There’s something about a tightly-packed, lo-fi approach to game design that is inherently kind of spooky. The recent popularity of Lilith Walther’s Bloodborne PSX, a “de-make” of FromSoftware’s terrifyingly British Bloodborne, proves that when you can’t fully grasp the details of your surroundings, navigating them becomes an even more harrowing experience.
This is perhaps also the guiding principle for the PS1 Haunted Demo Disc project, which I happened upon recently while browsing the jungle of Online. Skimming the titles included in the bundle, I saw one I recognized from a thread on Twitter — An Outcry, a narrative, text-heavy horror RPG made in RPG Maker 2003.
Like others in the cult-classic genre of RPGM horror (think The Witch’s House, The Crooked Man, and OFF, which Quinn herself translated into English), An Outcry works within the limitations of a somewhat dated engine to create a minimalist, unsettling atmosphere. We play as the Unnamed, a nonbinary protagonist navigating a somber critique of modern Europe amid the ongoing global rise of fascism. Passivity is, for them, no longer an option. But for players, it might be; it all depends upon what we choose, leading to one of five endings along two core story routes.
An Outcry delivers a powerful call to action: when a few tiny sparks drop from the end of a bird’s cigarette, will you snuff them out before they start a fire? Or will you let everything burn? In line with the title’s recent 2.0 content update and current Steam sale, I sat down with lead developer Quinn K. to discuss the game’s core themes and inspirations.
Luca Fisher: Diving right in — where did the seed of inspiration for An Outcry come from? Was there an epiphany, or a slow buildup of ideas?
Quinn K.: It was a steady coagulation. The first seed of the idea was a series of short stories called the “Something Stories” I collaborated with friends on (never to be published), in which a genderless protagonist with it/its pronouns was repeated across a multitude of very different short prose pieces. The idea behind that character was to capture a ubiquitousness of experience in a multitude of taxing border situations.
One of these stories was occupied with depression, and created as a Twine game. From this story, which was eventually finished and put on the internet (no, you can’t see it), I wanted to continue making Twine adventures, and so looked to new ideas. In late 2016, finally, after Trump had been voted into office in the US, I began work on the Twine sketch (now lost) that would eventually turn into An Outcry.
LF: Speaking of 2016 and its related despots, the game is overtly “political” in a way that would make a lot of AAA developers sweat. Was this intentional from the outset, in that early sketch?
QK: See, this is a difficult question — I personally do not feel like much of what An Outcry is saying is political. Are human rights political? Is the right to everyone to lead a self-determined life political? Is agency over one’s body political? Framing it as such, I feel gives way to ill-intentioned discussion where none should be had.
As for that early sketch, there wasn’t much to it yet —the underlying ideas were “politically charged,” I suppose, considering the context it was made in, but if you had been able to read it, your take-away would have been the same as mine: that I used to be really, really bad at finishing stories I set out to create up until around 2019.
LF: I think we’re on the same page about the loaded connotations of “political”, and also about being terrible at finishing stories. Setting real life events aside, were there any other games or pieces of media that informed your development on An Outcry?
QK: Several, too many to really name. I mostly drew from theatre — here’s a short list:
- The Fire Bugs by Max Frisch (a “disciple” of Brecht) gave the game its fire motif, and two of the character names — Schmitt and Eisen — were directly based on the German names of the two “fire bugs” in that play (Schmitz and Eisenring), insidious ideologues that would calmly invite themselves into well-intentioned citizens’ homes, carry barrels of fuel into their attic, and set the place ablaze.
- Bertolt Brecht’s body of work as a whole and much of his theoretical and poetic writing were inspirations, but especially the play The Decision, which is about a young communist agitator consenting to being killed for being counter to the cause. It’s a very confrontational play that invites you to disagree with it; I found it fascinating.
- In direct conversation with the aforementioned, Heiner Müller’s postdramatic rewrite of The Decision, the short text MAUSER, lent the Shrikes much of their speech patterns and the text as a whole much of its flow (incidentally, the letters attached to AO’s endings shape the title of that play).
Outside of theatre, there was Max Porter’s novella Grief is the Thing with Feathers and novel Lanny, as well as several video game-adjacent things such as Killer7, OFF and Petscop.
LF: Given that theater is a core foundation of your work, how did you go about translating the conventions of the stage into game design? Or more generally, where do you consider theater and video games to overlap as artistic mediums?
I consider them to be nearly one and the same — only that theatre requires an amount of space and resources that video games (at least to be experienced by an audience) don’t need. In both, you direct “actors” — in both, you have a visual, audio and written component. What sets them truly apart is their interactivity, but even that part, theatre has debuted in the past with “interactive theater,” and — for example — Brecht’s “teaching plays.”
Both are governed in large parts by smoke and mirrors; both are supposed to be seen in very specific contexts and to be engaged with within specific constraints. They’re both also hell to make!
LF: So true! A labor of love and agony in equal measure. Speaking of which, there’s a line in the game that resonated with me on my second playthrough that says “creations sometimes evolve beyond the grasp of their creators.” Could you elaborate on what that means to you, as a creator sculpting art out of hell?
What this means is that any symbol that you use in your work is, from the point of publication on, no longer yours. Things take on a life of their own, whether in the way that the passing of time recontextualises them, or the way that other people handle them in fanart, fanfiction, or iconography.
The villains of AO — which this line was in reference to — are shown as monstrous, but I have met and conversed with people who found them more engaging than the human cast; this is understandable. Charisma is often afforded to those intending to grab at power, and can sway those who themselves want it and those who feel regularly powerless in equal measure. Both are precarious situations for a human being to be put in; and really, for those few that have played all endings, the conclusion that evil will prosper if left unattended should be obvious.
Additionally, there is a real-world analogue that directly inspired the Shrikes, and as such they were out of my control from the outset.
LF: You mentioned Brecht, earlier — his style, Dialectical theater, is all about education, about driving home a message to the audience that makes them think critically about what they’re seeing. What’s one thing you hope players carry with them after playing An Outcry?
Anne says it outright in the Ignore route: “There’s no room for insipidity, you need to fucking act.” We are bestowed this feeling of disenfranchisement by the circumstances surrounding us, like a thick, black fog, like smoke. But there is power in numbers, and in a shared experience; and there is agency if you care to look closely at the edges of this prison surrounding us.
An Outcry is currently on sale at 40% off until July 23rd, via Steam.