In the first of a new series Harrison tackles Outlast in his list for the scariest games to play this Halloween.
Since its release in 2013, Red Barrel studios’ notoriously nasty Outlast has drawn in a fairly wide range of reactions, some positive, some lukewarm, and some negative. Indeed, it certainly has garnered its fair share of critics over time, with certain detractors citing everything from the game’s perceived over-reliance on ‘cheap jump scares’, to the repetitive nature of the gameplay and level design. The situation has only worsened in the brief space of a few years, as the ever-growing heard of imitators and wannabees attempting to ride on the game’s coattails have soured the original’s reputation, turning it into an easy target.
In fact, it’s quite difficult to play Outlast with fresh eyes now, as everything about it has already become commonplace at best, and trite at worst. From the abandoned asylum setting, to the hide and seek stealth mechanics, to the battery hunting gameplay loop, it basically ticks every ‘Steam Horror Game’ cliche that there is. Hell, even AAA titles have begun to appropriate aspects of this same approach, as can be seen in Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within.
But it’s worth remembering that Outlast was among the pioneers of this stealth/horror hybrid-genre, and that even after being so mercilessly ripped off, it still manages to distinguish itself by simply being the best at what it does, even if what it does isn’t very nice. That’s right, despite losing some of its uniqueness over time, Outlast remains among the most shocking, disturbing and fun experiences you can have with a horror game, thanks to its extremely gory imagery and unrelenting intensity.
The game has you take control Miles Upshur, an investigative reporter who has received a mysterious tip about human rights abuses and all kinds of shady activity occurring at Mount Massive Asylum. Armed only with a camcorder and some inexplicable parkour skills, Upshur infiltrates the hospital and gets to work. It soon becomes apparent that things have well and truly gone to hell at Mount Massive, as Miles discovers the dead bodies of the security team scattered around the place, as well as a staggering amount of blood and guts. Worse still, he quickly becomes acquainted with the resident ‘variants’, deformed and highly psychotic patients who are now roaming free, eager to satiate their various unsavoury desires. As Miles, you must run, sneak and hide, to avoid a host of necrophiliacs, crazed surgeons and a hulking giant with a penchant for self mutilation and tearing people’s heads from their bodies. Much like in a nightmare, you will lurch from horrific encounter to horrific encounter, with no clear indication of if and when it will finally relent.
In gameplay terms, this scenario is mainly played out in a series of stalking sequences, in which you can use stealthy tactics to evade your pursuers. Said tactics range from hiding under beds and in lockers, to flat out sprinting like a madman in the other direction. Whilst Alien: Isolation may have subsequently refined these simple mechanics, Outlast still has enough meat on its bones to work as a thrilling game of cat and mouse.
What keeps this horror gem feeling fresh however, is the ingenious camcorder gimmick. The found footage aesthetic may have grown stale in cinema a long time ago, but for a game it’s a fairly fresh perspective, one that gives Outlast an idiosyncratic flavour. On one hand, it serves as the basic ‘flashlight’ device, with the nightvision component allowing you to see in the pitch black darkness, this being the one handicap you have over the killers. It’s a neat way of innovating on the simple act of lighting, but the grainy jade filter also gives everything a much more realistic and unnerving visual style. Moreover, you can use the camera for its zoom capabilities, giving you another advantage in exploring the area and scouting ahead. Last but not least, the camera also has the ability to ‘record’ certain key narrative events, giving you access to the narrator’s internal monologue during those moments. It might sound on paper like a minor addition, but honestly, the camcorder is a core feature that comes to define your time skulking around the dark corridors of Mount Massive.
But the question of originality isn’t really the major controversy surrounding Outlast. No, the problem that separates the die-hard fans from the sceptics is far harder to evaluate on objective terms. You see, this is what it ultimately comes down to, is there anything actually scary about Outlast, or is it wholly comprised of manipulative adjustments in volume designed to startle? Well honestly, it’s a little from column A and column B. Yes, there’s a bounty of jump scares here, and after a while you start to become a little desensitised to them. They do at least make an effort to misdirect you with some of the shocks, heavily telegraphing scares in one place that will then appear somewhere else entirely, however there’s no denying that a lot of the suspense in this game comes from wanting to avoid the next abrupt jolt.
This may be off-putting for some, but it is worth keeping in mind that there is a difference between a good jump scare, and a tacky one, which is something that Outlast is mindful of. Similarly, there’s also a difference between something featuring jump scares, and a game featuring only jump scares. Again, Outlast falls towards the more artful side of the spectrum here, as there’s a wide variety of frights on display. From properly revolting gore, to terrifying sound design, to seriously disturbing characters, this throws everything and the kitchen sink at you. Are you claustrophobic? Outlast has you covered. Squeamish? Oh boy this will be a hell of a ride for you. Afraid of the dark? What about ghosts? This game has both in spades! It’s like the Airplane! of horror, it just keeps the hits coming to the point where something is bound to land.
The game particularly excels in the characterisation respect, depicting all kinds of colourful crazies that stick around in your mind until long after you put the controller down. It’s the game’s greatest strength, avoiding generic villains in favour of more imaginative antagonists. Let’s see, there’s Chris Walker; the noseless, lipless brute who has appointed himself the role of the Asylum bouncer. He’s a pretty physically imposing presence, and his visuals design is exquisitely well executed. There’s also Dr. Trager, a former business executive who has delusions of being an experimental surgeon, concerned with provocative questions like ‘do people really need their vital organs in order to survive’? He’s additionally got a surprisingly friendly demeanour and acts curiously sane in conversation, except for, you know, when he’s performing his gruesome operations.
Then there’s Eddie Gluskin, or ‘The Groom’ as he is ominously refereed to, the standout from the game’s Whistleblower DLC. Now, Gluskin is largely shrouded in mystery until he makes his… memorable debut, so skip ahead to avoid spoilers, but be warned, this guy is truly messed up. Hinted at early on via a creepy little rhyme reminiscent of Freddy Kruger’s infamous playground song, this nut-job is someone that even the other variants are afraid of. Compelled to find a suitable wife within the male ward of the asylum, Gluskin decides to make do with anyone who stumbles into his layer, regardless of gender. You see, sex doesn’t matter to the Groom, with a few snips and cuts, he can make a wife out of anyone. And the DLC does not shy away from showing you this procedure, leading to one of the few times I’ve actually flinched when playing a game.
But Gluskin’s madness doesn’t stop there. He expects you to be grateful for his attention, and pursues you as if he were a chivalrous lover courting their intended. The classic breadwinner rhetoric and language that he uses, combined with his declarations of love and lust, are both haunting and blackly comedic in equal measure. And let’s not get started on how he wants to spread his ‘seed’. For anyone who thinks that Outlast is nothing but jump scares, this particular sequence should cause them to reevaluate their assessment, it’s truly unsettling, nasty, and all-too-graphic. Being chased by this lunatic through his sickening workshop is one of the most unpleasant and unbearable experiences I’ve ever had with a game. It’s great.
How can a game be reduced to just it’s jump scares when so many scarring images have been seared into my brain? I remember the time I saw a patient violating a corpse in the dark. I remember seeing Walker rip a man apart with his bare hands. I remember Trager’s DIY surgery. And I’ll never, ever forget my time with the Groom. When I think of something that lazily uses jump scares in place of horror, I think of Five Nights at Freddy’s or the F.E.A.R games, not Outlast. Outlast has something those games don’t. It has a really disturbed sensibility, a grimy, uncomfortable and ultimately oppressive atmosphere that’s reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It has characters that are interesting and compelling. It pushes the boundaries of taste as far as they can go before something becomes crass. This is a game in which you’ll see copious amounts of every bodily fluid imaginable, where you’ll endure genital mutilation, torture and more. It’s a game that really wants to disturb you, and makes a considerable effort to do so.
There are a couple of areas where this effort doesn’t shine through however. Firstly, the A.I is beyond stupid at times, and it detracts severely from the horror when their weaknesses are so easily exploitable. Because of this, the game struggles to sustain its intense atmosphere forever, as you begin to learn the limitations of your pursuers and start to form go-to strategies that rarely fail. In particular, you’ll start to notice that most situations can be overcome simply by bypassing stealth altogether in favour of running for the exit. This might seem like a nitpick, but honestly it’s very damaging to the horror of the over all experience.
Secondly, the ending is pretty damn bad. Not only does the tone and content of the climax wildly diverge from the rest of the game, but there’s also a frustrating attempt to provide a scientific explanation to ludicrous events. Honestly, the game was somehow more believable when it asked me to accept the supernatural. It really undermines the threat of the unknown spiritual force when characters try to explain it in rational terms like this.
Finally, there’s the issue of the actual conclusion itself. Horror films can easily get away with abrupt and unceremonious endings, because we’ve usually only invested a couple of hours into them. However, with a game it’s much different. With a game, the audience will sink much more time into the narrative and will actively have to fight against the odds in order to reach some kind of resolution. If that resolution proves to be unsatisfactory, then the audience has every right to be pissed. In short, game developers need to approach sudden endings with much more trepidation than filmmakers, lest they risk the ire of dedicated players. Outlast’s ending is almost a textbook example of what can go wrong if a game fails to recognise this. It’s almost an insult to those who stick it out to the end, and tarnishes the rest of the product by finishing on a sour note. Admittedly the DLC does go some way towards fixing this particular gripe, but you do have to pay for that separately (which you should totally do, because it’s ace), so it’s not totally forgiven.
Nevertheless I would recommend Outlast to those who like their horror brutal, uncompromising and graphic. Just be prepared for a few jump scares yeah?
RECOMMENDATION: ONE OF THE MORE INTENSE HORROR GAMES ON THE MARKET, OUTLAST DELIVERS GRIZZLY CONTENT AT EVERY TURN.
OUTLAST- WHISTLEBLOWER- 8/10
Outlast is available now on Xbox One, PC and PS4.