Scaring people is not easy; scaring people while not relying entirely on jump scares is even more difficult. Designers and writers have decades of unique horror stories to draw inspiration from, yet only a select few of them succeed. Among those few were the developers at Red Barrels who, despite the lack of experience within the horror niche, managed to create something lastingly special with Outlast. They understood the core building blocks of a good horror game and imbued the project with their own unique flavour.
During the early 2010s, the genre of horror games enjoyed possibly its most fruitful period ever, largely thanks to gaming-related content gaining traction on YouTube. Remember PewDiePie getting scared out of his pants playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent? Frictional Games were already known for developing the Penumbra series, but content creators lifted their work to a whole new level. And don’t forget about Slenderman: everyone and their grandmother either played it or at least heard of. In September of 2013, Outlast joined the growing ranks of horror games and, not even a year later, released on Microsoft’s flagship console.
Their popularity became even more prevalent after the release of the notorious P.T. Demo (aka Silent Hills); Alien: Isolation, Layers of Fear, Soma, and heck, even Resident Evil 7 eventually returned the series to its horror roots. Looking back to 2014 and Outlast on Xbox One, we dissect the details of what made it stand out from the crowd and provide an engulfing horror experience.
First, let’s delve into the finer components which serve as contributing factors of a good horror game. Most aficionados of the genre will agree that much of it comes down to the atmosphere, sound design, and maybe a sprinkle of feebleness. Does a sunlit beach fit the bill for creating an enveloping horror atmosphere? Possibly, but your vision should be pretty damn unique to achieve that. And in terms of vulnerability, series like Resident Evil and Silent Hill proved time and time again that access to weapons doesn’t necessarily make you feel substantially more comfortable. But more on that later; let’s discuss the first selling-point of Outlast: its setting.
Welcome to Mount Massive Asylum: an isolated psychiatric hospital. Following an inside lead, investigative journalist Miles Upshur arrives at the hospital to uncover the horrific experiments allegedly being conducted there. As he gradually explores the asylum, Miles discovers that most of the staff were already massacred. Soon enough, with all exits blocked off, Miles finds himself with little choice but to venture deeper and encounter some of the most demented human beings on Earth. Including something under the codename of: the Walrider.
Developers chose this setting to great effect; we seldom get to explore the inner makings of a mental institution. Everything within is a mystery to most; from the layout itself, the various wards and often inhumane methods of restraint. And being isolated in such an unpredictable environment made Outlast into a truly thrilling horror experience.
Of course, merely traversing the dimly lit corridors of the asylum wouldn’t suffice, as its claustrophobic environs were also filled with lunatics, known as Variants, most of whom wanted Miles dead. Similarly to the pursuers from games like Clock Tower and Haunting Ground, they relentlessly chased the protagonist for no better reason than to kill him. Even shortly after arriving at the institution, Miles ends up being stalked by a hulking brute in Chris Walker. Later on, after barely escaping that menace numerous times, he is captured by a self-deemed scientist, Richard Trager, who cuts off his fingers and proceeds to pursue the journalist with a set of shears.
And the day only got worse, as a pair of creepy, butt-naked twins stalked Miles without giving him a momentary reprieve. To make matters even more hopeless, the journalist hardly possessed any means to retaliate. No shotguns or assault rifles, no grenades or rocket launchers: just a notepad and a handy camera with night mode. At best, Miles could bitch-slap Chris Walker across the face with a notepad, or prick one of the twins in the ass-cheek with a pen. Not only were players pressured to advance in a dark and unpredictable environment, but also flee from an equally unpredictable menace almost constantly.
Surprisingly, most of these horror aspects of Outlast further improved in its brilliant DLC: the Whistleblower. It introduced players to Miles’ previously unnamed source, Waylon Park, and told the story from his perspective. As Waylon, players explored an entirely different part of the asylum, all the while escaping, possibly, the most intimidating pursuer: Dennis. And, perhaps arguably, the Whistleblower vastly surpassed the base game in terms of narrative and pure terror.
Lights, Camera, Batteries…
Finally, we’re adding that much-needed sprinkle of feebleness. With no means to fight back against the surrounding threats, Miles could only desperately hide within the dark rooms of the hospital. And thankfully, the asylum provided plenty of accessible opportunities for doing just that. Miles could hide in lockers, bathroom stalls, under beds, behind furniture or in shadows themselves. Plentiful shadows worked for and against Miles at the same time – hiding in a dark corner often concealed his whereabouts, but also meant that he couldn’t observe his surroundings too well. Not without his trusty camera, mind you.
This portable camcorder was not only useful for taking selfies with the mental patients (just kidding, you couldn’t), but also provided a life-saving night vision mode. More often than not, it was the only way to clearly see your surroundings and pinpoint the exact location of a pursuer. Though it came with a downside: the camera ran on batteries and it felt like the juice dried out every few minutes. This led to frequent frustrations, as you scoured the dark rooms in search of spares.
Naturally, this was deliberate by design to avoid the abuse of the camera and maintain tension within the player. Either that or Miles was using the cheapest possible battery brand from Poundland. But regardless, the dark, claustrophobic environments, the bat-shit-crazy pursuers and Miles’ general helplessness made Outlast a horror experience to remember.
Outlast ticked pretty much every box in the components list of a horror medium. Its story presented an environment in which you couldn’t predict anything; expect the unexpected, so to speak. And while the game certainly felt like many other horror experiences at that time, Outlast still managed to craft its own identity.
If you’re aching for a game to fill the sense of emptiness after completing Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Layers of Fear, then look no further than Outlast on the Microsoft Store. And if you’re feeling particularly brave, consider obtaining it along with the DLC — the Whistleblower — in Outlast: Bundle of Terror.