So I chose Lone Survivor as the first of my horror excursions because its art style made me think I could handle it. And I can, for the most part. I even went so far as to obey the horror rituals of turning off all the lights, cranking the sound, and playing alone at night.
The game is freaky. There’s a great sequence in a tunnel early on that shows me just how intricate creating horror is. Pixelated or no, the creeping darkness, shlupping monsters, and cacophonous soundtrack create some real fear deep in my gut. This game reminds me why I get afraid of the dark.
Lone Survivor also does a great job of showing me what a real engagement curve looks like. In most games, I can get a feel for what’s happening. When I have to backtrack in a Zelda or Souls game, I know what enemies will be where and what they’ll be doing. But Lone Survivor changes its enemy layout in ways that keep me cautious and on edge.
Lone Survivor is about the horror I can see coming. It doesn’t actually work on surprise or jump scares. It takes the time to show the player that something’s ahead, and lets them fret and stress over what that thing might be. There’s one scenario where you can see an enemy through the barred window on a door. The enemy isn’t significantly different from the others encountered so far, except that it’s easily twice their size. And the first time you see it is not the time you need to interact with it. It’s a promise. It’s the game telling you that this thing is coming, and letting you panic for all the time you need.
Silent Hill 2, which is lauded as one of the best horror titles of all time, does the same thing with the first appearance of its iconic monster, Pyramid Head. There is a cutscene introduction to the monster, but your very first encounter is just seeing it standing there, behind some bars, unmoving, waiting for you.
Lone Survivor has some mechanics that I don’t like as much, like upkeep of hunger, thirst, and sleep. I’m not sure of all the effects surrounding these stats, but they provide more annoyance than the tension and desperation they’re supposed to evoke.