Starting today, you can play Outlast 2, a game meant to scare the pants off you, without worrying so much about dying. Nearly a year after release, and two major changes later, Outlast 2 has made peace with what it’s calling Story Mode.
Most horror games are stuck in a design paradox. As part of a genre that traditionally atmosphere and surprise, it’s susceptible to boring players through repetition. Take a chase scene, for example. In the ideal scenario, the player sprints through a series of corridors, barely edging away from the monster tracking them, and escapes—barely. What often happens, though, is you don’t survive, are forced to play the sequence a half dozen times, and when you finally succeed, the relief is from exasperation.
This was especially true for Outlast 2, the sequel to 2013’s surprise horror hit. Both games have players wandering creepy environments with a single tool: a night vision camera. It remains a personal favorite, and few gaming moments have been as genuinely terrifying as sprinting from an enemy and hiding underneath a rickety bed, as they hunt you down. When they gave up and moved on, you breathed a sigh of relief. When you screwed up, it was scary the first time, but frustrating every time after.
Outlast 2 was a more ambitious game, but one that didn’t fully reckon with this problem, and Outlast 2 made a critical change. In the first game, players could easily run away from enemies and hide without much consequence. In Outlast 2, however, enemies were likely to kill you, if you weren’t smart about your choices.
This resulted in players and critics issuing a common refrain: Outlast 2 is terrifying, buuuuut. That buuuuut was enough for developer Red Barrels to completely rebalance Outlast 2 only a few weeks after launch. In an interview with me from last year, they cited complaints pushing them to “ensure players are encouraged to play until the end.” At the time, Red Barrels blamed the game’s lack of playtesting. Internally, there hadn’t been enough data suggesting Outlast 2 was too difficult.
The original patch, the developers told me, was aimed at roughly 20% of players who were having problems They figured the problem was solved. It wasn’t.
“It seemed to make things better for a lot of people,” said Red Barrels co-founder and senior game designer Philippe Morin to me recently, “but after a few months, we noticed there were still some people who wanted to experience the game with little challenge or without any.”
Thus, Story Mode.
“We read from several players that they couldn’t put together all the pieces of the story because we were always putting pressure on them and they didn’t have time to absorb the narrative,” he said. “That’s why we called it ‘Story Mode’ simply because when playing it, players will ‘hopefully’ be able to have a better understanding of the mysteries in the game.”
Morin blamed some of the studio’s ambitions. The original game launched on PC and elsewhere later, while Outlast 2 was released on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 simultaneously. Morin said “things suffered because of it.” The studio is only 14 employees.
“Every game designer struggles with death in games, a game over screen is never a great experience for players and we get that,” he said. “The fifth time you replay the same sequence, it’s just not scary anymore. With Outlast, we’ve reached such a wide audience, that skill varies a lot from player to player and the amount of time they saw that screen varies as well.”
It’s still possible to die in Outlast 2, but the number of enemies have been decreased, and their ability to damage and find you is reduced. Red Barrels has been closely studying online videos to learn where players get stuck, and adjusting accordingly. They also brought in new playtesters to make sure it was all clicking.
Red Barrels hasn’t announced their next project, but they’ve carved out a healthy niche in the horror genre, and the road to Story Mode has informed how they’ll proceed.
“Next time around,” said Morin, “we’re looking to approach game balancing as if we’re making two different experiences: one focused on challenging gameplay and the other on experiencing the narrative.”
Though Story Mode came to the Switch version of Outlast 2 first, it’s rolling out as an update to every version of the game today. Maybe I'll give it another shot, too.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/43bxn9/how-a-horror-game-about-death-expanded-its-audience-by-letting-them-live