For a long while, horror video games followed a very similar formula, where you fought against monsters and creatures from nightmares however you could. Whether it was as specially trained police in Resident Evil, super-powered demon hunters in Devil May Cry, or people tormented by their own personal demons in Silent Hill, these games seemed to always give you some way of fighting against the monsters, and something with which to defend yourself.
When the early 2010s came around, a new kind of survival horror experience began to rise in popularity: ones where you can’t fight back, popularised by 2010’s Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Thanks to the success of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, other studios would try their hand at similar games, and one of the first that made it big, that inspired the camcorder survival horror sub-genre, is Outlast.
Outlast puts players in the shoes of investigative journalist Miles Upsher (Shawn Baichoo), who receives documents claiming that the remote Mount Massive Asylum is conducting illegal and unethical experiments upon its inmates at the behest of the shady Murkoff Corporation, which owns the facility. Armed only with his handheld camcorder, Miles sneaks his way into the facility late at night, only to find the halls trashed, the staff dead and mutilated, and the monstrous inmates roaming the halls. Unable to leave the way he came in, Miles begins to search for a way of escaping the facility.
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Unfortunately for Miles, the inmates don’t care that he’s not one of the staff who tortured them, and he’s soon hunted by the people he’s trapped with. One of the inmates, a priest named Father Martin (Andreas Apergis) sabotages Miles’ escape, and shows him security camera footage of a ghostly entity killing Murkoff’s private security staff, an entity he calls the Walrider. With it becoming clear that there’s something more than just crazed patients at work within the Asylum, Miles has to find a way out before he’s caught and tortured to death.
It doesn’t take Outlast long to show players what it’s all about. Shortly after climbing inside the creepy Asylum you quite literally have a body thrown in your face; a jump scare that will test your preparedness to continue on with the game. This level of fright, of things suddenly throwing themselves at the player when you think all is safe and quiet, is a big part of Outlast, and the game rides this fine line between carefully crafted atmosphere and jump scares.
In most games these kinds of moments wouldn’t be too bad, and I’ve played a number of games where something jumps out at your character in order to frighten you, before you’re then able to pull out a weapon and put the monster down, bringing a sense of calm and even joy that you’ve managed to deal with the thing that just frightened you. This is not an option in Outlast. Your character has his camcorder, and that’s about it. You can’t grab a knife off a surgical table to defend yourself with, and those broken table legs scattered across the floor can’t be picked up and used as a club. You have two options here: run or hide.
This element of the game is what truly makes Outlast frightening. Miles is a fairly regular guy, he’s probably been in zero fights his entire life, so he’s not going to turn into some unarmed combat master and walk out of the asylum after killing everything in his way. If he tried to fight back he’d be killed. So running and hiding are all he can do. This leads to some incredibly tense moments where you crawl under a bed, waiting for the person chasing you to lose track of you and walk off, giving you a chance to move on to the next area. And these segments aren’t always a result of you messing up somewhere along the way, with the game sometimes forcing you into these near death experiences.
The only thing that Miles has to help him is his camcorder, which he’s using to gather evidence for his story, but is also a vital tool for navigating the environment. With much of the asylum bathed in darkness, and no torches or flares around to light the way, Miles will have to rely on the night vision function of the camera to help him navigate the twisting halls. There are parts of the game where you’ll be slowly creeping down a dark corridor when your camera will pick up an inmate standing in the middle of the hall in the darkness. Squeezing past them, knowing that they can’t see you, but if you make too much noise they might throw themselves at you, makes for a tense moment, and is only capable thanks to this very restrictive way of navigating the game.
One of the most impressive things about the game is that it was made by a very small team, with only ten people working on it. Red Barrels, the Canadian studio responsible for creating Outlast, was founded just two years before the release of the game. Outlast was the first game developed by Red Barrels, though various members of the team had worked on other large games previously, such as Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted. Thanks to being unable to find initial investors, the development team worked for months without salary.
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Fortunately, Outlast would go on to become a huge hit upon release, and that early hard work paid off for the team. Initially released on the PC, the game was ported to both the Xbox and Playstation the following year (with a Nintendo Switch release in 2018). Reviews were generally favourable, with praise being given for the level of atmosphere and the various jump scares throughout. Despite being fairly short in length, the fear that it gave players, and the need to replay some segments caused by player death, Outlast seemed to satisfy most players and left them feeling happy. The game would go on to sell millions of copies, and a DLC scenario and sequel were both released over the following years.
There have been many attempts to make horror games scarier in recent years, and there have been some great games that have come from this. And whilst Outlast might not have pioneered this new style it certainly made a big splash when it arrived on the scene. There are numerous elements from the game that have appeared in other releases, and it’s hard to say that it’s not gone on to inspire others, and to push the genre upward to new heights.
Outlast was released in the UK on September 4th 2013.