Still Playing: Outlast – in praise of linear horror and trusting in good game design

Still Playing Outlast 2_edited-1

Red Barrels’ excellent debut scored a 9 in our Outlast review.

Outlast is a game that loves to toy with you. As you skulk about the the corridors of the Mount Massive Asylum, fleeing from murderous patients and hiding at the back of cupboards like a pair of terrified dress shoes, the game offers you regular mocking glimpses of freedom. You’re always just one key, one switch or one missing fuse away from the world outside – just five or ten more minutes of hiding and heavy breathing and you can put the lights on again and unclench.

Except, of course, it’s never really the end – you were never even close. Unlock the exit or restore the power and down come the shutters. The floor collapses, a villain appears or a door swings shut and the game drags you back in, kicking and screaming.

Outlast isn’t the first game to pull the old finish line bait-and-switch – not the hundred-and-first, even. The original Bioshock would have lasted all of twenty minutes if all the doors in Rapture had enjoyed regular maintenance, and not subsequently fallen under the under the control of insane citizens sending protagonist Jack sloshing off to complete quests in return for safe passage. Even The Last Of Us is happy to wrench control away from the player just long enough to have a bandit shove Joel off a ledge or try to drown him in a puddle.

The argument for these moments is that they provide narrative spikes that every player might not trigger if left to their own devices. In The Last Of Us, each of these scripted moments is a precursor to some big change in the story – something that happens to a character which means they can’t go on as before, whether that’s physically, emotionally or both.

Outlast was released on PC last year, but received a new lease of life recently through PS4’s Instant Game Collection.

But boy do these moments grate when, as a player, you see them coming and are forcibly shunted into them anyway by a game’s pushy narrative. Attentive players know the signs to watch for: a sudden lull after a lengthy bout of fighting, a wide-open space following a long corridor chase, a glowing EXIT sign when the game’s only 30 minutes in. Spoiler alert: you’re not making it to that door/chopper/steampunk bathysphere. You’re going to to get within touching distance, trip over a cutscene trigger and get walloped in the face by a villain warped into being by the gods of narrative contrivance. Now hurry up and pass out so we can disguise this loading screen.

In a medium built on player agency, these moments – especially when they’re telegraphed beforehand – almost always feel cruel and unfair. But oddly, that’s something I think works in Outlast’s favour. After all, Outlast traps you defenceless in cultish asylum and hunts you with psychopaths – what part of that experience were you hoping would be kind or fair?

If you tweak your focus a bit to view Outlast – and not the asylum – as your real tormentor, the constant so-near-yet-so-far moments actually add to the sense of helplessness. You’re not just a man trapped in an asylum – you’re a man, trapped in a man, trapped in an asylum. And the man you’re trapped in is prone to doing stupid things at critical moments, like trusting strangers, following trails of blood and not kicking a naked murderer square in the parts when he’s cornered in a bathroom stall. You start to enjoy these moments of plot-convenient paralysis, watching helplessly as nosey parker Miles Upshur blunders into another painful, unavoidable encounter – the same grim enjoyment you get watching the first of the slasher flick teenagers wander out of the log cabin to investigate that chopping sound he heard coming from the woods.

Outlast proves that sometimes limiting player freedom can be an effective way to build tension.

There’s tension in knowing these moments are coming, too. While the upcoming Daylight is promising another not-quite-abandoned madhouse to explore using procedurally generated levels, offering a different playthrough each time, with a linear horror like Outlast you’re handing yourself over to the designer for a guaranteed set of experiences. By pressing Start, you’re signing a waiver to let the game’s creators twist your nerves in very precise and calculated ways – and while you don’t know what the scares are going to be, you do know they’re inevitable. Hide in a safe room as long as you please, but eventually you’re going to have to walk down that corridor, or climb into that ceiling vent, and every step you take down that linear path is one that you take willingly, knowingly, towards that horrible thing that’s waiting for you.

If it works, Daylight’s no-two-playthroughs-alike design could make its scares all the more frightening for their unpredictability. But Outlast is the other side of the survival horror coin, taking away the agency that we expect from a virtual environment; artificially crippling us like a nightmare in which we suddenly find we can’t run. It doesn’t reward careful play or cool-headedness with an easier ride; you can’t choose an alternate route or a different strategy to the one the game divines for you. Worse than sight and the ability to fight, Outlast also asks us to give up our control – and that’s what makes it so terrifying.