Outlast Review (2014)
This Outlast review requires a setting. I’m never ashamed to admit I have a certain fondness for horror games: under the speculative fiction banner, the video game format offers more to horror than any other genre. While video games can lend much to fantasy’s and science fiction’s world building enterprises, no games have served the genre as well as a good novel does: this is likely a failure of technology, however, and games like Skyrim point towards a time when video games far surpass the novel’s world-building characteristics.
In the here and now, however, horror is unique amongst speculative fiction genres because world-building is secondary to visceral affect. A horror is effective if it scares you, not if it convinces you that the world is temporarily ‘real’. The world-building enterprise is pointed squarely towards fear instead of understanding: a fantasy world wants to make sense so you believe it could exist on some logical-semantic level, but a horror world just wants to scare you. Games offer a strong formal advantage to this end: the player interacts with the world, makes decisions (however limited), and then feels directly threatened by the outcomes. Video games are poised to surpass other mediums in the realm of affect (especially with the Oculus Rift and other similar devices looming).
After Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs disappointed me with its purple prose, meandering direction, and lack of frights, several colleagues recommended I try Outlast. Having finally played it, I can see why they directed me towards it—in some objective terms, it’s certainly a better game than A Machine For Pigs. But did I like it? Let’s jump in! This review, as always, will be unabashedly spoiler-ridden.
Outlast begins with the main character an investigative reporter, driving an SUV up a twisting mountain path some time after dark. He follows a trip from a whisteblower (who stars in a DLC adventure) about the Murkoff Corporation, some notoriously dishonest medical conglomerate that recently re-opened Mount Massive Asylum, an institute for the mentally ill that was shut down a few decades prior to the game. Murkoff has a reputation for terrible medical experiments, yet stays in operation anyways. He expects to find administrative incompetence or medical neglect, but the dreary weather, lack of a gate guard, and twisted bodies flashing in the upper windows let the player quickly know that the investigation will turn nefarious.
Immediately, Outlast establishes itself as Amnesia’s opposite: Outlast is as far from being the same type of experience as Amnesia as possible while still being a horror game. Both games feature an investigative plot, but Amnesia’s investigative plot is fueled by the fact that the main character doesn’t know who he is, whereas Outlast’s protagonist investigates because of who he is –an investigator. Amnesia always puts control squarely in the player’s hands, but Outlast is more interested in cinematic presentation than player autonomy–seen immediately when the player drives their car automatically for a minute. Outlast starts by establishing that there is a normal world outside the institution, but Amnesia locks the player into the mansion so they can descend into madness as they descend into the depths of the mansion. Amnesia throws us into a world of horror and we must slowly discover that we brought this horror ourselves; Outlast‘s protagonist makes a series of really bad choices that the player is forced to deal with. Amnesia tries to reduce the divide between player and character by giving the player total control and removing the character’s memories, but Outlast shoves you in, in media res, into someone else’s life and forces you to adapt. In short, Amnesia is a true gothic horror that presents the player with the fear of the unknown and the unwillingness to face the self, whereas Outlast is more of an investigative thriller wearing horror pants.
Outlast‘s horror pants are well-hemmed, though, and it shows through mostly in the ambiance, visuals, and other stylistic elements. The ambiance is very reminiscent of Machine’ for Pigs, though less subtle with its Christiological and de-humanizing representations: buckets of blood and gore, mountains of bodies, neatly organized mutilated severed heads, genitals (both attached and not), crucifixions, burning crosses, and weird science create an aggressive and twisted ambiance that oscillates between unnerving and over-the-top silly. It loses this edge as the game progresses through the first few hours, but a mid-game change in scenery reinvigorates the sense of horror with a comparatively pristine laboratory. The soundtrack is effective, but leans heavily on the pulse-pounding chase music instead of subtle soundscapes. The visual gore aims to unnerve and disturb, while the music works towards creating a flight-or-fight response. The clash between the two tactics and purposes is not necessarily wrong, but they definitely work against each other occasionally: it’s hard to soak in the atmosphere and become unnerved when the music is telling you to run as fast as you can and not look at anything. Still, the sound design is well-constructed. This is especially apparent with the reporter, whose breath—heavy pants, stifled, or big gulps of air after a sprint—builds much of the game’s sense of stress and panic.
The mid-game switch involves the character entering a pristine underground laboratory. The stark change in lighting and colour palette offers an evocative transition, but the new setting feels like squandered potential: like the asylum, the lab is all blood, gore, mutilated bodies, etc. If the laboratory was discovered in an unsullied state—or, better yet, staffed and employed with people unaffected by the horrors above—the transition would have been much more visceral. Imagining an ending that involves no more violence or gore, in which a stark-raving main character is trying to convince nonplussed white-coats about a horror happening above seems more engaging than what’s offered in the actual game.
The core gameplay of Outlast is very reminiscent of Amnesia. There are no fighting mechanics: when an enemy is pursuing the player, he must duck, run or hide. Amnesia randomly spawns its enemies to create a constant sense of paranoia, but Outlast is more reminiscent of A Machine for Pigs: enemies are mostly spawned in response to in-game events. The basic gameplay involves collecting notes, getting thwarted by poorly maintained elevators that require three switches to turn on, finding 2-3 switches to fix the elevator, and then running from the enemy that spawns in response to finding each switch. The enemies are very reminiscent of Machine’s titular pigs, which quickly chase after you, breaking down doors and sniffing in corners. However, where Amnesia and Machine for Pigs involve slow, plodding, “normal” protagonists, Outlast’s investigative journalist seems to be a parkour expert: you can duck under beds, vault over desks, jump out windows and catch ledges, scale walls, etc. When you meet an enemy in Outlast, you run far more often than hide. Usually, there’s a crack in the wall you can slip through to end the chase. This leaves most encounters feeling very scripted.
Thus, the gameplay quickly devolves into looking for switches and then running back to the beginning of the area, where there is an inevitable crack. You then look for the next switch and repeat. Because the enemies take ~4 hits to kill you, you’ll pretty quickly stop trying to hide from them and just run past them, hit the next switch, run past them, hit the last switch, and then return to the crevice to end the chase. The first few chases are terrifying, but they quickly lose their sense of danger when you realize how easily you can dodge them and how identical the chases are to one another. It’s like watching the same horror movie over-and-over again.
There are a few key differences that separate Outlast from Amnesia. First, Outlast’s map is littered with ‘normal’ institute patients who are stuck in the asylum after its collapse into chaos. These patients will sometimes speak with you, sometimes give you a jump scare, and often ignore you altogether. It’s a nice touch, and again very opposite Amnesia‘s sense of isolation. The enemies are largely comprised of 4-5 inmates who are working together to hunt you for sport and, it’s suggested, for food: three enemies in particular, two who always work in a pair and one who is solo, make up over 3/4 of the game’s chases. After you’ve dodged these enemies using the only possible route (usually a daring window escape), you hear them talk with one another and plan the next stage of their hunt. These “humanized” enemies with personalities add a unique dimension to Outlast, and you start building a relationship with your pursuers that reinforces the sense that Outlast is more thriller.
The game also offers one unique gameplay mechanic: the camcorder. The main character’s goal is to record the atrocities within the institution, and so you can right-click to look through your camcorder and record what you can see. The camcorder also has a night vision mode, which allows the player to see in the dark (the enemies have no such luxury), but this ability drains batteries (like Amnesia’s oil). Batteries are everywhere, however, and there’s no sense of scarcity or survival. Because the character only writes notes if you have the camcorder up, you quickly get into the habit of always looking through the camcorder, and you then forget that the camcorder is even a mechanic at all: there’s no reason to ever put it down—just recording does not drain batteries—and having it up lets you go into night-vision mode quickly. There is a(n inevitable) segment in which you lose the camera temporarily, but the segment is underwhelming. The game doesn’t force you to ‘survive’ without the camera: no pursuers appear until you’ve reclaimed the device. The moment could have been used to mix up the survival gameplay (lose your see-in-the-dark advantage). The scene would’ve worked much better if one of your pursuers picked up the camera, and used its night-vision to reverse the game: they could see in the dark and you could not. Because the night vision glares blindingly if used in bright light, a unique segment could have been constructed around surprise-blinding your pursuer and leading them into a demise that allows you to reclaim your camera. The potential is squandered, however. I have no idea why they did not opt to make the camcorder the only way the character ever sees – just have it always ‘up’ automatically – because there is no reason to ever put it down.
Much of Outlast’s formal content similarly misses its mark or falls just short. As I hinted above, the game doesn’t shy away from wresting control from the character, and many of the game’s biggest shock moments happen while the player has no control. Opening a door causes a scene where you’re automatically flung off a balcony, for example. One scene uses this lack of control effectively: the character is strapped to a chair while a psychopathic doctor removed his fingers with large shears. You can move your head, but not your body, because of the straps. The helplessness moves Outlast more into the realm of horror than its chases do, but even this scene is marred with formal inconsistencies: immediately after it plays out, shaking the mouse allows you to escape your captor. Why couldn’t you shake out of the leather straps before your fingers were cut off? Why build a sense of helplessness but then let the player escape the exact same helpless situation moments earlier, thus exposing the artifice of the scene? It’s no longer “I can’t escape because I’m strapped in”, and is instead “I can’t escape because the developers didn’t want me to”.
The same weak sense of artificiality pervades the gameplay mechanics. The principle ‘survival’ aspect of the game is the aforementioned search for batteries, which are left on book shelves and tables, beside kitchen meat and in boxes. They batterieslook like they’ve been left there for the player instead of being part of the world, and an authentic-seeming world is important for horror. This is especially disappointing because, with all the dead security guards around, the game could have easily forced you to salvage batteries from walkie-talkies and other pieces of equipment (and why doesn’t the player just take a gun from one of these bodies after meeting his first attacker?). The batteries feel like a mechanic instead of a survival necessity, and the constant objectives popping up with no real prompting – “find the two valves and turn them on to continue” – similarly remove you from the world and remind you that you’re playing elaborate hide-and-seek mixed with tag.
Thematically, the game playfully toys with the science/magic dichotomy. The player spends the first half of the game following a priest who interprets the events in the asylum as magical and spiritual – he believes that a demonic spirit called the Walrider broke into reality because of Murkoff’s weird science experiments, and is not wreaking havoc. Near the end of this section, the player sees the Walrider—a pitch black spectre–and it hunts the player, adding weight to the priest’s theory. Then the end of the game is spent following Dr. Wernicke’s instructions: a presumed-dead Nazi doctor who started project Walrider. Wernicke’s notes and dialogue suggests that the Walrider isn’t a magical entity, but rather a scientific accident. In his quest to make super-soldiers Wernicke invented nanomachines that can be directed through a soldier’s thoughts: these nanomachines were to go through the soldiers’ body repairing wounds, as directed by the soldier. When they began testing on Billy, a patient who had witnessed many of the facility’s atrocities, his horrific nightmares sent the instructions to the nanomachines to become this ghost-like monster: the embodiment of all the evil Billy had witnessed.
The game refuses to side with either explanation until the end, and this tension between science fiction and fantasy defines the game’s final moments. The game suggests that either explanation—a demon from another realm or Nazi-science nanomachines—is equally likely, and I’m a fan of ending in fantastic ambiguity. I just wish this ambiguity wasn’t so incongruous with the rest of the game: the time spent tortured, mutilated, imprisoned, and hunted in the first half of the game has little to do with the solution: either way, most of the gore witnessed is the result of the Walrider’s evisceration sprees (you witness it kill someone and the gore left behind is the same sort of gore left everywhere), which disrupted the facility’s function enough for a few psychopaths to take control and start beheading guards. The game builds itself up through body-horror and chases, like a thriller or slasher flick, being hunted by a handful of twisted people in an otherwise abused mental asylum. Then it drops into this ambiguous spirits at the nth hour. The writing wasn’t as offensive as Machine for Pigs, but it similarly stopped getting frights far too early into an already short experience.
Outlast gripped me for the first hour, but quickly lost me as the mechanics became increasingly artificial: the game is ultimately tag with spooky clothes, and you constantly enter a new area, face a fork, go down both paths to hit switches and then run back, and then continue. The tone and atmosphere are commendable, though the endless gore and blood leads to desensitization. By the time someone is crucified and then set on fire the stream of violence becomes ineffective. It comes on too strongly at the beginning, and it lacks the slow boil that makes games like Amnesia or Penumbra great. The fleeing and hiding mechanics are tighter than Machine for Pigs’, and the inclusion of personable hunters is a nice touch, making the player a chosen victim instead of a victim of random circumstance. The poorly managed themes and wonky divide between formal and thematic elements, however, leaves Outlast as a rather unsatisfying experience on the whole.