The Horror of Outlast

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Outlast certain features creepy imagery, but do the horror elements undermine the game’s own goals?

Released in 2013 by developer Red Barrels, Outlast is one of the games credited with ushering in a new era of survival horror. The protagonist is an investigative journalist who is following a lead sent to him by an employee at a secretive psychiatric hospital, one that has been overrun by the very disturbed and violent patients. Outlast is notable in that it’s one of the prominent games in the genre to avoid any traditional combat – players cannot fight off the lunatics killing everyone, they simply hide from them and hope not to get noticed.

It’s easy to see why Outlast garnered praise – the gameplay is great, with easy to learn and responsive controls, and the level design is refreshingly straight-forward, offering refined design instead of gimmicks and unnecessarily bloated spaces. Although it’s fun to play, there is one element in which Outlast oddly stumbles – it undermines its own efforts at being a horror game. Outlast may be a mechanically sound game, but these horror elements, the focal point of the game, are a reminder that it takes more than some buckets of blood and jump scares to create a great horror game.

The issues plaguing Outlast go beyond these jump scares and dimly lit corridors – the biggest problem is that they player can see through these mechanics, and can immediately begin to ignore or exploit them. All the tension is removed from the game, simply because the horror elements are implemented in way in which they lack subtlety or ask players to suspend too much belief, and it begins with the atmosphere.

Too Much of a Gory Thing

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When scenes like this are the norm, the violence and gore loses all impact.

Atmosphere is crucial for any horror game – a great developer can use an atypical setting to their advantage and create some memorable moments, or they can use tried and true settings and do something new with them. I wasn’t initially worried when Outlast went with the later approach – a psychiatric hospital is a common setting, but Red Barrels could use the setting in a way that separates it from the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games of old.

Instead, everything is coated in a thick layer of blood, and limbs and guts are strewn across floors, ceilings, walls, shelves and even the furniture.

It’s disappointing to see developers still equating high levels of gore with good atmosphere. The problem with relying on high levels of gore is that it lacks subtlety, and it quickly goes from being gross to comical. It’s not that I am squeamish and turned off by violence – after all, some of my favorite games are exceptionally violent (dismemberments are very common in both The Witcher and Fallout games, for example). But it’s because of this that gore doesn’t shock me anymore, and it becomes an instance of less is more.

When you can’t walk through any room without severed limbs decorating the walls, it quickly becomes overused and tiresome. The music indicates that a sudden revelation of intestines dangling from the ceiling should be frightening, but instead it becomes oddly comical. Outlast is filled with these scenes, from start to finish, and that’s the problem. I addressed this type of use of gore in a three-part series on the F.E.A.R. franchise, in which I criticized the second and third entries for over-relying on gore to create a horror atmosphere. The only entry that used gore sparingly was the original, and it is for that reason that the original F.E.A.R. is the only game to actually creep me out and cause me to regret playing with the lights off. There are definitely violent scenes in F.E.A.R., but they start off small and infrequent, slowly building up as the game progresses. The gore never gets old or comical – it always has an impact.

Outlast’s atmosphere prevents players from becoming immersed into its story, because the setting inspires anything but horror and dread. And this misplaced emphasis impacts the defining feature of the gameplay – the player’s ability to see in the dark.

Camcorders and Batteries

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The night vision works to a degree, but as a result the game breaks immersion in some odd ways.

Since the player has no way of defending themselves other than to hide from enemies, sneaking throughout the dark halls of the hospital composes the majority of the gameplay. Stealth is key, which means that players need to sneak in the dark in a way that doesn’t alert enemies to their presence. This is handled by using a camcorder’s night vision mode, and as far as creating tension, this works. Seeing the world through a night vision filter means that the player can only see a fraction of the world at any time (whatever the night vision sensor is pointed at), which means that an enemy can remain unseen by standing just outside the player’s main cone of vision.

However, the night vision in the game is powered by batteries. The camcorder never loses charge, but the night vision eats through power fast. Although I’m fine with that balance, it is odd where players find camcorder batteries, and again it often takes players out of the moment the same way the high level of gore does.

I found batteries on shelves alongside severed heads, I found them in sewers that haven’t been visited in years, I found them hidden under floorboards, and even outside in courtyards. Apparently, psychiatric hospitals are littered with batteries, to the point that I never worried about running out of them. Resource management is a critical component in successful horror games; not only was that aspect absent, but the resources I gathered were glaringly out of place.

There are ways to get around this, and it starts by expanding the player’s tools for navigating the dark. Relying only on night vision meant Red Barrels needed to place batteries everywhere, but what if they had opened up the ways players could illuminate the darkness? Batteries are also a resource in Alan Wake, but because players also had flares and a flare gun, the game world didn’t need to be littered with just one type of resource. It might make more sense to find flares in a remote outpost instead of camcorder batteries, and therefore wouldn’t break the immersion.

But Alan Wake isn’t the only horror game to draw inspiration from – both titles in the Metro 2033 franchise deal with this same exact scenario that makes up the majority of Outlast, and they also avoided issues with resource management. Players start the game with a headlamp, which helps light up environments, but makes them noticeable to enemies, meaning that players can’t just turn the headlamp on and never turn it off. This provides some intense moments, and it also makes obtaining night vision later in the game that much more rewarding – now the player can sneak around without alerting enemies. If Outlast had followed in Alan Wake and Metro 2033’s steps, the sense of immersion could be improved.

Blinded By The Dark

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The residents of the psychiatric hospital where the games takes place offer little in the way of challenge and threat.

When it comes to breaking immersion, perhaps the biggest sin Outlast commits is the enemy AI. This aspect of game design may be one that is never perfected, so it’s best to look at it on a case-by-case basis, and in the case of Outlast, the enemy AI undermines the horror more than any other element.

The first instance of this is when players get caught by an enemy, and find a locker to hide in or a bed to crawl under. The altered enemy will chase the player into the room, then stop to search under beds or in lockers to see if they can find the player. The first time this happens, it is intense – the player hopes that the enemy will get distracted after looking in a couple lockers and move on. Which is what happens, every single time. Not once did an enemy randomly choose to search the locker I was in or the bed I hid under.

After seeing this happen a few times, the illusion of any threat is broken, and these encounters are anything but scary. Compounding this issue is the fact that each enemy acts identical to the last – there is no variation in the enemy design. They may look different, but their actions never change. This goes beyond hiding from enemies – the player can outrun them with relative ease, meaning if the player gets caught and doesn’t know of an immediate hiding spot, they can just run around in circles for a couple minutes before the enemy AI forgets about them and goes back to following their basic routines.

While the lack of quality AI hurts encounters with enemies, the truly confounding part is that they all act the same; variation in enemy design is important – not just for horror games – for all games. Staying within the horror genre, one of the best examples of diversity in enemies and how it prevents the gameplay from growing stale is Dead Space. This franchise lasted for an entire trilogy partially because of the enemy design, which went to some interesting places, such as indestructible giants and infected infants, and all required a different strategy to defeat.This variety could have helped Outlast. Instead of unpredictable encounters adding to the horror and tension, players knew what to expect, and more importantly, knew that they could outrun whatever the game threw at them.

Saving And Pacing

Another unintended consequence of the poor enemy design and AI is that it highlights a problem Outlast has with fail states. Just because the player knows how to deal with each enemy and that they can outrun them, there are still plenty of instances in which the player will get caught, and will have to start over from the previous checkpoint. But there is no penalty for dying, because Outlast does something I didn’t think possible – it includes far too many checkpoints.

I have no problem with developers controlling where players can save, and a checkpoint system typically works well in horror games, but when the checkpoints are spaced approximately two minutes apart from each other, player death is a non-factor. Couple this with the knowledge that enemies always act the same way, and each encounter devolves into trial and error, to the point that I would just blindly run into a new area, find where the enemy was, possibly die, repeat a couple times until I found the exit, and then simply run past all threats as if I was out for a leisurely jog. All gameplay follows this same formula, which could partially be remedied by spacing out the checkpoints just a bit more, or adding some sort of penalty to player death.

A Tensionless Stroll Through A Hospital

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Scenes like this get old, really fast.

There are a couple basic story elements that most horror games have in common. One, there is a big bad villain that the player must escape from, and two, there is a plan for the player to forever defeat said villain. While Outlast technically achieves both of these, the way they are presented unfortunately drags the game out to the point that a six hour experience feels like it lasts three times that.

For the overwhelming majority of the game, the main focus for the player is to escape the hospital. Every time the player gets close to the exit, an enemy blocks their path, and at times they even toy with the player, taunting them by showing them the door that leads to their freedom. This is all fine, until late in the game when the player actually makes it outside of the hospital.

When I first stepped foot out into the open air, I assumed the game was over – just a few quick checkpoints to cross, and I would look at this twisted hospital in my rearview mirror. But for some reason, the game forces the player to run back into the hospital, prolonging the game for another hour, and that hour drags on and on, because any tension the story was building up to has now been rendered moot. There were technically fences with barbed wire in front of me, but by this point I have climbed over multiple make-shift fences and up into ventilation shafts, and the barbed wire shouldn’t be a deterrent as I’ve been thrown through windows, stabbed, kicked and had two fingers cut off. All I could think as the game was telling me to run back into the hospital was, why? Why should I? Why can’t I just leave now?

This would be different if the story had changed, if it had introduced the second common plot element – a way to stop the villain. But by this point, Outlast had failed to do this – I was still simply running around trying to find my way out. It wasn’t for another half an hour (a large chunk of time in a six hour game) that the game finally presented an evil that I could defeat, which gave me reason to stay put. But that justification made almost no sense, meaning that I was asked to abandon all self-preservation at the last possible moment to destroy … something about nanomachines?

A story in a horror game doesn’t have to make the most sense, but it needs to give the player an uphill battle, and a plan of action other than escape. Condemned: Criminal Origins successfully put the player in a difficult position, forcing them to confront some horrific scenes to help clear their name, and also added twists along the way, slowly changing the plot from being framed to defeating … something about psychic enemies? But the lack of clarity didn’t matter because it was set up much earlier in the game, not in the final moments of the final act. Outlast misses the mark, and as the story unfolds, it loses all tension.

Outlasting The Horror

For all of the mechanics and elements Outlast correctly utilizes, the one that it stumbles over is the most important – the horror. Hopefully, the recently announced sequel addresses these issues. I don’t need to see a version of the game in which the player character can fight back, I need to see a version in which there is an internal consistency, one where enemies actually adapt to the player, one that has a story that flows with the twists and turns and doesn’t stay static. If not, then the sequel will undermine its own efforts in the same way the original did. There are a bounty of successful horror games that have already laid out the blueprints, and can work with the combat-adverse mechanics of Outlast.