Developed by Montreal-based indie studio Red Barrels and available for the PC and PlayStation 4, Outlast is perhaps the most talked-about horror game outside of the Dead Space series in the last little while. You play Miles Upshur, an amateur journalist who gets word that the staff of the Mount Massive Asylum in rural Colorado has been performing illegal experiments on its mentally unstable patients. He sneaks into the hospital administration building one night, discovering too late that its medical and security staff have been quite literally torn to shreds and the patients, roughly half of whom are violent, have the run of the facility.
While Outlast certainly has its share of jump scares, it’s a much deeper, unsettling and mechanically interesting game than you might initially think. In fact, learning from it might be key for the future of the survival horror genre. Make no mistake; it has plenty of lessons to offer, such as…
7. It Knows That Horror = Vulnerability
At no point in the course of Outlast are you able to get your hands on a weapon of any kind. In fact, you never even come close to wielding anything other than your trusty video camera. While Mount Massive Asylum isn’t exactly swarming with enemies, the sequences in which you are forced to contend with a patient – or something much, much worse – are spent playing the most demented game of hide in seek since the ending of The Silence of the Lambs, night vision and all.
Though thankfully sans this.
Outlast certainly isn’t the first horror game to go this route – it owes a lot in this regard to Amnesia, which we’ll get to shortly – but this lack of armament is sadly lacking from the horror video game genre at large. The big franchises, like Resident Evil, Dead Space and Silent Hill, all feature ammo conservation to some degree, but it’s still ammo for increasingly powerful weapons that can utterly decimate enemies when used well. The best horror movies, books and games aren’t scary because the protagonist might have to dash around a monster so as to not waste bullets; they’re scary because they have no effective tactic besides running, hiding and praying for the best (or the least-worst). So when you find yourself lying prone beneath a bed, hoping beyond hope that yours isn’t the one a nearby patient checks under, take solace in the fact that Outlast has done its job better than most of its contemporaries.
6. It Borrows Wisely
As mentioned earlier, Outlast owes a lot to Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Released in North America in 2011, the first-person horror game removed weapons from the equation and forced players to avoid its environment’s lumbering, unkillable monstrosities, often by hiding in cupboards (a method Outlast adapted by letting you wedge yourself in a locker or underneath a cot). It would be easy to say that Red Barrels simply copied Frictional’s central mechanic, but that would be simultaneously overstating and understating what the former pulled off.
While Outlast maintains Amnesia’s run and hide nature, it’s a much leaner beast. Apart from eluding enemies, Amnesia had its players manage not only their health but their sanity as well; staring too long at one of the deformed freaks wandering the castle or spending too much time in the dark would gradually wear down on the protagonist’s psyche until the screen was crawling with hallucinatory bugs. They were also forced to solve puzzles, mix chemicals and generally play out an adventure game while eluding whatever monster was lurking nearby. Outlast strips away all but the most necessary elements: sneak around, use the darkness wisely, and run like the wind when needed. While Amnesia is somewhat cerebral, Outlast is pure adrenaline, and it’s ultimately more accessible to the average player or horror fanatic.
Though there’s definitely room for argument regarding which game has the scarier enemiesJESUS CHRIST
…touch?, Amnesia. Touch?.
5. Darkness Is Your Ally – and Your Enemy
Outlast is not a game for the nyctophobic. While it would be difficult to measure offhand exactly how much of the game’s environment is immersed in darkness, it would not be a wild guess to suggest at least half. Only one section of the asylum is well-lit – the last, risking a bit of a spoiler – but it stands in direct contrast to an entire sequence of the game spent in the hospital’s pitch-black open air courtyard. In these moments, the batteries for your camera and its oh so important night vision become the closest thing to ammunition in this whole bloody mess. If there is an upside, it’s that you’re the only person in the game who can see in the dark – but when a heavily scarred patient is standing ten feet away, brandishing a meat cleaver and listening for the slightest sound you might make, this isn’t much of a comfort.
And this isn’t even including the fairly brief but extra-tense portion of the game when you temporarily lose your camera, the device slipping out of your hand and through a crack in the floor as you shout “Nonononononono!” in true Shia LaBeouf fashion. The following five to ten minutes are spent creeping from one dim light source to the next, relying on sound rather than sight – and oh, the sounds you hear…
4. It Crafts Nemeses
Though you are semi-frequently stalked and chased by patients who lack a concrete identity other than Missing Half His Face Guy or Pretty Sure He Was Humping a Corpse Guy, a great deal of the enemies you face – or rather, try to elude – in Outlast appear several times throughout the narrative, have distinct personalities and motives, and consequently stoke your animosity much more than the average video game foe would. Calling them “nemeses” is especially fitting, giving that this element takes a few cues from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, which saw you pursued by a particularly relentless (and heavily armed) biological weapon courtesy of Umbrella.
Besides being a twist on the usual formula, this antipathy by design keeps the game’s enemies from becoming forgettable. Amnesia’s enemies were utterly horrifying to behold (when it was safe to your sanity to actually behold them) but they all kind of blended together. On the other hand, the batshit crazy, occasionally self-mutilated pursuers in Outlast – the casual, madcap “doctor” Richard Trager, the stealthy and eerily composed Twins, and ex-military heavy Chris Walker – all have a different method to their individual madness and flesh out the story in their own, horrifying ways. Plus, there’s a certain novelty in adding a dash of contempt to the usual adrenaline-pumping fear. So whenever Walker comes into view at the end of the hallway, you aren’t just thinking “oh shit gotta run gotta run,” but “Oh great, this guy again” as well.
You will come to hate this man.
This added characterization is particularly key considering…
3. Most of Your Enemies Are Victims
Though the mentally ill are far and away more likely to fall victim to violence and abuse than perpetrate it on others, they get a pretty bad rap in fiction, especially those who reside in mental hospitals. Outlast isn’t incredibly progressive in this regard – many of Mount Massive’s residents are more than willing to kill you – but through the documentation found in game it becomes clear that most if not all of these patients are victims of the hospital administration’s inhumane experiments. One such patient, self-proclaimed “Father” Martin, was finger-painting to his heart’s content until the administration took away his art supplies just to see how he’d react. You could almost forgive him for turning to blood as his medium.
PAINT IS CHEAPER THAN BLOOD, PEOPLE!
Actually, the basic setup of the game bears some striking similarities to a young Geraldo Rivera’s investigation of the Willowbrook State School for the intellectually disabled, where he exposed the staff’s horrifying neglect of their wards (snippets of the expos? can be seen in the excellent documentary Cropsey). Rivera’s piece went a lot more smoothly, however – much to the chagrin of those who can’t stand him today.
2. It’s Unnervingly Immersive
Outlast features full body awareness, which is a fancy way of saying you can look down and see most of your body – arms, legs and all. When peeking around a corner, your free hand grasps the edge of a doorframe to brace yourself as you get a better look; the other hand is can be seen holding the video camera when it’s not currently in use. Your torso and legs can appear pretty stiff, but compared to most first-person shooters, who treat the player like a floating head and pair of arms, it’s exceptionally immersive. And boy, do the developers ever turn that against you.
WARNING: NOT REALLY MAJOR BUT STILL NOTABLE SPOILERS FOLLOW
Roughly a quarter of the way through the game, the player is captured by Richard Trager, a Mount Massive Asylum executive who lost his mind during the phenomenon that triggered the initial incident and now mixes Josef Mengele-levels of medical depravity with a friendly bedside manner. In a largely non-interactive sequence, Trager uses a pair of massive shears to sever Miles’ right index and left ring fingers. After escaping your bonds – and being party to a brief, first-person vomiting sequence – you will spend the rest of the game occasionally glimpsing Miles’ bloody, mutilated hands, and it’s never not painful to look at. It’s rare for a developer to feature amputation of a player’s in-game body parts, but Red Barrels rubs your face in Miles’ vulnerability in a way that only serves to heighten the horror of the game.
1. It’s Pretty Much the Scariest Part of [REC]
Yeah, this reference was pretty much unavoidable.
The Spanish found footage horror movie [REC] – remade as the less than stellar Quarantine in the United States – features hands down one of the scariest scenes in movie history. At the climax, the last two survivors are cooped up in the attic apartment of a tenement that has become infested with swift, zombie-like Super Rabies victims over the course of the movie. In the absolute darkness of the room, they have to rely on their video camera’s night vision, only to discover that they’re not alone: a hammer-wielding infected tenant is but a few feet away, emaciated, wraithlike and listening for the merest hint of prey. As the wretch searches every corner of the room, the survivors are forced to stifle even their slightest breaths.
With Outlast, Red Barrels took that sequence and made an entire game out of it. Way to go, you beautiful, sadistic jerks.
Previously by Daniel Link