Surviving Red Barrel’s Haunted House
Outlast has a very simple goal: survive the haunted house. Mount Massive Asylum is our haunted house, located deep in the remote Colorado mountains. Once a place of refuge for the stricken and afflicted, the facility has been re-opened by the “research and charity” branch of the Murkoff Corporation.
Does that sound familiar to you? If it doesn’t read like Resident Evil fan fiction to you, it certainly reads like the premise for the latest torture porn horror film. In reality, the reason you’re visiting the haunted house is irrelevant. The scenario just frames the action and that’s the experiential horror of Mount Massive itself.
In fact, the late night drive in the Colorado hills, to investigate first hand an Edward Snowden style tip-off, brings into question your character’s ability to make any sensible decisions. But that’s part of the contrivance, Outlast needs a reason to get you into the grounds even if the set up feels a touch artificial.
Once you are inside the grounds, the developer Red Barrels has you firmly in its grip. There is a deft and sadistic creativity to the way in which Outlast works because it’s simple, but effective. Your character is always moving from one point to another, but the way is often blocked by one of the crazed inmates or the infamous Chris Walker. A giant, hulking inmate, a perpetual menace with a permanently fixed smile of fangs. He’s much stronger than the other inmates and you’ll need to master the core gameplay of running and hiding.
Blending found footage with survival horror
Your tools in Outlast are all passive and give you zero offensive ability. While your character, Miles Upshur can navigate the environment by vaulting and climbing, you will spend most of your time outrunning and hiding from your pursuers. Your only tool is a video camera that serves to light up the dark hallways and to record the horror that exists in these walls. Your character will occasionally write reflective notes that explain the significance of an event or to denote Mile’s deteriorating sanity.
Your video camera as a recording device is a staple of one of horror’s most associated sub-genres ‘found footage’, an effective but often trite genre. The horror in those films is always about what’s beyond the frame and in here the game uses that to great effect because its first-person view is already doing that, the camera in terms of gameplay adds other elements.
First, the night time mode is limited by battery life, which you’ll need to constantly replenish your supply by exploring the environment — batteries are vital, to help you see what’s in front of you. It’s a simple, effective task whose management adds stress on top of your other problems. Second, the grainy, green night-vision heightens the visual horror by distorting the asylum’s already frightening figures. Towards the end of the game, you’ll experience a sequence where you lose your camera altogether and must briefly traverse the dark corridors to find it and this is where Outlast shines. It’s an effective and extremely stressful reminder of how important your camera is to surviving the asylum.
Outlasting the premise through clever gameplay
Outlast keeps things varied by either mixing up the environments you’re exploring to a mid-level, boss encounter in which you’re haplessly trying to escape a mad doctor in an elevator. Outlast manages to stave off repetiveness by keeping the main campaign taut, while also introducing ideas that vary the gameplay and objectives.
The horror element of the game, again comes primarily from using the camera effectively to give you a number of “jump scares”, but Red Barrel has also seeded its asylum with truly disturbing imagery and creepy NPC behaviour. The asylum itself is worn in and a run down gothic structure with interiors that resemble all of your worst nightmares about hospitals and asylums.
Your run-ins with inmates will often complicate your simple objectives to escape a room, forcing you to hide and in some cases to run and lure away your stalker. It’s a fine line between stress and disgust which makes the horror effective. However, not all of it works — the Nazi plot felt forced and the immolation scene fell flat. In turn, it felt more like an attempt to cover every horror trope imaginable. It’s a misunderstanding of where the horror in this game comes from. The horror doesn’t really come from the framing narrative, it comes from your overwhelming vulnerability within the environment.
In the end, Outlast is about the journey because frankly the beginning and ending are dull. The blend of the supernatural with science fiction is dissonant, even if the execution is believable and fully committed. But again, it’s not important why you’ve come to the haunted house, it is what you experience that matters and to that Outlast delivers a very real and very scary horror survival experience.
Review Score: 7.5 (Recommended).
Outlast for the PlayStation 4 is rated R18+, it is available for free for PlayStation Plus members during the month of February, 2014.