Terror, like comedy, is difficult to maintain in a video game, and achieving a good scare requires the right amount of setup and timing. Any game can be scary; put in a few blood splatters here and there, maybe the occasional disembodied scream, or the classic fantastic jump scare. Improperly done, the scare can be ineffective and unintentionally hilarious, destroying the tone for the duration of the game. I personally feel that few games have managed to achieve true terror, the ability to reward the player’s successful tread through an interactive nightmare with a few sleepless nights with the lights left on. Silent Hill, Rule of Rose and Dead Space 2 are among those notable few: Silent Hill played on the fear of isolation and the unknown; Dead Space 2 used visceral horror to achieve unsettling moments, including an exploding baby and the infamous needle-eye scene; Rule of Rose made it easy to believe that schoolgirls are inherently evil and must be stopped at all costs.
Outlast had the potential to be the scariest game I’ve ever played. It borrows a page from Silent Hill, understanding that taking away typical video game conveniences-- weapons, stealth kills, clear lines-of-sight-- creates a genuine fear of the virtual world. Within the first half hour of the game, Outlast certainly has the trappings of a nightmarish adventure, cultivating an unending sense of dread as you take your first awkward steps into the mouth of madness. Unfortunately, that terror is undone by the time the game really settles in., and the exquisite feeling of unease and discomfort is ruined by the tired stealth conventions.
The setup for Outlast is pretty classic horror fare- intrepid freelance journalist Miles Upshur receives an anonymous tip over the strange happenings at Mount Massive Asylum, a mental institution turned research facility by a very Umbrella-esque corporation. The game’s opening moments are obviously tipping off that something has gone horribly wrong. The front doors are shut tight and the only way inside is through a network of scaffolds to an upper floor window. Before long, the mystery of Mount Massive slowly unfolds as Miles finds himself traversing a facility run by the inmates, most noticeably a crazed preacher and a large, hulking beast with the strength of a hundred men, while armed only with a digital camera.
There are dozens of elements in Outlast that come together to create a truly scary experience. Figures scurry about in the distance, inmates scream, doors close from the inside, blood soaked air vents and sewer tunnels beckon as questionable safe havens and there's always a fear of whether or not that body on the ground will suddenly spring to life. There’s a fog of genuine discomfort that permeates through the ugly hallways of the asylum. A stopover in the men’s shower area is made all the more upsetting knowing that two crazed, naked inmates are stalking Miles. A chance encounter down a hallway reveals a sudden end to a messy act of necrophilia. Watching in disbelief as a mumbling inmate walks to specific points on a wall only to slam his head against it with a wet, ugly thud. There’s always a feeling that at the turn of every corner, someone is waiting to grab your shoulder and pull you into the darkness.
A decent number of inmates tend to leave you alone. Others, not so much. This is where stealth comes into play. There are certain areas that require Miles to accomplish a video game-style task, such as powering up generators or turning valves. Standing in your way are enemies that will attack if they spot or hear you make too much noise. Unnerving as the darkness can be, it also serves as an ally because inmates have a hard time seeing through the abyss. Your camera’s night vision attachment makes studying their patrol paths an easier task. If spotted, giving chase and breaking their line of sight offers a chance to search out hiding spots, be they behind crates, mattresses, under a bed or inside a locker, Metal Gear Solid 2-style. Should these hiding spots not be enough to end the chase, you’re left running in the opposite direction in hopes of fooling your attacker once more.
Stealth, running, hiding, studying patrol patterns... this is where cracks begin to form in Outlast’s beautifully grotesque facade. While the first handful of encounters are certainly thrilling, it doesn’t take long before the true killer of the horror genre, predictability, rears its ugly head. Each time Miles flips a mission critical switch, an enemy will show up. When music starts playing, that means an enemy has arrived. Miles’ own heavy breathing also serves as such an indicator. The mere layout of a room is enough to break the mood. It’s just like The Last of Us: any and all combat/stealth sequences are telegraphed well before they are initiated because the area is filled with a large number of bricks, bottles and combat supplies. I am not master of the stealth genre, so I found myself getting spotted often and forced to run around like a jackrabbit to the nearest locker or dark corner, a task that quickly grew especially annoying when all I wanted to do was advance to the next story beat.
I wish the game made better use of the camera. Outside of the night vision tool, there’s no real reason for its existence. The game prompts you to point it at various objects and scribblings, but that only serves to provide the player with Miles’ internal monologue on circumstances and revelations he’s already experienced. All the camera does is to further show how vulnerable Miles is during his stay at Mount Massive. Heck, at least the Marine in DOOM could use his flashlight as a melee weapon. Instead of making the game look like a Found Footage movie, why not make that concept part of the actual gameplay? Give the player, give the game a reason to use the camera outside of its battery devouring night vision mode.
Silent Hill, Dead Space, and Rule of Rose were successful at achieving horror because of their ability to maintain tension and fear without gameplay overstepping its bounds and complicating the experience. Outlast just doesn’t quite achieve that same result. Perhaps if it had taken a page from Gone Home and had been developed as a horror-themed exploration game sans enemies, then Outlast would have been more effective. Take away the tedious patrol route study and stealth conventions and Outlast could be the cause for many, many sleepless nights.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.