Outcast (Reprise)

By Jim Rossignol on August 21st, 2007 at 10:23 pm.


Originally written for the UK’s resplendent Edge magazine, this look at action adventure masterwork Outcast features a handful of retrospective comments from one of the key developers from the project, Yves Grolet. Mr Grolet was one of the founders of French Belgian development house Appeal, and was one of the key proponents of third-dimension bearing pixel, the voxel. Grolet is now a senior games bloke at the dubiously named 10Tacle Studios.

I’ve given the original text a spruce up by replaying Outcast, and erasing almost everything I originally submitted… Because there’s nothing quite like rewriting history. Read the entire thing by clinking that the link, down there. Yep.

The Outcasts

Made up words are one of the routine hazards of science fiction. Outcast was chock full of multisyllabic titles, places, and awkward names for alien ostriches. Ask a veteran of the game the first thing that they remember about it and it might just be these contrived concatenations of vowels and consonants. It’s was a small joke among journalists of the time that Outcast’s characters had to pronounce quite so much unlikely gibberish, making reviewers feel that something like a Klingon dictionary was just a successful game launch away. Fortunately Outcast was a commercial disaster, so no such alien codices were forthcoming…

Nevertheless these verbal absurdities were just one facet of one of the most ambitious attempts to create a cogent, living, breathing world for players to explore. In fact, the first thing an Outcast player is genuinely likely remember is the comparative scale and the exceptional breadth of freedom that the game supplied us in 1999. Outcast’s many different lands, from desert to swamp to icy tundra, were utterly free to roam, and occasionally well structured enough to set the player on the road of an epic quest to save both his colleagues and the entire world. (Incidentally fixing the small problem of a continent-devouring black hole, back home on Earth.)

Despite the fact that an errant singularity was eating our homeworld, players were encouraged to take their time in exploring this new planet. In so doing we were able to build up a reputation among the peasants and rebel clans for whom our hero, Cutter Slade, was something of messiah. Outcast’s towns, villages and alien wildernesses remain one of the outstanding visions of what PC gaming could and should be like: it was a game of exploration, and of gun-fights in rice-paddies. Outcast took an extraordinarily open-ended approach to a serious sci-fi universe – with characters going about their own business, and AI beings reacting to your whims – while simultaneously allowing a storyline to emerge through the player’s interaction with complex scripts. Its a rare feat indeed.

I spoke to one the founders of that original Appeal team, Yves Grolet, to ask him a few questions about what he’d got up to in the years leading up to Outcast’s completion. Grolet was already a veteran of the French games industry at that time. Having started out as a programmer for Ubisoft at the age of nineteen, he went on to jointly found the development house Appeal in 1995, working on Outcast until its release in 1999. In 2002 he launched his own company, Elsewhere Entertainment, and has subsequently joined 10Tacle.


Clearly Outcast was important game for Grolet personally, but why should we regard it as an important game in the great celestial scheme of gaming? “I think it was the first game with an open-ended 3D immersive world that the player could explore at his own convenience, at his own pace and in the order he wants,” explained Grolet. “It was also the first time that a game blended action and adventure in a seamless manner and without scarring either of those two components.”

Grolet’s not kidding. Outcast’s alien planet was populated by a vibrant culture that swept from peasant-filled fields to grim and dusty deserts. Once the tutorial (infamous for its near-impossible stealth training) was out of the way, players were able to access any of the huge terrains that made up the game’s different regions. Go anywhere, talk to anyone, you just had to stay alive long enough to unravel the bigger mysteries. Working with the natives against their oppressors was an huge task and keeping people on-side took some work, even for the most dedicated adventurers. For Appeal this meant a massive effort in scripting conversations and creating bug-free AI for the alien peoples.

Grolet was keen to emphasize this point: “Outcast was a game that featured an alien world that appeared alive with citizens “living” their life during the game. The AI was one of the most difficult parts to develop because the citizens had to do their job, react to the player missions, react to the player reputation and also react to danger and combat happening around them. The difficulty was to have the citizens prioritise and select the appropriate behaviours at any moment of the game.”

For the most part this approach was extremely rewarding. Even more recent games such as Morrowind (or Oblivion) have struggled to provide such a sophisticated and believable game world – one in which NPCs aren’t simply mannequin conversations waiting to happen. Grolet is justifiably proud of his team’s success in making people feel like they could approach a living world in any way they saw fit. Even massively multi-player games have not yet reached the same level of complexity and believability that Outcast achieved with its reactive, active alien persons. Watching peasants flee as a battle erupted was peculiarly authentic – almost as if what matters most isn’t how sophisticated or pretty the residents of digital worlds are, but instead how we respond toward their actions. If they flee like animals, and potter about like animals, then they must be alive.

Nevertheless many gamers were put off by odd visuals and uncertain purpose, as Grolet concedes “The biggest failure is that the software rendering appeared a bit outdated at the release of the game.” Appeal had made the peculiar decision of employing voxels, the 3D pixel technology made infamous by Novalogic’s Comanche and Delta Force games. The 3D card revolution that was taking place around the development of Outcast meant that traditional polygons leaped ahead in sophistication, leaving the CPU-dependent voxel system looking clumsy and outmoded. “At the beginning of the development of Outcast, 3D cards did not exist,” says Grolet. “We decided to use voxels because it was a method that allowed us to render realistic natural landscapes. We decided to render landscapes instead of indoor environments because it was refreshing and different from the other games. Moreover, natural landscapes were a richer source of inspiration for us to make a world that allowed the player to dream about epic adventures.”

Outcast’s rolling landscapes and wondrous water effects did indeed entrance many gamers, but (with the exception of the rippling water) it simply didn’t stand up to the likes of Id Software’s Quake technologies for sheer visual impact. “The difficulty we encountered with voxels was that the image cleanness was not as good as the ones rendered with 3D cards that started to appear during the development and dominated the market at the release of the game,” explained Grolet. “We had to face a transition of technology and we decided to stick to our initial choice to stay coherent with our vision of huge and detailed natural landscapes.”

It was a brave move. While Voxels did have some major constraints, particularly on how detailed the models for the game characters could be, it did allow for a landscape of a kind of size and complexity that are only just being achieved by polygonal approaches today. Of course for gamers who’d just invested in shiny graphics cards it wasn’t really an option to fork out on new a CPU for a quirky French adventure game, no matter how impressive its ambitions. Voxels fell from grace, with Outcast looking like their death knell. Subsequent CPU power increases mean that these unusual 3D tools might one day make a return, perhaps in further hybrid approaches like that of Black Hawk Down, where Novalogic mixed voxels with mainstream polygonal models, but they were not to be used for Outcast II, a game for which Appeal would take quite a different, and ultimately fatal, approach.

With critical success and a small but enthusiastic fan-base behind it, Outcast was set up for a sequel, but Grolet wasn’t to be a part of that doomed project. “I quit Appeal at the beginning of the development of Outcast II because I did not agree with my ex-associates on the way to handle Outcast II. I would rather not give any details here. Unfortunately, two years after my departure, Atari (then Infogrames) decided to cancel Outcast II. It was a sad decision that disappointed everybody.”

Yet Outcast still persists on the fringes of PC gaming, a part of the free-roaming adventure lineage that stretches from the ancient 3D adventure Midwinter right up to present-day offerings such as the Stalker and Oblivion. That there internet has proved a haven for the iconoclastic 3D adventure, with an effort to create a sequel to Outcast being undertaken on an open-source website, where fans of the game have taken on the old voxel engine and attempted to give it new life with their ‘Open Outcast’ development project. Point your web browser at www.openoutcast.org to check up on the continuing legacy of one of the PC’s finest creations, including a tech demo of the Outcast remake available to download and, well, walk about in.

You can pick up Outcast on budget, or from Amazon for a couple of quid, and I think it’s worth doing. It’s neither gone, nor, in my mind at least, forgotten.

__________________

« | »

, , , , .

294 Comments »

  1. Netsabes says:

    Outcast is still an excellent adventure/action game.

    Btw, Appeal was actually Belgian.

  2. Dylan says:

    I remember a Carmack interview about voxels. He said that Voxels wouldn’t be viable until machines had about 2 gigs of ram. Impossible I thought at the time, but here I am, on my 2 gig of ram machine. Hopefully we’ll see more experimentation using them. Maybe in the new Soldier of Fortune game for gore? Jack Thompson would love that.

  3. Krupo says:

    Thanks for the awesome memories. It happened to be the last game I got before getting a 3D card, IIRC.

    Your reprise article really did a great job of stirring up memories.

    Other memorable moments include:
    - assaulting the evil empire’s bases – any opportunity that let you use your hand-held artillery piece
    - on the same note, getting the NPCs to stand clear of the well that needed opening with explosives
    - paying an NPC to stop playing an annoying song – which, IIRC, was the game’s theme song, somewhat off-key

    The orchestral score was awesome too. I feel like digging it out.

  4. Simon Westlake says:

    I’d totally forgotten about this game.. what a blast from the past. Do an article on Terra Nova next!

  5. Tom says:

    I loved Outcast, even the sight of the first screenshot in this post made me sigh with teary nostalgia. People dont generally do good outsides (everyone does good insides), Outcast was full of great outsides. Better outsides than Oblivion imo (Oblivion is a little too bland for my tatses), shame about the crappy buck rogers style main character and plot though.

  6. Acosta says:

    Thanks for a moving travel back to one superb game, probably beyond its time. It pains me to see all that effort in making a living world that was worth to explore for a game that didn´t deliver sales wise, had to be extremely frustrating to work so hard and find many people don´t care.

    At least they did a superb work, hope they find ir reason enough to feel proud of it.

  7. Alistair says:

    … and the hologram messages and the burned out village…

    For me, this really was the first of the open-world genre. Next – tell us about Nomad Soul, surely the next in an uneven evolution :)

  8. icabod says:

    Outcast was, and still is, a quality game. It’s quite odd these days playing it on a 22″ monitor (say hello to chunk-vision), but after a while you tend to adjust and see just how pretty the visuals are.

    I seem to recall the music was by something like the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and really adds to the atmosphere.

    Most annoying thing for me was when you first “map” a district – the glowing green grid flowing across the landscape looks gorgeous, but only happens once per map. I wanna see it again, cry cry.

    Good stuff Jim. Enjoying the new site, too :)

  9. fluffy bunny says:

    Very enjoyable article, even though I haven’t played Outcast much. Never got past the first part, actually.

    BTW, I assume you guys got the TOTEMS press release today? If not, you should look it up at gamespress.

  10. Robert Seddon says:

    It was the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.

    I was one of the people who suffered from the non-running Twôn-Ha bug, unfortunately.

  11. Miles says:

    One day I’ll buy this and lose a weekend to it

  12. Gobion says:

    Ah yes the soundtrack for Outcast was worth buying the game for all on its own – it was a good Stargate-style soundtrack and I know several people who picked it up but never even got round to playing the game.

  13. andreadst says:

    I always thought that Outcast’s graphics were far more beautiful than those powered by the earliest 3D cards (like those seen in quake, tomb raider)…especially considering that the characters were far more detailed.

    Andf ah, yes, the music was amazing.

  14. ManMan says:

    Outcast is my favorite game. I always thought it was pretty impressive to have a conversation abruptly end because we were being shot at. I loved that all the dialogue was actually voice-acted too. No game has since made me have so much fun exploring. I also liked the fact that there were no time-skips. You actually sat in that boat for a wile, and you actually had to wait for the guy to finish making your ammo.

    I’m somewhat glad that the Outcast 2 they had planned never saw the light of day. It was going to be PS2-exclusive, with smaller environments. On the other hand, I’m sad that there’s no sequel at all.

    You might want to fix “an huge task”

  15. Kalle says:

    I loved Outcast so much I even bought it again when it came out on DVD. It was worth it for the soundtrack and the outtakes collection.

  16. Tsac says:

    This game was just “beautiful”. Everything, the environments, the music, the dialogs, the battles, the weapons, the story, the Civilian AI. They were all beautiful.

    I don’t think that there is going to be a game as good as outcast again. This game, along with Deus Ex are probably the best games ever made for PC in my opinion.

  17. Kadayi says:

    Nice read. Outcast was epic in the day. Too true about the game world compared to most games these days in terms of size and the reactive AI being ahead of the curve (also the reactive music was excellent). Nothing kills atmosphere in a game more for me than seeing a bunch of NPCs just stood their waiting for you to talk to them, and yet again and again that’s what developers keep delivering. About the only company I can think of who at least are talking about addressing this issue are Funcom with Age of Conan, where in their NPCs are kind of simish in their behaviour, though whether those ambitions get realised whose to say.

  18. Dave B. says:

    I loved Outcast as well as the terrific soundtrack. The voice acting of the main character was done really well. He has done other projects such as the first Chrome Specforce. At onetime, I lucked out and got to work with Doug, the lead designer of the game. It was cool a fan of such a game could tell him face to face how much they enjoyed it.

  19. Tan says:

    Wow. Just… WOW.

    I bought Outcast in about 2002, and played the first part of it. My PC was too fast, and I got the “events can’t spawn” bug. I set it aside for years. And years. Just recently, I discovered the fix with cpugrabber, and played through it. I *just* beat it minutes ago.

    Wow. That’s just such a damn immersive game. Awesome.

  20. Galva says:

    This simply is the best game ever made. It beats ocarina of time by a mile! And what the writer forgot to mention ?I think is that outcast was aso the first game with bumpmapping and skin mapping! If you look at the animals you could see their skin ripple/rinkle. This game was truely ahead of its time. once again its simply the best game ever made.
    I mean just look at the conversation options. Still to this day no other game has all these option ,not even mass effect or oblivion. I especially loved how you could just ask any NPC about the wereabouts of an important npc or a place or tempel you needed to be and the nthey would point out to you the person you were looking for or they would point at the direction of the temple and say something like: “the temple is to the southwest of here”. Wich is quite impressive because the npc’s were not static they moved around the world all the time but were always capeble of giving out good directions :). simply awesome and truely the most underrated game ever. It’s a shame amricans barely played pc games at the time or maybe this game would have gotten better review scores from ign/gamespot and more people would have bought it. I bought it in 1999 and stil lto this day it’s the best game ever…….

  21. prasad says:

    i haveplayed the game but lost the cd can any one send me the link from were i can download the game again…. plz

    plz

  22. UK_John says:

    I am playing this again after finding out how to get it working on my dual 2.8ghz XP PC, it is just as immersive and amazingly still looks good enough to wait a second and just look at the views! How we didn’t get better open world, non linear games after the release of this, i’ll never know! But with Morrowind and it’s text and not as good graphics and Oblivion with just the graphics, I was still waiting in 2007 for a decent Outcast type game! Then another first title from another European developer appeared: STALKER! Soon, as well, we will have Fallout 3, surely a good follow-up to Outcast if done well, or another shallow Oblivion set in a non fantasy world (already heard Bethesda are using the same Oblivion voice actor’s for it!!!).

    So yes, Outcast still stands today as a great example of PC gaming. You couldn’t get a game like Outcast on console, and unfortunately we haven’t had one on PC since the original either!

  23. Erkki Lindpere says:

    One of my all-time favorites as well. I’ve played it at least five times over the years. And as others already said — we haven’t really seen games like this afterwards. It makes me nostalgic. Sure, there are open world 3D game series (GTA III, Elder Scrolls, Gothic, and now Stalker), but no action-adventures. The Zelda games are similar perhaps, and even as they are outstanding games as well, their specific formula makes them a bit boring compared to Outcast.

  24. lio says:

    I didn’t even remember that outcast got released… I only remember reading previews and then nothing more… I thought it had gotten canned along the way…

  25. Rawad says:

    Are you kidding? this was and still is the best game I’ve ever played the only other time I ever felt even that inkling of experiencing adventure was when I played Shadow of the Collossus. It still hurts whenever I think about the canned sequel but probably it was for the best or it might have been ruined the franchise and we wouldn’t be so nostalgic. For me it’s what games should be doing to give the players the sense of exploration and adventure not your hack and slash and destroy everything in your path routine Outcast got the formula right.

  26. InVinoVeritas says:

    ::wanders off to track down a copy of Outcast::

  27. Michael says:

    I realise I’m gravedigging here, but I’d never seen this article before, and there were a few mistakes that I’d like to point out, like the know-it-all bastard I am:
    As previously pointed out, Appeal was Belgian. The game didn’t use Voxels for characters or building, the game used a hybrid approach, much like the Novalogic games, and rendered some things as polygons. Actually, Crysis uses voxels for its terrain as well, but I haven’t played it yet, so I can’t say much more about that. I should really give Outcast another go. At the time I played it and loved it, but it ran fairly badly for me, so I eventually gave up.

  28. Carnelain says:

    Guess what it runs on vista!

  29. Mejis says:

    One of my all time favourite games. I remember getting up early to play this before school every day. I always wanted a supercomputer to play this at maximum settings, it seemed so system heavy at the time.

  30. PHeMoX says:

    Run Prg.Create(Instantly).a { sequel_to_(Outcast); }

    Please o please I need a sequel.

  31. Mac says:

    My favourite game of all time! And probably the best NPCs of all time.. to this date i still nostalgically check every few years hoping a sequel will emerge.

  32. Chaz says:

    Gutted! I never played this at the time because all the games mags gave it crap reviews. Looks like I missed out big time, as this sound like just the kind of game I would have loved, warts and all.

  33. Eder says:

    Great, great game. One of my favorites still today.

    QUOTE:
    “…because all the games mags gave it crap reviews.”

    Crap reviews? It won a lot of “adventure game of the year” in the internet, for example, on Gamespot!!!

  34. Bhazor says:

    Compared to Outcast, Mass Effect is unbelievably bad.

  35. Ulukai says:

    without doubt my favourite game ever. I get nostalgic about this in a way I don’t really about anything else. It broke my heart that a sequel could not be made.

    What modern day open ended games like oblivion don’t seem to understand, is the importance of the meaning of the overall vision, and fitting everything into that context. Although Outcast is free roaming, everything seems thematically related to the purpose of the game, which is basically anti-colonialist. With games like Oblivion, not only is the main story quite boring and bland, but none of the secondary plots/characters and locations really have anything to do with any overall purpose or theme, making them feel empty and characterless.

    Long live Outcast!

  36. fucrate says:

    I just installed it. I was a little concerned by the old-school’ness of the controls, but there’s a Control.ini file that you can modify to your liking. I’m gonna go out of control on this game this weekend.

  37. 3423423 says:

    fuck you bitch

  38. Petezko says:

    Wonder why the sequel could not be commercialized nowadays? If I had the money, I would fund the open-source project and commercialize the game. I bet it would be a huge hit (I believe fans know how to create an enjoyable sequel with the original Outcast spirit in it) and thus it would give kudos to the original game. And also maybe do a remake of the original game with todays graphics for those who have never played the original outcast and don’t bother playing “old” games anymore. BTW just finished Outcast the second time after many years and agree with others: it’s one of the best games ever :) Just my 2 cents.

  39. RoweKaye23 says:

    One knows that life seems to be high priced, nevertheless we need cash for different things and not every man earns enough money. Therefore to receive fast mortgage loans and consolidation loans will be a right solution.

  40. UK_John says:

    Hot off the press!!!!!! This game is now available for a paltry $5.99 from the, now famous, GOG.com!!!! :)

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>