Top of my list on completing Outlast was a note of inspiration. Ordinarily it’s no bad thing if a game inspires you, although what Outlast inspired me towards wasn’t exactly great art, and was a little bit weird. See, what Outlast made me want to do most of all was design a videogame where the protagonist is not some investigative journalist like we have here, but a video game designer, a mad, sad frustrated soul, stalked by an out of control loading screen come to life that threatens to break what few scraps of immersion he’s managed to create in his soon-to-be-released code. Yes, that’s right, immersion. Sweet, sweet, sweet immersion. Outlast made me want to design a game based around that.
But what the hell is this lumbering immersion thing anyway? Well let’s call it suspension of disbelief, let’s call it flow, let’s call it engagement. It’s what happens when you forget yourself and get carried away by a good story, book, or activity. Think of it as that contract you sign with yourself when you step into a terror maze around Hallowe’en. Hold it in your hand, grasp it close to your chest; it’s a precious thing.
But can something so simple, so ubiquitous, as a loading screen really break immersion? Why yes! Yes, I say. So too can trophy awards, button prompts, and the deadly QTEs. For me, though, nothing screams “I’m a game” like a loading screen. It’s the words, it’s the pleading, it’s the sudden feeling it brings that all of what you’ve experienced isn’t real. Just a few weeks back I watched with horror as I introduced a friend to The Last of Us and he got so fed up waiting for that spore spray opening load to chug through the percentages that the whole idea of me blowing his mind with a brilliant game was almost over before it began. We’re an impatient, busy lot, people today, and we need to be in the groove.
And thus I reiterate that the whole history of how to incorporate necessary loading into games is ripe for an ironic, post-modern, meta-analysis, conveyed in the medium of a game, with lots of loading, or failing to load, or failing that, at the very least perhaps a social history of these loading screens and iterations thereof. This could chart the development from flashing borders accompanied by tape-recorded squeals, to eternal elevators, and corridors that double back on themselves so you can never see the next area ahead, not to mention the current vogue for enforced slow walking and squeezing through cramped spaces at snail’s pace so the game can grab what it needs from your drive.
And hopefully what all of this has got you thinking is what’s coming is a meaty discussion of the loading screens in Outlast, one that’ll show you how it pushes boundaries and uses grand innovation to protect your immersion from these beasts of distrac… But, oh, wait, there they are. Loading screens. But the thing here with Outlast is that it’s not just odd that there are these pauses while the game loads now and again, more that several times it happens right after squeezing through a gap, or descending an elevator sans pace (thinking: best meta-post-modern-title for my magnum opus on loading screen history, “Down an Elevator, Slowly”).
Worse, the loading screens are just one of a number of small things that soon add up, or creep up, suggesting Outlast is a game where the budget wasn’t quite big enough, the design process wasn’t quite deep enough for it to succeed. And when you realize that, perhaps what’s really going on is that the various gaps and shafts you must crawl through while playing Outlast have another purpose, one more lofty than merely caching the next play area, and it is indeed whilst squeezing through one such gap early on where the first stand-out scare happens. You were right. So that’s some more immersion gone right there.
And it’s a shame because the jumps and the mood can be genuinely shocking, just as it’s refreshing to find a game that can be so terrifying without (solely) relying on blood and gore. Indeed playing as journalist Miles Upshaw as he infiltrates an asylum, going way, way over his head, is a lot of frightening fun. There are plenty of immersion boosting power-ups on show too, like the excellent sound design (what surround headphones were made for) and a video camera mechanic that actually encourages you to role-play, shooting what you see in a way that will enable the horrible (if cliched) truth to be exposed.
What’s also laudable is that handycam is the only kind of shooting we get to do here, playing a completely defenseless character who has to run and hide or face doom. It’s especially scary alongside the enforced use of the camera’s night vision mode. And while Outlast wears its influences proudly, taking us on a tour of many of the scariest places found in the horror pantheon, it’s not like they aren’t the sorts of thing to get the pulse racing. One of the strongest hommages is to The Descent, effortlessly encapsulating the movie’s cramped, claustrophobic spaces, its general downwards progression, populated with mutated inmates in the asylum that are clearly distant cousins of the blind monsters preying upon the team of cavers in the film – there’s even an almost shot for shot copy of one of the biggest scares. And you get to experience it first person too. Wow.
In the end, I “filmed” two hours of total footage in my playthrough, and was impressed that the game kept track in the viewfinder. Although it’s fair to say a lot of this footage was of desperately scrabbling around looking for the way to progress rather than anything too exciting. As the credits rolled I even found myself disappointed not to get the chance to watch over what I’d created (albeit with one finger on fast-forward); especially, on PS4 turning the game into some sort of create your own found-footage horror movie. Hang on while I put that idea in my vault too.
For my trip into terror, I played on the hard setting (nightmare and insane ranked higher still, though I’ve no real desire to see them). Unfortunately, “hard” in Outlast seems to imply a cheating AI rather than increased cunning. There are numerous times (and I mean like at least six) in the game where you have to go off to collect things like keys, or press switches to engage valves, before returning to a central hub to progress, all the while being stalked by a far too prescient antagonist who seems to know your every move. Don’t get me wrong, I have less of an issue with this when the task is to switch on a noisy pump that would reveal my location. But when I pick up the likes of a fuse on a table and somehow this always sends the bad guy racing down the corridor to my position, or adjusts the zone they wander around looking for me to take account of where I need to be next, it soon rubs the wrong way. For hard, read unfair.
As a result, encounters feel overly scripted – if you hide in the left locker each time your pursuer will always search the one to the right. Worse, if you quickly find a spot in the dark outside of the room you should be in they won’t even go and check. It actually starts to feel suspicious, as if the game is toying with you ready for the big reveal that this is all going on in the brain of a loading screen somewhere. Sadly no such twists occurs. So burning through any early panic of set pieces there’s a lot of frustrating trial and error involved, a lot of waiting in the dark while you have to let the enemy move well clear before you can get back to sneaking. Although I did learn a valuable life lesson among all of this: if you’re ever running away from an armed assailant you had better know where you are going or you’ll end up dead, fast.
Not only is the bad guys’ behavior slightly off – as you wander around, Miles often scribbles down notes in his journal. To be blunt, some of his musings are ridiculous, badly written, immersion killers, most glaringly of all when he decided to write something having just had two of his fingers chopped off – er, really? The various entries are meant to show him descending into madness, but all they do is end up making him sound like someone you don’t want to be, and that’s bad.
How much better would it have been to have these “insights” as voice recordings being narrated over the video as you wander? Some? A lot? I suspect the budget was an issue preventing this. Indeed, one of the founders of developer Red Barrels, Phillippe Moron has spoken to the Montreal International Games Summit about the troubles he had getting money to get this project made, and his comments suggest they had around $1.5M to play with when so often $100M is the norm. Either way they don’t add anything to the experience and should have been canned. Also useless are the various found notes, the reading of which pauses the game in its entirety, which is another immersion killer even if ever-so-slightly welcomed during times of great stress.
Outlast has some great moments, and for the price (free at launch on PS Plus) it’s a must download: it’s atmospheric, creepy, and initially compelling. But it’s also a letdown in a lot of ways, not just in those amateurish loading screens. The overall flavour is of a game that got stuck between needing a bigger budget to pull everything off properly, but not too big to drive it further down the road of unlockable extras and the ability to fight back that any rich benefactor might demand.