I’ve been featured on S.S. Librarianship once again, in Episode 9. This time I talk about horror and its aesthetics as well as some of my favorite horror films and games.
Month: October 2013
The horror gaming world is much abuzz about Outlast right now, a found-footage horror game that’s been compared to Amnesia and its ilk. I just finished the game myself over a period of about two weeks. I must admit that a part of me is cathartically relieved the game is over, because it’s an absolutely nerve-fraying experience, exquisitely paced, calibrated to precisely balance unrelenting panic with the potent terror of anticipation, with enough nauseating viscera thrown in for even the most benumbed gorehound to roil at. It’s not a perfect horror game but it’s damn close. Although it only has a few real innovations, it plays the standard tropes of the genre better than almost any horror game I’ve played.
Like some other horror games of late, Outlast’s protagonist, Miles, contributes to the atmosphere of terror by wheezing, panting, and hyperventilating at appropriate times. He’s also fully embodied: his hands, arms, and legs are all visible and interact fully with the world, so when you pick up a battery or open a door you watch him physically perform the actions. I like this trend towards physicality; not only does it aid immersion, which is of vital importance in a horror game, it gives everything a particularly visceral edge that suits Outlast and games of its ilk very well. In Outlast specifically, Miles’ embodiment is especially significant: the game is not only about the relationship between bodies and minds, it’s also about chases. It’s probably impossible to make it through the game without being seen; the game seems to delight in springing enemies on you when you think you’re being clever and stealthy, so almost inevitably, you end up spending a lot of time running away. Equal parts deranged parkour and murderous hide-and-seek, the chase gameplay is very well handled, with just enough clumsiness to ensure the occasional moment of frenzied fumbling with the controls as you try to dodge around the abominable inmate/thing bearing down on you with god-knows-what clutched in his twisted paw as a makeshift club. Surprisingly to me the chases themselves aren’t so much terrifying as strangely exhilarating – after the initial spasm of raw panic a kind of primeval flight instinct takes over and you start mapping out routes, figuring out which obstacles to circumvent and which doors to dash through, eyes roving for a place to conceal yourself.
Speaking of Miles, our investigator-journalist protagonist, he’s brilliantly written. He adds notes in his journal as the game progresses, and for once it actually makes sense for a character to be carrying a notepad and pen. Most characters in horror games usually seem pretty determined about pressing onwards – Daniel is hell-bent on killing Alexander, Isaac is resolved to destroy the hive mind or purge the necromorph-infested colony or whatever you were supposed to be doing in Dead Space, James Sunderland is intent on finding his wife, Leon Kennedy is steadfastly committed to rescuing the president’s daughter (even if she is annoying as all get out), Oswald Mandus is obsessed with finding his children. In contrast, Miles became my hero not when he enters the asylum in the name of journalism but when he scribbles in his notebook something along the lines of “Fuck this place. Seriously, fuck it.” Again, this boosts immersion immensely – because now my desires really are aligned with the protagonist’s, and we identify with him in a way we might not with a more stoic protagonist. In A Machine for Pigs I found Mandus fascinating in a creepy, grotesque kind of way, but as the game progressed I identified with him less and less, as it became clearer and clearer just how disturbed and deluded he was; by the end of the game I had sort of decided that I wouldn’t be that cut up if old Oswald bit the biscuit. But Miles reacts essentially as a real person would if they were confronted with the horrors of Mount Massive. He doesn’t grab a crowbar and an SMG and start gunning his through the place, he runs a lot, hides a lot, and tries to get the hell out as fast as he can. As the story progresses and he gets drawn ever deeper into Mount Massive his motivations shift and become more complicated, but he is always intent on getting out as fast as possible.
While Outlast has a limited bag of tricks gameplay-wise, it uses them to full effect. The parkour mechanics of the game are intuitive and easy to handle, and except for one jump that I think was slightly too extreme, the platforming element is never frustrating. There’s a nice blend of stealth, exploration, item collection, and action (the chases). What there really aren’t are puzzles: at no point was I stuck on what to do. The only time I couldn’t figure out where to go, a rampaging enemy chasing me through an overgrown courtyard eventually forced me to stumble upon the way to the next area by making me run around like a chicken with its head cut off till I spotted the right path. The trailer does a pretty good job of showing off the gameplay without spoiling anything.
Outlast features some of the best use of darkness and light since Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The central conceit of the game is the use of the camcorder Miles comes equipped with, which is used not only to provoke new “notes” by recording events in the game, it comes with a battery-draining night vision mode. The garish, grainy, blue-lit night-vision makes me think of the climactic scene of The Silence of the Lambs, so strongly I wonder whether it’s a kind of extended allusion – not that other films haven’t used night vision (28 Weeks Later also comes to mind). The night vision not only adds an anxiety-provoking element as your battery supply slowly dwindles, it allows the game to play a variety of tricks dependent entirely on whether or not you’ve got your light on, some of them quite subtle. In one memorable and horripilating sequence, for example, a flash of lightning, combined with the night vision and zoom function, illumines an approaching, knife-wielding figure slowly slinking out of the gloom, giving you a simultaneous jolt of fear and a few extra, precious moments to escape – but then a glance behind you with the night vision on reveals a second figure approaching from behind. The sheer panic this moment caused before I spotted the solution was pretty impressive. This is a game that manipulates its players in very deliberate ways, and yet many of its best scenes aren’t scripted events but organically derived moments that emerge spontaneously through play. Mount Massive is labyrinthine enough to allow for multiple routes and hiding spots. In other games, the presence of a locker or wardrobe to hide in might tip the game’s hand that an encounter with something awful was imminent, but not in Outlast: while there are a few predictable moments, the structure of the environment, your character’s speed, and what seems like pretty decent AI on the inmates ensures that Outlast rarely gives the game away. The game excels in making its environment varied and interesting, despite taking place entirely in and around single building. I was reminded at points of the original Half-Life: the game manages to switch up the terrain enough to keep things from getting bland (as the endless corridors of Dead Space or the interminable offices of F.E.A.R. get stale), while still retaining a feeling of unity and coherence. At different points you’ll find yourself in claustrophobic sewer tunnels, cavernous cisterns, gore-spattered infirmaries, tenebrous wards, terrifyingly open courtyards, and corridors so derelict the floorboards sometimes disintegrate beneath your feet.
While Outlast deals in jump-scares as much as slow-burning dread, it elevates them to a fine art by playing mental games with the player. In one early sequence, for example, you pass an emaciated inmate in a wheelchair, sitting still and wheezing to himself beneath a flickering overhead light – he’s grotesque and unnerving but not especially frightening. After working up the courage to approach this ghoulish but infirm figure you quickly realize he’s harmless: he doesn’t talk or try to attack you, he just sits in his chair and breathes hoarsely to himself, inspiring more pity than fear. In an adjacent room you find an object you need to get to the next area and you’re forced to retrace your steps. Knowing that horror games have a habit of throwing enemies at you after retrieving such items, I was moving very quickly through the areas I’d previously visited while keeping an eye out for trouble, expecting something to burst through a previously locked door. As I ran down the reasonably well-lit corridor with the wheelchair-bound inmate I started to feel relieved – the hallway looked clear, and I’d written off the inmate as “safe,” really not much more than a bit of set-dressing, an atmospheric fixture. When he lurched out of his wheelchair and attacked me, I was genuinely startled and horrified; moments later, as he picked himself up off the floor after Miles pushed him off, I was running at full-speed away from him, the nerve-fraying jolt of the jump-scare immediately giving way to fear of being caught. This is nothing short of brilliant: the scare hides in plain sight, luring you into a false sense of security and then punishing you for letting your guard down. After escaping, my heartbeat receding in sync with Miles’ panting, the full implications of the sequence hit me, as I realized that nothing in Mount Massive could be considered “safe.” By introducing an expectation and then subverting it, Outlast had further undermined any sense of security I had deluded myself into feeling. This was not an isolated incident, either: Outlast delights in these kind of head-games. For instance, the game provides ample spaces to hide – lockers and beds being the most common. Frequently, you’ll watch through a locker grill as an enemy searches the locker beside yours, while leaving your own locker unopened. After a few repetitions of this routine, I thought I’d “figured out” the stealth aspect of the game – if you were in a locker, and the enemy didn’t see you enter it, you were safe. How wrong I was: enemies can indeed guess which locker you’re in correctly. Again, the game sets up assumptions only to undermine them.
As for the game’s “monsters” (the inmates, or Variants), they’re wonderfully designed: mangled, mutilated, surgically scarred, and riddled with carcinogenic growths, the sudden appearance of one, accompanied by a trill of music, is sublimely horrific. You re-encounter a number of particular Variants over the course of the game and read about them in documents as well, and so Mount Massive accrues a kind of mythology as you move through it. My personal favourite is the demented Doctor Trager, who runs the infirmary and is responsible for one of the most shocking and harrowing scenes in the game, although the calm, strangely soft-spoken Brothers are also wonderfully creepy. Much of the game is spent evading the behemothic Chris Walker, a particularly menacing Variant, and while I enjoyed many of the sequences featuring Chris, I thought that by the end he’d been a bit overused: over the course of the game he becomes the designers’ “go-to” enemy, unless they opt for a generic, nameless inmate or three. Even one or two more named, unique enemies would have made the game stronger overall. Only one enemy’s design actually disappointed me significantly, though – that of the Walrider, an enigmatic, incorporeal spectre central to Outlast’s overarching plot. The Variants are uniformly grotesque and unnerving: everything about them makes you want to get away. They’re unclean, contaminated, diseased; the obscenities they shout, the way they goad you and tease you and lust for you, is really appalling in the best possible way. In contrast the Walrider is mute, faceless, wispy, and not especially scary. The only times it really threatens you take place in rather well-lit areas, and whenever I was running from the Walrider I didn’t feel the same frenzied sense of total panic I felt when fleeing from Doctor Trager with his rusty surgical instruments or the hulking, inexorable Chris. There’s just no sense of revulsion with the Walrider, no feeling of disgust. I think they were going for a kind of otherworldly Lovecraftian force with the Walrider, but it falls rather short of the mark; frankly it reminds me a bit of the black wraiths that feature towards the end of F.E.A.R., which were more annoying than terrifying. Though the end of the game in general is a bit anticlimactic given what came before, the Walrider really exacerbates the problems with the final area. Overall, I think the game’s biggest missed opportunity was the fact it doesn’t include any female characters: though you venture into the Female Ward at one point, there are no female characters in the entire game (at least none that I saw). The designers can’t really have been worried about encouraging violence against women, because you’re unarmed throughout, and I think a properly designed female Variant could have been perfect.
Some reviewers have criticized the game for being clichéd, or for offering a stereotypical and inaccurate depiction of mental illness (Adam Smith’s review on Rock Paper Shotgun is particularly scathing in this regard). While the story of Outlast is nothing really out of the ordinary – it’s a barebones, boilerplate horror plot about Nazi science, corrupt corporations, dreams, hypnotherapy, spirits, some weird machines and some weirder mathematical formulae – it doesn’t really have to be, and I think the “clichéd” criticism is a bit hard to swallow. Yes, abandoned and/or overrun mental institutions aren’t exactly original, but Outlast does the “evil asylum” thing about as well as possible (on the same level as Thief: Deadly Shadows’ Shalebridge Cradle). Smith argues that:
The fact that the place purports to be some kind of madhouse probably won’t matter very much to what little narrative there might be. It’s wallpaper to act as a backdrop for bludgeoning and butchery. It could as easily be a carnival full of insane clowns or an abandoned hotel full of insane bellboys, or an insurance office full of insane filing clerks.
Ironically, this is exactly right, in a sense. The game could have been set in an evil carnival or whatever – so long as it used the tropes at its disposal right, it would still have been an intense horror experience. Outlast is not trying to make a coherent statement about the way we relate to the mentally ill or about real mental illness. It’s not striving for profundity, it’s striving for affect. In this sense Outlast is a perfect representation of Poe’s theory of “unity of effect.” In “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), Poe claimed that when he sits down to write he first ponders “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Then, “Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect,” he sets out to deduce the “combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid [him] in the construction of the effect.” Elsewhere, especially in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), Poe denounces didacticism as a “heresy” – he’s not interested in art that tells a great truth or teaches something, he’s interested in “an elevating excitement of the Soul.” Outlast isn’t interested in teaching us something about the nature of madness or the corruption of our mental institutions. It’s interested in scaring the shit out of us, and it does so with gusto. Smith’s review also charges the game with Othering the mentally ill in a damaging way, but again, I don’t think this is quite fair. The game goes out of its way to stress that the inmates aren’t mundanely “mad,” they’ve been abused and tormented, exposed to eldritch forces and fantastic therapies. Not all of the inmates in Mount Massive are violent either: many of them are inert, catatonic, passive, self-destructive, or simply benign. A few are even mildly helpful. Outlast may not challenge any stereotypes about mental illness, but it’s not trying to. It’s not aiming for sophistication, it just wants to take a cheese grater to your nerves, and it does not hold back in that regard.
I heartily recommend Outlast to those who have a high tolerance for or enjoyment of properly scary horror games. If you’re looking for a brilliant story that challenges your understanding of the world or society, or a shoot-em-up faux-horror game, you’ll probably be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’ve enjoyed games like Amnesia, Penumbra, Silent Hill, Thief, and Condemned, you’ll find Outlast horribly delightful. I must be honest that between Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Outlast, the latter is my favourite by a fair margin (although The Dark Descent would probably still be ahead a bit in my personal ranking). It’s a suspenseful splatterpunk masterpiece.
Having finished A Machine for Pigs I can now give it a more thorough review. It’s certainly a worthy successor to The Dark Descent in most respects, and surpasses it in some. There will be a few mild spoilers below, so read at your own risk.
As with its predecessor, A Machine for Pigs is brilliantly atmospheric, using a combination of sounds, shadows, music, and text to great effect. The prose in the game – of which there is a great deal – is magnificently written: gruesome, rambling, poetic, and thematically profound, replete with motifs of animality, excretion, mechanization, sacrifice, spoiled innocence, and contamination. The levels are beautifully designed, a disturbing series of pens, abattoirs, seeping sewer tunnels, conveyer belts, generators, and churning gears. The industrial bowels of the Factory juxtapose cramped, claustrophobic tunnels with spaces of cavernous enormity crossed by rusty, zigzagging catwalks, alternating between submarine-like closeness and dizzying vastness. The dust and cobwebs of Brennenburg have been replaced with oil and excrement, the crumbling stone with hissing pipes and buzzing electric dynamos. The gameplay in A Machine for Pigs is stripped down to the point of simplicity, but what it does give us is genius. The electric lantern replacing the oil lamp of The Dark Descent has an interesting feature: it flickers rapidly whenever a monster is near (other electric lights behave the same way). Once I realized why the lantern was periodically flickering, I became conditioned to react to it in a certain way: whenever I caught it flickering I’d immediately turn it off, crouch down, and seek a hiding spot. The lantern not only creates a unique and original gameplay element, it has the added side-effect of reducing the player to the same level as an animal responding to a Pavlovian stimulus. By the game’s end, every time I saw the lantern flicker I would experience a set of physical and mental reactions – the game had literally rewired my brain to its own ends, making me its experimental subject, its lab animal, setting up obvious resonances with the porcine monstrosities that haunt the Factory’s tenebrous corridors.
As a protagonist, Oswald Mandus is a disturbing and fairly original character. Though I wish A Machine for Pigs had kept up the habit of reading journal entries in voiceover, which I liked in the first game, the phonographs scattered around the Factory along with the telephone conversations and flashbacks throughout the game give us enough of Oswald’ voice to get a proper feel for him. His motivations are more complex and unsettling than Daniel’s, and while the protagonist of The Dark Descent always felt like an outsider, an intruder exploring an alien environment, Oswald’s Machine is an uncanny space, familiar and yet unfamiliar – both because Oswald built the Machine and because the environment is riddled with clues that he’s been through the labyrinth very recently and is now retracing his footsteps. The character’s intense mysophobia makes me feel like there was a missed opportunity for some kind of “contamination mechanic” to complement the first game’s sanity mechanic. Steam-shower decontamination rooms punctuate the fetid, mechanical entrails of the Factory, but without any reason to enter them beyond getting to the next area they’re just another set of switches to fiddle with, and by the third or fourth time we enter and exit one they’re rather old hat. But if there’d been a real gameplay-based reason to use them – say, Oswald freaking out if he became too contaminated, maybe coughing and spluttering and so alerting potential enemies to his whereabouts, or even physically deteriorating after being exposed to Compound X, the quasi-alchemical serum crucial to Oswald’s creation – the anxiety around delving into canals awash with excrement or tunnels swirling with mephitic vapours would have been much enhanced, and the decontamination rooms would have provided a sense of relief. Even without such a mechanic, however, we still get a strong sense of Oswald’s distaste for the unclean, his complicated loathing and pity for a world he considers utterly disgusting, a desacralized reality whose existential horror drives Oswald to build his abominable edifice. At first I assumed the Machine must have been created as a means of extracting profit, the ultimate embodiment of Victorian capitalism and imperialism, but its purpose turns out to be far more deranged, and Oswald’s complex motivations, obsessions, and neuroses are tied into and physicalized by the Machine itself.
The monsters are very well-designed, and suitably grotesque. Interestingly, by the end of the game they elicit as much pity as they do fear or hatred. The “Manpigs” embody a whole host of contradictions: they are brutal and violent yet also strangely innocent, even child-like. The game invites us to read the pigs as degraded proletarians but also identifies them with Mandus’ children, his creations; they are, ultimately, his victims. They symbolically represent an array of human lusts and appetites, the animal within us – our tendencies to sloth and gluttony, our bestial urges. At the same time the game encourages us to feel responsible for them: they horrify not only because they’re stitched up, misshapen beast-people but because Mandus made them that way. In keeping with the transition from the sublime, quasi-religious terror of The Dark Descent to the revulsion and disgust common in the urban Gothic, the Manpigs are more scientific than mystical. The true horror in A Machine for Pigs is derived not from the monsters but from their creator, and from the inexorable encroachment of modernity itself. The reduction of humans to meat and of the world into a machine “fit only for the slaughtering of pigs” conjures images of Auschwitz and the trenches of the Somme, connections which the game eventually makes explicit. The Manpigs are thus perfect examples of the urban Gothic’s strategy of monster-making, allegorizing a host of social ills while simultaneously problematizing categories (human/animal, innocent/evil, natural/artificial, organic/machine), disturbing our assumptions and holding up a fractured mirror for us to gaze upon. Rather unusually for a game so interested in bodies and body-horror, the monsters here aren’t especially sexual in any way; perhaps the developers felt that Justine, with its monstrously sexualized Suitors (and the vaguely venereal wounds of the Gatherers in The Dark Descent) had covered that ground sufficiently.
The game is not without its blemishes. While its atmosphere is superb, it pulls its punches a bit too often – the monsters aren’t common enough to be as oppressive as they could be, and sometimes their deployment is a bit sloppy. The game could also show a bit more violence; at one point the Manpigs rampage through London’s streets, but we don’t see enough evidence of their bestial destruction to make it sting (in general, the London-streets levels are amongst the weakest in the game). The lack of an inventory has its upsides, but it limits the creators’ ability to craft compelling puzzles, and they don’t manage to compensate: the “puzzles” are incredibly easy, easier even than most of the original Amnesia’s. I feel this is a direct result of the Chinese Room’s design style; there’s just not much to do besides explore the game’s admittedly gorgeous spaces, occasionally dodging a monster, flicking a switch, or installing a new battery. As much the tinderbox-collection and lamp-oil rationing in The Dark Descent was a mixed bag, it gave you something to look for as you explored Brennenburg. A Machine for Pigs could have provided other reasons to explore every corner of every level, like difficult puzzles that require moving back and forth between areas (some timed puzzles would have been welcome). In the same vein, the game is far too linear, which is disappointing considering how open and sprawling Dear Esther is. In The Dark Descent the castle had hubs, central spaces from which other levels branched: the Entrance Hall, the Back Hall, the Cistern Entrance, and the Nave. You made choices about which area to go through, and sometimes had to return to areas you’d previously explored, occasionally facing new threats along the way, like when the Shadow infests the Nave with its oozing horror, collapsing whole corridors and snuffing all the lights. In contrast, A Machine for Pigs is fairly linear. The Mansion at the beginning is nicely sprawling, and the Factory Tunnels have multiple choices, but for most of the game your movements are very limited. Towards the end you are literally on a conveyer belt, which has nice thematic connotations but does bring home how straightforward the game ultimately is.
The two Amnesia games can teach us a great deal about game design, I think, particularly when it comes to horror. First and foremost, they demonstrate the vital importance of atmosphere. Monsters are scary in large part because of the contexts into which they are placed. Unlike, say, Dead Space, where the necromorphs show up almost immediately and never go away, both Amnesia games know the importance of revealing things very gradually: horror in both games is a kind of strip-tease, and the agonizing build-up to the full reveal is absolutely central to the total effect. Both games also illustrate the value of empty space. Empty rooms, corridors, and other areas, when presented atmospherically, are more than padding: they pace an experience and make the player(s) wonder about whether something will be found behind the next door or round the next corner. If a dungeon is stocked to the brim with monsters, there’s really not much opportunity for suspense. A Machine for Pigs also demonstrates the utility of repetition to ingrain certain behavioural patterns into players: while care must be taken for encounters not to become stale, the repetition of certain signs and images, like the flickering of the electric lantern, can be used to evoke powerful reactions. Such motifs not only provide a through-line to an adventure, they can be used to elicit dread and anticipation. Say, for example, a particular monster exudes a signature stench, and great emphasis is placed on the particular quality of its odour; then, whenever that odour is present, the players will tense up in anticipation. Finally, both games can be seen as templates for the deployment of Gothic tropes in a gaming context, a series of stock images and situations to be drawn on and borrowed from.
Up next on my list to play: Outlast. Having just written a scenario set in an asylum I’m curious to see a different approach.