Outlast At Last!

Can you believe we’re at 91 posts? Geeze, it feels like just yesterday I was writing surreal, pseudo-autobiographical posts about my birth. But, that was yonks ago, in another completely different incarnation of the Trivialverse. I know I said I was going to up-date on Saturdays, but then a gelatinous slime-monster crawled its way down my throat and set up camp for the weekend. Which is my classy way of telling you I was very sick.

Still am, actually, but if we’re getting a post at all this week, then I’m going to have to write it through the wavering haze of my retreating fever. Here’s this week’s video. This week’s story is another refurbished one. I’m sitting on three or four fully-fleshed-out narratives, but I’m waiting until I can think straight to write them. Otherwise, we might end up with a story about a haunted library where a mind-altering-flesh-eating beetle learns to love. Not that that doesn’t sound kind of kick-ass, but it would lose a lot of the character development and prose necessary to realize its full potential. Whatever that is. I’m not allowing any more refurbished stories in this challenge, though. It doesn’t reflect well on the spirit of the thing. I’m only allowing one this week because I couldn’t possibly write a new one properly. I’ll have to start working on a pool of new stories to act as buffer zones just in case this happens again.

Alright, so this week, I’m reviewing Outlast. It’s going to be difficult, though. I really, really liked this game when I booted it up, but then… well, I’ll see if I can explain it properly. But, let’s talk horror for a second. Lately, I’ve heard people say that there’s been a resurgence of the survival horror genre. That’s true, but I propose that we just call it the horror genre, because with variety comes the need to classify and survival horror is just a specific genre that existed when most others didn’t. Now, we’ve got quite a few different takes on horror, and I would hesitate to call most of them survival horror. Sure, the point of the games IS to survive, but, then, that’s true of most games. You wouldn’t call Mario “Survival Platforming,” or Mario Kart “Survival Racing…” but, I guess that depends who you talk to.

Outlast is a great example of what I’m talking about because, for all its pretensions to being a -survival- horror game, it’s kind of a shit one. You’re never really strapped for resources and there’s really no need to scour your surroundings for the items and clues you need to survive. You don’t have a health meter and there’s no combat to speak of. You’re never really in any danger of dying… that doesn’t mean you won’t die, but… okay, let’s just get to the review. However, to simplify things, I’m going to write this review in two sections: the good-with-bad and the bad-with-good. I’m going to start with the good and end with the bad, because that’s kind of what Outlast did to me. Without any further hesitation…

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Outlast is a horror game with many good ideas that was developed and published (on Steam) by Red Barrels studio using Unreal Engine 3. Now, these guys aren’t newbies, many of them worked on games like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Uncharted… you get the picture, and the experience shows. The game is fucking gorgeous. But, if you’re familiar with those particular games, then you’ll probably guess the caveat to this little advantage: aggressive linearity. Set-pieces are fine in games like Uncharted (mostly because I’m not really a fan), but feel bizarrely out of place in a horror game. We’ll get to that later, though. Since the surface is where the beauty lies, that’s what we’re going to scratch at.

The game takes place in a mental hospital that has gone… well… absolutely mental. The prisone… patients have escaped and are wreaking havoc throughout the facility. Nearly everyone has been killed and the few that remain are grotesque monstrosities, barely cognizant, with an unsettling tendency to jump out of shadows and half-closed doorways. This is where the game excels. The linearity of the game ensures that they always know where you’re going to be coming from, so they can set up some beautiful jump-scares. A couple times, I even dropped my mouse, which caused me to spin 360 degrees and run right back into the arms of the terror of the minute.

More than that though, since corpse-strewn hide-aways are kind of the bread and butter of horror games, it’s a nice change of pace that the corpses are able to talk at us. And jump… at us.

The HUD is pretty simple. There isn’t a lot to keep track of in this game. Just your battery life and your total number of batteries. And a little zoom bar. Well, that’s when you have your camera out. Which, quite honestly, should be most of the game, since you only record notes to yourself when the camera’s up, because if it didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t matter, right Letsplayers? Right, Instagammers? Right… modern society? Oooh, social commentary.

But seriously, revelation lives in record. There were institutions that abused and mistreated their patients to a disgusting degree. That might be what they were playing at.

The other things the camera does are give you a zoom and serve as your flashlight. The inexplicably amazing night-vision function bathes the area in a film of green that should be familiar to anyone that’s consumed one of the 8999 Paranormal Activity movies that have come out recently. It’s a nice touch and menacing at times, but it sort of washes everything out. I mean, the colours and textures are gorgeous, so why would we want to ruin it by bathing the whole thing in mint? The other problem with this is that it lets you see a little too well. Half-heard gibbers in the dark and the scraping of ethereal chains on cold, hard cement are kind of muted by the fact that I can turn around and see the poor, emaciated little dude that’s causing that ruckus curled up on the floor of his cell.

Peering into the shadows, guessing at the location of the lumbering behemoth that’s stalking you, feeling your way through the dark… these are classic elements of horror. Of course, we need to be able to see for the frantic sprints down darkened hallways that the game loves to throw at you. So, maybe it’s a fair trade-off. It would certainly be a different game without it.

OH! We can’t forget the control scheme. I mentioned this a couple posts ago, but I love the default control scheme in this game. It’s simply elegant and looks like it was actually designed with gamers in mind. By keeping things simple, they’re trying to remove as many obstacles between you and the experience as possible, and they aaaaaalmost succeed, but we’re almost to THAT part of the review.

Two things that bear mentioning before we start muck-raking are the animations/perspective and the creature personalities. The first-person perspective is considerably enlivened by some very well-done body animations. If you look down, you can actually see your feet moving. When you peek around a corner, your hand rests on the wall to steady you. When you’re sprawled under a bed, shaking with fear and hyper-ventilation, you can see your hands splayed out on the floor beside you. Reloading the batteries into your camera. Jumping. Crawling. All of these animations are done incredibly well. The animators worked very hard to ensure that the visuals made sense. They’re some of the best first-person animations I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but when you perform an action, your perspective shifts to accommodate the movement. The game’s great at using these changes in angles AND restrictions of angles in conjunction with their sound-effects to conjure terrible creatures from the reaches of the natural phantasmagorial plane that exists in your imagination, even if it doesn’t pay it off very well. Oh look, another patient. Better hide under a bed! The wonder… the terror… just starts to wear off.

But, hold on, there’s still more good to behold! I mentioned earlier that the patients were a nice touch, but the enemies are even better. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that you get to know them pretty well. The murderous-patient cries are pretty entertaining and serve to flesh out their insanity pretty well. Repeated calls of, “This is the experiment!” and “Death and Taxes!” from the pursuing psychopaths lent an air of surreal jollity to the piss-dribbling proceedings. There’s even quite a bit of build-up for a few of them. There’s a pair of naked dudes that look like someone took a mech-suit and made it out of skin that very kindly inform you that they’re going to murder you so good. One of the former guards is particularly memorable, because he looks like… well, he looks like a giant, evil, white, naked Fat Albert. But, by far my favourite has to be Doctor Trager.

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He’s not only eminently likeable, but he’s also bat-shit insane. He sort of represents the entire Asylum. You know they can’t help it. Despite their best efforts, they’re being driven to madness and death by something inexplicably horrible. But, it’s not like they have to be uncivilized about it. He makes you WANT to sympathize with him. And, ultimately, he might represent the greatest lesson that romps through metaphorical Asylums like these can teach us: atrocity is not necessarily a thing committed out of spite or hatred. Sometimes, all it takes to become a monster beyond your most fiendish imaginings is to accept protocol and slowly slip into complicity. You may think you’re doing right by someone. You may think you’re doing what’s best, but from another angle, from a retrospective, you could be one of history’s greatest monsters. There’s very real danger in rationalizing your position, in accepting the status-quo just because others are and you’re taught that it’s right, and this is it.

We’ve heard that all before, but it’s worth remembering, because it’s easy to forget. We compromise ourselves into misfortune time and again, but that’s part of what it means to be human. Then again, so does dragging ourselves out of it. Interesting side-note, one of the doctors mentioned in the game, Doctor Wernicke, was actually a famous physician/psychiatrist, but he wasn’t a mad necromantic doctor. Sorry. He’s best known for Wernicke’s aphasia, the inability to comprehend words due to damage to “Wernicke’s Area” in the brain, which is just over the medial temporal lobe. But he’s also famous for Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, a disorder whose symptoms include: ocular disturbances, intense apathy, unsteady gait and changes in mental state, resulting in a waning awareness of one’s surroundings. Like most mental conditions, it’s not absolute and in his day, as in ours, diagnosis was more of a science-art than a check-list, but the guys in the room near the beginning that are watching nothing on T.V. (you’ll know it when you get to it), are a grotesque, exaggerated representation of the disorder.

Okay, time to get down to it. Remember how I said that there’s a great build-up for some of the enemies, a pair of naked, angry dudes, in particular? Well, the game doesn’t pay off near enough of their taunting introduction for me to care. I mean, they say that they’re impatient, that they want to tear me limb from limb RIGHT NOW, so where the hell did they go? Did they stop for froyo on the way and get distracted by a trinket shop?

But, that’s nit-picking, the real problems with the game are inherent in its design. Like I said before, the Doctor Trager-strapped-to-a-wheel-chair bit (you’ll know it when you see it) kind of summed up the whole game for me. It was clearly twisted and horrific, but it wasn’t frightening because it was totally scripted and out of my hands. I mean, if the game had ended there, that would have been fantastically ominous, but I knew it would keep going. I was, after all, being shuffled along. So, the threat was completely extrinsic to my ability to combat it. A player without agency is just a person watching a movie. Still, it’s a really cool sequence, but it didn’t play to the strengths of the medium of engagement. However, if, by this point, you are still engaged with the horror, I think you’ll find that the feeling of helplessness could be incredibly effective. The threat of violence here is both overt and unpredictable, which elevates this portion above the bits with guys with sticks. It’s not frantic, which is a nice bit of juxtaposition. It helps that Trager brims with more personality than a man with twice his skin coverage!

But, was I engaged? Was I immersed? We often talk about immersion and engagement like they’re two different things. And, they are. BUT, they’re inextricably linked. If you are engaged by a game, then you’ll have an easier time settling into its atmosphere. I mean, look at Silent Hill. It looks like crumbly bum-biscuits by today’s standards, but when I sit down to play it, it springs back to life. And I don’t think I have to explain how a good atmosphere can help engage you. Suffice it to say that if you are settled into an environment, then you’ll invest in the things that happen within it. Earlier, I said that the game looked beautiful, and I mentioned their skilful use of camera angles and sound effects, so you know the atmosphere is fine… for the most part.

Part of the problem is that the environments get a little too repetitive. I mean, there’s even a bloody sewer level. It goes from repetitive Asylum, to repetitive prison, to repetitive sewer, to repetitive… you get the idea. The environments look nice, but the objects within them are repeated ad nauseam. Despite the extremely linear nature of the game, I even found myself getting lost a few times, backtracking into doors I’d already been in because one room full of beds looks the same as another. There is an effort to introduce some variety, but that kind of falls to pieces when you realize that all the lockers in all parts of the place look exactly the same. This sort of makes sense, since it’s all one big compound, but they’re in samey-video-gamey spawn points. Usually, they’re right beside an objective, because once you turn that knob, the monster in the halls will come find you. So, you’d better get inside that locker!

Maybe I should explain. The stealth mechanic in this game is kind of weak. It’s hard to tell when you are and are not visible. So, to supplement this, they introduced a hiding mechanic. When a monster is chasing you, you run out of its line of sight and dive into a locker or under a bed. Then, it comes looking for you. This is pretty effective in the beginning. There’s a lot of standing, frozen in terror, as the monster of the minute sniffs around outside of your hiding place, wondering why he can’t smell that strange piddling sensation in your pants or hear your character’s heavy breathing. Or the beeping of your camera. Or why it doesn’t just check BOTH lockers. But, seriously, this happens so often that it starts to lose its flavour and you start wishing it would hurry the hell up so you can get back to your fetch quest. And that’s the thing, in a horror game, you should never ever get to the point where you’re thinking, “Geeze, I wish it would hurry up and find me or leave so I can get back to this fetch-quest.” EVER. That’s the thing, even if the monster finds you and pulls you out of your hiding spot, it doesn’t kill you right away. So, you can just get up and run away again. Most of the time.

Occasionally, a monster will have a machete or something, and then it just one-shots you and you get warped back to the last check-point. But, the check-points are kind of sparse. Nothing kills horror like getting caught in a corner and knowing you’ll have to warp back and try an execution challenge again. Repetition kills engagement.

Repetition kills engagement.

Anyways, remember earlier when I mentioned the first-person animations and the simplified HUD? Well, here’s how they screwed that up. When you mouse-over a door that’s openable, hint-text pops up to remind you how to open it. However, if the door is locked, then there’s no text. It feels like they were going with a Silent Hill/RE feel here with all the locked doors, like most horror games at this point, but if I don’t have to test a door, it doesn’t matter. It’s just scenery. All the immersive animations in the world won’t change that if I never have to use them. That’s the problem right there. The hint text and constant reminders of my character’s body animations that I don’t control (counter-intuitively enough) just keep reminding me: you are playing a game. A player that knows they’re playing a game will play like a gamer. No sound effects will fix that. Perhaps, if I was really immersed, the animations would have an elevating effect, but between the weird inmate behaviour, the obvious jump-scare locations and the constant hint-text, it was just another reminder that I was playing something. It’s like the uncanny valley: it’s an all or nothing proposition. If I don’t feel that it’s my vision moving along, then I’m not going to become fully engaged with the actions. That’s why camera-bobbing doesn’t work very well, despite being a neat idea. Your experience of running is smooth. Your visual system corrects for the motions in your perception and your memory. We have an incredibly intricate predictive-corrective system that lines up our voluntary movements with our visual system. Your focal point doesn’t bob, cameras do. The perception is the important part, not the reality.

Being immersed… no, I suppose, engaging the portion of your imagination that produces terror and the emotion of fear, even momentarily, can plunge your world into a coating of venomous ichor from which there is no escape… until you turn the lights on. I close the light on the bottom floor of my house every night before walking up to my room. It’s not frightening or anything; I know this place like the front of my keyboard. But, every once in a while, just before I turn out the lights, I’ll wonder what could hide in the darkness. What Eldritch, twisted, tainted, tortured terror teeters tremulously to tear me trembling from its trap. In those moments, my world is a night-scape of perplexing, unknowable horrors. It’s all very vague, but the feeling is there for a minute. In my middle-class-ass hallway. In the bloody suburbs. If that mind-scape can work there, then imagine what it could do in a horror game. It’s a tricky thing to invoke, but it’s the essence of horror. That’s why immersion and originality are your primary concerns when crafting a horror game. Spark your player’s imagination, and they’ll consume themselves in the fires of their own fear.

It’s the nexus point where immersion meets engagement. Granted, it’s a difficult thing to maintain, but well worth the effort. It’s what legends are made of.

So, let’s hit up engagement and wrap up. Not being able to fight is usually seen as a point in the game’s favour, but it’s also a negative. Not being able to defend yourself, hiding in spots that will only hide you at chance value and won’t often kill you when you’re discovered, and not being able to plan a route when you’re running away seem like they should be frightening. And, for a while, they kind of are. But, being helpless, but constantly escaping by no skill of my own, got old after a while. Plunging headlong into the darkness of the sewers should be scary, but I know there’s nothing I can do if I’m caught, so I don’t feel the need to preserve myself. It works for Amnesia, because you die when you’re caught and you can stealth in the shadows to avoid detection. But, Outlast’s stealth mechanic is barely functional. Monsters can spot you across whole rooms in the dark. It’s replacement, the hiding mechanic, didn’t leave me with much of a sense of agency. So, naturally, I didn’t feel invested or defensive. Just… kind of impatient for the game to spew out its story guts and wrap up. Even a life-bar wouldn’t be completely ridiculous. Just anything to make me feel like my mistakes and my decisions mattered in the long run. Like I can prepare. Most importantly, like I can fail. I know I CAN, but when it comes to horror, the FEELING is more important than the reality. When my only option is “run,” I just feel like I’m being herded. Which should be scary, but only really reminds me of playing Gears of War.

What’s the end-result? Well, I know when I’m going to be in trouble and when I’m going to be okay (Hint: it’s most of the time). The game telegraphs itself really well. If I’m in a dark, restricted corridor with no hiding places, then I’m going to be fine, because I don’t have any other option BUT to be fine. Otherwise, the game couldn’t continue. It’s like when you run into chest-high walls in Mass Effect. There just MIGHT be an ambush in the works up ahead. I guess it comes down to a clash of design principles. The game’s mechanics suit a linear, story-based game, but the type of horror it tries to evoke needs a more organic set-up. Spooky sounds in the dark are just tiresome when there’s not a damn thing I can do about them. And, so, conversely, they can do to me.

 A few other points, the other cameras lying around are a nice touch, but I think it’s a huge wasted opportunity that we can’t pop one of our batteries into them and view a few ominous story-pictures. It would give us another use for the batteries we get, and set up a bit of tension around the decision to use one or not. The banging behind doors that lead to empty rooms is ominous… at first. But, again, where are the consequences? And, I wish the monsters would stop disappearing after I escape their areas. Let me see you rattle your chains!! SCARE ME WITH YOUR IRE!!! These two last points make the threats feel unreal, which would be great in a psychological horror, but are out of place next to the visceral threat of inmatey death.

Let’s get this wrapped. The bits with Trager are probably the best parts of the game. Organically searching the environment while a crazy doctor chases you with an enormous pair of scissors is not only shockingly reminiscent of Clocktower, but it’s also the kind of horror this game was crying out for. Our character is trapped and has to escape, so he’s got to move forward into the terrible darkness regardless of what he wants. We, on the other hand, are the sociopathic hand guiding his every move, unfettered by the consequences of our actions and completely aware that we have to be able to move forward, because it’s a game. And we’ll be fine, because the game is designed to allow us to move forward. The Trager Trap (as I’m now going to refer to it from now on), requires that we, as players, move into the area inhabited by the monster and find a way to escape. Now, you may say that’s nothing new to the game, in fact, it’s basically the same set-up as all the other fetch-quests, but the open-ended nature of the environment, the fact that the doctor constantly talks to us and a lack of knowledge of where the key is are the elements the other areas were missing. It gives us decisions to dread. The tension of having to explore, while being hunted by a seemingly intelligent being, in an organic (albeit small) environment, will always beat out following the signs to a release valve, hiding, waiting for the monster to go away, turning said valve and then repeating the sequence almost exactly. Trager is a monster I escaped that not only didn’t disappear, but faded into the background of the area he knew I’d have to be in. It’s a much different mind-set, even if the situation is exactly the same. Again, what you feel in a horror game will always be more important than what actually happened.

Oh, right, I suppose I should comment on the ending while we’re on Trager. No good horror game should be all gore, all the time. Juxtaposition (and our arousal curve) is a powerful ally in any horror medium. It’s why so many horror movies cut to sex or comedy. They’re arousing experiences that are qualitatively different. Then, they let us settle down before slashing again. It’s why Silent Hill’s two worlds are doubly effective. It’s why Resident Evil and Amnesia have safe zones.  These repeated moments punctuate our memory. Different forms of engagement are good, because it stops the entire experience from becoming a dull sludge. Outlast doesn’t have much besides its standard hidey-lookey-runny game-play. There are a few moments, but because they’re so few and far between, they really stand out. The bit in the thunderstorm. The bit with the fire. The bit with the preacher. The bit with Trager. These are the things I remember most clearly.

However, nothing is more important than the ending of your game. It’s the point by which all others will be defined. If it breaks from the general feel of the game, that can be even better. BUT… BUUUUUT…. Outlast’s ending takes a sharp turn at pseudo-science-and-sci-fi and swerves completely off the road, into a burning ditch of melting tires. The last section of the game feels like one big non-sequitur, like stepping out of Clocktower and into Half-Life. I was disappoint. Severely disappoint. You don’t have to explain everything that happens. Mystery is part of what can make horror engaging. You don’t work for Lucas Film; you don’t have to ruin everything by explaining it. So, subtlety moving forward, hmm? Know when to end a game.

It’s not all that bad. The water effects suck, but the particle effects and rain are awesome. The game’s animations are consistent and change with your character’s condition. The lens crack effect is fantastic. Like I said, it looks great. For some, that could be enough. In fact, I’d still recommend it to lots of people, despite all the things I’ve said here. It’s a bit like a movie, but if you like set-pieces and walking through creepy environments, then you will enjoy this game. If they’ve got the cash sitting around, then horror fans should experience it. For all its faults, it’s funny, occasionally tense, visually disturbing and, above all, thought-provoking. Even if those thoughts are just perturbing self-reflections on why you’re not as frightened as you think you should be of the man with the horrendous pair of scissors. I’m still amazed by how well one adjusts to living without a few fingers.

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

I’m giving Outlast A Sale on Your Least Favourite Kind Of Your Favourite Brand Of Yogurt out of Getting Caught In The Rain, But It’s Only For Five Minutes

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