Talking Outlast, Alien: Isolation and more: stress as entertainment

When people think about what they want to do on their free time, not a lot of people jump to the idea of being pinned down to a chair for hours stressed out and on edge. Yet, the success of horror movies and games in general proves that there is a significant part of the population that would easily devote hours of their daily lives to being stressed out and annoyed by being put in unusual and often discomforting situations. Of course, horror can have many faces, but its prime intention is to explore the areas of human comprehension that do not excite the most joyful and relaxing emotions. Disturbing imagery, psychological horror, gore, darkness, monsters, violence, death; there are plenty of areas for horror to sneak into, mix up the bowl and create a unique experience for the viewer. With this wide range of possibilities to explore, different ranges of responses are expected from the viewer. A movie like Paranormal Activity* wants to keep you on edge waiting for the next jumpscare, while a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wants to torture you mentally with the idea of stumbling into a situation where you’re being mercilessly chased by a blood-thirsty maniac with a chainsaw. The successful The Exorcist is all about the psychological toll of having a child possessed by a demon, while The Shining combines the common fear of being trapped in a location haunted by sickly ghosts and an psychologically unstable father. Pure stress is not necessarily the end goal of horror; arguably, a lot of times horror is about dragging mundane characters through the worst and inciting some sort of epiphany in the viewer, often leaving a deeply rooted impression in them long after they turn off the movie or game and move on with their lives. Movies like Martyrs and Hereditary do not have the frantic pacing of Evil Dead or the Saw franchise, but their slow descent into madness, unwinding characters to their breakpoint, is what really sells their genre of horror, and are more likely to leave a deep scar. It is arguable that it is underlying stress that guides all those different genres; after all, being grossed out by the themes presented in The Human Centipede certainly can stress any sane person out. However, certain subgenres of horror have the final goal of increasing your stress levels all throughout the experience and this pattern becomes increasingly evident in horror games. The question is then raised: what is the appeal of experiencing stress as a form of entertainment?

The year is 2010 and an indie horror game is making its way to YouTube’s spotlight: Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It was the very beginning of gaming channels on YouTube, and horror gaming itself didn’t have much of a niche outside of famous YouTube’s hoping on the train of playing the latest jumps care horror fest everybody was talking about. Up until that point, horror in gaming had its strongest share of the market concentrated in survivor horror franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill and action horror thrillers like F.E.A.R. and Dead Space. Survivor horror, however, was slowly dying, with franchises like Resident Evil incorporating more and more action elements and abandoning its survival roots and Silent Hill being abandoned after a series of disappointing games and bad decision-making on the publisher’s part. Smaller names like Fatal Frame and Clock Tower had been abandoned in the PlayStation One/PlayStation 2 era, with Xbox 360’s and PlayStation 3’s shiny graphics being reserved for games like Call of Duty and Crysis. Horror was trying to find its ground again, and it found it on another gaming platform: PC.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent wasn’t an entirely new concept. It borrowed its creepy atmosphere from its predecessors and its themes and monster design from literature like Lovecraft. What Amnesia did that no other successful and well-known game had done so far was strip away any sort of combat and defending mechanism from the game and focus solely on the main character’s mental state while trying to survive an impossible situation. Even in classic survival horror games like Resident Evil or Silent Hill, while there was much more care for ambience and managing supplies while exploring the environment and trying to piece puzzles together to escape, the main character was often in possession of fireweapons with enough access to ammo, or of equally effective handheld weapons that made facing combat unavoidable and many times effective. In Amnesia: The Dark Descent, there are no weapons. Combat is out of the question, and all the character can do is run and hide. It is precise this kind of yet unexplored possibility that caused a revolution in horror gaming, and spawned some of the most successful franchises to date. There was a whole new genre to be explored where constant stress and fear of moving forward was the ultimate payoff, and even after the hype of playing such games in the dark while screaming constantly at a camera for YouTube to see died off, the genre continued to gain attention and grow, finally capturing the interest of Triple A studios. In 2019, almost ten years after the release of Amnesia, people still want to sit down for hours on end in front of a screen and be stressed out while trying to escape with no other options for the main character other than run and hide.

While Amnesia paved the way for “true” or “raw” survival horror, it can be argued that it’s 2013’s Outlast that really sent the genre skyrocketing. Also coming from an indie studio, Outlast’s amazing graphic quality and superb environment and creature design was a hallmark for horror games, with its impact arguably at the same level of praised franchises from earlier decades**. Outlast didn’t hesitate in taking the concepts presented in Amnesia (and other releases like Penumbra and Slender) and expanding on them, while shamelessly cranking up the volume on the stress level. With just a camera in hand, the main character sets off to explore an abandoned asylum, and it doesn’t take the player too long to realize that was terrible idea, and one that will take the highest levels of stress to get through.

Outlast doesn’t simply scare the player with more gore and better graphics. It is the constant feeling of helplessness, of being constantly in danger, never knowing what is going to pop up around the next corner, that keeps the stress levels high. Outlast rarely lets the player slow down and breathe, with monsters lurking around every corner, impossibly dark environments where the camera becomes the player’s most important ally and prime source of stress, given that it is limited by the amount of batteries the player has in their inventory, and hostile environments that are made to make the player’s life a lot harder, as the character has to crawl through tight spots, shimmy around narrow passages and calmly slide over ledges, never knowing if their next step is going to trigger a completely self-destructive response from the room they’re currently in. Outlast tops it off by offering a great amount of dark imagery that has the player wondering just what the hell they’re looking at, at the same time realizing they don’t want to look at it any longer. Aligned with a cliché story about an abandoned asylum where a seemingly evil corporation conducted horrifying experiments with its interns, Outlast goes the step further no other major release wanted to take. People want to be scared, and for hours on end. They want to be grossed out, stressed out, worn out until they can’t take it anymore. R-rated horror, when well-made, sells. And it didn’t take too long before other developers realized it.

2014 saw the release of major horror titles like Alien: Isolation and The Evil Within, and the influence of previous indie titles of this new era of survivor horror were undeniable. The Evil Within was seen as a spiritual successor to Resident Evil, a series that had gone off-rails with its disappointing sixth installment and was trying to get back on its feet with its Revelations spin-offs. The Evil Within brought back dark corridors and blood splatters and creepy imagery, but it still relied on a combat system to move forward. The Evil Within took the basic concept of Outlast, the underlying motive for the story to exist – a company or individual experimenting with humans to create a shared consciousness by connecting their minds together – and took it in another direction, going for a more dream-like experience with expansive environments and unpredictable characters and situations, in contrast to Outlast’s very raw, down-to-earth world of impossibilities.

Alien: Isolation was one of the most anticipated games of the year ever since the first screenshots and trailers started coming out. The last installment in the Alien franchise had been the extremely disappointing Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game with so many flaws that a lot of the fans of the series considered the franchise to be dead. Under the light of Colonial Marines’ astronomical failure, Alien: Isolation came out with amazing next-gen graphics, incredible voice acting and next level AI for the core mechanic of the game: the alien. Alien: Isolation deserves nothing but praise for the amount of care that was put into the developing the game, with great attention to details and making it extremely truthful to its original source of inspiration. Beyond the amazingly built environments that throw back to the original Alien aesthetic from the 70s, what really draws the player in is the interaction with the alien. The core mechanic of the game is trying to execute some task, like escape a series of rooms, fix a generator, retrieve an object, while at the same time trying to evade the haunting presence of the alien. Lockers and tables can be used as hiding spots, but the alien’s improved AI won’t leave the player alone, many times learning their patterns and hunting them down mercilessly. In the first encounters with the alien, the player has nothing more than a pistol to defend themselves, and soon learns that the weapon is useless against the enemy. In similar fashion to Outlast, as long as the alien is around, either patrolling the area where the player is in or crawling through the vents – where the game’s amazing sound design truly shines -, the stress levels of the player are supposed to be turned to max. Even in areas where the alien is not present, other enemies like the androids and armed hostile make sure that there is very little time to breathe for the player when trying to get something done. The simple act of pushing a button can be stressful, with enemies roaming the area and the alien dropping from the next vent at any moment.

If there is one thing to be said about Alien: Isolation, beyond its all-deserved praise, is that the game might have been too long for its own good. Towards the last third of the game, constant backtracking with little reward in executing tasks and slowed-down progress remove some of the true brilliance of its survival mechanics, making dealing with the androids or the alien cumbersome instead of challenging. Similarly, the introduction of the flamethrower, a weapon capable of slowing down the alien temporarily and diverting their attention from the player, take away some of the action tension from running into the alien. In the first encounter, the player is helpless and can only sneak around the creaure; towards the last encounter, the player can use several craftable items, as well as the flamethrower, to go up against the alien. It may not be the best strategy, and limited access to resources and ammo prevent the player from becoming an all-powerful presence against the creature, but the simple introduction of those mechanics make the game easier than intended. Outlast never gives the player any options – it only takes their options away, by making the player momentarily lose their camera or run out of batteries -, and therefore does a lot more to immerse the player in a world of increased heartbeat rates than Alien: Isolation, in its length and combined used of the alien and other enemies, ever can.

It is not yet confirmed if Alien:Isolation will have a sequel, but in 2017 the creators of Outlast released a well-deserved sequel, Outlast 2. Outlast 2 was supposed to be more intense, more dragged out, more extreme. It is arguable if that was achieved, but there is no question that the sequel tried really hard to crank up the levels yet again. Outlast 2’s combination of religious themes, with extreme gore, torture, incest, rape and paranormal phenomena, extending the game play duration in relation to the first installment, truly make up for an stressful experience that often has the player turning away from the game in order to calm down and gather themselves. Outlast 2 releases some of tensions in shorter dream-like sequences where the main character hallucinates with memories from his past, but even those sequences are not entirely stress-free. The second installment in the franchise goes in a different direction, but retains the core of what made the first one great: constant danger, low supplies and overbearing environments. Even with its flaws, Outlast 2 is just every bit as intense and stressful as its predecesor.

Taking into consideration the success of these games and the expanding market share of similar games, “stress as entertainment” certainly is a phenomen to be studied. After all, what is the appeal of sitting in front of a screen, in full control of a virtual character that is facing an absolutely horrendous situation with no easy escape, and you, the player, has to make the right decisions and face the horror to save the character and, by extension, yourself?

A straightforward answer would be that humans respond to different sensations, and regardless of them being positive or negative, it is already satisfying to feel something, to be engaged and to interact. Consuming content stimulates the brain, and the resulting sensations, either pleasant or not, at least serve to keep our minds entertained with something. Furthermore, studies suggest that horror fans actually feel pleasure from experiencing fear. Despite feeling stressed out and frightened, their minds respond positively to the experience, producing a plesant and fulfilling sensation. Similarly, other people might benefit from experience horror games by enjoying the sensation of relief that follows successfully escaping a stressful situation in a game or being rewarded by their bravery and courage. Even if the rewarding aspects of a game are scarce (like a bad ending where the hero doesn’t get any redemption, or all relatable characters in the story get punished or killed somehow), there is still entertainment to be found. If anything, horror games are about solving puzzles, and getting to the answer or the end is rewarding in itself. Many people felt that the ending of Outlast 2 or Alien: Isolation were not up to expectations; still, both games are highly rated and often deserving of being replayed by fans, since the overall experience is increasingly rewarding.

Beyond horror movies, horror games put the viewer, or the player, in an active role in the decision-making process of what’s unfolding on screen. Unlike a passive movie-goer that can only watch in frustration as the characters get hunted down by a monster or psychopath, the player being in control of their own actions make the experience much more real and tangible. Playing a horror game can be compared to a roller-coaster ride: it’s a thrill ride meant to cause extreme reactions or sensations, and to a considerable amount of the population the experience, or the resulting state of mind after completing the ride, can be seen as pleasant.

Horror is not going anywhere, as long as there are people who enjoy being scared; people who possess a morbid curiosity about the extreme of human condition; people who are looking for a thrill; and people who don’t get a lot of responses from other genres of entertainment. In that regard, raw survivor horror, where the player is completely helpless against everything else, should continue on as a much appreciated subgenre of horror. And hopefully, titles such as Outlast and Alien will continue to produce and inspire more and more pieces of same quality and level of entertainment.

*It is fair to mention that the first Paranormal Activity is much more a form of raw horror that appeals to the verossimility of the situation rather than cheap jumpscares, which became the brand’s selling point in later movies. While the first movie brings out the jumpscares, it is much more the “real life” aspect brought forth by the use of “found footage” that sells the movie.

**This affirmation deserves its dose of skepticism. Resident Evil and Silent Hill spawned several sequels, movie adaptations and other types of accompanying media. Even after twenty years, Resident Evil is still one of the most popular games series out there, and despite the downfall of Silent Hill, Kojima’s playable teaser for Silent Hills reveals that the series will have no issue getting back on track, should Konami ever decide to release a new game. In contrast, Outlast comes from an independent company and hasn’t managed to reach the extension and popularity that those previous games have, mainly for being much more violent and extreme, which highly reduces its mass appeal, while also being propped up by an indie developer. Still, by pushing the limits in an entirely new and unique way and presenting a game with such quality and care, Outlast deserves to be remembered as a hallmark for horror gaming, given how much it has influenced following titles, in particular from Triple A studios.