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Walking into a wall with my eyes closed was, on reflection, a bad decision. But I was a curious three year old and wanted to test an existential theory about existence and perception. The results were mixed - the wall remained but some new things emerged as a result (namely a trip to A&E, some butterfly stitches and a scar). Although I’ve made a range of bad decisions since then, none involved playing the equivalent of a very, very bad nightmare. I am talking of course about Outlast, Red Barrels' indie contribution to the survival horror genre.
It’s terrifying from the outset as you - Miles Upshur, nosy journalist - investigate the Mount Massive Asylum after an anonymous tip about strange goings on. This is not the only nod to old school horror movies; eerily lit corridors, relentless maniacal pursuers and thunderclap storms make an appearance too. The mise-en-scène makes use of the Unreal engine to devastating effect. Shadows cling to every surface, broken occasionally by flickering lights or the glow from dormant PC monitors. Much of the game is shrouded in pitch black darkness, requiring the use of your night vision camcorder which renders everything in an eerie green glow. The effect is particularly well done and although it provides a form of safety, its use is limited by batteries; more can be found by exploring, but they’re not the only things waiting in the dark…
Outlast’s audio is used equally well to build tension. When you’re being chased by inmates howling for your blood, clanging symbols and singing strings shred your nerves as you dash down corridors, through doors and past lockers in a bid to find a hiding space. It’s a genuinely terrifying experience to warily explore an area before things kick off. Audio cues are used brilliantly to let you know what’s happening and these negate the need for an obtrusive HUD, helping build a more direct connection between you and the events in the game. As you sprint and climb, your breathing becomes laboured. When you hide but see someone searching for you, your heart rate audibly increases and poor Miles begins to whimper. It’s a genuinely unsettling experience playing Outlast in the dark with headphones on, amplified by these clever mechanics.
The claustrophobic and restricted first-person view thankfully adds to the overall effect rather than making you feel restricted. Miles can climb, run, peek and hide fluidly without any dodgy collision detecting or clipping. It was vital Red Barrels nailed this to make things feel fair and, to their credit, they have. Chases are thrilling and when you die - and you will - a quick restart drops you back into things rapidly. It actually enhances the tension that you’re not superhuman as escape is never a certainty. When you hide in lockers or under beds, they can be searched (albeit with some leeway - enemies might look under the bed adjacent to you, but decide for whatever reason not to turn their head to find you staring at them from three feet away). In one memorable encounter I snuck into a narrow gap between debris, thinking I’d escaped someone’s clutches, before they dragged me out by reaching through the gap. After some very manly screaming had passed, I reflected that this ran contrary to several decades of gaming experience where invisible lines or barriers divide “safe” and “danger” areas. Although these areas exist (some rooms have no threats, which you establish after searching them) you never feel truly safe at any point, which helps keep the sense of dread simmering.
Alas, sometimes things go off the boil. All objectives revolve around the familiar “find key, locate exit” format which becomes a bit tired after a few hours and starts to undermine the tension. It’s understandable these missions would feature widely given the nature of the game but some variety would have helped break things up. In some areas keys and exit gates are hidden a little too well, and so after many minutes of fruitless searching you’ll resort to dashing around like a madman just to find whatever it is you’re after, even if it causes you to die. You could slavishly stick to the role-playing element of course and spend twenty minutes crawling furtively on hands and knees, but that’s probably not going to be the case for most.
The format of the wider game is pretty linear too. You’re shepherded around and between buildings and although these are large and detailed, there’s often a very set route you have to take through them. What seems like innumerable doors on a corridor actually turn out to be nineteen locked doors and one exit. Once you realise this, Outlast becomes more a series of jumpscares on rails, rather than a freeform exploration of a terrifying landscape. It doesn’t make it any less effective at scaring you, but it does damage its appeal as a game.
On balance Outlast aims very carefully at a certain type of horror and it does this remarkably well. For an indie game it bears the hallmarks and polish of its big-budget cousins but with a real panache for building tension, developing an atmosphere and scaring you silly. This will suit some more than, say, the cerebral horror of the Amnesia series but it might become boring for anyone who recognises the pattern and doesn’t feel invested in the game. Although Outlast’s probably not a game you’ll revisit once completed, it’s certainly somewhere you’ll remember for a while to come.