What's real and what isn't in Outlast 2?
Before we get started, it should be obvious we're heading into heavy spoiler territory for Outlast 2 (and the previous Outlast games and the associated comic books). Read our spoiler-free review if you're interested in finding out if the game is right for you.
Outlast 2's ending was easily the most psychologically confusing, “what the hell just happened?” in recent video game history. An ending layered in ambiguity, trippy psychological effects, and enough of a flat-out harrowing journey into hell to make the final scene feel like a rolling, twisting ball of about a hundred questions and only ten answers.
We asked Red Barrels directly to try to clear things up, but as you might expect they preferred to keep most of the details mysterious. That means it's going to be up to us to weigh the evidence for ourselves.
Let's dive right into the most controversial elements of the Outlast 2 story.
The End of Outlast 2
After a long journey to rescue his wife Lynn, fighting through a harrowing descent into madness, protagonist Blake discovers that not only has his wife gone from zero to nine months pregnant in the space of about two days, but she's giving birth to what appears to be a healthy child. The childbirth appears to kill her (we may be using that word "appears" a lot in this article), leaving Blake alone holding the child on the steps of an altar.
Lynn's last words are: “There's nothing there.”
Moments later, terrifying cult-leader Knoth appears to an emotionally broken Blake. Knoth condemns the child, claims he has no power to kill the Antichrist anymore, and then kills himself. Blake walks down into the village, sees a tableau of dead townspeople, and then looks into the rising sun only to watch it explode.
At this point one way to look at these events is that this is a simple story of the coming of the Antichrist. The Rapture, the end times, every Christian apocalypse story is happening all at the same time.
Lynn's final words could be a subtle statement about the afterlife, as she's dying she sees nothing, which frames her final words as a grim observation of the future for all mankind.
On the one hand, this could be exactly what Red Barrels were going for, and it's exactly the lead up that the entire second half of the game creates. On the surface it's easy to read the game as a straightforward tale of two cults. The Antichrist comes and is welcomed by one and is cast out by the other. Every obvious story element points in this specific direction, and no one mentions anything otherwise.
Yet that begs the question. Why call it Outlast 2? Why would Red Barrels go through so much trouble to assure the fans that the game comes after the events of the original Outlast in the very same universe? What would a story of the Antichrist have to do with Murkoff (so important to the first games in the series), with sci-fi-esque experiments and WWII scientists that create creatures like the Walrider? Where's Miles Upshur? Where's the Walrider?
Most importantly, would the developers go through all of that trouble just to end the story and potentially the universe with an apocalyptic bang?
The answer is that Red Barrels probably wouldn't destroy everything, and that they probably wouldn't just slap the Outlast brand on whatever horror title they felt like creating.
Which means the ending, and in fact that entire game, is hiding something.
A Pregnancy that Never Happened?
So what does that have to do with Lynn's baby? Well, the prevailing theory is that she probably wasn't pregnant at all, and that the whole terrifying shebang may have had Murkoff's bloody fingerprints all over it.
For anyone not familiar with the first game, the Murkoff Corporation are the big baddies behind all the terrible things that go on at Mount Massive Asylum. They converted everyone's favorite murder asylum to a facility where they tested and developed the Walrider Project, which used victims of severe psychological trauma, along with the Morphogenic Engine, to create and control a swarm of deadly nanobots.
We also know, thanks to several documents found in the first game and the Outlast comics, that the Morphogenic Engine and the Walrider Project could be used to orchestrate the mass manipulation and mind control of a populace. Which, when applied to female subjects, could occasionally have an additional symptom called pseudocyesis, or false pregnancy.
So that's exactly what fans believe Lynn experiences, and that Blake and Knoth are sharing some kind of delusion that a baby is actually born. Pseudocyesis can replicate a number of the symptoms of pregnancy without ever creating a fetus, including the massive swollen belly that Lynn carries through the nightmare of Outlast 2.
In this context, Lynn's last words are therefore less of an existential observation and more of a general statement of surprise that after the birth Blake isn't actually holding anything. This is further compounded by the fact that when you look at Blake's shadow his hands appear to be empty, despite the baby we can clearly see in his arms.
A Light in the Dark
Of course there's no overt mention of any kind of manipulation from Murkoff in Outlast 2, but there's no denying that Outlast 2 is a practice in the art of indirect storytelling. We have to look deeper if we want to figure out what the heck is going on, and even then it may not be possible to nail down a "correct" answer, as Philippe Morin hinted in our interview.
Although we never see Murkoff planting a flag in Knoth's slimy version of the bible, what we do see are several mysterious flashes in the early acts of the game accompanied by a strange blaring horn.
One of these flashes of light occurs just before Blake and Lynn's chopper goes down in the beginning of the game, and the others often occur when Blake is about to be attacked by the members of Knoth's congregation. After the flash the cultists are momentarily stunned and stumble around like they're seeing things that aren't really there.
Eventually the flashes seem to cease, and no one really mentions them again. Of course based off of the congregation's reaction it's likely they're experiencing some pretty dramatic hallucinations themselves, and may not even realize where their insanity ends and reality begins.
This could indicate that the flashes actually never cease, and that they're instead replaced with the hallucinations Blake experiences concerning a school and a girl named Jessica. A flash could trigger the hallucinations, or in Blake's case the repressed memories, we experience throughout the game. Perhaps the townsfolk experience similar hallucinations, guided and shaped by Knoth's ravings.
This would explain how Blake is occasionally able to escape into a dream world right when things are getting really dicey. At several critical moments in the course of the game, Blake seamlessly transitions into one of his hallucinations. Miraculously, when he comes out of the hallucination he's in a safe area, no one is chasing him anymore, and no one is trying to rip him to pieces (for a time, anyway). It's like the people trying to kill him simply gave up, or they suddenly just had more important things to deal with. Maybe they were being similarly forced to deal with their own hallucinations inspired by childhood trauma and the systematic murder of their own children in the name of Knoth?
With that in mind, it's important to note that one of the final flashes we see in the game, as catastrophic as it seems, also triggers one of Blake's hallucinations. It sends him right back to the moment he and Jessica entered the cafeteria store room.
Maybe this flash was worse because something went wrong with whatever technology was behind the events. Or maybe it's a sign of Blake's shattering sanity. Or maybe it was the final stage of the testing, to see how the Morphogenic Engine effects a large, unknowing populace.
Supporting this idea is actually the recently released 5th edition of the Murkoff Account, Red Barrels' comic book series based in the Outlast universe. In the comic one of the main characters, Paul Marion, a Murkoff litigation officer, is out investigating a lead given to him by a mysterious third party.
The lead is a set of GPS coordinates that correspond almost exactly with the assumed location of Temple Gate in Arizona (the primary setting of Outlast 2). After his vehicle breaks down about 20 miles away from the coordinates he wanders lost in the desert until a massive flash of blue light rips through the night sky. After that, Marion immediately flips into a flashback of the day his wife passed away.
When he comes to, he's attacked by a man protecting a young pregnant woman who's later revealed as the same woman that leads Blake and Lynn to search for Temple Gate. This event almost perfectly mirrors the hallucinations Blake experiences, as the character lost time, awakes in a new location, and relives a vivid and painful past event. It's a parallel that almost undeniably confirms that the flashes of blue light are linked to these hallucinations, and the reason we stop seeing them is likely because the hallucinations seamlessly take their place.
Evidence that Murkoff is involved
So the question is why we would think these flashes, or the hallucination themselves, are linked to Murkoff rather than acts of God or Satan alike? That's because players have found documents in Outlast 2 discussing a strange tower out in the forest, which when approached overwhelmed the author of the note with waking dreams of mouths, flames, and various sexual organs.
Additionally, Red Barrels recently launched a tumblr full of pictures and videos teasing the Trinity edition of Outlast. One of these depicts a cellphone tower or something similar in what appears to be the Arizona desert with the caption, “People are getting hurt and Murkoff is making money” and another pointing at the tower from afar captioned, “Please let there be no dreams.”
Additionally, in the fifth Murkoff Account comic the second main character, Pauline Glick, recognizes something in Anna Lee, the young pregnant girl who escapes Temple Gate, that prompts her to snap the young mother to be's neck right there in the hospital.
Glick's whole life is about safeguarding Murkoff's assets, so by killing Anna Lee she has to think that in some way she's protecting Murkoff, which inexplicably links the young girl, and all of Temple Gate, to Murkoff.
The implication is that even if we never see it overtly stated in-game, Murkoff has a strong but subtle presence in the area. The company is broadcasting some variation of the Morphogenic Engine over the airwaves either as a low sub-audible tone or as a more dramatic pulse of light and sound via the towers in the area.
Protagonist Miles Upshur commented several times in the original Outlast that it felt like there was a constant low buzzing in the asylum, worming its way into his thoughts, slowly eroding his sanity. A similar low tone is nearly always present in Outlast 2 if you stop to listen. Although it could just be a portion of the game's sound design, it could also be a subtle hint that Murkoff is taking a much more hands-off approach to experimenting with the Morphogenic Engine after the disaster at Mount Massive. They're broadcasting the tone throughout the area via these hidden towers to terrorize Knoth's flock so they can observe and catalog the results.
Add in the fact that there's a faction in Outlast 2 which seems to be suffering from a form of syphilis so intense that they're practically mummified zombies, and you start to wonder if there's a link between their condition and the engorged tumors and lesions suffered by the inmates of Mount Massive. The Morphogenic Engine may enhance diseases and imperfections among those affected, including brain tumors for the mentally ill and a heavily advanced form of STD for infected members of Knoth's congregation.
Either way, when observed in the context of the Outlast universe the facts clearly point to Murkoff and the Morphogenic Engine working in some capacity in the area. It could be they're directly manipulating the populace in an attempt to perfect a new technology, it could be they've restarted the Walrider program in secret near Knoth's congregation, or it could be some combination of the two.
Assuming the baby is real, this could all be an attempt to create a perfect biological incubator for the Walrider. One where the mother is exposed to the horrors required to host the Walrider, and the child born out of exposure to that horror in the womb becomes some kind of superior host. Or maybe the child really doesn't exist, but somehow Lynn birthed another Walrider swarm that somehow looks like a child or can convince those around it that it's a helpless baby. Any one of these would certainly fit Knoth's definition of an Antichrist.
Assuming the child isn't real, then Murkoff could be running a completely unknown experiment on the populace or simply working in the area. The effect on Knoth's congregation could simply be an unfortunate accident. What we see at the end of the game could also be a result of exposure to the Morphogenic Engine either driving Blake entirely insane, or an example of Murkoff implanting thoughts and images into their subject's minds. So although Blake is sure he sees a child, in fact he's only seeing what Murkoff wants him to see. We see the child through his eyes, but the lack of a shadow is a hint that things aren't what they seem.
Knoth definitely seems to see the child as well, which implies some kind of shared delusion, but there could be a plethora of reasons he claims to see it even if it's not actually there. He's never exactly been stable, and that assumes that he's even real himself. He could very well be another of Blake's delusions, or part of the same implanted thoughts and images Murkoff is using to create the child. Once we've accepted that hallucinations are a big part of the story in Outlast 2, it becomes difficult to pin down definite limits to those hallucinations.
A Final Significant Theory
Just when we think we have things figured out, the release of the fifth comic brings up a whole new round of questions. Two important facts regarding Anna Lee's pregnancy are revealed in the comic. The first is that Anna Lee has a significant other of some kind in the form of the young man helping her escape Temple Gate, and the second is that Anna Lee was by all medical accounts carrying a healthy human boy.
We don't know if the significant other is the source of the pregnancy or if it's somehow related to Knoth, but either way it's clear that she was actually pregnant. So what are the odds of her hiding that pregnancy for nine months in a town like Temple Gate? A town where everyone is concerned about childbirth and the killing of those children to save the world?
The smart money says it's extremely low.
Psychosomatic pregnancies in the comics appear along virtually the same timeline as a normal pregnancy. So what if real pregnancies progress at a much more rapid rate, prompting Anna Lee to run with no supplies, no plan, and only her boyfriend (and potentially the father of her child) to protect her?
It came as no surprise to anyone in Temple Gate that Lynn was both pregnant and all set to deliver her child in less than two days. So what if that's the norm for them, what if pregnancies come to term in days rather than months? It could be a side effect of the Morphogenic Engine on pregnancy that mirrors the increased strength and cellular regeneration people experience when exposed to the same signal.
Murkoff mentioned in the comics that they moved all female staff out of Mount Massive to another site where they could more easily explore the effects on female physiology. Maybe Temple Gate became the ideal location to start back up again. Pauline Glick certainly recognizes something in Anna Lee and her unborn healthy child that prompts her to kill the soon-to-be mother. So was she trying to prevent her from revealing Temple Gate's location, or was she protecting proprietary research? Glick has shown previously in the comics that she prefers to buy people off, so killing Anna Lee could indicate that there was something more to her condition.
If this is the case it's possible that either Lynn was pregnant with Blake's child when they arrived, or became pregnant against her will during her time separated from Blake. She definitely didn't want to talk about it when she was reunited with Blake, which could mean she was still traumatized from the affair, or that she had found out at an earlier date but never told Blake so that they could continue to function as investigative journalists without Blake worrying and fretting over her condition.
In this case, the child could very well be real, Knoth and Blake saw the same thing because it actually exists, and the lack of the shadow in the scene where Blake is holding the child is more an oversight in game design or graphical rendering during a scene than anything else.
Blake and Lynn's child could be something Murkoff wants to keep secret, and it certainly makes more sense from a story aspect to have the child be real than not. A child that doesn't exist cuts off about seven possibilities, from Walrider host to a full-blown Antichrist, while having the child exist as part of a hallucination really only opens up the possibility that Murkoff can potentially control someone's perception on a much more complex level than we originally thought.
It's crazy, Outlast 2 is crazy, and we're hopelessly addicted to figuring out all the answers.