Outlast was one of the best and most disturbing surprises of 2013. A horror game made by a team of rockstar indie developers who had the courage to take "survival horror" to the most gruesome places imaginable, it salvaged the best ideas from torture porn flicks like Saw and brought them to gamers' screens in stunning detail. Whistleblower, a prequel that's out this week, continues developer Red Barrels' mission to "scare the shit out of you" but putting you in a giant haunted house with no ability to defend yourself and only the most distant hope of escape.The game takes this directive so literally that the new chapter begins with you, now playing as software engineer Waylon Park, drafting the email that first tipped off Outlast star Miles Upshur to go check out the creepy happenings at the Mount Massive asylum.
Things only go downhill from there. In a tightly framed two-to-three hour experience, Whistleblower confronts players with all the same frights and challenges they faced in their first tour through Mount Massive. There's nothing really new here; just more Outlast—a ruthlessly refined and uncannily detailed depiction of a terrifying situation. That can be a good or bad thing, depending on how you feel about these kinds of games.
Me? I'm of two minds. On one level, I admire the conviction that the Red Barrels team has to not shy away from the grotesque, graphic art of this game. But I also have a very low threshold for anything horror-related. As the visual fidelity of video games continues to improve, I can't help but wonder, as BuzzFeed's Joe Bernstein pointed out in a thoughtful review of Outlast, how much longer I'll be able to sit through these things.
I think that concern gets to the real beauty of Outlast—and, by extension, Whistleblower. Horror games are meant to scare you, obviously. But the challenge of a good horror game is learning how to overcome your fears. Ramping up the game's visceral terror only makes overcoming it feel all the more empowering.
To give an example: early in Whistleblower I encountered a loincloth-clad and blood drenched bearded lunatic who was in the process of disembowelling some poor soul with a buzz-saw. Once he saw me, he proceeded to stalk me through a series of harrowing, dimly lit rooms. My heart pounding so hard I could feel it in my throat, I inched fearfully around overturned tabled and shelves, jumping every time I heard the whirring sound that signalled my impending death.
Eventually, the buzz-saw-wielding maniac found me. And he killed me. Then he killed me again. And again. Finally, I realised after these repetitive disembowelling that yes, I was going to die many, many times in this game. But that wasn't such a bad thing. Once I realised that, I managed to summon up the courage to plunge ever deeper into the shadowy corners of this man's lair until I finally found the key I needed to get the hell out of there.
And then once I found it, I turned around to see buzz-saw man standing right behind me. And, well, you can probably guess what happened next.
Games this scary operate on a kind of spicey-food mentality: you push your limits an inch at a time until you're able to stomach something you never knew you were able to. I was only able to play Outlast in the smallest of doses—standing up from my desk trembling every time I managed to sneak past another unsightly monster and advance to the next stage. In comparison, I blew through Whistleblower in a single sitting. My heart was still pounding the entire time, mind you. But at least after escaping buzz-saw man, I was able to grit me teeth and head into the next challenge.
The problem here is that once one has built the requisite endurance to meet these challenges, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep shocking the player in the same way. Outlast managed to do this with a varied series of levels that continued to surprise me at every turn. Whistleblower mimics Outlast's structure, but it also truncates it, which forces the developers to rely on shock value more often than they should.
Thing is: being forced to sit through your own gruesome mutilation and torture only works so many times. I don't want to spoil anything, but Whistleblower still managed to surprise me even as it relied on the same tropes from the original game.
I doubt they'll work a third time, though. Plus, the Red Barrels team is too talented to keep hitting the same notes over and over again anyways. Hopefully now that they're done with the Outlast saga, they can move on to stories that are more narratively disturbing and psychologically haunting than a pure adrenaline rush like this. They mastered the Saw experience. Now let's see what they could do with The Shining.