[Content warning: The game contains themes of body dysphoria, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, picking habits, and really all sorts of stuff. However I’m intentionally not getting into too much gory detail about the game to keep it light on spoilers so this article mostly refers to these topics rather than present them.]
Lost in Vivo is the latest creation of Akuma Kira, developer of indie horror hit Spooky’s Jumpscare Mansion. The game presents itself as sparsely as possible, as is custom, saying only that the protagonist suffers from claustrophobia and must rescue their dog from the sewer. There’s also a line about meeting other people with phobias and disorders, the usual hint that there’s more the game has to offer but isn’t telling. I’m always interested in horror games that draw from life, and while the game ultimately didn’t quite play out that way, I was impressed and spooked in equal measure. The irony of a simple and compact presentation is that in reality Lost in Vivo is a sutured together organic mass of ideas, homages, gameplay styles, and technical tricks.
The game opens, after some introductory text, with you walking your service dog down the road. There’s a storm, the dog falls down a broken drain, you jump into the nearest open manhole and prepare to brave a whole lot of enclosed spaces. The visuals take the low poly throwback approach, drawing immediate comparison to both Silent Hill 2 era classics and many games from the recent indie horror game boom. LiV takes full advantage of the style’s capabilities; from depicting your lovable service pup and sentient balls of gristle, to a slew of lighting and glitch effects. From the start you can see it’s a game made with care and passion, the names and sometimes avatars of Kickstarter donors presented as loads of neat graffiti appearing well on into the beginning of the game. There are details galore for horror fans to compile and pick apart.
Although it uses repetition as a stylistic choice often, the games encounters, exploration, and puzzles each feel unique. Player behavior has clearly been predicted and accounted for, and moments in the game can feel tailored to you. An early portion focusing on the theme of eating disorders had me going down a looping series of room and corridors, my way blocked if I ate an attractively positioned apple until I vomited it up. I tried this and faced an increasing number of enemies, leeches and broken mirrors depicting a fractured image of body dysphoria. After succumbing to those literal and bluntly metaphoric representations of pain and suffering, I just skipped the apple altogether to try and speed up the process of finding a way forward. After some frustration I realized the barrier that appeared when I ate was illusory and as I ate nice clean apples and moved forward I got brighter rooms with supplies and eventually escaped the loop. I have personal experience with eating disorders and the experience of trudging down increasingly dangerous corridors of self harm while the solution is one head-slappingly obvious change of perspective away really landed for me.
The game’s main issue is that despite setting itself up as an exploration of phobia, dysphoria, and dysfunction, it starts to throw in more and more themes until the game’s latter third has completely drifted from any cohesive narrative. This derailment kind of wrecks the connection the player has to a story about struggling with mental illness. It looses the thread with segments about mutant rat demigods and an SCP 173-esque creature. By the time I got my bittersweet ending, the story had splintered enough that there wasn’t much to put a cap on.
The disintegration of the narrative, however, reveals the games true nature. It’s an amalgamation of years of indie horror games. Like a whiteboard of ideas being crossed off one by one; LiV uses every psychological trick, cheap jumpscare, 4th wall breaking fakeout, and spooky narrative one after the other. They’re well paced and tight and keep on coming. Meanwhile the attention to detail means there are plenty of secrets, paths, hints, endings, etc for the completionist type to puzzle out.
While I had been hoping for a more narratively vigorous experience, I think the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach LiV ends up being will be extremely appealing to people who have been following the indie horror scene and newcomers alike. Think of it like a diabolical smorgasbord of everything small developers have had to offer in terms of terror for the last few years, and unlike a strip mall buffet each flavor is distinctly crafted and in appropriate portions. If this review has felt too vague for you to make a choice (currently 10 bucks on Steam or Itch.io c’mon people) I’ll leave you with a very early bit of gameplay.
I’m walking, then running down sewer tunnels and cramped concrete hallways in pursuit of lost canine support. I log the dead ends and try desperately not to get lost while pushing forward as if I’m running up the basement stairs into the light. Instead I get grates I can whistle down, my puppy barks back some hope of a reunion. Tunnel, grate, whistle, bark; repeat until I’m just a tiny bit comfortable then I come to a grate and whistle, no response, I press on. Then someone whistles back.