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Outlast - title

In a Nutshell

I LIKE

  • Generous with supply of batteries
  • Effective use of light and dark
  • The courtyard during the storm
  • Not all the inmates are threats
  • Condemnation of privatized prison system and lack of robust mental health care

I DON'T LIKE

  • Perhaps too generous with supply of batteries?
  • Little incentive to explore
  • Where am I going?
  • Poor situational awareness
  • Trial-and-error design detracts from panic-inducing set pieces
  • Supernatural twist

Overall Impression : C-
All flight; no fight

Outlast - cover

Developer:
Red Barrels

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam or GoG),
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
4 September 2013

Genre:
first person horror

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
6 hours (8 hours with Whistleblower expansion)

ESRB Rating: M for Mature (17+) for:
Intense Violence, Blood and Gore,
Sexual Content, Nudity,
Strong Language

Official site:
redbarrelsgames.com/games/outlast/

I have one more game in my spring "walking sim" research. That game is the 2013 first-person horror game, Outlast, which (along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent) was instrumental in popularizing the "hide-and-seek" brand of horror gaming that became very popular in indie and low-budget horror games over the ensuing decade.

I liked Amnesia, and was interested in playing Outlast back around its release. I bought it years ago, and it ended up sitting in my unplayed Steam backlog until I installed it about a year ago, with the intent of playing it during the pandemic. But then I played other games, and Outlast sat around on my desktop this entire past year until I finally got around to playing it last month.

So was it worth the 8-year wait? Meh.

A haunted house permeated with uncertainty and surprise

At a very fundamental level, Outlast wanted to be a game that shocked and horrified players. In many regards, it's very successful at this endeavor, and it holds up pretty well in the 8 or so years since it released. The game starts off with a slow, ominous build that helps create an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty. But once the horrors start coming, it's a barrage of shockingly horrific violence and inhumanity. I was never quite sure what I was going to find on the other side of a door or at the end of a hallway.

Sadly, the over-the-top violence did turn out to be desensitizing. By less than halfway through the game, the mutilated bodies of inmates and guards just wasn't scary anymore. Thankfully, there's a few other shocks and surprises in store for the player that helped keep me from becoming too comfortable with what's going on around me.

I actually had plenty of spare batteries
at the end of the game.

Like with most good survival horror games, Outlast sets up an expectation of scarcity that makes players anxious about using supplies that are actually in fairly generous supply. Just like how Resident Evil provides more than enough Ink Ribbons to let you save whenever you come across a typewriter, and Silent Hill gives enough ammo and healing supplies to let players stand your ground against most enemies, Outlast provides plenty of batteries. I thought I was using the night vision fairly liberally throughout the game, yet still had 6 or 7 spare batteries on me at almost all times throughout the game, without ever feeling like I was going too far out of my way to search for them.

The only exception was going through the courtyard and female ward, which is basically just a resource sink. The courtyard itself is a pain in the ass to navigate, but it looks really cool. The blowing wind and lightning creates lots of visual and auditory tricks that kept me tense throughout the entire time. I thought I was seeing ghosts all over the place, but could never really be sure that it wasn't just a trick of the light. I came out the other side of the courtyard with like 2 or 3 spare batteries, which made me nervous whenever I saw a dark hallway or room in the ensuing level. But it didn't take long to get my battery reserves back up to a comfortable level.

The dark courtyard perhaps the most tense and frightening (and battery-consuming) level.

In fact, by the end of the game, the night vision seemed to become less critical to progress, as the final level or two of the game are very well lit. I got to a point where I wasn't able to pick up new batteries because my stock was already full. So perhaps Red Barrels could have been a bit more stingy with how many batteries it provides? Or maybe they could have made a few more levels of the game a bit more dark? As it stands, most areas in the game are either completely lit and do not require night vision at all, or they are pitch black and absolutely require batteries to see anything at all. This means that the game has to provide more than enough batteries; otherwise, progress becomes impossible.

I think this game's atmosphere would have benefited tremendously from more areas that are a little bit dark, but not quite pitch black, such that having night vision is helpful, but not quite necessary. That would make the player have to stop and think a bit more about whether it's worth using the battery power, and would give a greater sense of reward for having collected extra batteries. It would also allow moving shadows to create some more perceived threats and the occasional jump scare.

Overall, I prefer if these horror games lean more towards generosity with their supplies, since it allows the player to screw up without feeling like I need to save scum to recover a lost resource. This keeps the immersion, tension, and overall game flow feeling unbroken, and helps prevent the game from degrading to insta-fail trial-and-error. But the implied scarcity still keeps the player anxious about conserving supplies.

Areas are either perfectly well lit or pitch black, with very little in between.

However, older survival horror games had multiple resources for the player to balance (and sometimes compounded management through the use of limited inventory space). Usually, players would be balancing healing items against ammunition. Do you spend all your ammo to dispatch enemies from a safe distance to conserve health, but risk not having ammo for critical moments like boss battles? Or do you try to run past enemies or engage them in melee in order to conserve ammo for boss fights, but tank more damage and use more healing items on the way? Is burning a clip of bullets to acquire a potent healing item a worthwhile exchange? None of this is relevant in Outlast.

The fact that batteries are the only supply means there's not much reason to explore beyond the immediate objective. There's no pressure to use battery power to find potentially more valuable items like healing items, tools, weapons, or ammunition. Since you never use more than an entire battery in the process of searching a side room, finding the spare battery that is usually the reward for such exploration is always a net positive. Thus, there is no real cost / benefit analysis. The only other thing you might find in a detour would be documents that provide scant information about the backstory. But even those don't provide clues to progression. They only provide foreshadowing of events to come, which are going to happen whether they are foreshadowed or not. So they aren't really worth going out of your way for unless you're trying to understand all the game's backstory.

Uncertainty also extends a little bit beyond environmental design. Outlast establishes early on that not all the inmates are dangerous. This actually helps to create some uncertainty and tension in certain situations in which you are forced into close contact with inmates without really knowing whether they're going to ignore you or chase you down with a machete. It also helps to elevate the themes of prisoner abuse and corrupt incarceration and mental healthcare practices. Are these inmates all incurably-violent offenders? How many of them could potentially be rehabilitated and re-introduced as productive members of society?

Not all enemies are threats. Some will completely ignore the player.

All "flight"; no "fight"?

Amnesia, Alien: Isolation, and the first act of Resident Evil VII all excel at maintaining the illusion that an adversary is always stalking me, and that I need to tread carefully. Even though those games have scripted chase encounters, and repeat playthroughs will expose the contrived designs, that first play-through of each game was good at hiding that scripting behind a facade of constantly being stalked and escaping by the skin of my teeth. This is due in part to the occasional procedural encounter and the ability to hide, and to the extended periods of sneaking through an area to avoid detection. On the other end of the spectrum is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, which only threatens the player with monster chases when the world transforms into the frozen Otherworld. There's a clear delineation between the "walking sim" process of exploring the town and solving puzzles, versus the trial-and-error Otherworld chases in which you do nothing except for run from the monsters.

Enemy encounters become rote and predictable.

Outlast kind of straddles the line between the two camps of design, but I feel it slips a bit more in the Shattered Memories camp too often for its own good. Chase sequences often feel like a simple process of hiding under the first bed or in the first locker I come across, wait for the threat to pass, and then sprint toward the objective until I reach a point of safety. Then the game immediately slows back down into exploration mode, and I feel completely safe.

Enemy encounters become predictable and rote by the second half of the game, and it's a really good thing that the game is only 5 or 6 hours long instead of dragging on for 10 or 12. But a big part of the problem is that the areas tend to not be big enough or open enough to really maintain the feeling of being stalked for any significant duration. Perhaps this was a technical limitation of the engine, or a design limitation due to the game being made by a small, indie team.

One of the things that makes Amnesia: The Dark Descent work so well as a "hide-and-seek" horror games is that the defenselessness of the character feels appropriate to the situation. The monster stalking you is mysterious and unknown, and the broader situation is also unknowably ominous (owing to its Lovecraft influences). The player character is dealing as much with his own faltering sanity as he is with the creature stalking him. Even if he could fight back, neither the player or the character is confident enough in what their own senses are telling them to feel like they can muster a meaningful defense.

Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil VII even iterate on this idea by ditching the insanity element andgiving the player weapons, but making those weapons mostly useless against the supernatural principle threat. The player has limited ability to fight back, but is simply outmatched by the adversary; thus, triggering the "flight" option of the "fight or flight" reaction.

The inmates apparently repurposed the guards' weapons, and improvised their own.
Why can't I do the same?

In Outlast, there's never really a compelling justification for why the character can't fight back. With the exception of the two main bosses, all the enemies that you are up against are just people! Some of them even have machetes, baseball bats, or other improvised weapons. If they found those weapons somewhere in the asylum, surely the player character should be able to scavenge such a weapon too -- even if it is with something as simple as a wrench or the steel pipes that are so infamous in Silent Hill. And if the player could overpower or sneak up on an inmate, surely he could confiscate and use the inmate's weapon, right? Because of this, the limited options of the player feel arbitrary, especially as the game goes along.

If I did have limited ability to fight the regular inmates, but are overpowered by the bosses (like in Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil VII), I probably would have been more willing to buy into the whole scenario, and it would have made the bosses feel that much more intimidating and frightening. Instead, the bosses are no worse than any of the other hostile inmates I run across, and dying to them feels less fair and more annoying.

You are ... HERE?

It also didn't help that I had a really hard time understanding what the heck is going on around me. Limited visibility is a key aspect of the entire game's design, so to complain that it's too hard to see where my pursuers are, runs the incredible risk of missing the point of the game. The Q and E keys are used to lean around corners, which is always helpful in these sorts of games, but other than that, Outlast is very skimpy on player aides.

When hiding under beds or in lockers, I couldn't lean at all to get a better look out into the surrounding area. For example, there was a point late in the game in which I hid under a bed that was off to the side of the door of a small bedroom. From the position under the bed, I could see the doorway, but couldn't see out into the hall at all. I couldn't tell if the pursuer was just outside the door, or if he had walked past, and there was no way to lean or peak out a little to the side to get a better look out into the hallway. In order to see anything, I would need to crawl out from under the bed, and expose myself to anyone standing in the hall.

I can't see anything without leaving the hiding spot and exposing myself to the stalker.

The game is littered with hiding places like this that make it virtually impossible to tell whether the coast is clear. Later games have made dramatic improvements in this regard due to iteration, but Outlast doesn't have much excuse. Even Metal Gear Solid 2 and Snake Eater on the PS2 (more than 10 years earlier) allowed Snake to lean forward to get a better look through the slits of a closed locker and get a better lay of the land outside.

Maybe Outlast would be a lot easier with surround sound or good binaural headphones so that I can get a better sense of which direction footsteps are coming from. In lieu of such hardware, it would be nice if there had been some on-screen indicators of where sound is coming from. This has been a problem with a lot of horror games, even up to the modern day, so maybe I shouldn't be so mad at Outlast.

More generally, I had a lot of problems with not being entirely sure where I was supposed to be going throughout the game -- let alone why the character would want to go there. Progress through the game is mostly linear, so most of the time I just had to go the only way that it was possible to go, and I would stumble onto the next setpiece or objective. The level designers also frequently use light to try to guide the player's attention, and the small size of the levels actually does help to guide the player toward the next objective. But sometimes, Red Barrels still have to resort to simply painting lines and arrows on the walls and floors to make sure that the player is going the right way, which (to me) is a dead giveaway that your level design (or general aesthetic design) isn't great. Also, following cryptic messages written in blood on the walls doesn't seem like the smartest of ideas. But whatever, it's the only way that I can go anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter.

Having to paint arrows telling the player where to go might mean your level design isn't great.

A lot of the hallways and rooms look very similar, and there's no map to help guide the player. Rooms in certain levels are labeled with names or numbers, which helps a little. It would be nice if more levels had maps or directories posted in the hallways to give the player a better sense of where I'm supposed to go.

The only time I remember seeing such a map was in the sewer, but ironically, it was one area that really didn't need a map. The objective was to turn two valves to clear some water, but finding the valves simply required following two colored pipes to their sources. Having the pipes to guide me meant I didn't need a map. I'd much rather have had a map like that in the Male Ward and Female Ward areas, but I never came across any.

The only time I ever saw a map was in a level that already has clear sign-posting in its environmental design.

Roller coaster of gratuitous violence

Outlast holds up well enough. It still looks good and plays fairly well. I didn't have a miserable time playing it because of particularly dated controls or U.I. conventions. It's just that I've had the luxury of playing other, better games in the years since Outlast's release; games that have succesfully iterated and improved on Outlast's own ideas. In that sense, it's kind of unfair to go back and be critical of Outlast for not doing better than the games it inspired. That being said, even when measured against its contemporaries (Amnesia and Shattered Memories), Outlast still has issues.

I was rarely frustrated by Outlast; mostly just going in and out of periods of interest and boredom. It starts out well enough, stumbles a bit, picks up again here and there, and then just peters out.

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