I’ve written several times before about the dearth of quality horror produced by professional big-budget channels and the renaissance of indie horror projects taking up the slack. In the video game realm games like Amnesia, Slender and countless mods and freeware titles have helped to launch entirely new game genres focused on removing action and combat and emphasizing helplessness and atmosphere.
Outlast is an interesting product of that environment. Technically an indie title self-published by developer Red Barrels but created by a cabal of former big-budget industry veterans, the game comes across like an attempt to combine the best elements of the most popular indie horror games doing the rounds on Youtube into one ultimate mega-horror game, destined to fuel over the top reaction videos for the next decade. Red Barrels have succeeded in creating a tense, atmospheric thrill ride with stunning production values, but their history working for big publishers also leads to a self-defeating design philosophy that stops Outlast from attaining the classic status it could have reached otherwise.
You inhabit the soon-to-be mangled body of Miles Upshur, intrepid independent journalist chasing a story about mysterious goings-on at the decrepit Mount Massive Asylum that’s been taken over by a private company. Upon arriving it quickly becomes apparent that something has gone horribly wrong and the asylum has been transformed into a horrific charnel house where patients altered by some mysterious process scream futilely into the shadows… and, in some cases, try to murder anyone who attracts their attention. The only way out is to venture deeper into the asylum and uncover the mystery at the heart of the madness.
Like it’s indie brethren, Outlast features no combat. The player must run and hide from enemies, their only weapon a camcorder used to trigger journal entries and zoom in on distant horrors. In what is undoubtedly the game’s best feature, players are never equipped with a flashlight. Instead navigating the often pitch-black interior of the asylum is facilitated by the camera’s night-vision, a far from stellar compromise that more often than not leaves you peering through the gloom trying to decide if that point of light in the distance is a way out or the eye of a rapidly approaching murderer. Activating the night vision transforms Mount Massive from an already-oppressive blood soaked hellscape to an eerie parallel universe where knocked over chairs become eerie shapes looming out of the darkness and potted plants can look like demonic figures. Oh, and it drains your camera’s battery like nobody’s business, leading to the constant fear that they’re going to run out at the worst possible moment (hint: they’ll run out at the worst possible moment). I always managed to scavenge enough spare batteries that I never had to worry about running out completely- at which point the game would essentially become unplayable- but I did spend several heart-stopping moments swapping out batteries in the darkness, listening to the sound of something moving around nearby that I couldn’t see.
Outlast manages what so many AAA horror titles have recently failed to do- be consistently scary. The scares start early, as soon as the player has entered Mount Massive and don’t let up for a second until the end. Outlast does, regrettably, pull more than a few cheap jump scares but they’re relatively uncommon and front-loaded at the start of the game. For the most part it’s just the darkness, and the fear of what might be lurking in it. In most horror games, particularly those where survival is emphasized over combat, the player will be forced to make a transition from an area of relative safety to the “danger zone” where enemies can get their claws and knives into you, rather like a diver surrounded by great whites leaving the safety of the shark cage. In Outlast you are constantly forced to make that transition because, cleverly, most of the asylum inmates are harmless and sometimes even fully lucid and capable of having a rational conversation. When approaching a new encounter it’s often hard to tell whether the deformed shell of a human in front of you is going to try to tear your limbs off or not, with not even the presence of weapons being a reliable indicator of danger, as some enemies will bash their fellow NPCs heads in but ignore the player entirely. Safety and peace of mind is always tantalizingly close but also in danger of being snatched away with no warning. I’ve often been kept awake at night by a scary movie, but Outlast is one of the few games since the original Silent Hill to have that effect on me.
Unfortunately this is where things start to go off the rails a bit, as while Outlast is undeniably scary, I don’t think it ever manages to come close to meeting Red Barrel’s boast of creating the “scariest game ever”. Like so many horror developers over the last few years Red Barrels don’t seem to understand the value of silence and emptiness in generating fear. From the moment they enter the asylum the player is assaulted by a relentless barrage of screams, mutilated figures, blood and guts and it very quickly starts to become background noise. A storage room where the shelves are stocked with severed heads and entrails is horrifying the first time you see it, but by the seventh time you’ve been made to sneak through piles of disemboweled corpses all the gore starts to lose its impact. A little goes a long way when it comes to horror. All we really need is an asylum and the knowledge that there’s something lurking in the darkness, and our minds will populate it with horrors far more terrifying than anything a video game developer could possibly come up with. The best horror games of the medium’s history have understood this principle; Outlast doesn’t and insists on constantly short-circuiting the self-creative fear process with it’s own, often less effective scares.
The first time I turned on the night vision in a dark room I literally got goose-bumps at the thought of creeping through the asylum in the eerie green gloom trying to avoid the deranged creatures stalking me. For the most part the promise of that idea went unfulfilled. The very first enemy encounter shows how good Outlast is when it’s firing on all cylinders- you’re in a pitch-black flooded basement. You have to activate three generators to get the lights back on upstairs, etablishing a pattern of “activate/find the things to move forward” that the game follows until its conclusion. Standing between you and that goal is a deformed madman armed with a nail-studded baseball bat and a fervent desire to beat you to death with it. What follows is a sphincter-shrinkingly tense game of cat and mouse that very nearly broke my resolve to keep playing.
The rest of the enemy encounters? Not so much. The disheartening truth is that as gross as they are to look at, once you get used to Outlast’s enemies they’re just not all that scary, and since Red Barrels didn’t trust the environment itself to generate horror they’re left doing most of the heavy lifting. Part of the problem is that they run on predictable patrol paths unless they catch wind of your presence, and it’s fairly easy to ensure that doesn’t happen since their powers of detection aren’t that great. Just avoid direct line of sight in well lit areas and don’t move while out of crouch if you can see or hear them and you’re pretty much able to reliably Solid Snake your way past any encounter. The night vision frequently ends up being your ace in the hole, as in dark areas enemies have to more or less walk into you before they’ll realize you’re there. Any hiding place, even a desk in a side room, is 100% effective as long as you’re not seen going into it and even if your location is discovered you’re often given narrow hidey-holes to squeeze into in case of an emergency, an action which will cause any pursuing enemy to immediately lose interest and go back to whatever they were doing as long as you’re out of arm’s reach. And if you do get caught you can usually take quite a beating before going down, facilitated by quickly regenerating health once you manage to shake your pursuers. All of this combined means it’s usually best to dispense with stealth entirely and just sprint through through danger areas completing your objectives, since an easy way to shake any pursuers is always at hand. It’s as if Red Barrels thought the game was too difficult or scary and deliberately hamstrung themselves. This isn’t to say Outlast’s sneaky-sneak segments aren’t fun to play- quite the opposite, sneaking past the enemies can be marvellously tense and satisfying to pull off if you decide not to exploit the weak AI and stealth mechanics, and the environments are so lovingly crafted that creeping through them is a macabre pleasure. But just like with the enemies themselves, once you’ve gotten used to them they’re not particularly frightening.
That Red Barrel’s staff emigrated from working on some of the industry’s biggest blockbuster franchises is evident in the stunning graphical quality of the game, frequently up there with full-priced chart-topping titles. There’s a general level of polish here that’s extremely rare in the increasingly fuzzy “indie” space, with spot-on voice acting, excellent animations and lighting and a silky-smooth frame-rate even on full settings. The night vision effect is easily one of the most impressive pieces of graphical wizardry I’ve ever seen in a game.
Unfortunately Outlast’s big budget pedigree also manifests in other, less welcome ways. There’s a certain kind of pacing in the AAA development space that I call set-piece focused design. Apparently stemming from an insecurity that the core mechanics (shooting, stealth, third-person adventure etc) are enough to carry an entire game, set-piece focused design constantly interrupts gameplay with a stream of ancillary activities (man a turret! snipe! fly a drone! escape from a collapsing thing on fire!) often with a minimal level of actual interactivity so that the player is forced to go through the motions in order to fulfill the developer’s misguided attempt at being “cinematic”. Outlast frequently falls prey to this, forcing the player into chase sequences and scripted encounters with only a single obvious escape route, such that they may as well be quick-time events (of which there are only a small handful, thankfully). These moments are frequently entertaining and exhilarating, but once the initial adrenaline rush wears off they do more to hinder the atmosphere of horror than enhance it. Rather than spending resources on making the game seem more “cinematic” I would have preferred more pure stealth sections that use the game’s core mechanics.
Outlast’s story is a confusing hodge-podge of supernatural, science fiction and conspiracy elements that eventually reaches a surprising and oddly beautiful ending point….. only to keep going, diving headfirst into nonsensical incoherence, sacrificing most of the game’s atmosphere and thematic connective tissue for something that’s superficially “cool” but ultimately ends up feeling wildly out of place. This sounds like a fatal flaw, and if you’re heavily invested in Outlast’s story you’ll likely walk away from the ending feeling unsatisfied, but this isn’t a game that anyone should be looking to for an entertaining yarn. Like many great horror franchises, Outlast’s setting and the creatures that prowl it are the real stars of the show.
I’ve spent a lot of time alternately praising and criticizing Outlast, so I want to make one thing clear: if you’re a horror fan you should absolutely buy this game, without hesitation. It will scratch that itch better than any full priced release of the last five years and brings some truly sumptuous production values to the table. I heavily criticize Outlast not because it’s a bad game but because it’s a good game that could have been so much better. That’s disappointing, but as a horror fan who’s watched all of the great mainstream horror franchises fall into irrelevance over the course of the current generation I’ll gladly take something that aims for the stars and lands in the entrail-stewn treetops over another watered-down action game that has the gall to call itself horror just because it’s enemies look gross and occasionally jump out of closets at the player.
“Scariest game ever”? Not quite, but good try.