Autumn is officially here, and with it comes autumn colors, pumpkin flavored goodies, and of course everything horrifying with Halloween being this month’s holiday. I’ve been watching horror movies, enjoying some spooky literature, and indulging in ghost stories on YouTube, but no other media can bring on the scares like horror games can. They’re immensely immersive and require player interaction so that the player really feels as if they’re facing off against some insurmountable horror or beast in the dark depths of the unknown. If you play horror games on the regular, chances are you’ve run into some which are less effective and some which are just all-around bad.
However, I’m willing to bet that people with even the slightest bit of gross curiosity in horror games know Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Red Barrels’ Outlast, largely considered to be the most horrifying experiences games have to offer. Having played both titles, I can guarantee that both are more than sufficiently spooky, but Outlast just fails to reach the horrifying heights of Amnesia. Fans of horror might argue that Outlast and Amnesia are the horror game genre’s top dogs, but I’m here to argue why Amnesia does it better, and by quite a margin.
Let’s start by taking a look at the ambience of both Outlast and Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Ambience is all of the parts put together that create a game’s atmosphere. Generally, dark, gritty settings make the best places for horror games to be set, and Amnesia and Outlast both nail this easily. However, here I focus on sound because it tends to be the aspect of ambience which is the easiest to get wrong. Both titles do a good job with subtle sounds made to make the player question what they’re up against in the dark. Little sounds like creaking floorboards, windy whistles, and monstrous moans absolutely drive a player mad with dastardly possibilities, making them strain to hear through the sounds for something more telling or fooling them into believing that the monster is never too far off.
It is exactly this false sense of presence that Amnesia does so right. No matter where the player is, there are always sounds in the distance giving a sense of the monstrous inhabitants. Sure, there’s your usual creaks and windy gusts, but there’s also footsteps on the floor above you that seem to make dust fall from the rafters, moans of some tortured soul in the distance, and the sounds of chains rattling in a dark dungeon. Most importantly, however, each monster’s appearance is accompanied by a sound cue. These audio cues are distinguishable from the rest and instill fear in the player whenever they happen. The most common enemy gives a low growl as it appears from around a dark corner or as it rips open a previously locked door. Another type roars and drags chains as it walks. These sounds are effective indicators to the player to head for safety, but they also amplify the scary ambience. They become the sounds the player fears the most, straining to listen for them within the other ambient noises. Sometimes, there are sounds so similar they make you freeze and question what’s there to trick you and what’s there to save you.
Outlast, while still having effective sound design, simply doesn’t do as well as Amnesia in this regard. Mount Massive Asylum is obviously inhabited by some intense characters, but there are many times when the place feels empty. Outlast, unlike Amnesia, doesn’t play up its quiet parts, instead letting them be relatively silent. It’s only when any real danger is around that the silence is broken, usually accompanied by the enemy’s sounds and loud music. And while some places in the asylum aren’t silent, the ambience usually feels generic and not indicative of the game’s dangerous inhabitants. What this does is take away from the game’s attempt to scare. Sure, lulling your player into a false sense of security is a viable method when the monster eventually emerges, but this becomes predictable when overused. Amnesia uses this method just once, creating a false sense of security through ambience and music, only to strip it brutally away, resulting in one of my favorite scares of the game. Rather than feeling predictable and overused, it plays to Amnesia‘s strengths in that the player is never safe, never truly alone in Brennenburg. There’s no sense of a constant presence of danger in Outlast, and so, the approaching danger becomes predictable before ever encountering the monster. The lack of intense ambient sounds weakens the monstrous, stales the setting, and dulls the player’s immersion.
The monster is the most obvious aspect of horror present in both Outlast and Amnesia. In my time as a college undergraduate, I read many theories on what makes an effective monster when studying horror, but none seemed as well thought out as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses). If you’ve never stumbled across this particular text, it’s well worth the read. The point in his theses that stuck with me the most was how the monster is scary because it borders on the unknown. The monster shouldn’t ever be fully understood, but it also shouldn’t be so unknowable that it escapes meaning. It should sit somewhere in the middle and only ever move further away as more is known about it, making it so that it always just escapes any sort of categorization, keeping it on the mind of the one encountering it. I kept Cohen’s writing in mind every time I’ve read something about monsters or horror in general, but I’ve applied it to great effect in horror games as well.
One thing I love about Amnesia is how slow and foreboding the beginning is. Creepy things happen and the ambient noises I talked about previously make the player question if they’re really alone. Along the way, Daniel discovers a few unsettling letters about what’s really happened in Brennenburg, but none are ever very specific about results. There are a few sighting of monsters eventually, but they quickly disappear into the misty dark. This acts to dangle the danger in front of the player, suggesting that they be prepared for a true encounter and strengthening the sense of inhabitants given by the ambience. Once they become real threats the game encourages the player not to look at them. This means that the monster is left largely unseen if players want to avoid being attacked. However, this isn’t the only time Amnesia obscures its monsters.
The most obvious example of an unseen monster is the Kaernk, better known simply as “the water monster.” The monster is invisible and only exposes itself as it splashes through the water toward the player. This encounter makes the player question its existence as they move safely over the water on crates and barrels, but the moment a misstep is made the monster is made unmistakably real with a roar and a watery rush toward its prey. Amnesia toys with the unseen, using it in conjunction with the ambience to make the player question how well they know the monster. However, while the player is encouraged not to look at some monsters and simply cannot see others, Amnesia has one more monster up its sleeve that’ll make any player feel uneasy at best.
Rather than avoidance or invisibility, it’s the lack of sight that becomes the most prevalent monster in Amnesia. Yes, I’m talking about the very darkness that engulfs the player from the game’s beginning. The scattered notes I mentioned before talk of a living creature known only as “the shadow,” a creature of darkness that is said to be in constant pursuit of Daniel. By personifying (or monsterfying) the very darkness of Brennenburg, every dark room or corridor becomes more dreadful. The player is urged into the darkness to progress, forced blindly into it when being chased, and Daniel is gnawed at by insanity when left without light. By hinting at darkness being a monstrous force that the player has to overcome, the setting itself becomes monstrous while the player delves ever deeper toward the inner sanctum.
Outlast‘s monsters’ first disadvantage is that they’re human. Some take on more fantasy aspects, but for the most part, the inhabitants at Mount Massive are the patients the asylum took in. The argument could be made that Outlast‘s monsters are closer to reality, and therefore pose more horrific possibilities. However, because the monsters are recognizably human, the player already has assigned human limitations and, therefore, know what to expect from each encounter. When the monster is a creature we’re unfamiliar with, the monstrous possibilities are only limited by the player’s imagination, an imagination made wild by darkness and fear.
However, the real issue with the monsters in Outlast is how well known each monster/monstrous encounter is allowed to become. There are many safe encounters of Mount Massive’s inhabitants which let the player have a closer look at what they’re up against. Like the monster being held back by limitations because they’re human, this sort of encounter pushes the monster further into the known, thus further lessening the unknown possibilities in the player’s mind. At this point, even if the monster does something unexpected, the player no longer feels the constant fear of the unknown and will simply act on their preexisting assumptions while any surprises will be added to the set of expectations.
This categorizing is made worse by the fact that, in Outlast, each monstrous encounter is pushed onto the player until they escape. This might seem obvious in a video game where the objective is to escape the monstrous, but it ignores the goal of horror as a genre, that is, the goal of horrifying the player. Amnesia sacrifices its objective as a game for its effectiveness as a genre by putting horror first. If an encounter with a monster from Amnesia gives the player too much difficulty, most monsters will not respawn and the player can progress freely. It’s not because the game is taking pity on the player, as some may think, but rather that the developers realized that forcing the player to deal with the monster subtracts from its effectiveness to scare. It removes the feeling of horror associated with the monster by taking the player out of their immersion and making the player feel frustrated with an enemy in a game rather than scared of a monster. Outlast excels at creating frustration rather than horror because it never lets monster encounters go. A player needs only to hide in a locker a few times to discover that the monster will always open the wrong locker if you weren’t spotted, transforming monster into AI and scripts. A few chase sequences is all that’s required to become frustrated with the monster on your trail when unable to find any clear method of escape.
Lastly, I’ll talk briefly about how the setting comes into play in each of these games, as setting is largely responsible for effective horror and because Outlast and Amnesia handle their settings very differently. Their settings are vastly different with Amnesia being set in the past in a dark castle plagued with a sort of dark magic both inside and out. Meanwhile, Outlast takes place in modern day in an abandoned asylum were dastardly experiments took place. Both of these settings are perfectly fine for horror, and I won’t be making the argument that the time in which a horror game is set hinders horror in any way. However, I’ll put forward the argument that one is more believably inescapable and that the way in which Amnesia and Outlast handle their respective settings shows more of an understanding of horror and thematic unity in Amnesia than in Outlast.
Previously, I touched briefly on how Amnesia uses its monsterfied darkness to create a sense of a monstrous setting. With darkness being a monstrous force, Brennenburg’s very rooms become monstrous maws for the player to be swallowed by. Brennenburg is, in its nature, a dimly lit castle at best with torches and lamps being the only available source of light. However, these torches have gone out in their neglect, forcing the player to either move through the darkness to light their way or to be plunged into darkness altogether. The resources to light the rooms of Brennenburg can be sparse which eventually forces the player to venture into the darkness. Amnesia‘s overarching goal is to descend into a place called the inner sanctum which, as the game’s full title would suggest, drags the player down into ever darker depths of Brennenburg.
The darkness, however, leaves it’s physical touches on Brennenburg as well. red fungus-like blisters sprout in its wake, and these fungal blisters grow around the castle to keep the player from escaping. Indeed, there are hints of Brennenburg’s surrounding forests being haunted and the country around the castle is so vast and empty that it’s more likely that Daniel would be chased down and killed or go mad before escaping Brennenburg. This pushes the plot as it seems that Daniel’s only hope of escaping Brennenburg is by facing the darkness and going deeper into Brennenburg to defeat Alexander. This gives the player a clear sense of why they cannot simply leave Brennenburg through the front door or one of its many windows.
While descending into Brennenburg it feels as if the very castle works against your progress, thus strengthening that feeling of never being truly alone in the castle. Occasionally, unexplained tremors create blockages that the player must either destroy or get around. Usually, this drives the player into more harrowing situations with Brennenburg’s monsters. It’s as if Brennenburg itself works with the monsters to stop you from reaching the inner sanctum. However, from a design standpoint, Brennenburg is made with guiding the player through its many corridors toward their objectives in mind. Doors that are locked are usually only locked to guide the player elsewhere before the doors eventually unlock or are ripped to shreds by an advancing monster. Nearly every room is made accessible eventually, making Brennenburg feel more like a practical place rather than a level in a video game. Amnesia pits the very stone of Brennenburg against you, but it’s done in such a way that the player is guided through the game without becoming lost and, therefore, frustrated enough to no longer feel horrified.
Outlast‘s Mount Massive Asylum feels void of the life that Brennenburg has. But while I feel like creating this sense of an alive, monstrous setting adds a great amount in the way of effective horror, I don’t think that an alive setting and a strong sense of horror are mutually constitutive, that is, I don’t think an alive setting is needed for horror to be effective but that it adds quite a bit of effectiveness. That being said, I still have a few issues with believability in Outlast‘s setting.
My first issue is that Mount Massive Asylum seems more escapable than the game leads the player to believe. Sometimes, it’s as if the only thing hindering the player from escaping the asylum and at least getting outside are a few boarded up windows. Surly these wouldn’t be too difficult to remove with the amount of resources scattered around each area. I do love how the open entrance door to the asylum is teased to the player, but it only makes me question how hard it would be to actually escape the asylum. There are sections where the player finds themselves outside in the yards of the asylum, but there are no ways to go over, under, or cut through the chain fence? In a setting where everything is falling apart and filled with holes? Moreover, the beginning of the game has the player willingly entering the asylum through an open window. All these things come together to make me feel as if the asylum isn’t as secure as it seems. Miles Upshur’s only driving force into the asylum is that he’s a reporter, and so I don’t get a sense that there’s anything keeping him there once the danger is apparent when possibilities for escape seem abundant.
My second issue with Outlast‘s setting is a matter of design. I mentioned previously that monsters become less scary when encountering them becomes frustrating, and the setting is a large contributor of this. Chase sequences can be particularly annoying when your setting is riddled with dead end hallways and blocked doors. In my time with Outlast, I found that I had to retry chase sequences at least a few times before I figured out where the game wanted me to go. In most cases, this was a result of lack of clarity in level design rather than my own inability to escape. In one instance, The chase was set up in such a way where the intended path was made obvious but the actual opening to escape through was not, making me try other doors which turned out to be blocked. This transformed the monster into just another enemy in a game to be annoyed with, but it extended into the setting as well. Even when there are no monstrous encounters, Mount massive Asylum is difficult to navigate. Unlike Amnesia‘s Brennenburg, many doors in Outlast‘s Mount Massive Asylum never become accessible, creating disbelief that the setting could be a real asylum with real dangers. Instead, it’s made painfully obvious that Mount Massive Asylum is a setting in a video game; a level made for the player to avoid dangerous NPCs by hiding in the locker the NPC isn’t scripted to look in or platforming to safety all while heading toward the game’s eventual end objective.
These are my thoughts on why Amnesia makes for a better horrifying experience than Outlast, but I’ve met quite a few people who would disagree. Regardless, I still think Amnesia and Outlast are two of the best horror experiences gaming has to offer, and I urge you to experience them for yourselves sometime. Feel free to let us know what you think makes effective horror or point out anything I may have missed in the comments below!