Seeking Asylum

OutlastAmnesia1In an event best classified as an anomaly, two first-person, weaponless horror games released a week apart. The newcomer Outlast had first dibs, and plopped players in a not-so-abandoned asylum with a battery-guzzling camcorder as their only line of defense. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs sets its sights in the midst of the Industrial Age, where its “hero” chases after his sons in the bowels of an unfriendly mansion.

It took me a while to run through both (horror fan or not, it’s hard to deal with that much tension over long stretches of time), and while I had a grand old time with their crippling fear, I couldn’t help but notice they lacked a certain something. A Machine for Pigs undermines its fantastic, dread-filled plot by tossing together enemies that shift from frightening to aggravating in the latter half of the game. Outlast never met a contrived “throw three switches to advance” situation it didn’t love, and Miles Upshur’s quest for answers takes a decidedly goofy turn as it reveals the nature of “Project Walrider”. With both games fresh on my mind, it became clear that each perfected what the other lacked.

A Machine for Pigs focuses almost exclusively on the story it wants to tell and the grim contraptions built to house it. Page after page of macabre prose is strewn across desks or tucked into drawers, slowly revealing a tantalizing narrative that rivals the best digital terrors. By ignoring the plot, most horror developers believe the player’s fortitude will be enough to encourage completion, but the number of unfinished titles on my shelf suggests otherwise. A Machine for Pigs isn’t content with threadbare motivation, and The Chinese Room plant a hunger for resolution and knowledge so fierce that even when the tension was at its worst, I found myself darting further into the depths of the machine.

AmnesiaOutlast2Outlast does its best to hide the lack of an interesting plot by crafting a rogue’s gallery of dangerous patients that never hesitate to get up close and personal. The scenarios often boil down to throwing a few switches or collecting items to advance, but until you’ve completed these rudimentary tasks, you’re trapped in HIS territory. These murderous thugs have a knack for sniffing you out during your most vulnerable moments, and nothing quite compares to the moment when the night vision catches their eyes glinting back at you. Even hiding spots aren’t guaranteed sanctuary; as they stop directly in front of the mattress you’re under, you can only pray that they don’t decide to take a quick peek and snatch you from temporary safety.

At their core, the two contemporaries strive to solve the same problem that plagues every horror game: how do you scare the player? A Machine for Pigs hitches its wagon to the imagination’s latent ability to fill in the blanks, and uses the power of the written word and subtle visual cues to summon grotesque plugs for the holes. Outlast loves visceral edge-of-your-seat scares, never failing to place players in the midst of clear and certain danger. These approaches are fine, but neglecting the other elements of a good fright makes for a lopsided experience. It’s all too easy to ruin hours of build-up and release when you leave one wall of the room unpainted.

OutlastAmnesia3If we strapped the two games to a gurney and nefariously stitched them together, what would we have? Ideally, this by-product of mad science would involve the quiet exploration of a twisted mystery, peppered with just the right moments of absolute fear to act as a release valve for the pent-up tension. To avoid placing players in a familiar rut, these encounters would occur at irregular intervals and skip the usual “tells” that doom is approaching (the musical cues and metered pace of a slasher film are equally tiresome when stapled into an interactive environment). Running into the dreaded enemy doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyable, but it should avoid aggravating the player at all costs. Nothing destroys a good scare quite like fumbling with unresponsive or confusing controls.

Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs do just fine on their own, but their dedication to a few key elements dismisses the cohesiveness necessary to take a great game and make it fantastic. With the right elbow grease and attention to detail, an intrepid developer could take the lessons learned from both titles and craft an adventure that ensures every light in the house will burn brightly for the next month.