I’m typing this in madcap haste because I only just heard about a Kickstarter for the greatest game of all time. And the campaign has only four days left to go. So think of this as the blog equivalent of your TV screen going crackly and dissolving to an emergency announcement. We interrupt your regular program...
Oh, which game am I talking about? Outcast, of course.
Outcast was released in 1999 to a whole lot of fanfare, courtesy of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra no less, and Atari’s (then Infogrames) CEO Bruno Bonnell on a high wire in a leotard. Which is not something you’d catch Bill Gates doing, though he can jump over a chair.
At first glance, Outcast fits neatly into the adventure genre, albeit with an unusual pitch of science fantasy imagination that owes more to Vance, Druillet and Moebius than to the usual Flash Gordon serials that inspired Star Wars - and everything else like it that's come since. Outcast wasn't just an original setting, though. It did so many things its own way that it really defies definition.
Our hero is Cutter Slade, a Navy SEAL who is roped into a dimension-hopping experiment that takes him to an alien world where he learns that he’s a legendary hero whose coming has been prophesied for years. Hitting the ground running, Cutter has to lead a revolution, rescue the girl, and save the planet Earth from destruction.
Sounds familiar? Not the way Outcast does it. (Trust me on this. If I know anything, I know a good interactive story.)
To begin with, most story-based videogames even today are mostly linear. Outcast is an open world that allows the player to explore the story in the same way that he or she explores the landscape – by roving freely between different territories, picking up information in no particular order, ignoring elements that don’t interest and concentrating on others that do. No two players’ experience of the Outcast storyline are exactly alike.
It also helps that Outcast has a witty, intelligent script that keeps our interest and makes us care about the characters. The musical score, composed by Lennie Moore, would do credit to a great Hollywood epic. The voice acting is superb and the sound effects highly evocative. As we walk through the market of Talanzaar we hear the babble of voices, the strains of pipe music and the trudge of alien feet on ochre sand and we can easily forget that there are only a few characters visible on screen at any one time. It feels like a teeming city.
Also, Outcast is far beyond the simplistic black-and-white conflicts you usually get in SF blockbusters. Cutter’s enemies don’t do things simply because they are evil. Characters have real, complex motivations. There's at least one twist that is thought-out and executed as brilliantly as the best moments in cinema. And what makes it all the more believable is that the bad guys aren’t orcs or occupying aliens, existing solely to do evil acts. They are an army drawn from the same population they terrorize.
But all those things merely show that Outcast can do great storytelling as well as any movie. The really important factors are the unique stylistic touches that go to make it more than just an interactive adventure movie. To play this game is to take a trip to an amazing new world.
Outcast is full of great locations. The landscapes are set against alien skies that were painted as dioramas by lead artist Franck Sauer. There are points during Outcast that you have to forget about the adventure for a moment and just stop and marvel at a breathtaking view.
The creatures who populate the alien world, the Talan, aren’t just humans with a few bobbles stuck on their head. They really are alien, different, interesting. Their unusual appearance is a clever way around the limitations of the graphics, of course. We don’t have the same expectations that an alien face will display detailed emotion, so we quickly get used to taking emotional cues from their gestures and tonal inflection instead. But that’s just the technical question. Most importantly, the quaintly comical Talan with their clumsy splay-footed gait and child-like innocence are endearing. We get to like them, and so saving their world ceases to be a cliché or a mere game objective. It becomes personal. It’s something we want to do.
Outcast is distinguished by hundreds of tiny details that reveal the care and artistry that have gone into its creation. The rusty streaks that stain the stonework of Fae Rhan’s palace, the unique and clearly non-Terran flora and fauna, the simple yet engrossing subplots, the breathtaking otherworldly vistas, the humour and the humanity. All contribute to a work of art that ranks among the greatest in history. Cutter Slade goes on an adventure. And we go with him.
Now, the original team are trying to raise the money to overhaul the old voxel-based graphics and give the game an up-to-date look. It deserves to find a whole new generation of players, and maybe – thanks to Kickstarter – it will.
UPDATE (March 2017) - The Kickstarter didn't reach its target, but Appeal are now working on Outcast: Second Contact for a UK publisher, so here's hoping Brexit doesn't scupper that.