Outlast & The Art of The Scare

OUTLAST

I creep, ever so slowly, down the hallway of the mental asylum. The light is so dim as to be barely visible, and the only sounds are my own fractured breaths and the creak of my tentative steps. Trembling, I raise my only companion, a night vision camera with ever decreasing battery life, into the gloom. A noise in the distance. What is that? Some kind of tortured laugh? A door in front of me slams shut. Silence again. As I edge my way forward, the night vision camera my only illumination in the pitch black of this dreadful place, the corridor narrows. Nowhere to go but onwards. Suddenly, a hanging corpse swings into view, accompanied by a violent stab of strings. I jump. I shriek. The previously contented and purring cat leaps from my lap and howls in protest. I laugh. I placate the cat. I pick up the PS4 controller and dive back in – such is the magic of a great horror game, and in particular a great jump scare.

The jump scare has been a staple of horror games, and of course horror movies before them, for decades. Many a classic gaming moment has come from a perfectly timed ‘boo’, with the greatest scares coming inevitably from a perfectly managed build up. Outlast, the PC shocker of last year from developer Red Barrels (now free on PS4 with a PS Plus subscription), continues this fine tradition.

Looking back for a moment, many seasoned gamers will recall with glee their first experience of the zombie dogs in the Resident Evil franchise, or the first time a necromorph makes its presence known in the brilliant Dead Space. So why do these moments linger on in the collective gaming consciousness? What makes for a perfect jump scare? It has long been understood that horror games (as well as horror movies) act as a catharsis – a safe way of experiencing fear and the ‘fight or flight’ response, with the usual burst of adrenaline as an accompaniment. I alluded to the reasons behind a great jump scare earlier in fact – it’s all in the build up, and the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Looks charming.
Looks charming.

Outlast manages the build up in exemplary fashion. The first big jump scare of the game occurs after a particularly tense introduction to its grim asylum setting. As an investigative journalist with an apparent penchant for digging around in sinister locales, you begin with a short but ominous drive through creepy woodland. The imposing asylum looms before you, eerily quiet and apparently abandoned. It soon becomes clear (with the discarded army vehicles at the front door only the first testament) that something terrible has happened here. As you gain entry to the building through an open window, you happen upon littered documents detailing its hideous secrets. The score is almost non-existent at this point, your ever more rapid breathing the only sound. A light bulb burns out, leaving you in pitch darkness, but you continue onwards with the aforementioned night vision camera your only light source. As you progress further into this hellish place, a door will slam in front of you, or a hideous laugh will punctuate the soundtrack. These creepy moments, added to the tension already built up by the perfectly staged introduction, mean that the jump scare that follows hits its target bang on. Yes, the setting is cliché, and games (as mentioned previously) have been perfecting the art of the scare for decades, but Outlast illustrates a high point in the craft.

Horror gaming in general has been experiencing a resurgence of late, with Outlast only the latest in a line of solid entries. Sadly, the Resident Evil and Dead Space series have lost their way, wandering uncomfortably into the action-adventure genre, but it would appear that there is still a very strong demand for more traditional horror titles. Shinji Mikami, the creator of the original Resident Evil series (fondly known as the father of survival horror), will bring gamers The Evil Within later this year. The footage shown so far certainly makes for encouraging viewing, but time will tell as to whether the scares can extend to a full game.

Also on the horizon is the very promising Alien: Isolation. Taking the gaming world by surprise after the appalling Aliens: Colonial Marines, this first person survival horror title looks to finally be the true Alien game we’ve all been waiting for. With no weaponry, and just the one predatory alien stalking you throughout, Alien: Isolation appears to embody the essence of the first film in fine style. This definitely looks to be a game worth getting excited about, and the first playable demo at EGX Rezzed will hopefully answer some of our questions.

For now, back to Outlast. How does the story pan out, and what further horrors will the mental asylum reveal? I’ll have to tell you later, once I’ve come out from my hiding spot under this bed. Don’t have nightmares.

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