I am writing this article for two reasons. The first reason is because the closest I’ve come to writing about anything remotely serious in a video game in the last few years has been an unhinged 10,000+ word rant about Spec Ops: The Line, and while I tend to enjoy writing about the lighter side of video games, I’d like to challenge myself to talk about a sincerely serious subject. The second reason is because Outlast is unironically one of my favourite horror games of all-time, up there with Eternal Darkness, Haunting Ground and… well, I’ll be honest, I haven’t actually played that many horror games. But I have played Outlast, and I loved it.
I’ve seen the question “Is Outlast ableist?” floating around the internet a bit, mentioned in passing in critical reviews and derided by certain fans, and it made me want to take a closer look at the issue. Ableism has existed in practise for just as long as every other kind of discrimination on the planet, but it’s only become a wider topic of discussion and debate in more recent decades, and there are still a lot of misconceptions about it. So in the next few thousand words, let’s talk about ableism, survival horror, inspiration porn and more.
Oh, and for those who just want an answer to the question as quickly as possible, yes, Outlast, the video game where you sneak into a mental asylum and the patients are all disfigured and insane and running around screaming and trying to beat you to death with big sticks, is totally ableist. But let’s look at how and why in a little more detail.
What is ableism?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which I figured would be a step up from citing Wikipedia, ableism – a term first used in 1981, making it relatively recent – is quite simply “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities”. At its most straightforward, this can be a shopkeeper who hasn’t made their shop wheelchair accessible. At its most complex, it can be the negative or overtly positive portrayal of a disabled person in a work of media. At its most basic, it can be a group of children bullying a classmate with a lazy eye. At its most advanced, you can see things like the early 20th century obsession with eugenics – the practise of supposedly trying to ‘improve’ the quality of a population by excluding genetic groups deemed ‘inferior’ – which the Nazis latched onto and used as an excuse to force euthanasia upon up to 300,000 people.
… This got serious quickly.
Ableism is also an umbrella term for a large number of other ‘isms’; discrimination based on height and size would fall under the term, there would be a large overlap between ableism and ageism, and there’s also mentalism, which is like ableism but specifically for mental conditions, or simply mental traits that a person has, or is judged to have. Given the topic of a video game in which you explore a mental asylum where people are trying to bash your head in while spouting gibberish, it’s safe to say that we’ll be coming back to mentalism a lot later on.
There are many different ways in which ableism can come across in the media, most of which are incredibly common. One of the earliest ways filmmakers and scriptwriters could designate a character as villainous was simply by giving them an unusual physical disability, which at its worst is a practise that encourages viewers to dehumanize the character, but was also done just to create a distance between the ‘evil’ character and the viewers. Whether it’s Dr. No’s mechanical hands, Dr. Strangelove’s wheelchair or Dr. Doom’s… everything, it’s been an unsubtle but effective way of creating a gulf of difference between villain and viewer.
“Aha! Well then, I would easily avoid that kind of discrimination by portraying every disabled character in a strictly positive light!” Well now you run the risk of falling into inspiration porn, a term coined by disability rights activist Stella Young in 2012 (she later gave a TED Talk on the subject ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much’ that I would highly recommend watching) to describe the unfortunate habit of people to almost fetishize disabled people who are considered extraordinary just for living with their disability. There are many reasons why this is also harmful, most importantly by viewing the disability itself as a burden that needs to be overcome, as opposed to focusing on the societal obstacles that are more responsible for the challenges disabled people face. There’s also an implicit exceptionalism to this practise; by focusing on the inspirational person who is living comfortably with their disability, aren’t you kind of saying that anyone else with a disability who is failing to live as comfortably as them is doing something wrong?
“Alright, fine, I’ll play it safe and just have no disabled people in heroic or villainous roles!” Well, no, that’s a terrible idea because disabled people are woefully underrepresented in TV and films. According to the National Service Inclusion Project, almost 20% of Americans have a disability (admittedly, these numbers are taken from a study from 1990, but more recent figures from the British government indicate that in 2016/17, 22% of the UK population reported a disability, and almost a quarter of these cases were related to mental health) but only 2% of characters portrayed in films or on TV have a disability, and of these portrayals, 95% of the time they are being portrayed by people who are not disabled. As of yet, it is unknown how many of these roles are solely taken by Scarlett Johansson.
While this can be quite a complicated area, I do want to stress that I’m not trying to imply in any way that it’s actually difficult to portray disabled characters well. I did want to establish that trying too hard to avoid one negative portrayal can lead you towards another negative portrayal, but generally I feel like I’m skating a little too close to that subsection of YouTube filled with angry gamers shouting “Well with all this political correctness, what am I supposed to do? Not say the N-word?!?” If I was ever in charge of introducing a character with a disability to a TV show, I would just follow these three simple rules.
1) The character must not be defined by their disability.
2) The disability will not make the character weak/pitiful, vindictive/resentful, or a paragon of inspirational virtue.
3) This would actually be the first and most important step, but as someone who does not have a physical disability, I would recognize that the best course of action would be to step the f-train back and ask as many people as possible who do have disabilities for their input at every opportunity.
And if a complete idiot like me can formulate some half-decent instructions like that, it really can’t be that hard for everyone else.
So, now that we’ve covered the topic of ableism and I’ve gone almost a thousand words without talking about video games, let’s talk about Outlast.
I worry that the sudden contrast in topics here will be jarring but as this is probably the only time I’m going to be writing in detail about Outlast, I would also like to quickly just generally speak about my feelings on the game as well. Stealth and Survival Horror are two genres that I have always thought go phenomenally well together, because both of the questions “Why am I being stealthy?” and “What have I got to be afraid of?” can be answered with “Because there’s a man/alien/werewolf stomping around with a machete/axe/carrot-peeler and he wants to use it to surgically remove my head/vocal cords/sense of whimsy.” Outlast takes this concept and elevates it to one of its most terrifying forms. If, for whatever reason, you also enjoy hiding in a virtual locker for minutes at a time, catching brief glimpses of your pursuer as he stalks through the corridors, trying to study his patrols and patterns so that you can time a desperate sprint to safety, Outlast is a game you will love.
The plot of Outlast is fairly straightforward. You are Miles Upshur, a freelance investigative journalist and owner of both a camcorder with an incredibly unimpressive battery life, and also a very silly name. Your camcorder does at least have night-vision, which is more than can be said for the name. Miles has received an anonymous tip from a software engineer who did some work at Mount Massive Asylum for the Murkoff Corporation, a group that falls somewhere between Umbrella and Monsanto on the general scale of ‘obviously evil’. Miles has the bright idea to sneak into the asylum, alone and unarmed in the dead of night, and to the surprise of no-one except Miles, finds himself trapped in the aftermath of a mass breakout/riot/massacre, and spends the rest of the game trying to escape some very persistent enemies, with the unintended consequence of finding out exactly what was going on in the asylum beforehand, and whether or not Murkoff, whose name literally rhymes with jerk-off, might possibly be the bad guys.
The recurring villains you face along the way may as well have been named “The Creepy Evil ___” because they all fall into that role. You have a creepy evil priest who believes that you are an apostle, sent to witness… whatever it is that’s happening in the asylum. The creepy evil twins who are mainly disturbing because they, er… they take their fashion tips from Dr. Manhattan, let’s say. The creepy evil doctor who is your guide through a long and helpless cutscene that ends with him cutting off two of your fingers. The DLC introduces an evil cannibal and an evil bridegroom as well, but my favourite villain in the game, and one of my favourite characters in any media, is Chris Walker, the creepy evil… huge manacled murder-man.
Chris Walker is the character you’ve seen above in the background of the Outlast logo, but I’ll find a better picture for you so that you can truly appreciate his beauty.
I could find one where he’s out of the shadows a little more, but it wouldn’t do him any favours.
Chris Walker is my favourite character in the game for several reasons; firstly, he’s incredibly persistent, showing up in every single chapter of the game to chase you – except for Chapter 6, although both Chapter 5 end and Chapter 7 begin with another Chris Walker encounter – and is generally the most dangerous bad guy you will face, capable of killing you in two hits on regular difficulties, and one hit on harder difficulties. He also has a very memorable way of killing you; rather than ripping off your head, Chris Walker grabs you by the neck and then rips off your body, so the last thing you see before you die is your own headless body being held in Chris’ other hand. There’s also the unique music that plays when he chases you, and the track that plays when you’re sneaking around him, that incorporates a frumpy tuba into an atmospheric horror game surprisingly well. But what really makes him unique in the universe of Outlast is that believe it or not, he’s actually one of the most well-intentioned characters in the game.
Spoilers for the end of Outlast now, although I have no idea why you’re reading this if you would care. It turns out that (big surprise) the Murkoff Corporation are actually very bad people and they’re working with a former Nazi scientist to create something called the ‘Walrider’ which is, in the most technical terms I can muster, a ghost-thingy made out of nanomachines. For whatever reason, only someone suitably insane can control the Walrider, which is why Murkoff were actively trying to make their patients more unstable to try and find a suitable host. Predictably, the Walrider got loose, hence the mass breakout and everything in the game being covered in a lot more intestine than can possibly be sanitary. And Chris Walker is one of the few people who kind of understands the situation and has come to the conclusion that the best way to prevent the Walrider from escaping into the rest of the world is simply to murder every single person he can find in the asylum. So, y’know, he’s not exactly sunshine and lollipops, but he’s genuinely trying to help people. I mean, ‘people’ in general. Not you. Or anyone else he would ever meet in his situation. He wants to murder-kill them.
Also his deep guttural dialogue seems to have a military theme, and if you find Chris’ patient report in the game then it’s revealed that he was a former member of the military police who served three tours in Afghanistan and initially came to Mount Massive Asylum for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Wow! It’s a bit of a stretch, but do you think Red Barrels were making a point about the inefficient support for members of the American military, in stark contrast to the noble way they’re praised by the government and media? If so, I have to say, it’s a pretty bold decision of them to put – nah, I’m just kidding, there’s a prequel comic and it turns out Chris Walker was always completely unstable and his apartment was full of ice coolers that contained the heads he had ripped off of people. Had you going for a second though!
So with the story explained and Chris Walker appropriately praised as a beautiful big soft man who just wants to keep everyone safe by ripping your head off, let’s get to the big question. Is Outlast ableist? Well, just in case you somehow missed the third paragraph disclaimer for the impatient reader, then yes. Absolutely 100% yes. I mean, obviously yes. To quote one of the greatest philosophers of our generation, Billie Eilish, “… Duh!”
But let’s get into how Outlast is ableist, starting with a picture of one of the generic bad guys.
I mean, he’s creepy and deformed and his skin is all weird… it’s very straightforwardly “Wow, look at this guy, doesn’t this guy totally look like a crazy freak? You’d better run away from him.” It’s the kind of stereotype that’s seen with all of the villains in the game; the evil doctor is practically emaciated and the evil twins clearly suffer from some kind of condition that prevents them from wearing pants. But that’s not the type of ableism that we’ll be discussing in more detail.
Also now would be a good time to point out that officially, according to the game, the name of these people is not ‘patients’ but ‘variants’. See, they wanted to give a fun little nickname to the people who were after you, and what better way than assigning them an entirely new dehumanizing term in order to emphasize just how different they are to regular human beings?
Now is the time when we switch back to the topic of mentalism – which still falls under ableism – because there’s a lot more to say about a video game that takes place in an asylum when we’re looking specifically at the portrayal of mental illness. Now, I’ve seen a lot of defences – some honestly quite valid – of the ableism of Outlast, and I’d like to discuss what works and what doesn’t by responding to these points.
A) Outlast takes place at ‘Mount Massive Asylum for the Criminally Insane’.
I’m not going to lie; when I started my research (translate: googled ‘Criminally Insane Violence Links’ and checked the first three results) on this topic then I was hoping to be able to lay a proper guilt trip on you all. How dare you assume that just because people are criminally insane, they’re more likely to be violent? That is exactly the kind of stereotypical – no, wait, the figures all back that up and it makes sense that people who have been imprisoned for committing potentially violent crimes are more likely to be violent. Not to the extent that Outlast portrays it, but yes, you are more likely to be attacked on the job if you work at an asylum for the criminally insane. But you’re also more likely to be seriously injured in a fight during a Black Friday sale, so there’s that.
But the link between violence and mental illness isn’t nearly so straightforward. For one thing, people with mental illnesses are far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than they are of perpetrating one. Frequent alcohol/drug use is far more frequently a factor in violent crimes than mental illness has been for hundreds of years, but the portrayals of those that I’ve seen in video games – in the excellent Papo & Yo, and the okay-ish Among the Sleep – are handled much more sensitively and for more of a dramatic effect in the narrative. Outlast is very much “A-bloogy-woogy-woo, run away fast before I hit you with this stick because I’m crazy!”
Not to sound patronising (moreso than necessary) but it’s this kind of exaggeration that has historically led to pretty much every stereotype ever. Yes, people who suffer from a mental illness – especially if they’re unable to access treatment that would help them – are slightly more likely than people who don’t to commit violent crimes. But Outlast takes that and runs it all the way too “A bunch of crazy psycho people went on a big murder-spree because they’re just insane, okay?” And it’s not just murder; without going too much into the gory details, the patients in Outlast can be spotted engaging in torture, cannibalism, and I had to abandon a screenshot of a deformed patient in the name of good taste when I remembered that in-game, he’s standing in front of another patient who is trying to romance a headless corpse.
Is it better that Outlast is set in an asylum for the criminally insane than if it was set in an average prison, or a facility for mental health support groups? Absolutely – and let’s be frank, if you’re designing a video game and you need a setting where the narrative calls for a group of people to act in deranged, unhinged and violent ways with no lengthy justifications, your choices are limited to ‘fictional mental asylum’ and ‘the White House’ – but it’s still not exactly good.
B) Most of the patients in Outlast don’t even attack you.
On the one hand this reminds me a little bit of exceptionalism – the game sometimes draws specific attention to a handful of patients who don’t attack you, but in a way that makes it look like they’re pointing out the sheer novelty of a mentally ill person not trying to murder you – but it’s also true that the majority of the patients in Outlast do not attack you, and some of the more lucid ones have a solid grasp of the situation and are happy to talk about it with you.
The picture above is a character known as ‘Pyromaniac’ who you find in the hospital cafeteria, which is very much on fire. He’s just sitting there on a table, waiting for the fire to consume the building, and himself, and delivers some of the more poignant dialogue in the game. “I had to burn it. All of it. Murkoff took so much from us. Used us. Turned us into these things because nobody cares about a few forgotten lunatics. So let it burn. Burn the whole god damned thing down. Get out. If you want to live, you can get out through the kitchen.” So not only does he not attack you, but he actively encourages you to leave safely, albeit in order to get out through the kitchen, you need to make a detour to activate the sprinkler system (featuring yet another welcome appearance by Chris Walker.) It’s a really nice moment because it shows that even though Red Barrels clearly weren’t trying to deliver any kind of message with their story, they were still capable of including scenes that draw parallels to the treatment of mentally ill people, and it’s delivered in a dramatic but serious and respectful way. You even unlock a note from Miles if you film the speech, which reads “I’m not the only victim here, not by a long shot. I watch a man wait to burn to death, the most painful death imaginable, rather than stay in this place.”
And of course, once you’ve activated the sprinkler system, you come back to the cafeteria and the Pyromaniac is gone and as soon as you head into the kitchen, he jumps out from behind a corner and screams “AAAAANRGGH!” and briefly tries to murder you before pushing you over and running past you, still screaming, back into the cafeteria. So even though the game does feature patients who aren’t interested in turning you into a prop for a Logan Paul video, it only features two who are coherent enough to actually talk to you, and one of them goes completely insane shortly afterwards.
C) Their behaviour is justified because in the story, Murkoff are trying to make patients lose their sanity.
I wanted to see if there had been any major articles about Outlast and ableism on gaming news sites, so with my trademark dedicated research techniques, I googled ‘outlast ableism’ and skimmed the first page of the results. The topic has definitely come up before, with many other, probably better-written, piece about the portrayal of mental illness, but one result that came up with from the ‘Outlast Confessions’ Tumblr page, and I’m really lucky because it was submitted anonymously so I don’t have to worry about looking like I’m specifically calling someone out. Also, this is a completely valid and reasonable response to the topic, so moderate disagreement hopefully shouldn’t look like calling out anyway.
“I hate it when people call this game ableist and banking on the “insane equals violent” trend. It’s like they forgot that this isn’t a normal asylum and these aren’t just any mental patients. These poor guys were being experimented on, treated like animals, subjected to horrors beyond horrors, and are now being hunted down by the likes of Chris Walker, Dr. Trager, Eddie Gluskin and the Walrider. Of course they’re gonna act violent once they get out; they’re scared, confused, and possibly hallucinating! Plus, the majority of them don’t actually attack you or even acknowledge you.”
I do not disagree with this, I simply disagree with the timing of the game, or rather the pacing of these revelations. It’s true that before Miles steps foot inside the asylum, he knows that something wrong is happening inside, and it’s true that once you have all of the facts, it’s completely understandable why these patients are acting like this. But how long does it take you to get all of the facts? There’s a fairly sizeable info-dump in Chapter 7 where you witness an interview with Dr. Wernicke who outlines the whole ‘we’re doing a scary science thing and we need people to be insane for it to work’, but that’s Chapter 7. Of 8. You can apply a justification retrospectively, but that doesn’t mean that the game wasn’t initially running off of stereotypes of the mentally ill.
If I wrote a story that was centred around an incredibly racist, sexist or ableist stereotype, for most of the duration of the story, it looked as though I was playing that stereotype completely straight, and then I subverted it at the last moment for a plot twist, that wouldn’t erase the harmful stereotype I had been using, and personally I think it would come across as rather cheap and almost accusatory, almost as if I was implying “How dare you think I was perpetuating a stereotype? I was just implying the stereotype and counting on you to perpetuate it for me! Any negative opinions you have about this story are now somehow your fault.”
Again, I should point out, the fact that there is a justification for the behaviour in this game at all is far, far better than if there had been none, and Red Barrels deserve credit for that, but Outlast would probably be bereft of all enemy encounters if it wasn’t for the old “Insane Equals Violent” trope.
D) Miles only enters Mount Massive Asylum long after the riot/breakout has taken place.
There are many screenshots I could’ve used here showing the frequent recent corpses you find in Outlast, whether they’re propped up on a chair, stuck in a vent or what I can only describe as ‘literally all over the place’, but I chose this one because it’s one of the first signs you get in the game that something is really wrong and also it’s just hilarious to me that there’s a sign that says “Please wash your hands!” and right next to it there is clearly a chunk of what I think is supposed to be someone’s intestine.
I’ll be honest, this is a response that I actually saw aimed at a complaint about Dead Rising; that in that game, where you are traversing a mall complex that is overrun with zombies, a lot of the survivors you meet are designated ‘psychos’, attack you pretty much on sight and have their own boss fights. And the response to that complaint was “Well, this is a shopping mall that has just been overrun with thousands of zombies, and if you weren’t, for some reason, readily available to start slaughtering an endless wave of the undead, you probably died pretty much immediately.” And this is both a really lazy excuse and also kind of valid.
It’s slightly less valid in the DLC Outlast: Whistleblower because you’re playing as the riot takes place and it turns out that it was exactly what you would expect – a bunch of people running around screaming and stabbing everything in sight – but Whistleblower has its own merits; you’re playing as Waylon Park, the person who sent Miles the email in the main game, warning him about what the Murkoff Corporation are up to, and it turns out Waylon was immediately caught and forcibly admitted to the asylum as a patient himself. At various points in the DLC, Waylon can enter an area and see Murkoff staff running away, usually locking doors behind themselves, and they’ll say things like “Oh God, one of them’s coming!” and “It’s not even human anymore!” which is… I mean, bad, but the Murkoff staff aren’t ever exactly portrayed in a positive light, so it’s at least a tacit “Yeah, these people suck for the way they see the patients of this place,” which is leagues better than it could have been.
E) Well if you’re so smart, how would you have done things differently?
Wow, thank you so much for asking! It means a lot to me that you would be interested to hear in the alterations I would make to Outlast that would, if not entirely remove the more problematic elements, minimize them.
First of all, I completely acknowledge that… well, I don’t want to say I’m being ‘too hard’ on the game, but if Red Barrels had gotten rid of everything that I’ve complained about in this article, there wouldn’t be much game left, and I wouldn’t enjoy what was left as much as I do now. But there’s always room for improvement, and here are some key features I would add into the game.
Firstly, more interactions – or I suppose any interactions – with patients who had not yet undergone treatment the Morphogenic Engine, which to translate for people who haven’t played the game, is the bad thing that makes you go all shouty and violent. You don’t have to reveal your hand immediately, but make it clear very quickly that there are reasons beyond “It’s a mental asylum! Everyone wants to kill you because they’re crazy!” for the events of the game.
Second, give the patients a more genuine reason to attack you. It wouldn’t have been too hard; I thought for about twenty seconds and came up with “Okay so early on in the game, before Miles realises what’s going on, he finds a Murkoff staff jacket and decides to put it on because at this point, he is still breaking and entering into the facility in search of the truth, so it makes sense that he would want to blend in if spotted. Then you can give the patients dialogue which strongly hints that they’re attacking you because they believe you’re a Murkoff employee, which would be kind of understandable in their situation.” If a complete idiot like me can come up with a semi-decent explanation like that, imagine what actually smart people could do!
Thirdly, and this is one that I can link to another video game, just generally tone down how insane all of the patients are. They can still distrust you, they can still attack you, they can still say things that you don’t understand, but everyone in Mount Massive Asylum being a constant 10/10 on the insanity scale gets kind of generic after a while. There was another video game, largely set in an asylum for the criminally insane, which actually did this quite well, but to be fair, it’s understandable if you haven’t heard of it as it was extremely obscure.
Despite Batman: Arkham Asylum being set in, well, Arkham Asylum, and featuring squads of generic enemies to beat up, very rarely is it implied that there’s much mentally wrong with the people you’re fighting, and what with you being Batman, the guy who probably put them in there, it’s understandable that they’d want to attack you. Before anyone charges you with a pipe, there’s an unspoken understanding between the two parties.
Patient: Hello. I do believe that you are Batman, and as a patient of Arkham Asylum, I would rather like to bash you over the head with this pipe.
Batman: Indeed, from your perspective that is entirely understandable, while I respectfully disagree with your course of actions.
Patient: Yes. Anyway, I would like to start trying to bash you over the head now.
Batman: Just one moment please, kind sir.
Patient: Yes, my good man?
Batman: May I just say that in spite of your unusual behaviour, considering the circumstances and both of our backgrounds, it is natural that you are engaging with me in this manner, and in no way does it indicate that you are attacking me due to an underlying mental illness, perpetuating a harmful stereotype?
Patient: You may certainly! That is extremely empathetic of you, and thank you for appreciating my position from all angles and comprehending that this does not necessarily reflect on-
And then Batman punches him in the face while he’s distracted.
I should point out that it was immediately and very kindly/patiently pointed out to me upon linking to this article on Twitter that I had missed a few vital elements of the backstory; namely that directly before the events of Arkham Asylum, there’s a fire at Blackgate Prison which necessitates a huge transfer of prisoners who normally would not have been admitted to Arkham in the first place because they do not fulfil the criteria of being ‘criminally insane’, and also that later on in the game, Batman does end up fighting some of Arkham’s regular inhabitants, who are tastefully named ‘lunatics’. Now, I don’t want to pretend that this doesn’t invalidate a large chunk of the praise that I’ve given Arkham Asylum, but I do still believe that there is at least some merit in the setting of the game being an asylum for the criminally insane, and having most of the enemies not exhibit any of the stereotypical behaviour associated with mental illness. Also, I would lean towards being more lenient to Arkham Asylum than Outlast because as the former is a game based on a comic book series – a game in which two of the main antagonists are The Joker and Scarecrow – then it’s at least slightly more justifiable that some of the people you run into may not be in full possession of their faculties. So Arkham Asylum is an improvement on Outlast, but still has a myriad of problems itself.
So after all of this, there is still one underlying question about Outlast and all of its problems.
Is it okay to still like Outlast in spite of all this?
And the answer to this question is incredibly simple. I cannot make that choice for you.
And I would have really liked to end this blog with the morally superior proposition that, no, of course it’s not okay to like this game, so you shouldn’t, and I don’t, but that clearly that would be incredibly dishonest. Outlast is my 9th most-played game on Steam, beating out Life is Strange, LISA, Night in the Woods, and pretty much everything that isn’t Danganronpa, The Binding of Isaac or Rollercoaster Tycoon. It’s clear that in spite of genuinely believing everything that I’ve just said, it’s not enough for me to not enjoy the game. And I would like to especially point out that if you think this is cowardly and irresponsible and self-serving then that is completely reasonable interpretation of my words. Outlast is clearly very flawed and handles the portrayal of both physical disability and mental illness with all the tact of a cinderblock being dropped from great height onto a bowl of delicious trifle, and it would be a lie to say that I don’t still enjoy – and to an extent, recommend – the game.
I’m reminded of one of the most frequent quote mines I’ve seen of Anita Sarkeesian, one that you’ve probably seen posted quite often by angry men who are definitely taking her out of context on purpose to try to make her look unreasonable, but not because they have a problem with her, or with women in general, but just because… uh… [THIS SPACE INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK]. The quote is “Everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic,” and now here’s the full context.
“I sort of joke about how it was the most liberating thing that ever happened to me, and also the most frustrating for everyone around me. Cause, like, when you start learning about systems, everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic, and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time. So there’s a good year of my life where I was the most obnoxious person to be around. And then you settle into it, you start to understand, like, oh people have been living within these systems, and it was just sort of a liberating moment for me. You learn how to pick and choose your battles and that sort of thing.”
Now, in this day age, when certain political topics arise, being told to calm down and choose your battles is probably not advice that you would find particularly… calming, but in terms of media critique, it has merit. And I believe it has merit because when you look at the quote “Everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic” then Anita isn’t wrong about any of those things; it’s just that we live in a system that has a long and complicated (well, occasionally complicated and most of the time just based on good old-fashioned bigotry) history with intolerance and stereotypes. “Everything is sexist” is not not a complaint, but it’s an admission that you look deeply enough into any form of media then you will find problems. There is no such thing as an ideologically ‘pure’ product, especially when everything has their own individually-formed definition on how much sexism/racism/ableism is enough to turn them away.
“Oh, so this entire article was basically ‘Outlast has some problems and it could be better but nothing will ever be perfect so why even try? Anyway I really like this game, the end, please check out my Patreon and consider donating’ but in 6,000 words and with a smug, self-congratulatory tone in regards to how gosh-darned woke you are?” Well, no. Because it’s not just about picking and choosing your battles, it’s about picking and choosing how you go about them.
Outlast is a game that I sincerely enjoy and it’s also a game that I wanted to discuss the ableism of because I think it’s important that even if you can just about tolerate a problematic work of entertainment, you should still force yourself to be aware of its flaws, and understand how they ended up in the game, and what we can do to avoid them in the future. Because Outlast was far from perfect, and Outlast will never be perfect, and in a manner of speaking, it is literally impossible that Outlast will ever be perfect.
Because it’s not about being perfect. It’s about being better.
… That sounds like a nice place to end! Whew, I’m done! You know, since I’m doing the whole “Ooh, look at me, writing about something smart!” thing, I’m even going to put some links here of all the sources I used!
Here are some of the papers from the NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information) that I read for this!
Violence and Mental Illness https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2686644/
Crime Victimization in Adults with Severe Mental Illness https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1389236/
This is a really great information hub; from the National Center on Disability and Journalism, a List of Disability Organizations https://ncdj.org/resources/organizations/
Stella Young’s TEDx Talk ‘I’m not your Inspiration, thank you very much’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9Gg164Bsw
Probably the only useful thing the British government have ever done, ‘Disability Facts and Figures’ https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/disability-facts-and-figures
And that’s it! I’m done! I can go back to writing about I Am Setsuna and finishing up that Top 10 Games I Played in 2018 article that I inexplicably still haven’t finished in August. I really enjoyed writing this, but I’m glad that now I get to go back just… video games for a bit.
“… You know, if you wrote this much about Outlast and ableism, maybe you could do another article on Outlast 2’s portrayal of organized religion, there’s some really interesting stuff in-“
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