Alone in the Kitchen

In Lone Survivor, a ramen diet will make you lose your mind. As the last survivor of a viral apocalypse, the enigmatically named “You” scrounges for food and shelter in dilapidated apartment buildings and empty streets. It was when I exerted almost all of his limited resources—ammunition, baked beans, everything—to escape his own apartment building that I found an empty deli with an ever-replenishing cardboard box of junk food. Finally, I found a way of making a life for myself in this world. I found ramen noodles. The rest of my time in Jasper Byrne’s grainy post-apocalypse, I kept “You” on a diet of cheap noodles and instant coffee while he searched side alleys. I thought I had found a way of gaming the system, of setting my own pace by using the abundant supply of cheap food. I thought wrong. The ramen kept “You” alive, but made him miserable. I failed.

Following its release at the end of March, Lone Survivor has managed to gain somewhat of a cult following. Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Adam Smith called it “thoughtful horror of the sort it’s rare to see in any medium,” while many other critics remarked on how well the game connects themes of psychological horror and survival in a rough 2D pixel-art environment. Arguably, most of the praise went to the surprisingly well-developed world that only needs little time to convince players of the dangers that await “You.”

What I did not understand, initially, was that the terrifying world around “You” is built meticulously around Jasper Byrne’s taste. Small wonder: Byrne, a former UK-based drum & bass producer, did almost everything for the game on his own. Byrne wrote the code and made the sound, art, and design. When the music shifts ever so slightly from threatening industrial drone to fuzzy guitar chords that indicate a moment of safety, it becomes apparent how much thought went into designing spaces that play with players’ emotions. It’s a highly personal game. 

But the key to understanding this lies in its food mechanic. “You” is surprisingly human in his needs. “I’m hungry,” he says while you rifle through drawers, looking for a can opener; “I’m starving,” if you keep him waiting. He tires, too. “Tired,” he mutters then. You need to feed “You” and keep him safe. That’s just the bare minimum.

“There are all those rules,” Byrne tells me. “You see, all the foods in the game do something to various invisible statistics. You have to figure out which do what. Some foods have almost no effect at all, and certain ones are really bad. By that kind of experimentation, people would find out that it’s not good to subsist on ramen. It’s not good to drink too much coffee.”

“You” most definitely is not you, but you still want him to do better than eating stale crackers all day.

These seem to be universal ideas. But the world is as much about Byrne as it is about “You’s” fight for survival. Why is every bottle of milk spoiled? “I hate milk,” says Byrne. Why is instant coffee not quite enough? “I moan when I can’t get a decent espresso somewhere.” Why are there dried squid sticks scattered around in the world? “My wife is Japanese, so dried squid is always in the cupboard.” However, “You” doesn’t like dried squid: “Eeeew … disgusting,” he mutters when you force him to eat one. He’s wrong not to. The squid sticks are actually really good: “They are nutritional and keep him going for a while,” Byrne says. “You” probably never had them from a street barbecue in Japan, like Byrne did.

Byrne describes the film Avalon, by Mamoru Oshii, to explain his particular focus on food in Lone Survivor. “It has all these scenes of the main character preparing food for her dog. She’s putting so much more love into the food of the dog than what she eats herself. It gives you a perspective on the character.” In a way, the lone survivor becomes your tiny post-apocalyptic Tamagotchi. “You” most definitely is not you, but you still want him to do better than eating stale crackers all day. Even more, the feelings you put into preparing food for “You” helps to characterize you, the player. Are you a cruel master who is content with feeding the survivor scraps, if it means he will stop moaning about being hungry and get on with the search for a new way of escaping the city? Or will you try to prepare a delicious ham for him, keeping him happy even if it means more chores in a game that is supposed to be about exciting, tense survival? Lone Survivor will keep track, and present you with a soul-crushing chart of your various failures—tracking every action, every mistake you committed over the past hours.

What “You” is to the player, Lone Survivor is to Byrne. During the last days of development when Byrne was rushing to get the game ready, it was Lone Survivor that took precedence over Byrne’s life. “I used my life’s savings on the game. So I was running out of money, I hardly ate and I worked ridiculous hours. Towards the end I worked through the entire night and worked 48 hours straight. I’m still recovering.” It took Byrne more than four years of active development to finish Lone Survivor on his own. His self-imposed crunch at the end of it, though, was a first. When he worked as a designer at David Braben’s Cambridge-based Frontier Development, working on titles such as Kinectimals, it was Byrne’s newly born daughter who kept him from suffering crunch time.

The ramen kept “You” alive, but made him miserable. I failed.

Lone Survivor is what brought Byrne back to game development in the first place. After being burnt out on music, Byrne started making small indie titles, short games that helped him get back into game development after two Amiga adventure titles in the ’90s. These won him enough recognition to be hired by Frontier Development. But his ultimate goal was to create a game that would have a similar impact on new players as the Silent Hill series had on him. The first result was Soundless Mountain II, a demake—a simplified, stylishly pixelized version of the beginning of Silent Hill 2. But it was the small community of other Cambridge independent developers—Terry Cavanagh, Increpare, Sophie Houlden—who helped Byrne sell the Flash game Soul Brother to Adult Swim and convinced him to go indie.

Lone Survivor is the game that Byrne was trying to create most of his adult life, and it shows in the way it pits a lone man against near-impossible odds, loneliness, and scarce resources that will, inevitably, run out. It is a game of persistence, of suffering for your ideas and clinging to your sense of self—and then, coming out at the end of it, beaten and bruised and successful.