Outlast is the independent debut from studio Red Barrels. It tells the story of journalist Miles Upshur. He’s been tipped off about malpractice at the old Mount Massive Asylum, now a centre of private scientific research. He breaks into the building to investigate in the hope of a big scoop carrying only a portable HD video camera with optional night vision. What follows is a series of scenes that had my chest tighten and palms sweat in panic.
“Not long before the atmosphere turns from creepy, to weird to bizarre”Upon first taking over the role of Upshur it’s noticeable how a sense of weight has been granted to movement. Looking down reveals his body and legs in view, helping to avoid the notion of being a floating camera. His hand will rest upon the corner of walls and doorways when peaking around to see if anything awaits. These neat design decisions coalesce to make this world feel solid and bring us deeper into the spiralling insanity that follows.
It wouldn’t be much of a horror story if everything was hunky-dory in the old asylum. It’s not long before the atmosphere turns from creepy, to weird to bizarre. Red Barrels’ work here could be mistaken for that of Monolith Productions in their prime, carefully ensuring it doesn’t fall into the found footage pitfall of quiet-quiet-quiet-BANG. There’s little higher praise that can be given. Outlast could have been part of a spiritual trilogy with Condemned: Criminal Origins – one of the generations best – and F.E.A.R., sharing similar story beats.
Soon enough areas are coated in darkness and the only way to proceed is through the use of the camera’s night vision. Influenced by the 2007 Spanish horror film [Rec], the moments of tension the team has been able to create are at times borderline unbearable. This must be experienced in the dark and with headphones. To follow this journey in a well lit area, and worst still with others in the room as a means of distraction, would be a disservice to the developers work. The saying is true: you get what you put in.
A major player in Outlast‘s success is the wonderful sound design. As Upshur is chased and hears things lurking nearby he’ll begin to panic as his heart rate increases. With the adrenaline flowing he struggles to control his breathing and we can hear his anxiety, which in turn puts us on edge. Should some monstrosity get too close he’ll tense up and limit his verbal noise in the hope it doesn’t hear his panting. The musical score shifts and crescendos as a threat approaches. Should you be spotted the aural attack heightens your senses and furthers the panic. It’s masterfully crafted.
The inhabitants of this asylum are unpredictable. It’s hard to know when an event occurs through design or by accident. At times hiding in the only locker at the end of a hall will confuse the perpetrator, but don’t take that for granted. Hiding in one of five bathroom cubicles could still end in that door being smashed down. Sprint around a corner and an inmate armed with a bloodied machete may be waiting. Again, however, he may ignore you and remain oblivious to what’s happening as if trapped in some internal struggle. Take that for granted and a seemingly docile escapee will later surprise you.
“My palms had begun to sweat from the undeterred level of threat.”Add in the central concept that there are no weapons to fight back with – thus removing the typical notion of the empowered hero – and that the only option is to run and hide results in some frightening sequences. Some will find this too much or a level of difficulty they’ll deem unpleasant. Though it isn’t hard in the common sense, completely losing bearing of direction and what’s going on will happen and is intentional.
One harrowing part got to me more than any other videogame has before. After several exchanges of running around in the dark with only night vision to light the corridors, hiding, being found, escaping, and repeating, it felt like hours had passed. My palms had begun to sweat from the undeterred level of threat. The tightening in my chest had become uncomfortable. Taking a few minutes to catch my breath whilst hid in a dark corner, it became evident that the means of escape had been staring me in the face the entire time. Becoming scared eliminates common sense and the obvious becomes hidden.
This is evidence of Red Barrels’ achievement. At times I became that horror cliché of standing to watch something for longer than I should have out of some morbid curiosity. There are many tense occasions throughout the story, though some old fashioned elements of videogame design do remain that don’t fit the world that has been built.
Collect three of these to active this, or flick three switches to power that, and it’s always things in threes. Some of the patrolling patterns are occasionally obvious and may be more apparent if the atmosphere doesn’t capture you in the same way. However, there are times when it will seem that an escape has been made from an area you’ll not want to return. Then the reality sets in. Something was missed and there’s no choice but to head back in again to obtain it. Knowing what is there doesn’t make it any less scary.
A common thread throughout horror, whether in literature, cinema or videogame, is the lack of pacing and a weak second half as ideas run thin. Bar for a dip in pacing in the middle and end as we receive some exposition plot developments to ensure everyone leaves having understood what’s happened, unfortunately highlighting the weakness in silent protagonists, Outlast does a grand job of trumping previous moments that at the time appear to be the peak of horror. That this is all managed in a digitally distributed, low budget production is worth a discussion in itself.
Outlast’s horror isn’t for everyone and you’ll get what you put in. Lights off and headphones on is a must. Allow yourself to fall deep in Red Barrels’ asylum and the reward is a frightening descent into the bowels of man’s search for greatness. The sound design is exceptional – even more so when considering this is a lower budget production – and the weight of the world is tight. If you adored Monolith’s Condemned this will be the surprise hit of 2013.