The term ‘asylum’ is a funny one. Usually linked to the idea of Victorian madhouses, it actually means ‘sanctuary’, or ‘a place of safety and protection’. Someone should probably point this out to game developers.
What with the upcoming Asylum Jams happening this month across the world, aiming to dispel the stigma of mental illness from its current stereotypical horror concept, it’s ironically apt that it comes hot on the heels of Red Barrels‘ survival horror title Outlast. A game which completely eschews any such progressive attitudes, and creates one of the bleakest renderings of an asylum lost to the patients ever seen.
Miles Upshur, freelance investigative journalist, has arrived at Mount Massive Asylum, on an anonymous tip of terrible atrocities being committed there. Seeking to uncover the secrets and get his story, Upshur sneaks inside the care home and finds himself trapped within; at the mercy of the panicked, and often horrifically mutilated, inmates. Armed only with an HD camera and a will to survive, it’s up to the player to “outlast” the nightmare he’s wandered into.
While the idea of getting trapped inside a mental asylum gone mad, and having to escape is older than the hills. Outlast isn’t looking to break new ground in storytelling. The weaponless exploring a terrifying place, hiding frantically from violent enemies, owes in spades to the likes of Frictional Games’ Penumbra and Amnesia series. As does the slow reveal of the story, although never to the same levels of satisfactory revelation or cleanly understandable narrative.
Another title apt for comparison would be the full release of the indie horror title, Slender: The Arrival. Similarly Upshur will spend most of the game peering through his camcorder, as the plot-crucial notes he scribbles down at key moments, will only register if he has the events recorded on film. In a neat addition, his camcorder has a low-powered Night-Vision mode, which allows him to traverse the pitch black depths of Mount Massive Asylum. In the gamiest way, the Night-Vision mode requires AA batteries, which luckily are strewn around the asylum, often near radios and walkie-talkies dotted around the labyrinthine building.
Given the size of the asylum, it’s still a predictably linear experience, and the game benefits from that, as each area Upshur progresses through has it’s own unique look and feel. From the modern and business-like admin wing, to the horrifying grotesquerie of the high-security cells and shower rooms, the hospital feels utterly alive and all too plausible. Then there are the strange supernatural oddities which are hinted at throughout the game.
Of course, if it was simply a scary building there would be little tension, and while there are a few cheap shot jump-scares, the majority of the horror comes from various moments where one or more patients will attack and chase the player. In these moments, it becomes a game of cat and mouse, as the player cowers behind furniture, or ducks into lockers or under beds, never feeling safe as the game AI randomly has them flung open or looked underneath. Worse still, several recurring main inmates who repeatedly seek out the player, such as the naked, oddly calm, psychotic twins, or the huge lumbering juggernaut of an ex-soldier, who prowls the grounds, eager to literally rip Upshur’s head clean off.
Given the brilliant pedigree from which they are formed, Red Barrels’ flagship title is a no-brainer purchase, at least for any horror game fan, yet it’s held back by a few short flaws. While it’s a frantic and heart-pounding experience, it’s still a relatively short game, with a linearity which means you’re unlikely to play it again anytime soon. Outlast feels incredibly derivative, condensing many styles and ideas from a host of similar titles into a single concentrated experience. While that’s commendable in itself, it also means to any fan of the horror genre, it often feels more than a little over-familiar, which is a drawback in a genre where the fear stems from the unknown.