The PlayStation 4 is a unique system. I’m not talking about the share button, the games, or any other minor feature that sets it apart from the Xbox One. What I’m talking about is the constant stream of free games early adopters are being given through PlayStation Plus. This is unique for several reasons – first, no other system in history has had as much free content consistently given as the PS4; second, the content given isn’t old, but stuff that is first to the market on the system; and third, the games are ones that many console gamers would never purchase normally. This last part might seem like a negative, and, from the outside, it is. However, by exposing gamers to a wide variety of games they normally wouldn’t play, Sony actually runs the chance of expanding horizons and improving the odds of genres gaining a fanbase. Many gamers sit on the fence for niche games, and this free exposure is the best thing that could happen to games like Don’t Starve, Resogun, or Outlast. Today, I’d like to take a look at Outlast and try to explain why it is the exact type of horror game that most benefits from Sony’s program.
Let’s delve into quality first, so we can talk about the more nitty gritty details for the majority of the time. I don’t want to do a full review just on the game, but, if I did, I would score Outlast very high. It’s a horror game that knows what scares audiences. There is very little explanation as to what exactly is going on for the majority of the game with the only introduction being a document you can read at the beginning explaining your trip to the sanitarium. The atmosphere effectively creates hidden imaginary monsters in the eyes of gamers, who are often too scared to venture down into that dank basement. Much of the game is shrouded in pitch black, forcing the player to use the night vision on their camera in order to proceed. The entire game, in fact, feels like a game version of a found footage movie. The encounters with deranged inmates of the Mount Massive asylum are never boring during the game’s short run time, and each encounter is sure to leave the uninitiated gasping for their breath. To put it concisely – there is no question as to the high quality of the game.
With quality out of the way, let’s examine the kind of horror games that traditionally get large audiences. Resident Evil and Silent Hill are perhaps the two largest horror franchises on the market, and the one thing they have in common is a very prevalent action element even in the early days of the franchises. The reasoning for this goes beyond the simple fact that action games sell better than horror games. No. What motivated this design choice, and continues to, is that video games empower gamers, and, thus, video game developers like to give gamers the tools to fight back against the darkness. This is a great idea in most genres, but awful in horror. One of the reasons why the early Silent Hill and Resident Evil games were touted as so scary was because combat was so ineffective. However, this was not a conscious choice as much as it was poorly designed combat on a particularly finicky system.
Game developers fear under-equipping their audience. For one thing, it can be boring to play through a feature-length game without a plethora of tools at your disposal to break up the routine. Nevertheless, it can be done. In horror, it should be done. An enemy that can be killed, and killed comfortably, is an enemy that you shouldn’t be afraid of. Scary design only goes so far, and games are past the stage where controls as found in the early Silent Hills and Resident Evils are at all acceptable. Some games like to invent an invincible enemy type like Resident Evil 3’s Nemesis, or Dead Space’s Regenerator, but these are simply stopgap measures. In order to really push fear, everything has to lead to death if you make a wrong move. A grenade launcher, line-cutter or amazingly durable iron pipe stand in the way of actual danger, and thus horror.
Outlast is the kind of Amnesia, Slender-type game that’s starting to pop up in indie circles. Big AAA developers are still unwilling to bank on horror, but indie developers are. This is one of the reasons I, and many like me, proclaim indie-developed games as the gateway to innovation in the industry. If games like Outlast gain enough of a following, AAA developers may take a chance at putting their money on such an endeavour. In that way, indie games can help test new, or unsecured markets for the big boys. At very least, these games allow niche fans an opportunity to play games that don’t fit the safest mode available, which is what you often find in AAA development.
So what about PlayStation Plus? I wondered when the PS4 was released what they’d do with PS+’s free offerings. I mostly assumed they’d be relegated to the PS3 and Vita after the initial offering. However, I was wrong and it took me this long to figure out why Sony is a genius for releasing a brand new, totally free indie game every month. It’s all about exposure. You’d think that these games – Resogun, Contrast, Don’t Starve, and Outlast, would hate to be on the list, being given away for free. However, this allows them to build great word of mouth, and when the free period ends, they have a vocal fanbase hoisting their virtues up in front of new PS4 owners who missed their chance to get them for free. This is the kind of exposure faltered games such as Siren on the PS3 never had. More importantly, this good word of mouth only spreads if the games are great, so the bad games have gotten weeded out of the system so far.
That’s why Outlast is the horror game that the PS4 needs. It is a horizon-broadening experience, testing the waters for horror games in the same vein, horror games that have never been accepted by mainstream console gamers. It would be easy to give your character a gun, make the creatures horrific and let you go wild, but Outlast took the hard road, and I hope it pays off.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer