Very few things are so difficult as a satisfying conclusion – share too little and your audience feels as though their investment hasn’t paid off, but give them too much and you run the risk of strangling the agency of the imagination (the infamous “19 years later” epilogue). If you want to get really fancy, the ending should have a profound effect on your audience, causing them to mull on some larger idea or feeling that you want them to take away from the work. You should probably not just throw rocks and kill everyone, unless you’ve set up the cause and effect before hand.
That last sentence is a real problem for horror stories. Whatever else they want you to think about – mortality, the inexplicable, cultural fears of the time period – their main goal is to be frightening. Fear might be a tricky and subjective creature, but it is based on the audience being surprised and unsettled. It’s tough to make a happy ending jive with that intent, which is why you get so many horror stories where the hero dies or goes mad in the last gasps of the story. And sometimes that’s just what the story needs. Then again, sometimes it really isn’t. Today’s object lesson is the 2013 indie game Outlast.
A little overview before we start to break things down: Outlast is a first person survival horror game of the escape-the-place, no combat format (often compared to A Machine for Pigs, but we’ll leave that alone for today); the protagonist is Miles Upshur, a freelance journalist who’s gotten a hot tip about some crazy experiments being performed at the Mount Massive Asylum. He gets there and finds the inmates have taken over, and spends the rest of the game trying to get back out while running from various body horror monstrosities. There’s a plot involving Nazi scientists and nanomachines that mimic supernatural beings, but it’s all rather flimsy, leading me to believe it’s meant to be one of those experience-over-story type games. The problem with that is that it’s a concept that wears out its welcome a good hour or two before the game actually ends, peaking in terms of visceral gore and effectively tense use of the hiding mechanic with the ‘Doctor Trager’ segment that marks the halfway point (and for that segment I must give the developers no small bit of praise, as it is as disturbing as it is sickly entrancing).
So, with the experience running thin (the last hour more or less ditching the hiding aspect entirely in favor of ‘run here, get key, run an irritating loop if you trigger the single prowling maniac’) the gamer turns back to the story, which brings us to the ending that really doesn’t work. Like the hapless protagonist of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Miles survives his night in hell only to be shot to death at the exit doors, with the implication that his suffering made him the ideal host for the nanomachine-not-ghost. You can’t walk two steps without finding a review discussing the ending in some way, usually in a negative light. But why? Dead horror protagonists are de rigueur, particularly if they’ve learned a dark secret, and when Romero did so it was the final nail in a masterpiece coffin. To answer that, let’s unpack some expectations.
In horror stories, generally speaking, there are two levels to the story being told. There’s the macro level, which is about either the mass impact of the threat or the larger implication of what it says about humanity (a zombie outbreak or virus on society, or Silent Hill’s reflections of human foibles); and there is the micro level, which is the personal conflict that ties the protagonist to the threat (the bitten daughter in Living Dead, Frankenstein’s hand in creating the Creature, so on). Depending on the type of narrative you might find focus more on one than the other: a science fiction horror story will focus on the larger implications of society, and a slasher film plays to the expectations of the formula while treating its characters as disposable meat. But by and large, the most effective horror is strongly rooted in the terror of the individual. The audience feels fear because they have formed an identification with the protagonist, and thus feel threat to some part of themselves through the character’s plight. And if you want the audience to stay invested in that character, you need to offer at least some hope that they’ll be making it out alive.
For that reason, I’ve generally been of the opinion that ‘shocker’ endings are best suited to macro-style stories. Very few are going to mind if you pull one last gotcha in a slasher/giallo/creature movie, because the point of that experience is to appreciate the mechanics of the formula or the way the story is put together. We’re there to see the gore effects, or the new camera tricks, or what have you. The characters aren’t going to register a bit.
That’s not to say that character-focused horror should never have unsettling endings. When done right, they’re quite chilling: the acknowledgement of the camera at the end of The Omen comes to mind, which blossoms the story out from micro to macro, hooking the audience into continued suspense even with the main character gone. Then there’s Living Dead’s infamous ending, with its grainy shots of violence that continue to call to mind the racial violence of the period no matter how much Romero might deny that being his explicit intention. The key thing to remember is that these are stories that have a very basic kind of fear at their cores (the evil or the unknown in children/the next generation) or which are playing to a societal fear that needs addressing (see also the nuclear anxiety in The Hills Have Eyes or of gang culture in Akira).
Outlast wants to be like the stories listed above, but it fails to understand its own limitations. There’s an underlying theme of Miles becoming more savage, with his notes detailing increasingly violent desires for revenge as the game goes on, that I suspect is meant to foreshadow his increased suitability as a host. It’s a noble effort (it even gets there in the Trager scene!) to make connect the personal narrative and the plot, but it never quite solves the disconnect the story suffers from. Miles has no personal stake in being at the Asylum beyond professional curiosity, and it’s really difficult to sympathize with that right around the time the first beefy monstrosity throws him through a window. And because the events of Nazi Science have already passed by the time Miles shows up, 75% of the proper plot is exposited in documents around the asylum, making them a) very possible to miss and b) completely irrelevant beyond ‘oh, so that’s why all the patients look like beef jerky and rawhide stitched together.’
Furthermore, Miles is a completely blank slate. Good horror takes the time to characterize its protagonist, even if it’s in small and subtle ways – take James Sunderland (for Silent Hill 2 is about as close to the pinnacle of horror gaming that I have ever seen), who comes to the titular town with only the desire to find his wife. Yet he is constantly characterized by his interactions with the world, from his earnest conversations with fellow characters to occasionally revealing comments in regards to background objects. Miles, perhaps in an attempt to let players place themselves in his shoes Bella Swan style, says very little beyond pants and screams of pain (you’ll only get the notes if you have Miles’ camera up and recording at the correct times), and the player never sees his face.
That leaves us with a plot that’s already happened, a protagonist who has little stake in the plot beyond ‘escape the place and don’t die’ and little base personality with which to compare the journal entries, and very little in the way of theoretical threat to us as player beyond whatever scraps of fondness we might have for Miles. The experiment in question has already been deemed a failure, most of the staff is dead, and the beefy meathead in question is killing off all the infected patients. Unlike a zombie apocalypse, there’s no immediate sense that this is something that is doomed to spread out to the world at large. And ‘Nazi nanomachines’ is a bit far removed to be taken as an indictment of the health system or conspiracy-grade medical experimentation. It tries halfheartedly for and misses both elements that might tie it into the audience’s heart and leave them uneasy into the night. It’s a shame, given the ambitions of the project, but it lacks the punch of staying power that the creators clearly wanted it to have.
To close, let’s go back to good Mr. Sunderland: depending on the player’s actions the game has a number of distinct endings, each tied into James’ actions. Not only does this create a cohesive character arc for the protagonist the player has come to invest in (is he redeemed, condemned, or unable to face the truth in the end?), but also effectively implicates the player. James’ final choice depends on what the player has interacted with, how they have controlled James, and blurs the line between self and avatar in the most breathtaking way. Who is he, and who are you that he came out this way (assuming you’re playing blind and not going for completionism)? It encourages the player to consider their own failings, and what in themselves might be similar to James (or how they might know themselves to be different). That’s how a game blends micro and macro horror narrative for maximum effect.