Horror and voyeurism go hand in trembling hand.
Look no further than the runaway success of the found footage genre, where movies like "The Blair Witch Project," "Cloverfield" and "Paranormal Activity" realize their scares in the reptilian green light of a night vision camera and frame them with a white Helvetica HUD.
There are several practical reasons to adopt the found footage approach to horror: It can be leveraged for believability, it's a great way to get around a low budget, and the shaky, poorly lit production values work toward, not against, the all-important goal of scaring the crap out of you.
But there's a deeper, more psychological warning at work in the genre: Looking kills. Linger too long, let your curiosity get the best of you, and you'll soon cut to black.
That's the lesson of "Outlast," a phenomenal first-person horror game from Red Barrels that made its way to PlayStation 4 this week. As investigative journalist Miles Upshur, all you have is a camera and your running shoes when you break into the ramshackle Mount Massive Asylum and all hell breaks loose. How much hell you choose to record, though, is up to you.
For Upshur, the camera at first comes in handy. Filming his panting foray into the asylum produces research notes: The eviscerated inmates, the incoherent survivors, the prophet baiting him further inside. And more importantly, the night vision lights Upshur's way through the maze of scantily lit sewer tunnels and medical wards.
But after some time, the device becomes just as big a source of tension as the darkness and the blood smears. The night vision eats batteries, which are in short supply in Mount Massive. Waste them on anything but the most unnavigably dark areas, and you face the prospect of shambling through a blacked-out cell block or courtyard when you hear that beep of doom.
Then, once you've grown completely dependent on the camera, "Outlast" rips it away, if only to confront you with that dependence. When the game gives it back, the lens is cracked — no longer trustworthy.
The urgency of the camera arises not just from the darkness of Mount Massive, but the gruesome monsters prowling the grounds. They can kill you in two successive hits, and you can't fight back — so avoidance is your only option. The linearity and narrowness of the asylum tends to prohibit sneaking comfortably around your enemies in all but a few environments. Being unable to see five feet ahead sure doesn't help, either.
Instead, you just have to hope you don't run into one of these beastly inmates. And if you do? Hide. Upshur can stuff himself in lockers or under beds to lose his pursuers, aided by the wisely granted ability to look behind him while sprinting away.
That is the constant conflict of "Outlast": to see, or to survive. At many points my instinct to loot every room for batteries and lore ran head-first into some brute whose blade or neck-snapping hand rebuked my curiosity. Sure, the camera lit the way — but to what end?
For that very reason "Outlast" is the most exhilarating horror game I've played in years. The general creepiness of Mount Massive certainly makes the game scary on its own. But by stripping you of all but the power to observe, then pitting you against opposition that brutally punishes you for it, "Outlast" truly gets in your head.