Outwit, Outrun, Outlast
Fostering a reaction as elusive and subjective as fear and then circulating it through an entire game presents a vicious assignment. We can all remember certain parts of games that were scary, be it the dogs bursting through the windows in Resident Evil, Alan Wake's forest excursions, or the entirety of Noby Noby Boy, but crafting a consistent sensation of disempowering anxiety is a task that requires a greater commitment. Drawing from Silent Hill: Shattered Memories and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast aspires to leave the player mired in dread and perpetually panicked - and in its own warped way, kind of enjoy it, too.
Outlast’s premise is simple and effective. Investigative journalist Miles Upshur has been tipped off to a vast macabre conspiracy at the Mount Massive Asylum deep in the mountains of Colorado. His gear includes a notebook and an infrared/night vision video camera and nothing. Nothing else. Miles isn't a fighter, meaning every potential threat he encounters has to be avoided, evaded, or completely vacated. This absence of self defense tools is the first ingredient in Outlast's formula for constant vulnerability.
It would have all been for nothing without a chilling atmosphere, but Outlast, almost immediately, casts away any doubts. The asylum is engulfed in a state of darkness and disrepair, and it's crawling with what remains of its previous inhabitants. Those that didn't make it are found in pieces and stains all over the premises, and those that are still alive are...there. The malicious former patients are obviously frightening, but more troubling are the handful that seem indifferent. Some exist for cheap jump scares, but more are just wandering around completely disengaged from the physical world. It's this bizarre dichotomy that drives the player to answer the question; what the hell happened here?
Miles's video camera plays a larger role in Outlast's narrative and mechanics. If it's out and recording, Miles will occasionally scribble notes to himself (the player) to flesh out what he thinks he just saw. More importantly, the camera has a night vision option. Given that 90% of the mansion is wrapped in darkness, this is a feature you'll want available all the time. The trick is that engaging night vision burns the camera's batteries, and said batteries are in limited supply. The trek through the mansion is ultimately a linear experience, but finding out the right way to go and rationing your battery supply is good for another dose of agonizing anxiety.
Think about night vision and think about what it images it induces in your mind. Some will probably jump to Paris Hilton's disconcerting adventures, but for most it's any number of horror movies from the last decade. The baggage night vision brings is scary by default, and Outlast wields the dual threat of obliging that fear and using it as a safe haven. Honestly there were times in Outlast where I wasn't sure what was scarier; walking in the dark and listening to the terrifying percussive unknown or using night vision to see it with my own eyes. Given I also had to successfully walk forward, more often than not I had to begrudgingly face Outlast's proverbial monsters.
A relatable human element also thickens Outlast's atmosphere. Looking down and seeing Miles' body and feet and observing his fingers steady himself while peaking around doorways goes a long way toward presenting Miles as fragile, human entity. The ability to snap the camera behind Miles while running down halls moves it further. It's Miles' breathing - those panting, hesitant, and labored clamors to signal impending danger - that pushes the player ever so closer to their personal breaking point. Other humans inside Mount Massive don't quite measure up in terms of visual fidelity, or at least not to the point of how well the environments are realized and constructed, but it's a minor annoyance in Outlast's bigger picture.
There are times when Outlast is scary as hell. When the haunting music is pumping and you're seemingly locked in a room with no exits and something just burst through a window Outlast generates a sensation of visceral terror unlike anything else I've ever played. There were times when I couldn't deal with it and I had to stop playing. There were times when I started talking to myself in order to get through sections of the game. There was one time when my cat rubbed against my leg and I screamed like a dying animal. The sense of dread induced when I saw no way out and the only information I had was something was chasing me was purely terrifying, and the interactive nature of the experience elevated it above any horror movie I've seen. It's all an illusion, sure, but Outlast sells its fiction incredibly well.
In more qualified judgment, Outlast only sells its fiction up to a point. The first fault is a problem currently without a solution, meaning that if you fail and have to repeat a sequence enough times, it becomes less about dealing with tension and more about mechanical improvement. The second issue is that your aggressors can more or less all be dealt with in the same way, and while Outlast stretches its tiny bag of tricks pretty far, by the last third of the game the power of that initial profound sensation was diminished. Third, whenever banal mission objectives like finding keys or collecting fuses pop up Outlast started to feel like less of an experience and more of a game. I mean, it is a game, but it poisons an otherwise exploration and absorption focused trek.
Outlast also asserts a more damaging problem; a penchant for explaining too much and digging too deep. Miles's notebook, while technically optional to read, transitions provocative assumptions from the player into declarative facts by the developer. Worse, the conspiracy behind Mount Massive runs the gamut through a shopping list of horror and science fiction tropes. It's almost too ambitious for its own good, as if the team at Red Barrels wanted to include every idea they came up with. On one hand the fact that they tied most of it together is kind of amazing, but on the other it creates and endless string of dopey fetch quests and feels like it's about to end a half dozen times before it actually ends. Less would have been more, as the mysteries and ideas Outlast suggests tend to be more terrifying and less cliché than the reality of the situation.