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Finding Fear in Jump Scares and Eerie Storytelling

It may only be September but the season of horror is well and truly upon us as we slowly encroach on Halloween. While the Triple A horror game has become relatively defunct during this current generation – at least if you favour survival over big guns – the independent scene has found its niche in provoking absolute terror, producing some of the scariest games ever made over the past few years. Two of which were released this month, treating horror fans to an anxious couple of weeks; swathing both keyboard and mouse in nervous sweat as deranged psychopaths and Lovecraftian monsters stalk our monitors and creep into our nightmares.

On the surface both Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs share certain similarities that were always likely to draw comparison. Yet they both manage to forge their own identities, each adopting their own distinct take on the genre and inciting fear with varying techniques.

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A game’s ability to evoke fear is the mediums most potent tool, after all. Fear is a powerful emotion that can drastically alter how you think about and react to certain situations, which is crucial when you’re the one in control. Films or books can be frightening but you have no bearing on what happens next, you’re just a passenger along for the ride, dispelling the overwhelming sense of anxiety present in the most effective videogames. Player engagement is key; it’s you who has to push forward against all logic, to enter this ominous church, or to follow that spine-tingling blood trail. You have to choose to be scared.

“A game’s ability to evoke fear is the mediums most potent tool”We could easily quit and walk away at any moment but we choose to continue on because no other medium can conjure this dreadful emotion in quite the same way, and that’s exhilarating. This meditated terror allows us to experience fear in a controlled environment, to tackle and potentially master our fears without leaving the safety of our own homes. It’s an emotional high to be chased, even if the result is unpleasant.

As you play your heart begins to pump louder and faster as adrenaline takes over, yet your state of panic leads your sense of thought and logic awry, quickly losing your bearings. Videogaming’s interactivity presents a unique experience that no other medium can match, and its effect only grows stronger when combined with a compelling horror title. Other mediums may elicit and engage fear but the effect is never so profound, to alter the way you think and in turn the way you play.

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Both Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs tap into this raw emotion with frightful vigour, and you can tell a lot about each game and how they’re designed to rattle your emotions from their openings.

Developed by the newly formed Red Barrels, Outlast’s developer pedigree is evident from the moment you gaze upon its striking visuals. Comprised of former devs from a host of Montreal-based studios plying their trade on various Triple A releases, Outlast feels like what you would imagine a Triple A horror game to be if released today, without the modern big budget pitfalls of large publisher influence and focus testing out the tension. At times its frenetic pace is too much to bear, juxtaposed against moments of quiet and methodical suspence as it proves itself a jack-of-all-trades.

Its opening moments set the tone for what’s to come, presenting the portentous Mount Massive Asylum and letting you acclimate to its weighty and immersive controls. Decimated bodies are strewn everywhere amidst blood-covered walls. Human heads line the shelves of a library, while its unpredictable inhabitants are free to roam. It doesn’t take long before the scares begin to come thick and fast. Outlast is a game that wants to frighten you, employing a plethora of jump scares to do so. It earns them, too, its foreboding setting and excellent sound design creating an oppressive sense of dread that’s often punctuated by sudden panic. Outlast isn’t afraid to show its hand early, revealing the threats that stalk this imbrued mental asylum and only increasing its suspense as it goes on.

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“I want his tongue, and his liver”

While A Machine for Pigs opts to terrify with grotesque monstrosities, Outlast sticks with simple human beings – albeit ones horrifically disfigured. Some have criticised this decision, claiming the enemy design to be rather dull, but there’s something to be said of the inherent horror found in man’s inhumanity to man. They may not be the creatures that haunt your nightmares but they’re certainly reality’s most dangerous and frightening adversary. Red Barrels also have a knack for writing wonderfully morbid dialogue, a few specific enemy interactions proving particularly memorable. Confronting a creature from hell seems like a better option than meeting these guys in a dark alley.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, on the other hand, is as low-key as its predecessor. Developed by The Chinese Room – who earned plaudits for the atmospheric Dear Esther – this is as much about storytelling ambiguity as it is pant-wetting scares. A slight departure from its predecessor, The Dark Descent, but one that still maintains a mastery of ambience and world-building that reeks of unpleasantness.

Unlike Outlast, A Machine for Pigs takes its time revealing its hand. Those who played The Dark Descent may think they know what to expect but it surprises with its conscientious pace. This is a game keen to breathe, to give time to establish its setting and sense of place, and deposit nervous uncertainty in the player. Its vast Victorian home is haunting enough as it is – the turn of the century machines lying below provoking sinister undertones – but it’s the accomplished writing that boroughs deep beneath the skin, encapsulating the wonderful writing structure of the era with descriptive imagery you can really get your teeth into. It strikes a balance in tone, going from subtle to grandiose, capturing the essence of Victorian horror with an eerie flourish.

While you may not encounter the hideous creatures that look to hinder your progress for quite some time, you’re still constantly uneasy. A Machine for Pigs’ atmosphere is unnerving, its dissonant score uncomfortable, and the writing only enhances this. Some may bemoan its stripped down mechanics but it allows the storytelling to come to the fore, to elicit real emotions with its narrative and disconcerting tone without utilising those fabricated by the game in the shape of rudimentary sanity indicators or the retrieval of oil and tinderboxes.

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Outlast features a dwindling supply of batteries to charge your video camera – its night vision being the only way to see in the dark – but they’re so plentiful it rarely creates much tension. In both games it’s your frailty that foments the anxiety when confronted with enemies. That sense of helplessness, of having no way to fight back. You must hide and venture into the darkness, using it as an ally rather than a foe. Outlast’s mechanics may be more involved than A Machine for Pigs, but the run-and-hide philosophy remains the same.

“In both games it’s your frailty that foments the anxiety when confronted with enemies”Contemporary Triple A horror games like Dead Space may offer the odd jump scare with their grotesque monster design and chilling environments, but the sense of fear is removed when you’re given the means to kill any threat with relative ease. Sometimes combat in horror can be effective – such as in the highly accomplished Condemned: Criminal Origins – because having to confront your foes can be incredibly frightening, but featuring hulking multi-faceted guns is not the way to go. This can be fun in its own right, but not when you desire a pure horror experience, the likes of which both Outlast and A Machine for Pigs offer with their protagonist’s paralysing vulnerability.

Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within may be carrying the torch for Triple A horror heading into the future, but its contemporaries are few and far between. Despite this it still feels like we’re in a golden age of unadulterated horror, the independent scene grabbing the mantle and creating these memorably terrifying experiences for a fraction of the price. Both Outlast and A Machine for Pigs are certainly at the forefront of this movement, inciting fear like few others as they meet on common ground yet also diversify in the techniques employed to achieve horror.

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Outlast adopts modern horror tropes but more than justifies their existence, deriving fantastic use of a digital camera at a time when others use it as a simple gimmick. It’s unrelenting pace and solid mechanics make it hard to put down even when there’s nothing else you would rather do as its overbearing dread takes a toll on your psyche. A Machine for Pigs’ sum of emotions is no less acute, though it earns its apprehension through fantastic writing and sense of place rather than a looming threat of murderous foes, making their rare appearances all the more terrifying.

Whether you’re a horror fanatic or someone with reservations for the genre, there’s never been a better time to put on your brave face and test your nerves.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @richardwakeling.

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