Wot I Think: Outlast

By Ben Barrett on September 4th, 2013 at 2:00 pm.

When a rag-tag collection of industry super-veterans form a new studio and come at you with a claim of “scariest game ever” you should sit up in your armchair and pay attention. Red Barrels, which is something like half fomer-Ubisoft and half EA Montreal folk crammed into one office, busily doing anything that isn’t making another Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell. Their first game, survival horror Outlast, has been kicking up a storm after strong showings at PAX and E3, while Youtube videos of it went viral in swedes-screaming-at-webcams circles.

Does it live up to this teacup storm of hype? Grab a pillow to hide behind and ready the heart medication, here’s Wot I Think.

On the face of it, fear seems like an unlikely emotion to inspire from fiction. It is, by definition, completely illogical to experience it from reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game. There is nothing there that can actually bring you harm. And it’s true that many things which claim to be scary are not so. And yet, in books, movies, and particularly games, fear is a popular and populist thing to aim for. It’s one of the most popular themes in gaming, and one of the most successful. To capture it properly, it needs to be treated with respect. It is not an element to throw in at random, but rather the entire experience must be crafted around fear, or the approach will be diluted, dispelled, or otherwise ineffective. Many games simply resort to startling and disorientating a player with jumpy moments, sudden violent counterpoints that may shock but rarely terrify. Outlast is not without its share of these but has also been designed to avoid relying on them. Instead, it realises making the player feel vulnerable is the true path to horror.

Player avatar Miles Upshur is the first component in this design. A journalist investigating the Mount Massive Asylum, perhaps his most unusual talent is his corporeality. It may seem minor, but having the player in control of an actual in-game model is a very neat touch. When pressed up against a wall, his hands appear, gripping the edge as he looks into the next corridor. When crouching and looking down, legs are bent and arms are placed on the ground. He has a shadow that changes as he moves, casting unfamiliar images on otherwise normal walls. This adds up to produce a sensation of controlling an actual human being, who is embodied, who can be harmed, and who is naturally afraid of his surroundings.

This philosophy continues through animation. Nothing is ever invisibly manipulated: doors do not simply open upon button press but are shown to be pulled by Miles’ arms. When walking through a room filled with debris (both animal and mineral), it is stepped over rather than passed through. Items don’t disappear from their spot in the scenary but are reached out for, grabbed and pocketed. It’s achingly slow when in danger, arms suddenly far too short to pick up a vital item speedily or doors taking forever to be closed in the face of pursuing madmen. It forces you to stop and turn around when you don’t want to, looking right in the oft-mutilated face of pursuers, demanding you absorb the horror presented.

These chase sequences could be described as the core of the game. As advertised, there is no straight combat so stealth and speed are your survival mechanisms. There’s little scripting, simply relying on you finding your way through environments on the fly. The unfamiliarity leads to panic but the logic of signposting is made clear early, making getting stuck rare. Despite Amnesia’s success, entirely simple run and hide sequences are still vastly underutilised in games so even these basics of playing Outlast felt new and original.

This is helped in part by the main tool of the game being a camcorder. This can be raised and lowered by a mouse click and is your only armament at any stage. It has actual purpose as a flashlight, using the night-vision mode to cast an eerie green-grey sheen over everything. The genius of this as an idea really can’t be overstated – it plays into every other part of the game amazingly. Above all else, it gives that found footage feel that propelled so many movies before it to notoriety. In fact, it exploits it as a story-telling and fear-generating tool so effectively you would think games, as a medium, were what it was invented by and for. It’s logically sound that journalist Miles would have brought something to record his discoveries with even stretching to explain why he doesn’t drop it at the first sign of danger. And yet being encumbered by this adds to the sense of vulnerable embodiment.

Pursuit sections are similarly benefited. One particular blast of genius is, when sprinting, the keys that normally lean around corners are now used to glance over your shoulder. With the camera held aloft, running from a pipe-wielding fiend-without-a-face, quickly glancing backwards to see how close he is just evokes classic horror so much better than previous attempts. The individual elements of a scene like this – the smoothness of the animation of leaping over a table, the violent musical tones, the sheer visual beauty – add up to so much more than the sum, horror wise. By constructing every part of their game to reinforce fear, when it all comes together it is the recipe for a proper freakout. There were times when I ran for a good amount of time only to foolishly realise there was nothing chasing me once I’d hidden in a locker.

Another high point is the understanding by the development team that it is possible for a player to get used to even the most unusual circumstances. No matter how horrifying, eventually you’ll become desensitised after six hours spent trudging through bloody corridors. So, they keep it varied. First this is simple, expected stuff like going into a dark basement or traversing different floors. But it’s deeper than that: early on I came across a hub area filled with non-aggressive inmates. These weren’t just idle models but had personality and varying depths to their crazy. It was a surprise and quite eerie after my natural assumption that no-one would be friendly.

There’s clever environmental differences too. One particularly memorable section, just as I was comfortable with the inside of the asylum and understood its rules, thrust me into a giant courtyard. Here the night-vision of the camcorder was near useless, showing only the ground a few feet ahead so lightning flashes and distant lamps had to be used for navigation. After having become so dependent on the device for a feeling of safety, this and other times when it was rendered inoperable or ineffective managed to throw me out of my comfort zone ever further. This is just one of numerous switch ups in the tone of horror made throughout and each is as beautifully timed and executed.

There is an amount of potential left unfulfilled in this area, however. The actual scares remain mighty pedestrian for the most part. They’re played out in varying circumstances, yes, but still usually boil down to something jumping out at you or something chasing you. With the direction and theme the plot takes, particularly regarding hallucinations and related phenomena, there was a real opportunity to properly disturb and shock. Opinions on jump scares vary, but I feel the telegraphing for many of them was too plain – corners clearly concealing an inmate or seemingly comatose foes rather obviously laid in the natural path. When used on their own, without triggering a chase scene or developing the plot, they seemed slightly lazy in comparison to the rest of the game.

That plot’s told in a number of ways, most often through the tried and true method of logs, files and journals found around the facility. This operates as you might expect as is notable only in its lack of particular greatness. It would have been nice to see the writing team go a bit deeper on them, particularly given their relative scarcity compared to other games, but they’re hardly a low point. What’s far more interesting are the characters met and the areas discovered. These go much further to building an image of an actual place, rather than a monster silo and murder hole where everything’s specifically designed to kill you. Far from making me feel safe, this just unnerved me to the horrific elements of my surroundings even more.

This world-building is helped by just how bloody pretty it is. My seven year old wreck of a machine wasn’t able to get it above medium and it was still gorgeous. There are subtler aspects too: batteries (used to keep the camcorder working) are never just lying around on the ground, but always accompanied by some reason to be there, be it a discarded radio or a supply drawer. What little characterisation of Miles is broadcast through notes he writes feel like the natural reaction of a rational individual in a ridiculous situation. He swears and freaks out, makes the odd joke. Towards the end he acts in a manner a little more badass than I’d expect, but it’s strong stuff. He’s made a character as much as the villains are, which is important in keeping me afraid for his life. He is no faceless avatar waiting to die and respawn. Again with embodiment, again with the fear of vulnerability.

Outlast is not an experiment in how games can be scary, it’s an exemplification.

The team that made this game understood survival horror. Outlast takes the ideas of predecessors and runs them through an incredibly talented set of individuals to produce a slick, brilliant experience. Its claim of “scariest game ever” will likely put it under some fire, particularly from connoisseurs of the genre, and especially with Machine For Pigs turning up at a similar time. But what it can definitely claim to be is a great game. It’s not a simple excuse for gore and violence, nor is it only interested in shocking you with a sudden scream and blood splattered visage. It wants to horrify. It’ll also intrigue, terrify and surprise you in equal measure.

Outlast is out now on Steam.

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73 Comments »

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  1. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Good Lord, no.

    Sounds like a Hell of an experience for those who like this sort of thing, though.

    • tnzk says:

      Are you starting a pun thread? It seems devilishly subtle.

      • Twitchity says:

        You’d have to be crazy to want to play something like this. Definitely not for the Jung ones.

      • The Random One says:

        A pun thread would be about psychology, not theology.

        So this isn’t a pun thread, I’m afreud.

        €: Someone had already used this pun! I hope you don’t mind.

    • PhilLThomson says:

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  2. Premium User Badge

    slerbal says:

    I will definitely pick this up then, even if I am unlikely to have the nerve to play it any time soon. I’m a sucker for a good horror game though :)

    That said, I like the conceits in this game – it does sound like there has been serious thought put into how to increase the overall immersion of the game without having it heavily scripted. So maybe, just maybe I will be able to give it a go (then go and have a lie down and a nice cup of tea).

  3. jonahcutter says:

    Interesting. Now I’m tempted just based upon it being a game without weapons and built around being chased.

  4. stele says:

    Just ordered it (Steam has a 20% off sale right now, at least for the US, for the next 3.5 hours).

    I’m already having nightmares about playing it tonight after it gets dark.

    • MrTaco says:

      The game doesnt even work for me I try to play it and it just goes right back to the desktop :/

      Intel Core i7
      GTX 660 Ti
      8G Rip Jaw x Asrock Extreme 4m

  5. gunny1993 says:

    I follow the Rincewind school of running, and therefore never look behind me.

    Game looks really good though, will definitely be picking it up, the camera aspect seems really good, like REC.

  6. Jake says:

    The immersion sounds good – making the player feel vulnerable is definitely one of the keys to a good horror game (along with making the player care about their character), but it sounds more like a game that makes you jump than a really scary experience. I like scary games, I love the sense of dread and foreboding that you get in Amnesia or Penumbra or the sense of despair and gloom found in Silent Hill. But I hate things that make you jump, they may as well just substitute whatever gruesome creature jumps out at you with a sign saying BOO. Am I really dreading what horrors are lurking in the game or am I just dreading being made to jump?

    And I am not sure about that last screenshot (and some of the footage of the game), it looks a bit hollywood horror. A sort of maximalist approach to horror – with extra scars and gore and mutilations – which is unpleasant sure, but generally not actually scary.

    But I will certainly give it a go, far from being commonplace in games I think fear is so incredibly underused that I am pretty eager to try all these various attempts out. But I am not after the jump scares of seeing a freaky looking inmate, rather the stark, existential dread of Silent Hill. The sort of horror that keeps you up at night hours after you’ve finished playing. I think A Machine for Pigs looks more interesting, but I will give Outlast a fair chance.

    • Ben Barrett says:

      Yeah, it’s kinda an odd one. Like, it has all this clever stuff in it that’s genuinely creepy and is designed in such a way to enhance that stuff … but then also has some really just proper hammer horror gore bits and many of the scares are jump-tacular. If you can’t stand jump scares, it doesn’t remove them, but if you just believe horror requires more than them, it does do extra stuff.

  7. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    On the face of it, fear seems like an unlikely emotion to inspire from fiction. It is, by definition, completely illogical to experience it from reading a book, watching a movie or playing a game. There is nothing there that can actually bring you harm.

    I think you just like saying “by definition” and “completely illogical”.

  8. Deathmaster says:

    Wait. Is that zombie/monster making a selfie?

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      Oh good gods that was my first thought as well.
      “Hey Babes wanna have alot of meet to hold on? Also give my nicest smile pls like if you do!”

  9. verbaloid says:

    Oh, gack.. They boiled the horror element down to jump scares. Arrggh, how stupid, how I hate that! Definitely NOT buying it.
    The good old ‘Condemned’ franchise is the way to write atmosphere soaked horror games, you devs gotta learn from it.

    • Bhazor says:

      I have to say the E3 trailer made the horror look patheticly horror housey. With people “freaking out” like the audience of a Paranormal Activity trailer.

      Every cliche of modern horror films.I’m sure there must be enough to write a literal formula for these fucking things by now. Slow, slow, FYUGBUYFGUYFGYUYSWFGYUFGSYUG, orchestra sting, slow, slow, slow, night vision, night vision, slow, BLABLABLABLABLABLABLABLA, sound of exploding piano, shaky cam, shaky cam, slow, slow, slow, night vision, slow, DEMON FACE, cut to black. I’m sure theres a plug in for movie maker that can auto fill the blanks with any given home movie.

      When did ghost train rides become the pinnacle of horror?

    • Jerppa says:

      Those goddamn mannequins…

      • verbaloid says:

        Hah, the mannequins alone deserved a BAFTA or somethin. ‘Condemned’ showcased a different kind of horror, subtle, the one you don’t necessarily run from, but seek more of it. I think that’s immersive. Jump-scares aren’t.

    • DrGonzo says:

      That’s a confusing statement, Condemned was just a series of jump scares too.

    • Fenix says:

      Man I loved the first Condemned so much, and I still haven’t forgiven John Walker for hating on it. Anyway, has anyone played the sequel? I remember being pretty bummed that it never came out on PC, then I forgot about it.

      • The Random One says:

        I played a demo on the 360. It seemed to be nothing like the original, with only a few crazy but otherwise normal people and a bunch of emaciated goo beings wandering around a hospital covered in alien weed.

      • drygear says:

        I actually just played through them both a few weeks ago. I hadn’t played through the first since I first got it around the time it came out, and it was my first time playing the 2nd.

        The first still held up pretty well. The environments are creepy. The main way it’s scary is dreading/anticipating being ambushed by enemies. They are very slippery and are really good at circling around behind you. You often know they’re there before you’re able to find them because when you enter the room you see them running for the shadows or you can hear them.
        It’s almost worth playing just for the second to last level, the one that has you following trails of blood through an abandoned farmhouse. It reminded me of the Shalebridge Cradle from Thief 3.
        The writing isn’t very good but it doesn’t get in the way too much.

        The second one was all right. It’s definitely creepier near the beginning than it is at the end. It is much more brutal, in fact one of the most brutal games I’ve ever played because you kill people in some gruesome ways. Most of it is a lot less memorable than the first. It does have a fun forensic investigations mechanic where you describe a crime scene to your colleague back at HQ (the same one from the first game, but in this one she’s somehow 20 years younger). You need to give her information about what you see and it grades you on accuracy. For example she’ll ask you to see how the victim died and you’ll examine the body for a wound and pick from a list whether it’s a gunshot wound, knife wound, or something else. It’s quite fun. Also, sometimes while you are talking to her you get a choice of questions to ask her, and it grades you on whether your choice is a stupid question or a good one.
        As the game goes on it becomes less scary and more actioney, and near the end it’s almost an FPS.
        The writing is pretty bad once again. I’m not sure if it’s worse than the first one or if it just seems like that because there’s a lot more of it. The villain it introduces early in the game is so obviously evil, but nobody else seems to know it. Also, your character starts out as a homeless alcoholic but he gets a redemptive story arc and by the end of the game he’s (quite literally) defeated his alcohol demon. There’s an exchange at the end of the game where his buddy is like, “when we get back home I’m going to buy you a beer.” and your character says “I don’t think that’s such a good idea.” Then everyone laughs.
        If you happen to have an xbox 360 the game is quite cheap now and if you liked the first one I’d say it’s worth it to get. But if you don’t, you’re not missing out on anything really great.

        • Fenix says:

          Ah thanks, that was pretty informative. I actually don’t remember being much bothered by the writing, but that’s probably because it was 2005.

          • drygear says:

            You’re welcome. I’m glad I can put the time I spent playing them to some use to help someone out.

            I didn’t mind the writing so much either the first time I played, but this time it really took me out of the game. I don’t remember stuff like the dialogue being too bad, except that your character is extremely bland. It’s mostly things like characters’ motivations not making any sense, and nobody acts like any real person would in their situation. It all exists to further the plot, and the plot doesn’t make much sense on its own either because there are a lot of things it leaves for the sequel to fill in.

  10. Bweahns says:

    I just bought a copy me. Might take Dorris downstairs and plug her into the big telly and play the game with the missus tomorrow night. Hopefully this will result in a serious case of the heebie jeebies.

  11. iARDAs says:

    I think this game is either good or bad. Perhaps average!!!

  12. Enkinan says:

    “There were times when I ran for a good amount of time only to foolishly realise there was nothing chasing me once I’d hidden in a locker.”

    This sentence is making me seriously consider purchase.

  13. Askis says:

    I saw some early footage of this a while ago and what stuck with me as being rather odd was how incredibly quickly the batteries in the camcorder drained.
    Sure, it’s to add tension and risk, by forcing you to search around for more batteries when the area might not be safe, but it just felt gamy and unrealistic that a reporter would be carrying around a camera that is out of juice within a few minutes…

    • Ben Barrett says:

      They’ve been switching up the battery mechanic a bunch and the version I played wasn’t even confirmed for final (though the balance of it was very, very good in my playthrough). It certainly didn’t drain too fast.

  14. airtekh says:

    Awesome, this sounds exactly like my kind of thing.

    Will pre-order ASAP.

  15. Synesthesia says:

    Finally, more of these are appearing. We’re old enough to stop being a floating camera with a gun duct taped to it. I like watching around my avatar and seeing him embodied. It does so much for inmersion and characterisation. Arma and mirror’s edge are the only ones i can remember. Oh! And there was that faux-HL2 trailer where you could see the hev suit. More of this! Devs should pay attention.

  16. Dayofthedan says:

    just bought this. gunna play through it to prepare me for amnesia

  17. DanMan says:

    I’m a sucker for good, dynamic, context-sensitive animations, so this has me interested.

  18. Mbaya says:

    I enjoyed this WIT, thanks. As someone that rarely gets spooked playing/watching Horror based works I actually really look forward to experiencing something where you feel more immersed in the world…that might just be enough of a tipping point to give me the creeps. Feeling like a floating camera really breaks the immersion for me.

    Is there any word on Oculus Rift support in the future? Seems the game could really work well with it.

  19. noom says:

    “There were times when I ran for a good amount of time only to foolishly realise there was nothing chasing me once I’d hidden in a locker.”

    And in the game

    Bad AITG joke aside, I will definitely be giving this a look. Very much in the mood for a good scare.

  20. Grayvern says:

    I understand the vulnerability in horror discourse but I have heard this sentiment repeated so often that it seems awfully trite at this point.

    One begins to suspect that although there is great craft and skill required to create these experiences these problems are easier to solve than making horror games with combat or survival horror.

  21. The Random One says:

    So how far does the game go to establish people with mental disorders as something more than just the boogeyman du jour?

    • Ben Barrett says:

      Tough issue, and one I’m definitely not qualified to comment on in depth. HOWEVER…

      (very, very slight spoiler warning for anyone who’s going to play the game, do not read on if you want to be totally blind)

      I think the plot sidesteps the issue with the developments it takes as to why the asylum is in the state it is. Others may disagree though. It certainly isn’t just a game that goes “all people in asylums are crazy murderers” or some such. There are sympathetic moments and, as mentioned, not everyone you meet is hostile.

      • The Random One says:

        Thanks, Ben. I got that idea from your description, and it looked like the devs actually care and did their best research, but I tend to be an optimist so it might have just been a way for them to say “SEE WE DON’T THINK ALL LOONIES ARE PSYCHOS KAY?” But your WIT has brought this game out of the “don’t care” mental bin I’d placed it after the trailers.

        And I’m sorry if I pushed you out of your zone of expertise, but as an RPS writer you gotta fight for that BLAH BLAH BLOODY SOCIAL JUSTICE WHITE KNIGHTS RUINING GAME JURNALIZM title.

        • Ben Barrett says:

          Heh, that’s alright. It’s an important question and I didn’t cover it in my review because I didn’t think of it. I wouldn’t have been sure where to put it if I HAD thought about it, given it really needs that “I don’t really know what I’m talking about here” statement.

          Glad to see I’ve changed a few minds, after the trailers I had worries of the same sort.

          • ConnieCarson03 says:

            I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do…

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  22. honuk says:

    nothing about this game looks scary in any interesting way. overblown music, jumpy camera cutscenes, gimmicks, jumps, etc. it’s like amnesia only not nearly as interesting, and amnesia was not interesting. the only video games that have done anything interesting with horror are the first four silent hill games, each of which are different in tone and aim. the original is probably the scariest, but it’s also probably borderline unplayable in 2013. 2 is easily the best, though the horror is downplayed in favor of extreme melancholy.

  23. Premium User Badge

    Jackablade says:

    Amnesia taught me that I’m far too wimpy to play these sorts of games. It sounds rather intriguing, but I know I’d only get about an hour or so in then have to stop and never look at it again.

  24. Shooop says:

    So the trailers for this game were doing it disservices?

    I may take a closer look some time, but I’m very off-put by jumpscares. They’re just not scares at all to me, they’re cheap and predictable now. I miss the mindfuckery of Silent Hill more and more every day.

    • Ben Barrett says:

      They showed the easily trailerable bits rather than the less so stuff. Jump scares are pretty “in” right now thanks to various youtube personalities too. It has jump scares and if you’re actively put off by them it may not be for you, but it does a bunch of very cool stuff around them and makes them as effective as I think they could be.

  25. Dayofthedan says:

    wow this game is pretty freaky in the dark

  26. Pan Vidla says:

    Oh no, it’s that time of year again… After finishing Amnesia, which I consider to be one of my greatest gaming achievements, I was hoping not to see such a scary game for a long time. Oh well, let’s get on with it…

  27. haowan says:

    It’s actually completely logical to experience fear from reading fiction. Fear is 100% fictional. It is the imagination of consequences. The feeling of fear is a response to something that has by definition not yet happened, and may not happen at all.

  28. eclipse mattaru says:

    Just came here to thank and high five you for an excellent WIT. I’ve been more or less interested in this since I saw the early trailers, but your review sold it to me so hard that one could suspect you’re getting something from each sale.

  29. Boinnoridia says:

    Now…I haven’t played ‘Outlast’ yet (will be next week) but I’ve been watching Markiplier play it as I always get a good feel of a game when I watch his videos (did with Slender, Amnesia, Cry of Fear etc etc). And I must say, I have been a bit disappointed with the look of Outlast. The atmosphere does look great, the soundtrack and sound effects sound amazing, and I really do like the whole camera thing….but it just seems to be a lot of blood and bodies for the sake of it (where did they all come from?!) and a lot f chasing around. There doesn’t seem to be much depth to it. I’m not saying this game won’t terrify me because I know I’ll be squiggling in my pants but the gameplay itself just doesn’t seem original at all. I was expecting more. Nevertheless, I will be playing this to experience it first-hand.

  30. PotatoMonster says:

    Hehehe. I know what game I will be buying when I get home.

  31. IonTichy says:

    This looks intense and definitively is in need of Oculus Rift support!

  32. Jerakal says:

    An exemplar of the horror genre. I’m enjoying the game currently, I thought it would be a nice precursor to A Machine For Pigs, but the way this game is shaping up, it may well be the better of the two. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.