Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thoughts on Lone Survivor

I just a finished Lone Survivor and because there is so much interesting stuff going on in it, I thought it was worth to write a blog post about it. At first glance Lone Survivor might look like some kind of 2D Silent Hill ripoff*, but there is a lot more to it than what is perceived at first sight.
In summary, Lone Survivor is basically about surviving in a world where most people been turned into monsters. You play as a guy that have been holed up alone in an apartment for quite some time and who is no longer sure what is real and what is not. It is viewed from a 2D side-scrolling perspective with pixel the size of fists, forcing you to imagine what most objects really look like. The story and atmosphere is very Lynchian in tone and filled all kinds of wonderful strangeness. Most of the gameplay is about conserving various resources, exploring the environment (with a map straight out of Silent Hill) and shooting / avoiding bad guys. I thought the first half of the game was really good, but later on it becomes a bit repetitive and fails to be as engaging as it was starting out. The game is truly a diamond in the rough though and implements some truly innovative features that are well worth discussing.

One large world
A striking feature of the game is that you can always go back to the room you started (and most other places you visit). In fact it is vital for your survival in the game. You need to go back to save the game, cook food,  check radio messages, etc. This creates a constant need to come back to your home base and it helps build up a solid sense of place. Also, many locations have characters and objects that reward you when revisited, adding to the feel of a persistent and real world.
This is not something new for videogames (many rpgs and some adventure games feature similar mechanics), but I cannot name a single horror game that use it. By allowing the protagonist to always have his own place to go back to, it increase the survival aspect of the game immensely. The simple act of forcing you to cook your food at home greatly enhances this feeling, and is so much more immersive eating what you find on the spot. Mechanics like that also make the environment seem more real and objects like stove pop out from the background to become something with a purpose.

There is a bad side to the open world design though, and that is backtracking. I have covered this subject earlier, and Lone Survivor brings out some new aspects to problem. The intial reaction to backtracking is that it is an annoyance to the player, but on some further consideration it is clear that is quite important. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, having the player revisit areas makes the game's world feel much more alive. Therefore, backtracking in Lone Survivor is a crucial element, and not something that one should simply try and minimize. However, while the backtracking helps build the world of the game, it backfires very easily. Traversing the same section of the map easily becomes repetitive, and you as a player quickly try and find ways to get it over with faster. When you get into this mind set, you are pulled out of the world, thus counteracting the building of presence it should be doing in the first place!
For instance, Lone Survivor feature a system to travel instantly back and forth between the apartment and last place you visited by looking into a mirror. This is a neat way of fixing quick traversal as it works with the story of the game, keeping the player's sense of presence. However, once the need arise to start going back and forth a lot, you stop roleplaying along with the mirror gazing, and it decays into an abstract tool for accessing abstract mechanics of the game such as saving. The same happens when trying to sneak past an enemy multiple times or even just walking the same path over and over. The travels become an monotonous chore and the feeling of immersion fades.
So how can this be fixed? First of all, a solution is not to try and remove the backtracking. As mentioned earlier, this is a crucial part of the experience. What should be focused on instead is to make the backtracking more varied and make sure the player does not feel inclined to (or is discouraged from) doing it too many times in a row. The experience should be designed in such a way that even though the player is going back a familiar path, the act of traveling should be in itself engaging, and not just a means to an end to use some kind of mechanic. This does not mean that it must be fun, it can actually be boring, but just that it is presented in such a manner that the player sees the journey as an important aspect of the experience. This is not an easy thing to accomplish especially in an open world design, where the designer has much less control over the flow of the game. But if considered from the start I do not see any problem with achieving it, and to have other mechanics work with it. Which brings me to next topic.

Combat is a quite a big part in Lone Survivor and comes with a bunch of problems. I think the main issue is that it overexposures you to the monsters of the game. Because forcing the player to deal with enemy encounter is such a big part of the game, one very quickly becomes used to the look of the creatures. This is quite a shame, because the ambiguous pixel graphics are quite good at depicting them in a moody and disturbing way. But after staring at a monster for the tenth time in a row most of the effect is lost. I think the encounters should have been briefer and more sparse.
A problem that Lone Survivor does avoid is that of combat detracting from the focus of the experience. Normally in horror games, having combat means that the player looks forward to monster encounters, since fighting them is so gratifying. Not so here. You only have a single gun as a weapon and shooting is quite clumsy, but simplistic and mechanically stable enough for it to be easily used as intended. It is not something that you have very fun doing though and mostly you do it simply because it is the easiest way of bypassing a threat (which works great with the story).
There are more problems to the combat though, and all are connected to the backtracking. First off, the game features a standard "die and retry" death mechanic that I do not think fits very well. Whenever you die, you almost always have to go back the exact same path that you did before and repeat the same sequence of actions. This essentially requires the player to do even more (non-engaging) backtracking, something that is already lessening immersion for the player. Given the strange story and gameplay based on resource management, I think death could have been implemented in numerous other ways without resorting to the standard trial and error way. For instance the player restart from the scene of death, but lose precious resources, gain some kind of injury or just be transported back to bed with any progress intact.
Having to sneak past enemies is also part of the game's combat mechanic, and at first it works quite well. However, because of the backtracking it soon becomes necessary to sneak past the enemy over and over again. This repetition not only makes the whole gameplay boring, it also pulls the player out of the immersive atmosphere and sneaking becomes an abstract mechanistic obstacle. A big part of the game is to choose whether to use lethal force or not, but choosing the stealth option is far less appealing, not only because it is quickly becomes a chore, but because it pulls you out of the experience.
In Lone Survivor combat is quite important for both story and gameplay reasons, so I do not think simply removing it would be an option. Instead, I think that having more dynamic enemy encounters could make most problems go away. This way the player does not always have to use repeat a section of stealth when backtracking. Monster exposure could also be better controlled this way. By keeping track of how the player is doing, the game could spawn enemies as needed.

Dynamic systems
What was I liked the best of about Lone Survivor was the dynamic nature of the game. The player consantly needs to keep track of health/hunger, sanity, ammunition along with a few other things. These are not just abstract meters the player need to keep in balance, but things that affect how the game plays out. For instance, the game triggers some scenes not based on where the player is located, but on how the current stats are. So for instance, running out of ammunition has a special scene associated with it. The protagonist also constantly comments on his current state in various ways which I thought really helped in building atmosphere.
Mot having strictly laid out events makes Lone Survivor feels so much more alive. I only wish that the game would have gone full out with it. The path the player needs to take to the game is still quite static, and have little dynamic elements to it. Because the story is so strange and fragmented the game could easily have had a random order of the important scenes. Instead of forcing a strict order on puzzles, items and major events, these could have depended on how the way the player played the game. This could also solve some backtracking problems and make sure the player found certain things in a specific order no matter how they chose to go. Solutions to puzzles could also depend on what the player currently had available. This kind of of design does not have to require any sophisticated algorithms either, but could use simple means and still be very much designed (as opposed to completely random).
Having a world that shapes according to the world is something I think can be very useful for story focused games. While Lone Survivor does not fully implement something like this, the element that it does have is a good indicator of what could be done.

Importance of text
Another thing I really liked in game was the great usage of text. In our age of crisp graphics and high quality voice overs, I think good old text is much underused. Because of the low fidelity graphics in Lone Survivor, writing plays a crucial part in giving feedback to the player. That does not mean that text does all of the work though, rather it is complemented by both sound and graphics, forming a nice synthesis. Here are some examples:

  • When using the radio, a brief sound sample of radio static is heard as the text of the transmission is displayed. This simple sound effect really sets the mood for how the text should be read and greatly adds to the experience. Another great thing about using text in these instances is that it handles repetition much better. Reading the same text a few times is not nearly as repetitive as hearing the same voice-over repeated. 
  • It is through text that most of the feelings of the protagonist are shown. Sometimes this is accompanied by audio/visuals, but mostly it is just presented as pure text. This is yet another great application for text, and while it can be a bit annoying to have to press a button for it to go away, overall it really helps to make the character's mood come across. Also, like with the radio message, repetition is a lot less problematic what a voice-over would be.
  • One point int game, the player is standing on balcony with nothing more than a house front seen in the background. But if you interact at a certain spot, the protagonist describes what he sees looking out over the city. I thought this worked nicely and really fitted with the protagonists situation of being locked inside an apartment complex. I actually think having had some image shown of the cityscape would have been a lot less effective, but when you have a lot of resources at your disposal  it is hard to forget that less might sometimes be more.
This is just a few samples of the great usage of text in Lone survivor. Of course it is far from the only game  to do this, but I think it is a fine example of its potential.
Text is much easier to autogenerate and to transform in various ways, lending it to dynamic systems a lot better than voices. It also leaves more to the imagination and can work great when combined with sound and graphics. It is important not to forget about and consider having it as an integral part of the game. As seen in Lone Survivor much of the text based stuff works because so integrated into the experience.

Multiple endings
The last thing I want to discuss, is the multiple endings of Lone Survivor. Not the actual story content of the endings, but of how the overall structure is designed. Basically, the player gets one of three endings based on how you have performed during the game. In doing so, it takes a lot of different variables into account (which are actually shown at the end of the game). So the game collects very personal data from you, and yet there are only three (not very personal) prefabricated endings to be seen.
When finishing a game with multiple endings I always get a feeling of having been cheated. A game with a single ending, even if it is not that good, almost always feel better than a game where I know there are more endings to be seen. Suddenly the game sets up a sort of competitive goal that I was not asking for: "see if you can find all endings" or "now try and get the proper ending" and I get the feeling that I am missing out on the full experience or that what I had was not the proper one.
I think that a better way of doing it would have been to have a dynamic final sequence tailored based upon the choices that you have. This would have made the ending much more personal and it would not be possible to simply look it up on YouTube. But that is just in theory of course, it is hard to say how it would work in practice.
Heavy rain does similar thing to do this, and have a certain number of smaller clips that are chosen based upon certain options during the play-through. I did not find this very satisfying either, and the problem here is that it is very easy to look up each of the individual clips. So to avoid that, the final scenes must be quite dynamic and details based on how the game was played.
Actually, I think the best choice is to not have an ending sequence at all and have the game play all the way to the credits. It is actually a bit strange that having played a game to the very end, we are rewarded with a non-interactive cut-scene. Pretty much every story based game works like this. But if the interaction continued all to the end, I think you could have a lot of differences and it would leave one feeling a lot less cheated.

A final note on this: In Amnesia we tried to have multiple endings, with the idea that each ending should fit the playing style of the player. So a player that played very aggressively would get a that kind of ending and so on. However we only collected data for very few (two or so actually) events, making any guess on the player style of play close to random. In the end, the endings (or the final sequence for that manner) were not received very well. Even though having multiple endings often sounds good in theory, I do not think we will be used it again, because it has a such a high risk of backfiring.

End notes
Lone Survivor is in no way a perfect game, but it is filled with lots of great and original ideas. If you are the slightest interested in horror games you should really give it a go. It is easily one of the most original and fresh horror games I have played for a couple of years.

*The designer actually did make a so called demake of SH2 called "Soundless Mountain II"

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