You attend the annual Halloween event at your local theme park. You get a brochure that lists all the haunted houses, and each one has a little story. The story for Outlast reads: “Paging Dr. Trager! The evil Murkoff Corporation has recently acquired the Mount Massive Insane Asylum, and the inmates are restless! Will you unravel the mysteries of Father Martin’s dark cult? Or will you join the mutilated patients who inhabit these haunted halls?” Of course, there’s not really a mystery. You go in the front door, turn lots of tight corners, and an inmate with his guts hanging out jumps off a bed and lunges at you. At the end, you put your 3D glasses back in the big bin and muscle passed a group of teenage girls giggling about how totally scary the guy with the chains was.
There is a burgeoning industry within the greater community of streamers and Let’s Players catering specifically to the “haunted house” genre. A murderous zombie suddenly rockets onto the screen, accompanied by a shrill violin sting and a spray of blood, and the player screams his head off (much to the delight of the viewership). You don’t have to poke around YouTube very long to see guys who have built their entire channel on this type of reaction. Feeding into this industry are a new generation of horror games, of which Outlast is one. Since the thrill of the game is in the scares, and those work whether you’re playing the game or just watching it, the developers can get away with having as little gameplay as they care to design. That sounds really harsh, but that’s how I came away from Outlast: it’s not a game that’s meant to be played and enjoyed, it’s a a game that’s meant to be gawked at, consumed quickly, then thrown away by an audience eager to move on to the next jump scare.
I say all this as a fan of stupid, shallow horror movies. I remained a fan of the Saw films even after they discarded the psychological element of their horror and ramped up the gore instead. I will preach the merits of the ridiculous death scenes in Final Destination to anyone who will listen. I have spent long, sleepless nights cruising Netflix watching B-list, no-talent, gore-for-the-sake-of-gore movies. I recently watched a movie where a man is snapped by a giant apple slicer and stands there watching his body fall apart into one-inch cubes. Once it was over, I immediately watched the sequel.
But is any of it scary? Of course not. It’s just a pile of dumb gibbets. You can tell, after you’ve waded through the gibbet-piles long enough, which movies are serving it to you with a wink and a hefty helping of self-awareness, and which ones really think they’re aspiring to successful horror. The former group is fun, if forgettable. The second is just sad. And that’s the group Outlast is in.
Let’s get the gameplay out of the way first. Outlast has two game mechanics. It does not have three game mechanics. They are: 1) Run and Hide, and 2) Find Batteries.
Run and Hide means the protagonist cannot fight, evade, disable or otherwise incapacitate his enemies. When confronted with a monster he must run away and hide from it until it loses interest in him. Every single enemy encounter in the game involves dropping the player into a confusing maze of hallways, identifying the predetermined hiding places ahead of time, triggering the bad guy, running back to the hiding place, and waiting for the bad guy to go away. Once you know which hallways to turn down, and which hiding spots to use, you go to the next area and do it again.
Find Batteries is what you do during the downtime between encounters. You have a flashlight, which you need to see in many of the game’s areas. This flashlight chews through batteries at breakneck speed. This introduces an element of resource management into the game, similar to how Resident Evil had a finite amount of ammo and ink ribbons. We know, of course, that the game won’t really let us run out of batteries, because then it would be unplayable. Every room you visit contains a plot flag, a document, a battery, or some combination of those things. So the degree to which this mechanic works is questionable.
I think it’s fair to say that the gameplay is pretty thin. This bothers me a lot as a “Gameplay is King” kind of guy. If your game only has two game mechanics, and neither is interesting or well-developed, you are going to have a very difficult time keeping me engaged. At that point you are trying to sell your game on the strength of its writing, or its setting, or its aesthetics. And Outlast isn’t strong enough, not even by a longshot. If the interactive element is weak by design, your story has to be a masterpiece. Your characters require incredible depth and vision. Your attention to detail needs to be microscopic. To put a really fine point on it, Journey is a paragon of graphics, music, world design and emotional engagement — and I didn’t like it because I got bored with all the walking and flying around.
The task is doubly difficult for horror games, because the horror genre — the ones that are really trying to be scary and not just buckets-o-gore — is as much about what you don’t show as what you do. The best horror movie directors know when to show something horrifying, and when to leave it to the audience’s imagination. They know how long to hold a tense moment. They know to how much pressure to release so the next scare is all the more powerful. The experience has to be crafted and babysat in ways the action and adventure genres don’t. In other words, the very nature of interactivity in video games works against horror stories. In a video game, you can’t not show the monster.
An example: a thrilling chase scene in a horror movie usually only lasts a moment or two, because chases are by nature high-adrenaline moments leading to some kind of resolution. In a video game, one possible resolution is “the player doesn’t get caught, but also doesn’t find the next plot flag”. I got Outlast into this state repeatedly, in which case the chases would drag out for as long as I wanted them to. (Usually this happened accidentally, but sometimes I did it intentionally just to show everyone how silly it was.) Twice I was running away from the chain-rattling murderer only to turn down a hallway and hide in a spot the designers didn’t intend. Said murderer stood there, a few feet away from me, glancing around like a guy looking for the bathroom in a restaurant. Sometimes he would get bored and wander away, resetting the chase. Dramatic music continued to play, loud heartbeats continued to throb, but the tension was totally deflated. What fun is a chase scene the second time around?
Another: I have really terrible spatial awareness in games, and died a lot as I got lost in the maze-like passageways. The penalty for death in Outlast is very slight; you just respawn at the beginning of the area. As a result, I stopped being afraid of the bad guys. I stopped caring if they caught me, because I had no investment whatsoever in staying alive. I had a lot more success with the game when I stopped treating it like a desperate struggle to survive and started treating it like a video game with a quick-load function. “I’ll run into that room and let the guy beat me to death while I look around for the exits. Then, when I respawn, I’ll know exactly which direction to run.”
I realize I’m contradicting myself. On one hand I balk at Outlast for having barely any gameplay, and on the other hand I deride it because the gameplay it did have ruined my experience as a horror fan. It’s a hard problem to solve. Most horror games — most video games in general, really — solve it by giving the player something engaging to do once they realize the writing is substandard. Nobody cares about the motivations of the bug monsters in Halo, but it doesn’t matter because they’re fun to shoot. Everyone rolls their eyes when Grand Theft Auto tries to take itself seriously as a crime drama, but then they’re happy again in the next scene when they’re driving an ambulance through a shopping mall. Outlast doesn’t do anything to fill in the “This is stupid, but _________!”
As horror, Outlast is strictly lukewarm. The writers had a bag of moldy tropes at the ready, and used each one liberally. Body parts in the toilets. Messages scrawled on the walls in blood. Anonymous torsos laying around. Phones left off the hook. Rust. Debris. Mutilation. A thunderstorm. Scattered diary pages written by dead people. And far, far more jump scares than is reasonable. They come at measured intervals you can set a clock to. I don’t know how many times I commented, “Aren’t we about due for our next jump scare? Oh, there it is.”
What’s lacking is any semblance of emotional connection. To really freak me out, you have to get in my head. You need something psychological, something introspective. “This is scary because it’s dangerous!” isn’t good enough. Heck, Tomb Raider and The Legend of Zelda do that. Being at risk of death, in a game, is not in and of itself a reason for dread. Being shocked or startled isn’t the same thing as being frightened. Mortal Kombat wasn’t billed as a horror game, but that’s the bar Outlast aspires to.
Where the writing fails is that there is no plot. I mean, stuff happens. There are characters and they do things, or did things rather, and then at the end there is An Explanation, but that’s not the same. What isn’t there is a sequence of events. You go to the spooky asylum, you get locked in, jump scare jump scare, you get chased around for a while, and then you get chased around in some new place. A crazy guy shows up and tells you to meet him at the exit. You get to the exit and the guy says to meet him at somewhere else. You get there and the guy says to meet him upstairs. You can’t go upstairs because the elevator’s locked. You chase down the fuses to move the thing to get the key. The guy unlocks the exit. Then some other guy explains to you what it all means, except of course you don’t care what it means because nothing he explains to you really connects with anything you’ve done or experienced. Absolutely nothing you do in the game has any effect at a higher level than “the locked door is open now” or “the big guy can’t chase you anymore”. The reverse is also true; nothing that happens in the game world is meaningful for the player except as a means of dropping him in another terrible place to trudge through.
The game tries to flesh out its middle acts by placing documents around the joint for you to chase down. Nothing in these documents ends up being important, though, and certainly none of them serve to develop the plot. One is an e-mail sent by a nurse who is appalled at how badly the patients are being treated. You find it after two hours of tromping through the blood and feces of countless starved and mutilated patients. Later you find another e-mail from that nurse’s superior, declaring the nurse be admitted as a patient and held in the asylum until death. Not that you ever meet that nurse, or learn his fate, or avenge his death. There’s nothing to discover here, no mystery to solve, nothing to piece together. It’s just “Evil Company Does Evil Things Because Evil”, and each document you find is simply another example of said evil.
It’s what you get if you ask a middle schooler to write a horror story. You get descriptions of overwhelming amounts of blood and guts. Shambling guys without noses. Insane zombies raping a corpse. Nazi scientists. Oh, and you get the word “fuck” a lot. Because using such an extreme word obviously conveys the horrifying adult themes in play. Then one particularly bookish 13-year-old, who recently discovered Greek mythology, says there should be a painting of Prometheus in there somewhere to show how deep and symbolic it all is.
And after all that, the big plot twist ends up being “the guy who supposedly died a long time ago but gave every indication of continuing to do things in the intervening years turns out to still be alive!” I walked away from him halfway through his monologue about What It All Means and What I Need To Do Now. It turns out what he wanted me to do was go through the only door I hadn’t gone through yet and push all the buttons in the room on the other side. I was going to do that anyway, so I guess his speech wasn’t very important.
In the end, Outlast is neither my sort of game, nor my brand of horror. I need more game in my games, and more horror in my horror. I really do think there is more enjoyment to be had in watching people react to the game than in experiencing it on its own merits. It’s the same reason I always walk behind my wife at the haunted house; I have more fun watching her jump and shriek than I do watching Hockey Mask Guy jump out at me while revving his chainsaw. Hockey Mask Guy knows that, too, and that’s why he attacks her instead of me.
Hmm… Peanut can’t wear 3D glasses. Okay, bad analogy. You get the point, though. Thanks for reading!