You’ll have to trust me here, because I’m about to try and convince you to buy an absolutely terrible game.
It’s an adventure game, but it’s the sort of adventure game that thinks Myst was the best adventure game. Except this game doesn’t even understand why Myst was popular. It thinks Myst was successful because its puzzles didn’t make any sense. It thinks Myst was successful because its plot was completely incoherent. It thinks people raved about, instead of riled against, the arbitrary lever-pulling. It hasn’t got the faintest idea how to be a point-and-click adventure.
It’s called Outcry. It’s absolutely terrible. And it’s one of my favorite games.
Outcry is the sort of game that makes the job of a reviewer incredibly difficult. There is no option but to condemn it. It simply isn’t good enough. At the same time, you’ve got to communicate just how fascinating your time with the game was, while making it entirely clear that it’s broken beyond all comprehension. It is – to use that terrible shorthand – a 6 out of 10. But it’s wonderful.
Outcry is very, very Russian. There’s an idea about the sorts of games that developers from Eastern Europe deliver: they’re bleak, dark and philosophical pieces that put artistry before solid game design. Outcry absolutely exemplifies that notion. It’s so Russian that it might as well be wandering through Red Square, drinking vodka and wearing a balaclava. It’s gritty and grainy, hideously obtuse but remarkably beautiful. It isn’t good enough.
It’s a game, essentially, about dissociative drugs. There can’t be many games of which that is true. Summoned by your brother to discuss a scientific breakthrough of astonishing magnitude, you arrive at his abode to find him missing, with his housekeeper completely unaware of where he may be. She invites you in anyway. And you start to look around. Quickly, you find yourself standing in a room, strewn with wires, with an enormous metallic monolith looming ominously in the middle.
There are switches and levers and buttons dotted around, but none of them seem to work. There is no indication of why this is the case – it’s an absolutely terrible game, after all. So you explore some more. And you begin to find notes and audio recordings, and your brother is addressing you directly. Don’t tamper with the equipment, he says. Just make sure it’s safe. And don’t even think about ingesting the new chemical he’s synthesized, from a variety of herbs and plants, which appears to separate mind from body.
Your immediate reaction is to get the machine working, sit inside it, and throw the drugs down your hatch. Naturally.
These chemicals might just sound like a novel story set-up, but they’re absolutely key to what makes the game itself so intoxicating. Outcry makes it abundantly clear from the start that it’s going to be placing a lot of emphasis on its visuals. There’s a film grain layered over the entire screen, the outer reaches of your vision obscured by darkened and blurred bars, the lighting pulsating ad nauseum. But when you create a sample of the mind-altering substance for yourself, the minute you plug yourself into this worrying cylinder of metal, and the moment those chemicals begin to circulate around your bloodstream while the machine circulates infrasound waves around itself, everything you see heads into the realm of creative madness.
I can only imagine that working at development studio Phantomery Interactive must have been an intriguing affair. That’s because I can only imagine they must have taken a rather substantial number of mind-altering drugs themselves. Outcry‘s flair totally nails the otherworldly visual creeping that defines those real-world psychedelics. Not that I’ve ever taken any, of course. And even if I had, I definitely wouldn’t have inhaled and/or swallowed.
In the isolation chamber, your vision blurs, and you pass out. When you come to, things are much the same as they were before. Did it even work? You head back out into the room, and glance around. Your surroundings have taken on a slightly blue tint. And then you wander through the door, out into the hallway, except it’s no longer a hallway, and is instead some sort of alternate dimension that appears to have been drawn inside of M.C. Escher’s head.
From here, the plot spirals. You construct a key that allows you to travel back and forth through time. You dart perilously between the past and the present, collecting conveniently placed notes and using your newfound ability to move walkways and clear obstructions.
The architecture is inexplicable. It stretches out and contorts in the most impossible of manners. You’re increasingly away with the fairies, surely. There can be no other explanation. The drugs are in full effect.
Only, apparently, the drugs hadn’t fully kicked in until just now, because suddenly you’re out in the middle of the desert. Heat waves rise from the sand and blur your vision as you make your way towards a dilapidated and abandoned town, a depowered tram parked in the middle of the square. It takes a few minutes before you realize those heat waves aren’t heat waves at all: they’re a symptom of your own wavering, breathing intoxication. Glance upwards and you’ll see power cables disobeying the laws of gravity, spiraling and stretching up into the sky. It’s just magnificent.
Once you finally get the tram working it’s on to the endgame, which takes place on what can only be described as a giant, metallic, musical flower. Your task here is to open the buds and make the entire structure sing in the wind. Its melodies are haunting. Your field of vision changes again, this time becoming blotched with offset reds and greens. The psychedelia is in full swing. It’s some of the most fabulous and evocative art design I’ve ever seen in a game.
And that’s almost enough to carry it. Almost. Outcry‘s artistry is endlessly brilliant, and the early intricacy of its plot is a delight – even cutting through the convoluted storytelling methods. The hideous, misguided puzzles are – to begin with, at least – a distraction rather than a disaster. They aren’t at all strong, certainly, but they’re manageable.
But Outcry‘s problems don’t end there. Gradually, it begins to clutter its previously intriguing storytelling with preposterous pseudo-science, and then the designers decided to throw down a spiritual ending that doesn’t make one iota of sense. The English translation is often a garbled mess, and an overly enthusiastic voice actor reads the whole script verbatim, mistakes and all. The puzzles, once irritating, descend into complete nonsense. One involves rewiring some cables to restore power to the town, but the “correct” solution creates a short circuit. With a walkthrough open, you’ll see the conclusion within four hours, but I cannot imagine a single person arriving there without it.
It’s a tragic shame. There is so much creativity and flair in Outcry‘s approach, yet it squanders everything by breaking several fundamental rules of game design. It feels like a game still in its beta stage, desperate for a series of rigorous testing sessions and the filling of countless plot holes. To leave the initial story hanging is ludicrous and, by the finale, there is so much left unexplained that Outcry ends up truly living up to its name. It certainly had me crying out for more.
But that’s the thing. In any other game this poor, I’d have given up long before the end. But I didn’t. I kept going. I kept plowing through, cringing at its design, alt-tabbing between the game and a detailed walkthrough, right up until the very last second. It is an endlessly fascinating experience, a relentlessly weird and wonderful thing.
At least year’s Develop Conference in Brighton, England, one debate reared its head again and again: where should the focus lie on a scale between graphics and gameplay? I didn’t understand the question. To argue for one or the other seems to demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of how game design works, and how those final products are experienced by the end user. I came away troubled by developers who claimed enjoyment was solely in the mechanics, and even more baffled by those who argued in favor of putting artistry first. Both viewpoints seemed conceptually flawed.
Then I played Outcry, and I understood a bit. Sometimes, a game works despite neglecting a fundamental aspect of its design. And Outcry does work, in its own, unfathomable way. I played through in a single sitting, eyes glued to the screen, hand affixed to the mouse. I don’t do that when I’m not absolutely caught up in a thing of sheer brilliance. I was frustrated. I snarled at the monitor. Outcry is a terrible game.
It is, however, is a thoroughly remarkable one: a game that etches itself into your mind as much as the chemicals you ingested at the start of its story. That doesn’t excuse the problems, but I’d take Outcry over an immaculately polished but creatively devoid release any day. Maybe Dyack was right. Maybe artistry and flair are the way forward. Either way, Outcry is a fascinating experience – and, for that, I’ll forgive the game for being morbidly broken. It’s a brilliant game, one that cries out to be absorbed by anyone with just a little patience.
So don’t do drugs, kids. Instead, play Outcry for very much the same experience.
Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and freelance writer for anyone who offers him shiny coins. He maintains a blog at www.lewisdenby.com. He has never, ever taken drugs. Honestly. Don’t give him that look.