Outlast arrives on Steam today, and if you are having a carefree and otherwise emotionally positive day and would like to change that state of affairs, I suggest you try it. By the Quebecois indie studio Red Barrels, Outlast will be called a "horror" game, which is technically right, but also totally insufficient in the context of other horror games. Resident Evil and Dead Space, the two preeminent series in the genre, are third-person action shooters with grotesque scenery and the odd stale jump-scare. Outlast is a first-person roamer in which you are powerless to do anything except wander around a decrepit mental asylum and run crying from the freakish residents thereof. If the former two series are Blade 2, Outlast is the hospital scene from Jacob's Ladder, over and over, for five hours, until you need a hug.
True, Outlast isn't the first video game to derive its aesthetics of horror from Adrian Lyne's 1991 film, but it may be the most apt borrowing. The Silent Hill games, with their nightmarishly plodding movement and oppressive mood, are basically one long tribute to that unforgettable scene, in which the Tim Robbins character, suffering from Vietnam-induced PTSD, is strapped to a gurney and wheeled, totally powerless, through a mental hospital-come-charnel house. But still, in those games, you have bats, knives, guns: the verb phrases of video games. You're in a kind of control.
In Outlast you have a single item, a video camera, the infrared mode of which, in a tribute to the wonderful 2007 flick Rec, you can use to see down dark hallways. The rest is sneaking, running, and hiding. Your only task is to escape. In the way the game makes the player a victim, Outlast resembles the similarly traumatic 2010 game Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But while that game — though terrifying — conjured a kind of genteel 19th-century Continental gothic of ghosts and hauntings, Outlast is not shy with the impalements and the severed limbs and the gibbets. It's gross, and maybe too gross. Great horror has always understood that the partial glimpse and the suggestion are much more powerful tools than the unobstructed stare.
Still, the game frightened me into near tears. Playing Outlast in the middle of the day, in a Manhattan office suffused with light and the wisecracks of twentysomething web workers, I found myself cringing as I tested every doorknob; jumping at every noise; covering my mouth with my hand involuntarily.
Outlast is so frightening, in fact, that I wonder if most people will finish it. I don't mean that in some sensationalistic way; rather, I mean that playing the game, skillful as it is, is a profoundly unpleasant experience, and it lacks a traditional gamey feedback loop to keep players interested. In other words, even as a game like Silent Hill is working on you as a piece of horror, it also follows a time-tested reward structure: Beat X (enemy, puzzle, etc.), get Y (better weapon, health, etc.). Outlast rewards you for progressing through one excruciatingly terrifying area with another excruciatingly terrifying area. We've known for years that the first-person perspective is the easiest way to draw a player into the game world. Now, with games like this, Gone Home, and the forthcoming Amnesia sequel, game studios have started to make first-person games that are so intense, they verge on distressing. Playing Outlast, I found myself taking a break from the game every 30 minutes because I was so wound up. There's a reason horror movies don't last five hours.
Still, this game is an accomplishment, especially given that it was made by a 10-person team. It's one of the best genre games I've ever played, even if I could never fathom playing it alone in the dark.