Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a fan of horror. I’m a giant wuss, a man baby that screams at every jump scare and closes his eyes when things get too gruesome. It’s a genre that is quite frankly too much for me and one I tend to avoid for the betterment of my own sanity.
All the same horror fascinates me. I’m intrigued by why anyone would voluntarily choose to experience something designed to terrify them, compelled by the different ways horror can be effective, and find myself continuously drawn to horror games especially it’s the most difficult to do well and as a result the most interesting and impressive when it’s done right.
THE ATMOSPHERE IS OPPRESSIVE
Outlast might not be the absolute pinnacle of interactive horror, but it’s certainly close and an impressive bar for other developers to shoot for. It knows how to not only startle you, but to petrify you in fear from the force of the terrors within it. It’s vile and grotesque beyond question, perhaps the most disturbing game I’ve ever witnessed that is still making me cringe as I recall some of its most horrific moments. It does all this however in a way that’s oddly, even scarily compelling, almost as if some dark part of you wants to see how far the developers are willing to take it or if there is ever any light at the end of a perpetually dark tunnel.
Outlast achieves much of this through an incredibly dense and oppressive atmosphere, and a deep understanding of its own mechanics. Your helpless in Outlast, forced to sneak and hide from enemies that can often see and hear you much better than you can them, but the game never becomes frustrating or tedious do to an almost constant supply of hiding places, or the ability to outrun your pursuers should you be spotted. This doesn’t mean it’s an easy game, or one you can casually run through without worrying over enemies, but it places you into situations you can’t handle and never feels punishing the way too many horror games have a tendency to when they rely so heavily on trial and error.
This is thanks in part also to how well Outlast cements you into its world. There’s never a moment where you feel like anything more than a helpless journalist with a camera, and this vulnerability and immersion is one of the most important factors in why this is such a terrifying game. Every stumble, heavy breathe, cut and bruise, and nervous peek of your character is presented in a way that makes you really feel as if you’re inhabiting your character. He might be a blank slate in every other respect, but when you step into his shoes the real world seems to melt away as you traverse an almost literal hell on earth.
Everything in Outlast becomes secondary to scaring the living daylights out of you almost the second you grab your camera and step out of your car unprepared for what awaits you inside Mount Massive Asylum, and it’s because it’s so effective at this goal that it’s easier to forgive some of its less polished aspects. A general lack of direction and inability to recall your objectives means it’s easy to get lost running in circles, even more so with the nearly impenetrable darkness around you that often hides doors and pathways, and without any map to speak of even just retracing your own steps to try and rule out where you haven’t been becomes a challenge that at times removed me from the experience as I was forced to resort to a guide just to progress.
A RELUCTANCE TO COMMIT CREATES A DISORIENTING, UNEVEN NARRATIVE
The narrative as well, for as interesting is it is when you can see it cohesively laid out on paper, is told in such a way as to be all to often jumbled and convoluted past the point of anything intelligible if you aren’t paying incredibly close attention to every line of dialogue and document picked up. Even then, it switches gears often enough as to seem almost intentionally written in such a way as to keep you constantly in the dark, guessing at the few threads that are thrown at you what it all might mean. There’s a reluctance to commit traced throughout the entirety of Outlast, as if it’s concerned about spending too much time on one character of story moment lest you begin to assume it’s the main focus of the game. The end result is something that’s consistently intriguing but rarely satisfying.
The most disappointing part of the experience though is the final chapter, which jumps the shark not only in terms of narrative, but also its setting which loses almost all of the terror of the areas that preceded it and closes the game out on a rather odd note. I didn’t dislike it because of the ending, so much as I did what it did to the game as a whole, which up until that point had been nothing but consistently excellent.
It should be taken as rather large praise that despite Outlast’s very present issues, they rarely become more than a minor disappointment or anything you have time to think about with how intense and stressful just surviving in this asylum is. Developer Red Barrel doesn’t know how to craft a narrative or direct the player particularly well, but they understand acutely how to do first person survival horror to a degree that deserves commendation. If you have any interest in horror of the most unsettling and macabre nature, Outlast deserves your time. As someone that appreciates horror for what it is more than what it does to me, Outlast succeeded in ways that truly surprised me, and now has me hesitantly interested in discovering more of the genre I’ve tried so hard to stay away from.