Games, like any medium in existence, require careful thought on their pacing.
Good pacing is necessary in pretty much every type of entertainment. From how many explosions are occurring per minute in an action movie, to how a mystery is unravelling in a sleuthing book, it’s all a matter of making sure your audience is getting what they need when they need it. Games in particular need a great deal of planning to ensure that the ebb and flow of gameplay is developing/changing at a rate that remains interesting. Even a short game is a fairly long commitment of time for a consumer and requires a much more direct input from the ‘audience’ than most other mediums. To that end, you need to make sure you’re holding your player’s attention through pretty much every step of the way. On the other side of the argument, you need to make sure you’re not overwhelming your audience or rushing through things at too rapid a pace. Like many things, good pacing requires balance.
In no other type of game is this more evident and more required than in a horror game. Horror is an element that isn’t the easiest to quantify, but (perhaps appropriately) much like comedy, a pretty large part of executing a good horror product is all about timing. Just throwing jump-scares at a player unendingly is a trait that I’d assign more to a ‘thriller’ or something of that nature. Genuinely good horror lets the player feel the tension in the air and the general creepiness of a locale, maybe without anything popping up at all. The pacing of a good horror game knows when it’s the right time to build suspense and when to scare the heck out of the player but also knows when they have to let the player just wander around without too much suspense holding them back: Giving the player time to breathe just means that they have more breath to lose when you go in for the sucker punch.
Outlast 2 is a very particular example of how to handle pacing, and it’s pretty well executed. The game starts out really slowly: While you are creeping through dilapidated fields and houses occupied by insane and religious rednecks, it feels oddly underwhelming. The environments are wide, and the enemies telegraph their positions with their flashlights, making it fairly easy to sneak around them. And while the game’s newest stalking brute, Marta, is actually incredibly intimidating, she appears only infrequently. There’s no doubt that discovering all of the atrocities that the residents of Temple Gate regularly commit is an unsettling affair, but so far the journey is no worse than the events of the first Outlast game.
But then something odd starts to occur. There was a small segment right at the start of the game wherein Blake (the main character) has some kind of nightmare-affected flashback of his days back in the fourth grade at his creepy Catholic school. Not only do these weird flashbacks start to occur much more frequently, but they start to become much more actively dangerous and disquieting. And then, just when you think it can’t get much worse, the horror that’s been chasing you through the school appears in reality…
The game really does start to become relentless in utilising this aspect. The trips to the school start off being pretty rare and, while highly disturbing, are also completely without threat. But before you really realize it, you’re slipping into the school at least once in every section of the game, and suddenly its hallowed halls are home to the game’s most disturbing and dangerous enemy. At that point, the only breaks you really have are in those quiet moments spent staggering down both the real world and school’s various passages and routes, and even then you’re on edge and scared that something could be waiting for you around every corner. And all the while, it’s becoming harder and harder to determine what exactly is and isn’t real anymore.
It should be too much: The pace is aggressive, and you’re barely finished reeling from one trip through the school’s shadowed corridors before you’re being thrown right back into it, but it actually works really well. By the time you reach this point in the game, Blake’s personal monologues and mutterings are starting to become increasingly unhinged and unfocused, as if he’s starting to lose his grip on reality. The rapid change of locations helps to sell the player on this disorientated and confused portrayal and probably makes them empathise with it.
What should be a ‘too rapid for its own good’ kind of pacing ends up working more effectively, since the game actually restrained itself in the beginning hours of the playthrough. It feels like the pacing is ramping up appropriately alongside the story and events of the game and is indeed tied directly into the mental state of the main character. It was definitely worth having that opening part of the game be slightly weaker in the long term, since it makes the second half of the game feel much more unsettling, stronger and memorable because of it.
What’s interesting is that the first Outlast game did something very much in the same vein, but it didn’t work nearly as well. As you make your way around the asylum, you begin to notice some kind of shadowy…thing is creeping around, phasing through walls and doors. The main character of that game likewise begins to question if he’s just going insane, but it actually turns out that there’s a logical (?) explanation for all of it. It turns out that Murkoff Corporation, continuing the proud tradition of all morally black companies in video games, were running a secret underground lab, wherein they were attempting to create a super-ghost-soldier. Or something. It’s around this point in the game wherein all of the other antagonists are dead, dying, simply gone or perhaps escaped, and now the only antagonist left is the ghost of the ‘Walrider.’
This should be scary, since he can phase through objects and will relentlessly chase you for the final stretch of the game, but it ends up feeling oddly out of touch. What made the rest of Outlast so terrifying was how unpredictable and unknowable the ‘Varients’ (the in-game term for the asylum’s patients) were. When you crept past a guy jittering in a corridor, you were never sure if he was going to stand up and try and kill you, or if he was just content to smash his head against the concrete wall he was coiled up next to. While a crazy ghost murder is certainly an escalation, all of the underground lab stuff makes me think of games like Resident Evil. That kind of stuff works for RE because of its kind of campy and over-the-top presentation making it closer to a thriller-style horror. Resident Evil is scary but in a more explosive and action-oriented fashion compared to the more understated and unnerving horror that Outlast was employing before it got to the labs.
Outlast 2’s use of physiological horror, meanwhile, feels like it’s very much playing to the developer’s strengths and is more tonally consistent with the rest of the game. The true horror of Outlast 1 and 2 was always in the human element: The fact that humans could lose their minds to such a degree that they could wantonly slaughter each other was the scariest thing in the first game, and fact they didn’t even need that reason was the most unsettling thing in the second. If Red Barrels decide to make an Outlast 3 at any point, I hope they focus more on the elements and ideas that they employed in the second game rather than the first, even if Outlast 1 is still a fine example of a really good horror game.
In any case, if there’s one thing to take from the Outlast games, it’s that horror is not easy or simple to pace out and that Red Barrels deserve at least some props for showing an even better understanding of it in their second game. So that’s one thing to take away from the experience, alongside a new deep-seated fear of asylums, schools, and your fellow human beings.