Outlast, the new horror game from Red Barrels, puts you in the shoes of journalist Miles Upshur as he investigates the old Mount Massive Asylum, an abandoned facility in Colorado. Armed only with your faithful handheld video camera, you quickly find out Mount Massive is not nearly as abandoned as it seems and OH MY GOD IS THAT MAN TALKING TO ME WHILE IMPALED ON A GIGANTIC SPIKE?
Lead camera in a clever cage
Outlast is the game equivalent of a found-footage film, a la Blair Witch Project, except actually scary (sorry Blair Witch fans). Whereas most found footage films are made out of necessity, in an attempt to disguise low budgets with a heaping dose of shaky cam and crude lighting, Outlast adapts those characteristics into actual game mechanics.
You're ostensibly "recording" your time at Mount Massive, with the commitment of a journalist who has absolutely no self-preservation instincts. Even in the creepiest moments of the game, you're rarely forced to put your camera down. I can only imagine you whispering to yourself, "Just keep rolling, Upshur. Keep rolling. You got this. This is going to snag you that daytime Emmy." Up in the top left of the screen, the timecode ticks by. One hour recorded. Two hours recorded. Upshur must have a very patient editor.
The camera is more than an aesthetic choice, though; it's a makeshift scope. You can use it to zoom in and out at any time or toggle the night vision mode. Night vision is essential, as it's the only way for your character to see in the darkened ruins of Mount Massive--apparently nobody's bothered replacing light bulbs in a while.
Using night vision causes the camera's batteries to drain, though somehow they stay charged during normal recording. It's a dumb conceit that forces you to scrounge batteries from the environment, but hey, video games and logic rarely play well together and the night vision mechanic is one of the best parts of the game, regardless of whether it makes sense. Hiding under a bed, flicking the night vision on and off trying to spot my pursuer without wasting batteries--it's tense. "Gotta grab some new pants" levels of tense.
I respect Outlast for never pulling its punches, even if those punches are repulsive. Man impaled lengthwise on a spike? Probably no more than fifteen minutes into the game. And there's much worse in store.
I'm not big on the gore/torture porn genre of horror. It doesn't scare me, it just bores me or (occasionally) makes me giggle. Even so, Outlast managed to stun me a few times with how far it was willing to go to disgust me. While films have been pushing those boundaries for years, games tend to shy away from Saw-style imagery.
Outlast's gore isn't always effective. We're still butting up against the far side of the uncanny valley, so a number of moments that would be grotesque in a film are a little slapstick here. The game also suffers from how often it repeats imagery that's supposed to be disturbing: the first time you see blood smeared across the walls it's a bit intimidating, but by five hours in it's the equivalent of a Backstreet Boys poster. Still, congratulations to the developers for having the guts to make a game for adults.
But it's definitely a game. Outlast cycles through three modes of gameplay: one where you're being forced to watch some horrific event, one where you're being chased by a monster, and one where you're simply walking around.
Problem is, the game tries to ascribe the same importance to the first two as it does the last one. It wants the imagery and the "Oh no, I'm being chased through this asylum!" bits to be just as scary as simply walking around, afraid for your life.
They're not, because they're so recognizably game systems. When the game requires me to watch some scene, I know on a subconscious level I'm safe until the scene ends. When I'm getting chased, I know there's somewhere to hide. It's predictable.
Horror games are weird that way. What's most fear-inducing in real life (getting chased by a murderous mental patient) is only tangentially terrifying in games because you can recognize the artifice.
It's the creeping horror that gets you: slipping through rotting corridors at your own pace, convinced you're making entirely too much noise and everyone for miles around can hear your labored breathing.
Outlast is at its best when nothing happens. The longer nothing happens, the better. A minute of peace and quiet? My heart starts to settle down from the last encounter. Five minutes? Adrenaline starts to rise again, because I know something bad has to happen soon. Fifteen minutes? My nerves are completely frayed.
These long stretches of Hitchcockian mystery are the best parts of Outlast, and they don't happen enough. The game has moments of sheer brilliance--moments where you're creeping through rotting corridors, your hands scrabbling across the warped floorboards, camera telling you just how long you've been trapped in this god-forsaken place, in fear of the slightest noise, curious whether that figure at the end of the hallway is friend or foe--punctuated by eye-rolling, "I bet I know what's on the other side of this door" cringe, and it's frustrating. An uneven experience, to say the least.
Outlast is a strong entry in a woefully underpopulated genre. The handheld camera gimmick is so smart I'm amazed we don't see more games use it, and despite all my criticisms I admit that Outlast is intense. Few games do a better job with atmosphere.
On the other hand, Outlast does very little to innovate outside of the found-footage conceit, and in fact falls prey to "game-y" tropes on a regular basis: linear (and therefore somewhat predictable) level design, magic batteries, dumb enemies. I haven't even discussed the schlocky story because, frankly, most horror plots aren't worth discussing and Outlast doesn't exactly rock the boat. MKULTRA, an abandoned asylum, zombie-esque monsters, an ominous priest--these aren't exactly genre-bending ideas, and the story takes an even worse turn late in the game.
Despite these problems, Outlast is a horror game that manages to be terrifying in spite of itself. As with any horror game, best results come from playing with the lights off and headphones on.