Outlast is a cynical, gory, violent, pop out scare-heavy survival-horror game. This dark edge isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy some aspects of Outlast, but Outlast‘s adherence to juvenile conceptions of maturity really took a toll on my investment in the narrative.
I compare Outlast to the 2004 action game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. Now K&L has many problems, but what it does do right is how it treats its dark subject matter. The game is successful because it adds a vulnerable human element to the mix. In one scene, for instance, Lynch holds bank patrons hostage as Kane breaks into the vault. By the time Kane returns to the bank lobby, Lynch has started killing hostages in a bout of violent psychosis. This is, of course, incredibly unsettling, if not downright horrifying. After a shootout with the police involving more expletives than a Quentin Tarantino film, the two get out of the bank with their getaway driver. As they make their escape on the streets Lynch snaps out of his trance and realizes what he has done. He castigates himself for fucking up again, broods over what made him this way. Lynch’s previously depraved, nearly unreal behavior is brought back to human terms by this breakdown. He goes from a one-note psycho to a man suffering a serious mental illness. The shock of his previous actions are then supplemented by character development, making it all the more disturbing because we end up kind of liking this guy.
Kane has his share of emotional depth even more so. The entire driving force behind the plot is saving his wife and daughter (damsel-in-distress syndrome, I know, but it is told… uh… if not well, then at least interestingly here). I’m particularly fond of the near-game over sequences, in which Kane addresses his daughter in an internal monologue as he lays dying. So regardless of every well-meaning police officer he kills, Kane retains an emotional core.
Kane and Lynch’s relationship is an additional emotional pull. For all the depraved mayhem happening around them, the player is still drawn into their homosocial bonding. Who knew shooting cops from the back of a getaway car could create such a connection? These moments of pathos remind the player that there is more to this game than just shocking scenes of death and destruction, blood and guts. There is another element that adds depth to the darkness. It is a game with a dark narrative, not a game that uses its darkness as a spectacle.
Outlast, meanwhile, has no such depth to it. For one we learn almost nothing about the main character Miles Upshur. What little we do find out we learn through his notes, which largely describe what the player already knows: Fucked up shit is happening. The narrative background informs us that he is an investigative journalist. A cool profession (although likely just an excuse to set the plot in motion and implement the camcorder-driven gameplay), but beyond that his character is basically a shell. He doesn’t even speak in the cutscenes, not even when a man cuts off two of his fingers. We root for him because generally people don’t like to see other people die at the hands of crazies, especially when we are in control of said people.
Beyond that instinct, though, Miles is just a means by which to show a spectacle of horror and pain. We cringe when he’s caught by the crazies, thrown around, mutilated, etc. We are afraid with him when we hide in a locker or under a bed, waiting for the attacker to pass by. But ultimately Miles is not so much a character as much as he is another way for the developers to show how gory and depraved the game is.
How to remedy this? It sounds silly, but honestly I think combining it with something like Gone Home would do the game a service. Actually make the game into an artform, something memorable instead of something merely shocking. That’s not to say it should be a walking museum. Outlast should definitely retain its core gameplay mechanics. The problem is that those core gameplay mechanics are running, hiding, and occasionally picking up a battery. It needs more nuance.
While adding nuance to gameplay mechanics is someone else’s job, one way to improve Outlast’s dark edge is through narrative complexity. Gone Home does this wonderfully (if at the expense of compelling gameplay, but, again, another essay). Outlast has a plot, but not a particularly memorable one. It had potential to offer more to the player. Give the patients of Mount Massive some personality, for example. I was disappointed by the relative sameness of a number of the locations and characters in Outlast. Patient rooms looked like carbon copies of one another. Patients themselves were just different plays on the same gauzed-up, cracked skin mold. Offering the player backgrounds for these characters would not only add depth to the plot, but make their transformation all the more disturbing. There are a few documents scattered throughout the game that attempt to do this–one in particular concerning a woman whose husband has run off with a younger lady–but they are too few to really have an impact.
More importantly, give us a sympathetic main character by revealing what’s going on in Miles’ head. What kind of a guy is he like on a day-to-day basis? What drives him to such extreme scoops? Who is going to miss him if he doesn’t get out of the asylum? Things of that nature. This will make the player more invested in Miles’ plight, thus all the more horrified whenever his situation goes awry. It’s almost cheating, but one only need look at the Walking Dead games to know how much of an impact it can have to develop a thorough background for a character before having terrible things happen to them.
As it stands, however, most of what goes on in Outlast is designed to momentarily shock the player. It’s fun and exciting for a little bit, but it gets old. The player gets too comfortable in what should be a terrifying situation. The simple blackly comedic, blood-everywhere approach can work to an extent, but it needs more to it than that for the dark edge to really take effect.