PAX East Preview: Outlast shoots survivor horror with a new lens

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“We’re trying to scare the shit out of players,” Philippe Morin boldly proclaimed when I asked him about Red Barrels Games’ upcoming release, Outlast.

Judging from the occasional shriek that emitted from the isolated, darkened booths that they used to demo the game at PAX East, it’s clear that they’re off to the a good start.

Outlast is a first-person horror game where you play as Miles Upshur, a journalist who is investigating a long-abandoned mental asylum that has recently been reopened. Miles has received a tip that things aren’t quite Kosher at the hospital, so he’s unwisely taken it upon himself to delve into the issue. The demo began as I climbed up scaffolding to sneak into the asylum, a decision I immediately regretted once I saw the ransacked-state of the place.

We all expect games to look fantastic these days, but Outlast does an uncanny job of actually making you feel like you are Miles. You see your feet when you look down at the floor and he reaches out his hand to open doors. You can hear him grunting and see his arms grabbing ledges to pull himself up. He’ll even automatically turn sideways and shimmy through obstructed corridors. All of these little touches combine to really immerse you in the world of Miles.
This is all well and good, except I don’t think I really want to be Miles. Because Miles is in an insane asylum. In the dark. With a bunch of mutated humans who we quickly learn have a penchant for decapitating people and stringing them up by their ankles.

Much like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a game that Morin admitted the team was fond of, Outlast doesn’t provide any means to defend yourself. That feeling of helplessness that accompanies hearing, and then eventually seeing, some mutated freak walking around is magnified when you know you have no means of actually disposing of it.

“Horror games are the most fun when you feel totally defenseless, when you’re really scared. Why bother having a gun?” asked Morin.

Miles may not be packing heat but he did think to bring along his trusty camcorder. The camera’s light is a handy tool for illuminating the institution, which is frequently draped in darkness. Morin said they looked to movies like Cloverfield and Rec. for inspiration, and the camera effect translates well into the game by providing just enough light to navigate the area, but not enough to make you ever feel secure.

Since you aren’t attacking enemies, the game actually plays like a stealth game. “We had to develop levels around flanking enemies instead of shooting them,” said Morin. During the demo, I slowly crept from room to room in search of batteries for my camera, peeking around corners in fear of encountering one of the patients.

Horror games are built through atmosphere, and Outlast delivers a strong one with subtle sound cues, dancing shadows in the distance, and of course, the footsteps of some unstoppable killer looming around the corner. The brief bit that I played only featured two encounters with the actual patients, but I was never, ever comfortable exploring the partially dilapidated building. Morin explained the need to use tension to keep the player engaged. “If you only have peek-a-boos, they won’t pay off very long. You’re not in a sucked-in state,” said Morin.

AttackEventually my luck ran out, and I was discovered by a lurching, shirtless madman who chased me through the area until I managed to lose him and take refuge in a small room adjacent to a much larger room that was covered by pools of water. I opened the door and heard the footsteps of the beast-like man sloshing through the water. I closed the door, re-investigated the room in a desperate search for some other means of escape and finally made a run for it.

I escaped into the next room, but when I opened the next door I was immediately grabbed by another bellicose, deranged patient and the demo ended.

It’s clear that Red Barrels has discovered the winning formula for making people sleep with the night light on. They plop you into the worst of situations and don’t ask you to blast your way out, but rather force you to crawl around in the shadows, anxiously hoping just to survive. And that’s what’s so damned scary.

Outlast will be available on PC this summer.

Posted on by Mike Wall in PC Previews, Previews

About Mike Wall

Mike grew up and lives near Philadelphia and has been intrigued with games ever since his parents preached that they rotted his brain. He studied journalism at Penn State and got his master's degree in secondary education before realizing that not even summers off would make that job palatable. He now works in marketing and is trying to find time to continue writing a book about zombies, aliens, vampires, the end of the world, and a talking cat.