Creating Suspense in Video Games: An Outlast Case Study

Before the launch of the first installment of the game in 2013, Red Barrels was just another indie developing company from Quebec, Canada. However, when Outlast was finally released, the positive feedback from fans and critics launched the company into...

To celebrate the release of the highly anticipated sequel to the series, let’s take a look at how the game utilizes suspense to elevate the horror genre to new levels. Before the launch of the first installment of the game in 2013, Red Barrels was just another indie developing company from Quebec, Canada. However, when Outlast was finally released, the positive feedback from fans and critics launched the company into the limelight, on par with big, successful developers.

Perhaps the game’s popularity can be pinpointed to the fact Outlast is not just another run-of-the-mill survivor horror game. Instead of relying solely on jumpscares, which Outlast still has plenty of, there are several factors that differentiates the series from other games. But before we begin delving into the features of the game, let’s discuss about the concept of suspense as a literary device.

In a nutshell, the element of suspense is an intense feeling we experience when waiting for the outcome of certain events. A writer can create suspense through many things including the title, plot, word choice, and characters. Usually, suspense is created through cliffhangers or plot twists. But how do you translate all this into a video game?


Engrossing (and Gross) Plot

One of the most obvious reasons why Outlast is so well-received is because of its riveting and gruesome plot. The general premise of the first installment centers around the controllable protagonist who was trapped in an asylum when trying to investigate a news lead. The plot makes it clear that the protagonist, and hence the player, will have to go through a series of agonizing torture and succumb to pain in order to survive. In turn, the players learn how to face and withstand gory obstacles (like losing a finger) with no other way around it.

For instance, in the DLC Whistleblower, another main character has to face an insane man with the desire to perform his own reassignment surgery on the asylum’s men patients. Even if you don’t believe in the sci-fi aspect of the series’ plot, you will surely get the creeps from the fact that crazy, mutilating people can exist in the real world.


Limited Capabilities

Unlike other popular horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill where the players can defend themselves, Outlast makes the game more realistic and suspenseful by limiting the protagonist’s fighting abilities. Let’s face it, not everybody can fight like Leon S. Kennedy, especially not a mere investigative journalist like the main character. Instead of busting his way out of the mental institution guns a-blazing, the protagonist can only hide or by avoiding and running away from the antagonists.

There are certain techniques players can do in order to survive from the opponents. Players can peak through the doorframe, crawl under beds, hide in tiny lockers, and in the sequel, players can use the camera’s microphone to detect the opponents.


Scouring in the Dark

Things are truly scarier in the dark and maybe this is why most horror games (or horror anything) usually takes place at night. From a realistic perspective, anyone’s vision during the night won’t be as strong as it is in the daylight. No matter how strong or bright one’s flashlight is, one still won’t be able to see everything clearly. Outlast makes use of this factor to create more suspense.

While the character is not equipped with torches or flashlights, he does have his handy-dandy cam recorder with built-in night vision. The night vision’s green effect makes going through a creepy mansion full of insane patients more terrifying. And if the players use the night vision for too long, the battery will slowly run out and the only way to solve this is to pay special attention to batteries laying around throughout the mansion and collect them.


Wicked Twists and Turns

In most horror games, an exit sign doesn’t always signal the end of your scary journey. This is the case with Outlast’s gameplay; once you’ve reached the exit, it doesn’t mean you can easily escape the hellish place. There were many moments in the game where the main character would pass by an exit sign but it is often locked or blocked by the enemies. You have to find your own way out through the ceilings, hidden doors, and players need to finish mini puzzles.

Your journey will sometimes be hindered by the enemies who can take you hostage and take you even further from the exit. Like previously mentioned, players need to sit through bloody and intense cut scenes like being captured and losing a finger, being almost mutilated, or dropping the camera so you will have a hard time maneuvering through the dark. This elongates the gameplay period and will urge the players to continuously try to escape without the possibility of them getting bored.


It Spooks Your Psyche

Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Penumbra, Layers of Fear all have one thing in common with Outlast. These games appeal to your psychological fears to evoke suspense and tension. In the midst of all the zombie and sci-fi horror video games like SOMA and Dead Space, this type of horror subgenre gives avid gamers a sense of variety. No matter how well-constructed the jumpscares are, space monsters and the undead just doesn’t cut it anymore. However, games like Outlast uses realistic factors like darkness and a game (unintentional) hide and seek to spook the players even more.


What Developers Can Take Away

What Red Barrel did right with the Outlast series is that they created the perfect scenario, plot, characterization, and setting and used them to their advantage. Looking at the premise of the sequel, which takes place in a remote farm in the middle of the desert, Outlast 2 uses the same formula while bringing new elements to the game. Instead of a medical experiment gone wrong, the main issue of the sequel is facing a religious cult thirsty for blood sacrifices.


Creating video games is hard and making successful video games is even harder. For developers, especially independent companies, what you can take away from Outlast’s success is this: you can always create suspense using different methods but it’s just how you implement it that matters.


This post was written by Febriani Ramadhanya from iPrice group.

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