Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Lone Survivor, Guilt and Parents

James Sunderland returns to Silent Hill in the hoping of reuniting with his wife, who died years earlier from a terminal illness. Instead, he's confronted with the truth that he was the one who murdered her, after she became too ill to have sex with him. The game is filled with monsters and scenarios that reflect James's personal demons. I've discussed this before in various other articles.

Lone Survivor is similarly played out. Though ostensibly it's a horror game, focused on a protagonist trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic American city, the real theme of the game is regret. The title refers not to the character's status as the survivor of a global pandemic, but his guilt at having lived through something that killed someone close to him. He is the lone survivor of an unspecified accident which takes place before the game begins. The various monsters, events and hallucinations he encounters throughout gameplay are analogous of his experiences with survivor's guilt.

At the end of the game, the unnamed protagonist finds a clipboard inside a hospital, which lists him as a former patient. He has no memory of ever being there, but after walking the hallways discovers a bedroom which is familiar to him. The game then splits into two endings (there are others, but they're considered bonuses). In the “Green” ending, the protagonist has a conversation with “Her”, a character who has appeared throughout the game in Ghost form. Typically, her face has been covered by a blue eiderdown, but in the ending, she is lying on her side, talking directly to the protagonist with her appearance unobscured. She tells the protagonist that everything is going to be alright and that he should leave the city and try not to worry about her. She then vanishes and the game cuts to credits.

In the other ending, the “Blue” ending, the protagonist is confronted by another ghost that has also sporadically appeared throughout the game. He reveals himself to be an older version of the protagonist. When questioned, he begins to laugh maniacally before a bullethole appears in his chest and he lets out a loud screech. The game then cuts to the protagonist and Her sitting on a hill together, both with their backs to the camera, talking about their relationship.

Though thematically these endings are very different (the Green ending implies resolution, the Blue suggests the protagonist is still wrestling with his conscience) they share the same imagery. Her shows her face for the first time. The Blue ghost reveals himself as an aged version of the protagonist. There's a sense that the protagonist is finally recognising these characters, that despite selectively blocking out their identities throughout the rest of the game, here, at the end, he is able to come to terms with who they are. 

In Lone Survivor, things are never as they seem - metaphorically, the protagonist is cutting destroying obfuscations to discover truths. For example, one of the monsters, the Thinman, literally grabs its own face and pulls it open in order to spit blood at its victims. It's visually emblematic of the process of therapy, of removing false conceits, negative emotions and neurosis in order to learn and reveal a truer sense of self. Similarly, the protagonist of Lone Survivor spends the game uncertain of who anyone is or what they mean to him, and it's only at the end that he is able to peel back his own head, as it were, and come to terms with what has happened to him: Her was killed in an accident, and he has since been in hospital trying to recover from the guilt. 

That may seem like empty speculation and in a game as expressionistic as Lone Survivor, it's arguably counter-intuitive to try to pin down specifics of story. But if you look at how pervasively the game symbolises guilt, it seems reasonable your character tried to kill himself after surviving something horrific.

Another character the protagonist meets is The Man Who Wears a Box, a spectre who appears in dreams and constantly wears a cardboard crate over his head. He's comparable to Silent Hill 2's Pyramid Head. As has been discussed countless times, Pyramid Head is a representation of James's priapic sexual desire: he's repeatedly seen assaulting the feminine monsters of Silent Hill, the Mannequins for example, by thrusting his large sword into them. He's also disguised. The pyramid he wears is not his actual head, but a mask, as is revealed late in the game when he commits suicide by jamming a spear up through his neck.

Like Pyramid Head, The Man Who Wears a Box is a representation of the protagonist's guilt. His permanent disguise hints at shame. And like James, who visualises his sexual proclivities as hidden under this mask, the protagonist of Lone Survivor envisions himself disguised by a box – both he and The Man Who Wears a Box wear a red necktie, suggesting a link between them.

Lone Survivor explores guilt using post-modernism. There are several ways that a player can “cheat” the game, several contrivances she can exploit to earn resources without actually finding them. By choosing to swallow either blue or green pills before going to sleep, the player will wake up to find that more handgun cartridges or flashlight batteries have magically appeared in her inventory. There are also mirrors dotted around the game that can be used to instantly teleport between locations, cutting out the need to backtrack through areas that may still contain enemies.

Conceits like these are particularly noticeable in a game called “Lone Survivor.” The survival genre of videogame – titles like DayZ, The Last of Us or Fallout – is typically characterised by a scarcity of resources, with preservation of provisions being a fundamental gameplay mechanic. But here, the player can circumvent that genre trope – she can manipulate the game into acting in her favour. The taking of the pills and using of the mirrors both seem like fairly typical videogame abstractions, and they certainly wouldn't stand out in a fantasy or action title. But in an ostensible “gritty” game like Lone Survivor, they feel unfair. How these loopholes affect a sense of guilt will vary between players, but personally, every time I had to use one of the pills, I felt as if I had let the game down somehow, as if by spending all my ammo and phoning for more I was compromising Lone Survivor's atmosphere.

I also felt guilt when encountering the game's two boss characters, gigantic monsters called “Daddy” and “Mother.” When I think “guilt” I think “parents.” And I know I'm not alone in having lied to my mother and father, be it about taking cookies from the jar, my behaviour at school or my career prospects. A vast amount of self-esteem or guilt issues can be traced to a person's perceived failure to live up to their parent's expectations. That the player in Lone Survivor is pursued by Daddy and Mother and is forced – literally – to confront them smacks of Oedipal guilt. More interestingly, even when the player has “defeated” these two bosses, they aren't killed: Daddy is locked in a basement; Mother simply retreats off-screen and isn't seen again. It seems to imply that parental guilt is something which can't truly be overcome, that, in the words of poet Philip Larkin, your parents “fuck you up” and will be back at some point to continue to do so. Compounding that reaction is a scene where, having beaten Mother, the player finds that during her retreat she has mortally wounded The Director, apparently the only other human left untouched by the worldwide pandemic. This certainly speaks to my own guilt about my parents. I feel afraid to confront them not just because they're intimidating, like the hideous Mother, but also because I worry that if I “stand-up” to them, as it were, the emotional fallout will only make me feel more guilty – will only create problems.

The guilt in Lone Survivor, then, is not simply the protagonist's guilt over having survived something which killed Her. It's a static guilt, a kind of original sin which, according to Freud, essentially all people feel. We all feel guilty about, or intimidated by, the world around us. In social situations, we attempt to impress and endear ourselves to other people. We suffer from peer pressure, neurosis, daddy issues.

And in Lone Survivor, these things are represented. The truth of the protagonist's story and his own survivor's guilt, revealed at the end of the game via the unmasking of the ghosts, is only a small part of the game's picture. Taken more broadly, it represents our own anxieties that we are somehow cheating the world around us; that we're failing to be respected by our parents and that we have no right to challenge their authority.