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.