I think many of us can agree that the horror genre has hit a bit of a lull. The line between horror, suspense, and torture porn is becoming increasingly thinner, and fans are getting restless. Luckily, this is a great thing for game developers who want to make a great game. When a high-quality title comes around, it stands out. Sometimes, it’s helmed as a “classic.”
That is why Outlast, the debut title from Red Barrels Games, made such an impact at this year’s PAX East. The booth was small, and could have been easily overlooked, but always had a line filled with people who had been hearing about one of the scariest games ever made. After trying out the 20-minute demo, I can say that the word of mouth may be almost correct. It’s hard to say if it’s the scariest game of all time, but it’s most likely going to be the stand-out horror title of the year.
In Outlast, the players take on the role of Miles Upshur, a journalist pursuing a story at Mount Massive Asylum, a place with a violent history, and even more violent secrets. You are equipped nothing with your video camera and your need to pursue the story despite it being the absolute worst idea in the history of journalism (and trust me, I would know).
It’s obvious from the start what you are getting yourself into. The booth at PAX is a small, but mysterious affair complete with a black curtain where you can play the demo away from the leering eyes of attendees. You suddenly become aware of just how comfortable you actually were in that crowd, and how utterly alone you are now. And it is alone that you watch this descent into hell. You watch as Miles sneaks his way into the asylum, first trying the locked front door, and then climbing up on some scaffolding. You know this is going to end horribly, but first you must learn how to control him. This is the best way to learn the controls, and they are very simple, consisting of basic movement controls, jumping, interaction, and how to turn your camera on and off. It gets the gameplay out of the way so the horror and darkness can take center stage. It also shows how all of these elements will come into play in order to help you survive, creating foreboding visions of what you will have to do.
For example, Outlast’s main mechanic is the camera, which you use in lieu of a flashlight. Infrared mode allows you to search the pitch black rooms of the asylum with relative ease, but it quickly runs out of battery, forcing you to search for extras and conserve energy. Just like in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, you have to explore in order to maintain your ability to see, and during the demo, this is your only goal.
Even in this silence you start to get nervous. Outlast plays on the darkness in the same way that Amnesia does by introducing suspicious ambient sound, and nightmare-inducing treks looking for a light source, but unlike Amnesia, it is not your main enemy. The asylum, in a way, is alive. Each room you enter, each object you see, tells a story that you will eventually have to unravel. This is harder than it seems, as you have no weapons, and no real way to defend yourself from monsters and other creatures that want to stop you. When the time comes, all you can do is run and hide.
Many games have tried this mechanic before, but what Outlast does is give you an environment that makes this possible. The characters are balanced enough that you are still able to run successfully, but not successfully enough that the game seems cheap. It gives horror without sacrificing ability, making it more realistic but not frustrating. This is how this kind of mechanic was supposed to be played.
After the demo, I knew I had embarrassed myself by screaming and begging Red Barrels to just turn the game off. I almost quit halfway through out of sheer terror. Short-term effects aside, the game sticks with you even after you’ve moved on to the next title. It can’t be determined if this will remain true when the game is released this summer for PC and Mac, but based on the demo, many players can look forward to having to buy new pairs of pants.