’s suggestion from her deathbed.  And after sitting for a while to look out over the sprawl, he stands up, and turns his back to the city.

And a Few Side Notes…

Overall, I really enjoyed my experience with Lone Survivor. The game did a great job of pulling me into You’s head and mindset—for one, finding and making food really was a struggle and a source of stress (but in a good, engaging way!). Additionally, befriending the cat and naming it Happy was the single most depressing thing that happened to me in the game. And I absolutely cannot go without mentioning the mask that You wears: in the low-detail pixel environment, it always looks like You has an absurdly large grin, which is a cruel juxtaposition in his depressive world and state of mind. Brilliant.

There are other thoughts about other elements that I couldn’t fit nicely into this post, but suffice it to say that there were plenty of things in the game to analyze, which, as this blog should make evident, I long for in games. Needless to say, I will be investigating Jasper Byrne’s previous games and look forward to his future ones.

Pick up your own copy of Lone Survivor from www.lonesurvivor.co.uk.

These, of course, are my interpretations of the game and what I encountered, but I would love to discuss other possibilities: please feel free to let me know your thoughts on the game’s meaning here in the comments.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Sefam permalink
    March 29, 2012 9:13 am

    What about Blue the man then which you see once when you first get the flashlight, and then see in that room in the city, where you either acknowledge or ignore his existence. He is related to the BLUE ending.

    • March 29, 2012 9:36 am

      You know, I’m not sure—I’d probably have to play it again knowing what I do now to be able to say anything useful. But what do you mean by the Blue ending?

      • March 29, 2012 3:33 pm

        You can get two endings in the game I believe. I did 3 runs myself. And if you notice, you see the man in blue in the intro of the game, when you turn on the flashlight after you get it from the girl, he is there with a bullet hole in his chest.

        In my first run, I acknowledged Blue’s existence(I know you) in the dance room scene, I also had the blue dream once(because I ran out of ammo in a certain section) and two green dreams(one by pills, one because I ran out of light in a certain section), and pretty much shot everything I could in the game with my handgun. I got the Blue ending instead of the Green ending.

        My second run was entirely pacifist, killed nothing, didn’t take any drugs either. Got the green ending.

        You know what ending you will get in the hospital scene at the end based on the pill’s color. The green ending is the one you got. The Blue ending could add quite a bit to your analysis.

      • March 29, 2012 3:44 pm

        Ah! Good to know. Hopefully this weekend I’ll have a chance to replay to get the blue ending. Do you recall what your mental health score was for the blue one? That is, is the blue ending perhaps a low score and the green a high one? I would presume so, considering that when you shot everything you had blue, whereas when you killed nothing you had green.

        This also begs the question of whether there is a red ending. The red pills are fundamentally different from the green and blue ones (red keep you awake, whereas the others cause you to sleep and dream), so perhaps not.

  2. March 29, 2012 6:09 pm

    I had mental health D- when I finished on the blue ending, as well as ending rank D.

  3. wjomlex permalink
    April 2, 2012 6:02 pm

    Ah, I got the Blue ending with a mental health rank of E, and a Blue rank of X. I was pretty gun happy for a lot of the game (though very efficient in my gun use), and had two blue dreams (one on purpose, one because of lack of ammo), and one green dream. Never found any red pills. I think, fitting in with your analysis, the Blue ending is You’s inability to find help. He ends up killing attempting to kill the director, who angrily asks if You has learned nothing from his experience. Afterwards, You and Her are together overlooking the ruined city, and it seems that You hasn’t come to terms with the fact that Her is actually dead.

    This sure is a great game, and your analyses are always thought provoking. I hadn’t seen the launch trailer, but it’s pretty good. I’d recommend watching the trailer for Dead Island if you haven’t seen it (though I can’t really recommend actually playing the game :/)

  4. LonSurvivorComa permalink
    January 15, 2013 7:18 pm

    Interesting analysis. I personnally think that “You” is in a deep state of Coma. “You” is getting a lot of questions by the man in blue and the box guy about “why is he here”, “have you figured it out yet”, etc.

    I only played once and killed pretty much everything that I could by exchanging blue pills with Hank. Also, I’m not sure who’s the guy from the letters in the beginning “Brooke”.

    I may make a bigger analysis when after my second playthrough, but it is really rare that a game pushes me to play it twice.

    • March 3, 2013 10:40 pm

      Thank you! I don’t usually play games twice either. Too many other good ones to check out.

  5. Jel permalink
    March 3, 2013 4:41 pm

    Or it could be like Sulent Hill, where basically evryone is insane

    • March 3, 2013 10:41 pm

      I haven’t played Silent Hill, so I couldn’t say. But there’s certainly some level of insanity going on here.

    • Rezhan permalink
      March 8, 2013 11:05 am


      Sir, allow me to prevent you from saying such a crude statement regarding Silent Hill.
      When refering to Silent Hill games, I am only talking about the three first games, considering the fact that afterward, an american studio bought the license and made…well…another type of games which, as far as I’m concerned, have their qualities but cannot equal their precursors in any point.

      I think I got side-tracked.

      What I was wanting to say is : Insanity is a major point in Silent Hill because we do not know whether the protagonists and some characters are or are not insane and to what extent, which is mostly a main theme in the third episode of this wonderous serie.

      One of the background issues of the serie is that all the events taking place in the city of Silent Hill are prone to misunderstanding and doubt, because of the whole gameplay and events which I cannot develop here, thus it is interesting to note that the ways of inducing this idea to the player in the three first episodes of the serie are pretty much similar to the ones in Lone Survivor; which is relatively logical knowing that Lone Survivor’s creator said he took inspiration in the Silent Hill games.

      As a conclusion, I’d like to pinpoint the fact that the thing that made me spend this time writing this answer is that it is important not to assimilate the latest SH games which might correspond to the description given by Jel with the first ones that are much more deep in their developement -just see the Making-of on youtube, you’ll be amazed-.
      And Lone Survivor is way as great as the first silent hill games, or at least close to, but this last statement is just my opinion.

      Post-Scriptum : Great analysis, but it is true that maybe you could make it even more interesting by seeing the three endings (three, I think, not two).

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