Contains a few spoilers for Outlast.
The developer Red Barrels recently released an encyclopedia of all the clichés in the horror genre. But they made the interesting choice (instead of just printing it as a book) of actually making it a game. The game shows its players all the possible clichés a horror video game can have by being a game with all these clichés!
The game is called Outlast and if you play through it you’ll have a deep understanding of how to create a horror game that does things other horror games have done. And how to do these things without making them new or exciting in any way! I’ve heard several universities (Harvard and Cornell among them) have started using this game as a core text in their “How To Make Games Like Everyone Else” classes. It’s a real gem.
You start as some guy with a camera going to investigate a mental hospital because an anonymous tipster tells you that something strange is happening there. You’re a reporter and you have to use your night-vision camera setting to see in the dark. You bumble through the mental hospital avoiding all the experimented-on people called “Variants” and you can’t attack any of them. At some point a naked guy cuts off two of your fingers. The hospital is mostly covered in blood and bugs. Very scary.
The only gripe I have with the game is that it lacks a proper description of where all these things have been done before (and better). If I had developed the game, I probably would have at least included an index or something that catalogued these things (especially if I had intended for the game to be so educational). So I’ve taken the liberty of listing each element of the story that comes from somewhere else, and where these elements are used more effectively than they are in Outlast.
- Starting as some asshole with a camera following a lead for weird occurrences: Dead Rising starts this way. And has a cooler picture taking system. And a more interesting combat system. And a cool timer system. It’s sort of the opposite of Outlast. They took a cliché (zombies at a mall) and made it extremely interesting.
- Being able to only see with night-vision setting (paired with being a reporter): REC (the movie) does this exact same thing far more effectively.
- Not being able to attack/only begin able to use complex hiding mechanics: You’d be better off playing Amnesia which does the same thing. 75% of my play time for Amnesia was spent hiding in closets because I was so scared. And I didn’t even make it to the part where you see the monster. I stopped playing before then because I was so scared.
- Outlast is a First-Person Shooter: Doom actually pioneered this format….I’m not a big fan of the franchise, but that is where it came from (if we’re here for the sake of learning it should be mentioned). FPS’s used to be called “Doom Clones” for this reason.
- Gore: There is a way to use blood and body mutilation in writing. But it’s a lot like cologne. If you don’t use the right amount, people will get headaches and say bad things about you when you’re not around. Better uses of body mutilation/gore:
- Pan’s Labyrinth: Every single time something gets hurt it’s awful and visceral. (And they didn’t have to paint the walls with blood to do that).
- Come and See: This movie makes you feel like you’ve aged 10 years by the end of it. It reaches the depths of human suffering. (It doesn’t just have some naked guy cut off someone’s fingers for the awe-factor).
- Set in a mental hospital: Ever since mental hospitals showed up, people have been writing horror stories about them. Because they were the location of real life horror stories. And insanity and horror are often linked because of the interesting things you can do with a possibly insane narrator. But! The mental hospital is so overused you have to be very careful about when you implement it. A couple of examples of doing it right:
- H.P. Lovecraft: Probably the father of this format, the guy puts his characters in mental institutions quite regularly. But for good reason. They have all experienced things that don’t make sense, but somehow exist in the world. Like a city rising from the ocean constructed with non-Euclidean geometry.
- “The Yellow Wallpaper”: A short story about the scariest wallpaper you’ll ever read about. Really. You’ll be afraid of wallpaper.
- “Rosetta Stoned” by Tool: This is a terrifying account from the perspective of a possibly insane inmate at a mental institution about his abduction by aliens. He oscillates between periods of lucidity and sections were he just screams about shitting the bed. You really can’t listen to it in the dark without thinking something is standing behind you. Seriously. It’s good stuff.
In conclusion: it’s a really good thing Outlast exists. It shows us that we can all be better with our game making. Now that we know all the cliché things a game can have (and all the places where they have been used more effectively) we don’t have to make any more horror games that use them poorly.
We don’t need to make any more games like Outlast.