Outlast 2 – Narrative Analysis

Much of Outlast 2’s narrative is delivered in a fairly conventional fashion, narrative developments achieved through documents found scattered about the game’s principal environment, a vast, untamed desertscape in the heart of Arizona, possibly long forgotten by dent of its geographic isolation. Clever flourishes are attached to these documents, the various authors imparting their own distinct voices; each document seems tonally and intellectually different, though a common uncurrent is hopelessness, a flagging and lost sanity. This apathetic hopelessness only serves to make the documents almost distressing to read, reflecting the citizens’ fallen states, long having departed from rationalization, which can never again be reclaimed; pathos emerges on the part of the player, a sincere regard for their condition accordingly arising, even as these figures are almost universally hostile, determined to eradiate Blake, the player character, and his pregnant wife and partner, Lynn. The fullness of their motivations, though, is left deliberately vague, only fueling player introspection.

These figures, intellectually distorted as they are, are also externally distorted, many covered in deep gashes and abysmal, frightening scars, while some are reduced to the level of beast, long having departed with humanity. Masterful audio only furthers their repugnant nature, while their very presence, characterized by repeated, constant hostility, ensures they are consistently threatening. Collectively, this would result in a mimicking of their apathy. In practice, they are figures to be pitied, principally because of the exploitation to which they were subjected, much of that exploitation centering around the figure of Father Knoth, who serves a paternal role for his Arizonian “flock,” commanding them, bending them over to his warped will. He is enigmatic, manifestation of the despicable, though still somehow compelling, namely because of his resoluteness. His motivations and intentions may be bleak, but the determination to which he pursues them is admirable indeed. Being so central to the narrative, many of the documents are written in his hand, showing his corruptness, a certain heretical dimension in his character. But even here, pathos arises, no matter his vile nature, the precise extent of his manipulative impulses. In introducing this antagonist from the first, the game immediately begins with a strong sense of focus, thus guiding the narrative greatly, a narrative which gradually progresses ever onwards, mystery and intrigue around every corner.   

This characteristic aura of mystery is similarly evoked from the first, as the title opens with a devastating plane crash, all of its passengers either meeting with death or substantial injury. The motivation for this voyage revolves around an investigation, the husband and wife pair of Blake and Lynn seeking to unearth information on a corpse recently washed ashore. But the plane crashes; the pilot dies on impact, and is promptly found brutally mutilated, his corpse strung up on a makeshift cross, an object central to the game’s iconography. Blake is temporarily immobilized, suffering an immensity of pain; Lynn is lost, her body not found amidst the wreckage, her fate unknown. It is on Blake, forced into the role of detective, to discover that fate. The mystery intensifies when considering the precise nature of this plane crash, what inspired it. The most mundane explanation is that the plane lost its altitude as a result of mechanical failure or pilot incompetence. Other, more imaginative explanations are also present, though, including a more supernatural explanation, the plane mystically sabotaged, some aura protecting the landscape, thus causing the plane’s crashing, all in efforts to prevent outsider meddling, the preservation of anonymity. Whatever the case, compelling character portrayals are introduced aboard the plane. The pilot may be nameless, faceless, but Lynn is endearing and likable, showing a certain nervousness in front of the camera, even as she was no doubt familiar to its excited gaze. Were this likability not evoked, the search for Lynn would be meaningless.   Instead, these two figures sincerely love each other, and Blake is wiling to sacrifice everything to preserve that love, to save her from a fate worse than death.

A secondary plot thread is introduced even before that fateful plane crash, this one centering around Jessica, a friend to both Blake and Lynn in their youth. Blake, before turning the camera on his wife, is in a state of slumber, mumbling quietly to himself, unaware of that mumbling, though the primary word he utters is that one simple name: “Jessica.” Lynn, hearing this name, is taken aback, as if that girlhood companion had somehow removed itself from her memory, her name long unmentioned. Given this reemergence, it seems as though Jessica is linked to this Arizonian town, improbable though that may be; besides, the game thrives on improbability, increasing player engagement. But if this link somehow exists, what is its nature? How could a girl identity with a town some countless miles away? Certain of these questions are answered – many others are left in the shadows. Central to the narrative, to these questions, are children, childhood, thus making Jessica’s inclusion natural, she being the embodiment of hopefulness, childhood innocence, an innocence which does seem to gradually be withering away, but which still blazes brightly in her breast. She is most frequently encountered while Blake is in a dream like state, and is located in an old, empty schoolhouse, eerie in construction, sanitized in coloration; a place which should itself be a bastion of innocence is morphed into something hostile, terrible, disrupting these commonly held notions of children.   

The documents and cutscenes convey a pervasive sense of guilt, characterizing greatly the village’s inhabitants, tinged with regret for some past offensive, which they can never remove from their minds. Guilt arises, too, when regarding Jessica, her ultimate fate, a tragedy caused largely by Blake’s childhood inaction, a significant, lifelong burden accompanying that inaction. In their youth, Jessica and Blake were more than mere companions. Given their youthful age, sexuality seems slight, though it is gradually being awakened within them, their relationship being one of experimentation. Left alone in the schoolhouse, they play their simple games, before that idyllic is promptly disrupted – the pair are not alone, and are eventually seized and separated; here is where the guilt arises, Blake’s desertion – pressed upon him though it may have been – indirectly results in torture, in the presumed loss of life. Understandably, that yoke is immense. In this manner, Blake is linking with the mentally distorted villagers, both showing their humanity, their empathy in obsessing over past mistakes, desirous of casting off the yoke of guilt, which is ultimately an impossibility.

The childhood theme is developed further in the figure of Lynn, inexplicably impregnated, an inexplicability developed in subtle ways, principally through conversation Blake makes with himself, speaking quietly as if in search of reassurance, a temporary distancing from his hostile environment, in desperate search of mental and physical fortitude. In one particularly critical musing, Blake says of her pregnancy, “how is this possible? We haven’t in months.” A seemingly inconsequential line opens of a world of possibility and interpretation, a masterful stroke. The game’s question-inspiring nature again arises. Was Lynn impregnated by someone else, she cheating on her clearly loyal, devoted husband? Could she really sink to such damning lows, knowing all the while it would damage Blake greatly? Even if he possesses such suspicions, they never affect the determination he shows in her rescue. Alternate, supernatural explanations are also possible, rather distressing in construction. Was Lynn somehow victim to external machinations, the people or landscapes altering biological functions? It seems a stretch, but given the sometimes bizarre nature of the game, such an explanation remains a possibility. Either way, Lynn is pregnant, and in being born in such an environment, the sense of guilt arises from the first – that child, loved though it may be, will always be steeped in darkness. In developing further this supernatural angle, Lynn’s belly is not swelling in any fashion, thus reflecting no external indication of her pregnancy, which Blake would certainly detect, being in her presence always. While a possible oversight, this fact again inspires contemplation, forcing the musing on difficult matters; in almost every way, Outlast 2’s narrative engages the player on a cerebral level, a massive achievement.              

With the gradual unveiling of mystery, the title morphs into a detective tale, Blake constantly making efforts to understand the world and the people around him. Novelty here arises, the game expressing this investigative component in a clever way – through the usage of Blake’s camera. In particularly violent, distressing moments, Blake can point his camera at the source of that distress, capturing it on footage, a footage which he comments upon, again in search of that reassurance, indirectly conveying Blake’s desperation, his delivery quite often frantic and hurried. A sense of character development is present here. While physically weak from the first, a weakness which is never displaced by physical strength, Blake grows in internal resolve, able to brave the dangers which surround him; the Blake at the conclusion of the narrative is decidedly detached from the Blake at the narrative’s beginning, thus transforming him into a complex, round character, his voice acting only increasing his endearing attributes, while his resolve is developed in many scripted moments, such as his crucifixion, or efforts to bury him alive. Narrative dissonance is present here, as his weakness should not permit him to endure such physical torment, but again this communicates his character development, that he will do anything to rescue Lynn from her oppressors, whether the child she is carrying came from his seed or not. While ill-prepared both physically and mentally, in being in this situation Blake draws upon man’s latent strengths, able to endure and triumph over the seemingly insurmountable.

The ending, indeed, is a compelling one, reflecting the game’s characteristically enigmatic nature, matters again left to interpretation. In an unexpected, abrupt occurrence, Father Knoth, that doomed, vile figure, shows himself, guilt and torment etched upon his very visage. After discoursing with Blake for some duration, he shows the extent of his guilt as being overwhelming, something he cannot live with – in short, here he shows his humanity, that he is not entirely evil, that perhaps he had some noble intention, which went awry. One final action is taken; Father Knoth dies by his own hand, his death breaking with it the final barrier to Blake’s escape, and, presumably, happiness, even as the damning nature of his struggle can never be departed from. But Lynn promptly dies in childbirth; happiness is elusive, even as Blake cradles a baby boy in his tired arms. The pair walk off together, in direction towards a bright, blood red moon, menacing yet beautiful, reflecting freedom and relative peace. Whether happiness of sorrow await the pair is left deliberately vague. Initially frustrating, the nature of this conclusion became highly satisfying upon further contemplation. A massive positive is implicitly attached to the game, in that it inspires further contemplation even while tossed aside, its narrative penetrating into the mind, something to be mulled over if enlightenment is to be achieved; or, at least, some semblance of enlightenment, as full insight is unachievable. Matters may seem incomplete, but that was no doubt the developers’ intention. Blake, as father, no doubt loves the child. But given the warped nature of the child’s birth, could Blake not devolve to the state of murderer, as was the case with the villagers? Murder of children is abundant in the narrative, and the child’s presence would be a constant reminder of its dead mother, of the turmoil endured. While murder is never rational, perhaps Blake’s contemplations were not too unjust. Some would agree with this justness of murder; others would completely and utterly denounce it.   

Outlast 2’s methods of narrative delivery are not exactly innovative – the document style of storytelling has been done countless times by other titles, and often to better effect – though enough creativity is present to consistently engage the player, much of this engagement arising from clever environmental storytelling. But regarding the documents, reading is understandably off putting to some, those who express great preference for the gameplay, more interested in playing than reading, but in this instance, reading is absolutely necessary; an incomplete picture of the game’s narrative is presented when these documents are ignored – they are central to the game’s success, though even if they are deliberately sought and analyzed, the picture remains incomplete, reflecting calculated narrative vagueness. One such document details excursions to the outside world, which greatly enhances knowledge of the precise nature of the isolated landscape, its inhabitants.

A great narrative strength, though, is the game’s bold ambition, which is mainly realized rather than squandered, with the presence of multiple plot threads, one revolving around Arizona, another revolving around that sweet schoolyard; a rapid vacillation between these environments maintains gameplay freshness. While initially seeming disconnected, at the narrative’s conclusion they are finally linked, forming one cohesive whole – narrative successes are immense, and the greatest of those successes stem from Blake’s camera, his commentary of the footage, which is very innovative. Excellent writing also bolsters the narrative’s strengths, many questions arising, with little answers to those questions emerging. Rare has a title inspired so much personal contemplation, an impressive admission – in embracing maturity and darkness, in engaging the player on a cerebral level, showing also vagueness and minimalism in storytelling, Outlast 2’s narrative is a remarkable achievement.   

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