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Outlast 2: Are Evil Corporations a Tired Trope?


Alien has Weyland-Yutani. Half-Life has Black Mesa. Resident Evil has Umbrella. After this month’s release of Outlast 2, players can add Murkoff to the list of “evil corporations” bent on exploiting humans for profit.  But is this a played-out plot device? (A question to ask especially with this month’s release of Prey that gives us yet another shadowy corporate antagonist.) Is it time for something new? Or is this a critical part of the formula that makes these games so effective?

Outlast 2, Red Barrels’ latest installment in their indie IP, provides a tenuous connection to the first Outlast game through collectibles that can be easily overlooked in the midst of adrenaline-fueled chase scenes. (This is one of the first things that RB does right: Outlast 2 works as a standalone game. You don’t need to know that Murkoff was involved in the heinous experiments at Mount Massive Asylum in the first Outlast.) However, the more thorough player will notice a meager handful of details that begin to explain the mania of Outlast 2. Blake Langermann, the protagonist, observes from a distance a large, factory-like building with radio towers which contrasts sharply with the backwater, shanty town setting of Temple Gate. He comments on it briefly and then never mentions it again through the rest of the game. There is, however, one critical document (which feels more like an Easter egg than a collectible) in which an unnamed author says he’s “halfway…between the towers and the subjects”. He hints at mind control and an increase in violence and/or sexual activity in the surrounding wildlife and, to a lesser degree, himself. (Sounds an awful lot like the sexual deviancy of Knoth’s cultists.)

Regardless of the finer details in Murkoff’s hand in Temple Gate, and whether or not it is actually Murkoff pulling the strings, the presence of some dubious scientific organization in Outlast 2 is unmistakable. It’s hard not to make connections with 2017’s other major horror release Resident Evil 7 where, once again, the characters’ insanity is the result of a science experiment gone awry. While it is fair to be somewhat disappointed that horror survival writers aren’t breaking any new grounds in the way of innovative antagonists, this trope is perhaps the foundation of what makes Outlast 2 even more frightening than RE7. Both Blake and the player are at the mercy of an unseen collective: Blake is to Murkoff as player is to Red Barrels. What seems so real and visceral is nothing more than mind games. As you play the game, you aren’t thinking “Red Barrels is making me scared”, you’re thinking, “Get me the hell out of here” as a three-foot tall man riding a giant mutant shoots flaming arrows at you.

It’s this power of omission that fuels the game’s gorgeously gruesome design, acting as a silent undercurrent that makes you feel that there’s just something more going on here, but slips away before you get too close. RE7, while an undeniably important work, is a bit too heavy-handed towards the end by pulling us out of the experience and essentially telling us “Umbrella did it.” (Queue Chris Redfield, come to save the day!)

It is clear that the horror/sci-fi genre relies on evil corporations as antagonists. Outlast isn’t about Miles or Waylon or Blake: it’s about Murkoff. Resident Evil isn’t about Jill or Chris or Ethan: it’s about Umbrella. The real horror is the 21st century anxiety that we are at the mercy of these giant corporations with roots so deep there’s no possible way to take them down.

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