Outlast 2 was created to make you feel like a rat in a maze, without any knowledge of what’s on the outside. When stripped of context like this, it’s genuinely difficult to discern if that statement is meant as praise or as criticism, because either option is entirely plausible.
On the one hand, an overbearing sense of disorientation is integral to great survival-horror, as the genre thrives upon disempowering its players. Yet at the same time, vowing to make your audience feel like a bewildered rodent is hardly the most enticing pitch in the world. Nor does it really scream ‘“Fun’’, which is ostensibly the core appeal of any video-game.
The ‘’Rat in a Maze’’ quote is intriguing for precisely this reason, because it did not come from a journalist or a reviewer. Instead, it can be attributed to Outlast 2’s very own PR team. That’s right, Red Barrel Studio intentionally likened their product to an inhumane science-experiment and then tried to use that off-putting comparison as a legitimate selling point!
They really pushed the idea too, insisting at every juncture that the game was going to be a distressing ordeal for everyone concerned. Among other things, their marketing promised that we’d experience: dizzying confusion; crippling isolation; and even a sudden onset of incontinence! Golly! Where do we sign up?
Normally you’d have to take these promotional gambits with a pinch of salt. But in this case there’s no hyperbole to account for. Outlast 2 will absolutely make you feel like a rat-in-a-maze, what with its unfathomable lore, perplexing storytelling and confounding ending. Make no mistake, however, this lack of clarity is not a failing on the game’s part. On the contrary, it was a very conscious decision and a genius one to boot.
As with classics like Silent Hill 2 or Bloodborne, the fact that the player can never be 100% sure of what is going on here really adds to the immersion, putting you directly in the shoes of your clueless protagonist. For a quick summary, Outlast 2 pits you against Temple Gate, a zealous community that is ruled with an iron fist by one Sullivan Knoth. A former radio preacher, this devout Christian allegedly intercepted the voice of God over his broadcasting equipment and was inspired to produce a deranged trilogy-capper for the bible.
His resultant gospel is weirdly fixated on reproductive organs, ejaculate and anything else that is remotely associated with fornication. Oh, and it also endorses infanticide and genital mutilation as a means of curbing sin. So you know, typical light reading!
Suffice it to say, Knoth is a tad unhinged and has somehow convinced his flock that he is the ‘’New Ezekiel’’, a divine prophet capable of derailing Armageddon and slaying the Antichrist. To accomplish this, he intends to rape all his female parishioners (irrespective of their age), in the hope that he will inseminate one of them with the Archfiend’s progeny and then kill it whilst it’s still a defenseless newborn.
Exacerbating things even further, you soon begin to wonder if maybe he’s onto something with all this end-of-the-world business. After all, you too are being plagued with the same haunting visions as everyone else, witnessing hordes of locusts, demons and other apocalyptic omens.
Believe it or not, that synopsis is heavily simplified and omits some of the more cryptic aspects of the plot – like the jarring reality shifts, the splinter faction of devil-worshiping ‘’Heretics’’ and the part about your wife’s Immaculate Conception. Still, the fact that this story is so hard to condense speaks volumes about the commendable ambition that the developers channeled into this one. They could have easily settled for something more straightforward and conventional, but thankfully chose to aim a little higher and crafted an intricate narrative that is suitably enigmatic and challenging.
On that note, Outlast 2 frequently demands that the audience read-between-the-lines and puzzle things out for themselves. It’s reminiscent of the Dark Souls approach to storytelling, wherein clunky exposition dumps and intrusive cut-scenes are jettisoned in favor of more subtle methods. For example, several key details here are relegated to collectible documents, some of which are integral to your overall understanding of events and character motivations.
With that in mind, if you don’t take the time to rigorously scour every corner of the game world and investigate levels properly, then you’ll be denied vital pieces of information. In fact, if you neglect to read one very specific letter, then you’ll miss a major plot twist that completely alters your interpretation of the ending. So much can be gleaned from this particular document (including explanations for plot-holes, closure for lingering questions and clarification about whether there’s a supernatural element at play) that it’s basically the most important MacGuffin in the entire game.
To conceal such massive implications within an optional extra is an unbelievably ballsy move. But it makes perfect sense, because without delving into spoiler territory (it’s a joy to uncover all of this stuff for yourself) the twist only works if the characters themselves remain completely ignorant of it. You see, Outlast 2 is all about what happens when people try to impose meaning onto that which they cannot comprehend.
In order to fully articulate this theme, the game deliberately thrusts you into a baffling situation, making you question what you’re seeing. Therefore, an obvious explanation cannot be delivered without undermining the whole point of the story. Moreover, the choice to hide answers within collectibles allows Red Barrel to discreetly supply intel to more vigilant players, whilst still preserving the sense of mystery for everyone else.
Alas, whilst this secret depth was certainly rewarding for those who did cotton on to it, the intricacies slipped past most gamers, who accordingly lambasted Outlast 2 for not having enough substance and for failing to provide a satisfying conclusion. It’s a shame that the game’s reputation has been forever damaged by this hasty judgment because it really does deserve more recognition for its daring creative choices.
Specifically, it ought to be praised for its bold decision to withhold narrative exposition from the player, unless they go looking for it. Then again, that’s the risk the team took when they decided to make their story so ambiguous all for the sake of immersion.
It may have been too subtle for its own but it cannot be denied that Outlast 2 succeeded in what it initially set out to achieve. Over the course of its obtuse campaign, you really do come to identify with the protagonist. Indeed, you are truly a ‘rat in a maze’.