Sunday, February 16, 2014

Chamberlain and Chance on Outlast.

You know the drill - Chamberlain does that, I do this, and sometimes we do it together.  In a comforting return to form after last time's strange reversal of standards, Chamberlain cannot unsee everything wrong with Outlast, while I found it quite successful, despite its missteps.

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CHAMBERLAIN : Going to be careful with my comments because, judging from your trophy list, I played more of this yesterday than you did.

As a first person adventure (-ish) title, Outlast is pretty good. It does not leverage the power of the new hardware, in fact the frame rate chugs there are a lot of thing burning or when it tries to load the next section of a level.

This pops up more than you'd expect.

CHAMBERlAIN : There are fetch quests and notes to collect and dead ends and all of the general tropes associated with combatless games. The whole thing feels like an adaptation of the Russian Sleep Experiment short story. Just like that story it falls flat when it tries to be scary because it tries way too hard.

Outlast isn’t mood scary like Silent Hill 2 or Fatal Frame. It’s jump scary and that wears off really quick. Quests fall into a strict pattern – look for item(s), pass scary things that don’t do anything, find item, back track while being chased by aforementioned scary things. This happens over and over and it less effective each time.

I slept well last night. This was not what I was hoping for.

CHANCE :After I played it on Tuesday, I switched to Tomb Raider after a few hours as I felt myself becoming saturated with hellishness, and - as I played TR in the dark - a bit of light was shining off the leather of a chair in the next room, about as big as someone's eye.  I had to pause the game and look very closely, to assure myself some demented inmate wasn't sitting there, motionless, staring at me.  

Outlast gives itself a pretty big challenge by way of making the player almost entirely passive - all we can do is flip switches, close doors and run like hell - and so, we understand that each scenario with an enemy has only two outcomes.  You either successfully run and hide, or you die - which actually grants the player a bit of comfort, and confidence.  We're aware that this game is meant to be seen through to the end, so the chases are less scary when we're assured a survivable outcome is on the other side - but for 90% of Outlast, it's not chasing you - it's building its creep factor.

I find its creep factor very affecting.  It's got some really good ideas - not the least of which is the entire game being viewed through the lens of a camcorder.  This is a found-footage movie in which you are the person recording everything - and when the lights go out, everything is creepier in infrared. It also helps that it covers up the blemishes of Unreal Engine 3.

I'm gonna' go play it more, now. 

CHAMBERLAIN : Let me know when you are done, I don’t want to spoil anything.

CHANCE : Deal. 

Dr. Trager.

CHANCE : Okay done.  I enjoyed it - I'm sticking to my assertion that it's no Fatal Frame II, but it gets the job done.  I particularly liked the Dr. Trager sequence.  

You play this thing in a dark room with a decent sound system or headphones, it will freak you out.  Just the player character's panicked breathing was enough to give me the willies.

CHAMBERLAIN : I played it in a windowless basement with a 5.1 surround setup. Not quite 7.1 headphones but still pretty good.

The  game never got me. After the first jump scare I could see them coming. After the first key quest I knew how they were all going to play out. The Dr. Trager sequence was good until he actually started to chase you. Then it broke down into a Laurel and Hardy routine.

It's not a bad game, I just didn't find it as frightening as others did.

CHAMBERLAIN : And that ending? My god, that was shit.

* * * 

At this point, things go spoilery, so I shall hide them behind the protective shield of a page break.

CHAMBERLAIN : It should have ended shortly after Martin killed himself. Wallrider should have come out of him and chased you down the elevator shaft. Keep it unexplained and supernatural. The unexplained is frightening. Instead we got a final area right out of Resident Evil full of nanomachines and an immortal-ish Nazi scientist.

It was stupid.

CHANCE : I loved the entire Trager sequence.  Being strapped, helpless to the wheelchair as he rolls you around before going all Hostel on you was a great moment, and I loved his chipper attitude as he runs you down with a cheerful "heyyy buddy!"  It was way better than when the giant Chris Whatshisname chases you, or the ponderously slow Dangly Twins - where each of those chases only have one solution, one rout, the Trager sequence takes place across a huge floor with multiple routs, driven by his AI to find you and your will to live.  I loved it.

I liked that Chris and the Twins kept coming back again and again over the course of the game - but the Twins were much scarier simply by virtue of their creepy, monotone chatter (they're coming down a hallway, you slip out the window and shimmy past them as they mutter "he is gone," "we are stupid," "yes we are.")

And yes, the ending was stupid.  They took The Force and explained it with midi-chlorians, and it's hard to care after that - but even with the black mark of its sci-fi ending, the game entire feels very enthusiastic about its genre.  As disturbing as it was, I loved dropping out of a vent into a hallway with a scene that directly recalls the introduction of Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2, and being told in no uncertain terms how sick in the head I am for having observed it.

Like Trager, it's at least cheerfully demented.

CHAMBERLAIN :I think I am coming off a bit too negative. Outlast was a good game, it just didn't lean on the things that scare me. The unknown scares me. The supernatural. Crazy dudes in an asylum is icky but doesn't make me look over my shoulder when I am walking up the stairs. 

'The ropes' from Fatal Frame was scary. The midgets killing you in an alley in Silent Hill was scary. Trager was actually amusing. I will admit to laughing outloud when he pulled out the big scissors. It was either a brilliant homage to Clock Tower or they stumbled on to something hilarious.

I just thought of something: if you hide under a bed will Trager stab you through it? That would be awesome.

CHANCE : No, if he sees you get under a bed he drags you out, hurts you a bit and you can keep running.  And you're not wrong that the fright factor disappears pretty quickly when you begin to feel out the game's intentions - but the pitch blackness viewed in eerie green infrared, the blood graffiti, the panicked breathing of the player character - kept me in a state of unease when the chases weren't on.  

For 90% of the game, you can be confident that you'll be okay (which, I guess, permits the player the confidence to explore and find the reports that flesh out the story), and for the 10% that's spent running away, you can be confident that by turning around and booking it, you'll find a vent or crack to squeeze in to to survive.

The player learns - as soon as they get into that first locker as Chris walks past the security room - that the game doesn't actually want to catch you.  It does dull the fear - as does the midi-chlorian ending.

* * *

While I have dozens of survival horror games under my belt, I am less steeped in the genre than Chamberlain - and certainly less so in recent years, as he's enjoyed the genre's return on PC - and while I enjoyed my time with it, Outlast's success, for me, may be due to my lack of recent experience.  Its ability to send chills up your spine may largely depend on the audience it finds, in you.


  1. It would be boring if we agreed about everything.

  2. Agreed.

    Oh, that was tedious.

  3. Almost as tedious as running into Chris Walker every 5 minutes.