Surviving Horror – Outlast: A Modern Take on Madness

survivinghorror

Surviving Horror is a periodical series about my favourite video game genre, survival horror. With it, I hope to explore how the genre got its start, how it effectively manages to scare us as players, and how it has evolved in term of mechanics, themes, and storytelling over the years.

Yes, yes, I know. I promised this post a whole lot sooner. As it turns out, the ‘periodical’ in the introductory paragraph is no joke. But I have survived my stay at Mount Massive Asylum and come out on the other side only slightly less sane than I was previously. All to finally bring you my take on Outlast.

As with the post on Silent Hill 2a spoiler warning is in full effect for everything after the game logo.

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Outlast tells the story of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist who is looking into Mount Massive Asylum, after being tipped off about experiments on patients by a man known only as the Whistleblower. Upon arriving, Upshur finds that most of the staff are dead, and that he has been locked in with the inmates by a hulking brute called Chris Walker. With the help of a deranged inmate called Father Martin who believes himself to be a priest, Upshur must learn the truth of the mysterious Walrider and escape Mount Massive.

Outlast_20140317221334 Outlast opens strongly, with a moody sequence of Upshur driving up to the front gates of Mount Massive. The radio, which starts out with a droning DJ discussing climate change patterns is almost immediately drowned out by static and white noise as Miles turns the final corner to see the asylum itself. It served to remind me a little of Silent Hill, never a bad first impression for a horror game to make. And then I got my first look at the asylum itself.

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Mount Massive cuts an imposing silhouette against a setting sun in the west and distant rumblings of a thunderstorm complete with flashes of lightning in the darker sky to the east. There is an art to building atmosphere and Outlast nails it from the very start. My dread only mounted further as I passed the empty security booth and hopped the fence, memories of creepy asylums like the Danvers State Mental Hospital from Session 9 and even Arkham Asylum from Grant Morrison’s seminal A Serious House on Serious Earth dancing through my mind.

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The tension kept up as I crept into the place through an open window. A little aside: Miles Upshur’s self-preservation skills are next to zero. If you have to hop a fence and climb a scaffolding to get into a creepy asylum, you fucking leave! But I guess I made the choice to keep playing, so c’est la vie.

This entire opening takes maybe between five and fifteen minutes, depending on how much you look around the place, and it is one of my favourite openings to a game, ever. Sure, there’s something to be said for how easy it is to build tension from such an obvious location, but damn. The last post of this series was on Silent Hill 2, which has an excellent subtle opening, and I would go as far as saying that Outlast compares favourably to it. At least in terms of the opening. But it’s when we get inside, we’re introduced to the game’s most genius conceit.

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This game is dark. Not just in tone, I mean it is literally dark. And the only way to see in the dark is with the night vision mode on Upshur’s camera. It casts that creepy green glow over everything and applies a liberal coating of film grain. Characters’ eyes shine in the distant darkness, and perhaps best of all, it really doesn’t illuminate very far. At least, not as far as a torch would. It reminds me of those late night ghost hunting programs, only a whole lot scarier because I have to take an active role in walking down that dark corridor rather than just whispering at Yvette Fielding to leave (and ultimately changing the channel).

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But my absolute favourite thing about the camera is that it eats through batteries faster than Hannibal Lecter eats through extras. I’ve harped on about how resource conservation is a pillar of the genre, so it’s nice to see it represented here. I will note that I sadly never did manage to run out of batteries, but I did play on normal. Maybe they’re a lot more scarce on the higher difficulty levels. I’d hope so, because the idea of being stuck in the darkness with one of the game’s several enemies while the last battery in the camera dwindles down to nothing sounds utterly terrifying to me. At the very least though, it adds a certain depth to the proceedings that I was nervous would be missing with the genre’s move away from combat entirely. Where once there were sparse ammo and health drops, now light is the resource that must be conserved at all costs. It makes sense.

And what of the gameplay itself? When I set out to start Surviving Horror, I was worried about the direction survival horror has taken in recent years. It seems the genre sort of split in two somewhere along the line, with things like the Resident Evil and Dead Space games going further and further down the action hole, and this new wave of survival horror dropping the combat entirely. And I get it, I do. Survival horror of old had bad combat as a means of disempowering the player. Removing it altogether is kind of a logical leap. But does it hold up?

For the duration of Outlast, it does. There were moments where I wondered if it wouldn’t have benefited from the option to do things like throwing chairs at enemies to put them off balance for a few seconds, but the dread of knowing an enemy is out there somewhere stalking me and there is nothing I can do but run and hide did manage to keep me on the edge of my seat. I’m still not entirely convinced it can sustain itself enough to be a whole genre unto itself, and I would actually like to see a move back towards the frantic fist fights of the Condemned franchise at some point. But I’m a lot less wary of the practice than I was when I started Outlast.

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The other thing I would have liked is a bit more variation in terms of puzzles. I will grant that the strange riddles that made up older survival horror game puzzles weren’t always great, but there was a slight charm to them. There were four occasions in Outlast where the puzzle was simply to locate three of something to open the door, be it valves or fuses. The first of these was tense, taking place in a flooded basement while an inmate stalked me in the shadows, but by the time I hit the fourth one towards the end of the game, I felt the concept was thoroughly tapped out. A bit more variety there would have been nice.

Outlast_20140421182801Elsewhere, the game was paced nicely. It’s not long, only a 3-5 hour experience. It was short enough to ensure that as I was getting bored of one location, I ended up being shuffled into another, by way of cutscene or gameplay progression. The entire middle section starting with a chase in the sewer from Chris Walker and a pair of cannibalistic twins, through a Jacob’s Ladder like sequence where I was wheeled through the asylum by the insane Dr Trager, culminating in an intense sequence out in the pitch black courtyard with the lightning in full effect, rain hammering everywhere, and camera illuminating only a few feet directly ahead is some of the most intense and best paced setpieces I’ve played in a horror game to date. Had the game maintained this level of quality throughout, I would have been insanely happy. But then, the final chapter happens.

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Outlast abandons the creepy asylum in its final chapter for something that looks like a science lab built on Hoth. Why are the walls made of ice? No idea. Why is this high tech installation built under a creaky old mental hospital? Because reasons. The Walrider is kept a mystery throughout the game. It’s a ghostly spectre, seen out of the corner of your eye, or on a security recording. It’s an omnipresent thing that is scary because it’s an unknown quantity. Why Outlast felt the need to Kojima it up with an explanation involving Nazi scientists and nanotechnology is beyond me because it removes all the tension and scariness. In quantifying what should be the unquantifiable, they end up shitting on the story they went to such pains to create. The whole final chapter is a damp squib that is made even more bitterly disappointing by a massive anticlimax of an ending. A complete shame when 15 minutes before, they had the setup for a reasonably satisfying conclusion laid out in front of them. There was no need for the silly sci-fi stuff. It stinks a bit of trying too hard to emulate Cabin in the Woods when they should have been going for Session 9 or even Event Horizon. It’s possible the Whistleblower DLC will go some way to mitigating my bitter disappointment with the conclusion, but I’m not convinced.

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But there it is. Outlast is a good game that could have been great had they just scrapped that ending and gone a different way with it. I’m still a little unsure on this trend of non-combat survival horror games, but I am put at ease, having played what I would consider a good example of one. Initially I was going to go for another genre classic for my next feature, but I think I’m going to stick along the lines of modern for now, just because I am interested to see how it holds up.

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Scariest moment: For a while I really thought things were never going to top that beginning in terms of ratcheting up the tension, but there really were lots to choose from throughout. I think overall I have to go with the courtyard sequence, specifically the latter part where Chris Walker comes into it. It’s just an open area, but the atmosphere has already been set by the pounding rain, and the non-combat gameplay is really accentuated by not having anywhere to hide either.

As a follow up, I have to go with the few minutes towards the end where Miles drops the camera. In a game built around taking power away from the player in any way possible, I was shocked at how further disempowered I felt upon losing my only tool, even if it never really helped me directly defend against the asylum’s inmates.

Surviving Horror will return soon with a look at Zombie Studios’ Daylight.

Surviving Horror banner created by Rachel Mansell.

All images taken using the PlayStation 4 screenshot share function.

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