Every Friday, several A.V. Club staffers will kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
While early glimpses made it seem as though it would traverse the same territory as Resident Evil 7 (only without the cracked sense of humor), there are moments in the early going of Outlast 2 that almost feel closer in spirit to Alien: Isolation. The first time a deranged deep-South cultist shrieks and comes running at you with a blade, it induces a real sense of panic, and the swift death that results if they catch you is very much akin to the unstoppable alien ending your life instantly. There’s no fighting back against these people, there’s only hiding—and you spend a lot of time diving into rusted-out barrels, wishing you didn’t breathe so loudly. Who are these people, and why have they kidnapped your significant other from the wreckage of your plane crash? For the first few hours, there was little rhyme or reason to the oblique religious scribblings your character finds strewn about in ramshackle shanties and burned-out stone pillars, to the point where I didn’t even realize there were two different groups of backwoods crazies until my character said it out loud to himself. It didn’t seem like the most well-thought-out mythology or narrative.
But, as with much great horror, what initially seems like unintentional incoherence in story eventually reveals itself to be a smart decision. By keeping you wholly in the dark about what’s happening to you or why, the game plunges you into the desperate emotional headspace of every movie character who’s found themselves in the middle of a terrifying and inexplicable situation. Do the details of why these people are trying to kill you really matter? Hell no—you’re just trying to stay alive long enough to get your spouse and get out. When the details of the larger story do get revealed—the heathens that reject the cult’s bizarre leader and his teachings, the rare disenchanted man who actually helps hide you rather than plunge a cross-bladed trowel into your chest—it comes as a strange but intriguing spiral that does little more than let you know forces way beyond your influence and larger than you could hope to take on are at work. Sure, there are trips into bizarre underground prisons and temple-like structures to advance the plot, but most of the time, you’re fleeing through fields of wheat or hoping the creepy brute muttering things to himself doesn’t come around the corner. Now that I’m closer to the halfway point, it’s become a nerve-jangling pleasure to remain in the dark. With smooth, intuitive controls and a total lack of ability to fight, Outlast 2 is the scary-ass horror game it should be, frustratingly oblique narrative and all.
Maybe it’s his experimental film roots showing, but my partner, Zach, makes for a very unconventional Dungeon Master. Instead of the traditionally straightforward journey through fantasy lands to accomplish a single overarching quest, he’s provided our party with a large map divided into hexagons, with each hexagon representing an opportunity for discoveries and new challenges. He’s drawn together lots of disparate sources that result in a somewhat chaotic but wonderfully fully formed game world for the party to romp around in. So far we’ve come across a wizard’s tower, a bureaucratic city, and a town in need of saving that contained a mansion with a horror-movie basement complete with freaky monster. One party member, Joran (a half-elf warlock), went blind after reading a wizard’s book. A vague aim to get his vision back, combined with saving the dwarf our party originally started out with, provides our party with loose aims. But more often than not, we get carried away gamboling through the woods or plotting an elaborate heist.
As with anything experimental, there are hits and misses. Sometimes our meandering feels a bit pointless—until we hit on the next awesome thing waiting to be discovered in a new hex. But an early exercise in world-building resulted in one of the simplest but most enjoyable additions to game play: When we are fighting with the usual gang of goblins or bugbears, Zach asks whoever is about to attempt a blow or shot to describe the foe in front of us. This has turned faceless goblins into a gold mine of comedy and character, as we fell gruesome-looking beasts and pathetically sad monsters. One was memorably daubed “Wangus” due to his clothing not covering his giant dong.
Just as soon as I was starting to make headway in Flinthook, another intriguing roguelike rolled into town and tore my attention away. I’ve only spent a little time with TumbleSeed so far, but it was enough for me to become enchanted by the game’s colorful, flat-shaded world and seemingly insurmountable challenge. Unlike Spelunky or The Binding Of Isaac, which temper their steep demands and arcana-filled worlds with the familiarity of traditional video game mechanics like jumping or shooting, TumbleSeed is a beginner’s nightmare from top to bottom. Inspired by an obscure arcade game called Ice Cold Beer, you play it by manipulating a slope in the middle of the screen and rolling around a little ball. Just getting the ball to go where you want it to without accidentally flinging it into a pit takes plenty of practice—practice that I don’t yet have—and that’s not even considering the array of predators that chase you around the randomly assembled mountain you’re trying to climb.
Partially, it’s the fact that I’m still truly terrible at it that’s driving me to play more and improve, but even with my minuscule TumbleSeed experience, I’m catching glimpses of inspired game design. In the first area alone—akin to Spelunky’s mine—there’s a devious diversity and specificity to the enemies. Some live in a hole and explode if you get too close, some will fly across the screen and crush you if you roll into their gaze, some will stalk you up the mountain ever so slowly. All of them are there to push back against the player and force them out of safe habits. It’s my favorite kind of game design, one that presents you with a complex set of rules and interactions and challenges you to use your knowledge of it to improvise under pressure.