OUTLAST: In Defense of the Jump Scare

The lowest hanging fruit, when it comes to poking fun at horror films, is to make a “look out for the cat!” joke. By which I mean the jump-scare is too often used as a pseudonym for the cheap scare.

Screw that noise. I like a good jolt. If the film is confidently put together and can pull its jump scares off: the more jumps the better.

Of course there is such a thing as a bad jump scare or poorly executed or overused scare. But badmouthing jump scares because of that’s like saying you don’t enjoy pizza because one time you had some at the bowling alley and it tore you up.

Usually these filmic punches don’t land because of lack of audience engagement. If you’re watching a film you don’t like, aren’t invested in, then you’re much less likely to care or buy in to the spookhouse trick. Non-diegetic music swelling as a character or camera movement telegraphs the moment a little too much creates a scare devoid of tension, jumps are a tool in the horror filmmaker’s belt, but there’s also an art to it.

Even when the scares are technically proficient, wonderfully executed, if they’re not grafted onto a movie that elicits serious dread from the viewer then the film can end up feeling breezy, a rollercoaster that you may have had fun on, but see no need to ride again or even think about once you’re done. For all of their polish, their wealth of great jump-scares, I find myself feeling this way about James Wan’s post-Saw films.

So I’m less a fan of jump scares and I am a connoisseur, a snob, a junkie. But junkies build up tolerance, connoisseur’s find their palates getting so refined that they can’t enjoy what they used to love. I think the same thing happens with horror fans. Which is why haunted attractions are so fun, when they’re done right, like, say, Philadelphia’s Terror Behind the Walls: they get you jumping, no matter your tolerance for cinematic shocks.

But haunted attractions are usually seasonal deals, where are we to turn for our fixes when the local haunted hayride ain’t running? Maybe video games.

outlast banner

So now that I’ve written that long and rambling introduction, what does this have to do with Outlast? Everything. Well, almost everything. Outlast has a lot of positives going for it: incredible sound design, lush graphics, interestingly minimalist gameplay, but I would argue that that all these bells and whistles exist solely to service the scares. These tech achievements are especially impressive as this is no triple-A production: developer Red Barrels is a fairly small team.

After years of stagnation (or more specifically, the inclination to put more action into the survival horror genre, broadening the genre’s appeal but resulting in games that are more horror-themed than they are horrifying) horror gaming seems to be going through a bit of a renaissance right now. I say “seems” like, because I can’t be sure for myself: I’m not a PC gamer and most of these bigger recent hits (Amnesia, Slender) are exclusive to that platform, so was Outlast before it was ported to next-gen consoles earlier this year.

Boy, am I glad it made the jump to console.

Lights out and sound up, Outlast is probably the most frightening gaming experience I’ve ever had. It’s got atmosphere, it’s got tension, but where it really shines are its jump scares. It brought me back to the Resident Evil and Silent Hill of yore, although I think the first person perspective really adds something (something that Fatal Frame and its first sequel clearly understood some time ago).

Outlast is a product made by people who not only have a firm grasp on their medium but also the genre they’re working in. As great and reactive to any given situation as the soundtrack is: most of the game’s tension blooms out of the gameplay itself, or more specifically the restrictions that gameplay places on the player. This isn’t a game trying to be cinematic: it’s a game trying to scare you in a way only interactive media can.

Outlast tells the story of Miles, a reporter who’s caught wind of some strange (and probably super illegal) goings on at Mount Massive Asylum. Miles arrives to find that the patients have overtaken the hospital and are not just garden variety victims of abuse, but products of nefarious experimentation. While the central mystery doesn’t make a lot of sense until the later hours of the game, your motivation as the protagonist is always clear and believable.

As threadbare as the story can seem in the early half of the game, what is there is completely absorbing because it has such synergy with the gameplay.

Outlast doctor

Instead of collecting coins, weapons, or other OCD-baiting ephemera, in Outlast players collect dossiers while trying to catch enough filmed evidence with their camcorder to build a good story in their notes. It’s the perfect intersection of dramaturgical motivation and game mechanic. Players aren’t searching for every bonus collectible to unlock a useless achievement (although they do that, too) but because our unraveling of the plot demands we be thorough going through the game’s environment.

Some stories in games suffer when they introduce a free-roaming first person perspective, because developers are giving the player the freedom to miss scripted events, Outlast solves this problem by having player’s perspective their only key to completion.

As a stealth-based game there is no combat. There’s not even any of the resource management that made the early RE games so tense. You only have one consumable resource: batteries that can be used to power the night-vision mode on your camera. Although I never once ran out of batteries, the game does string you along in sequences, artificially inflating the scarcity in some levels, making you think that you could run out of power at any point, could be left alone in the dark.

The main criticism most ‘hardcore’ (read: hairsplitting) gamers are going to have is that there’s technically not much game to Outlast, at least on the normal difficulty setting. Pants-pissing moments aside and much like a physical haunted house: the game’s fairly easy to beat by just ducking your head and running through.

But, for me, there was only one sequence where I wasn’t totally in love with Outlast and it was the game at its most ‘game-y’. It was a scene where I kept dying and had to rely on memorizing the patrol route of an enemy in order to get past him. In many traditional games, that frustration, repetition and subsequent triumph cycle would be extremely rewarding, but in Outlast dying a bunch of times only showed me the seams of the system. I wasn’t terrified anymore: I was playing the game like I would any other FPS, sans gun. On the tenth time going through those two checkpoints, the experience was equivalent to walking a haunted house with the lights on.

Outlast is relatively short, but it portions out its runtime exactly right. Around the last quarter of the game, where I was beginning to grow jaded, my brain realizing that 99% of scripted events wouldn’t kill me, didn’t pose a threat, the game switches tones to something closer to an episode of The X-Files and ties the story up in a compelling string of sequences that feel very different from the rest of the time spent in Mount Massive. The game was written by JT Petty, the filmmaker responsible for The Burrowers and S&Man, so that the story and script is smarter than your average game shouldn’t really surprise. I mean, I feel like I had known this some point (probably when the game was initially released for PC) but I had forgotten by the time I picked up the game, ending up pleasantly surprised as the credits rolled.

I can’t recommend Outlast enough. I really hope to see more from Red Barrels and that other developers take note and really try to scare us. 

Transitioning…

Maybe I’m just defensive of jump scares or hold them on a pedestal because I’ve got jump scare envy. You can do so much in novels, but no matter how many times you type “Boo!”: nobody’s going to jump. (I feel like I’m paraphrasing someone there, but I can’t remember who: sorry for stealing your idea, whoever!)

Speaking of which: I’ve got new books out. Well. Actually not me alone, these are my first two collaborations and they just happen to be coming out in close proximity to each other.

The limited edition signed hardcover of Jackpot, a book I wrote with Shane McKenzie, David Bernstein and Kristopher Rufty is now up for preorder from Sinister Grin Press. It’s about a serial killer who wins the lottery. It is most definitely meant for fans of extreme horror: for real, it’s WAY gorier and sicker than my other stuff, so don’t say I (or Jim Agpalza’s cover) didn’t warn you.

If you’re not a hardcover collector or a true-believer, there will be more affordable editions of Jackpot in the near future.

Also Cameron Pierce, Shane McKenzie and I’s crazy metatheatrical/satirical/parody thing Leprechaun in the Hood: The Musical: A Novel, which was serialized on reddit, is now available from Broken River Books (the same publisher as The First One You Expect!). The ebook is currently out while the paperback should be dropping any day (or even hour) now.

For those of you wondering when my next full-length, non-collaborative novel will be out, you only have to make it until December:

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