Outbreak: The New Nightmare

Have you ever started watching a horror movie where you realized early on that the content of the film was going to get under your skin in a very particular and uncomfortable way? I had that experience when I fired up Outbreak: The New Nightmare for the very first time.

As I’m typing this, I’m in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city currently under curfew. There are two major events happening in this city right now. Firstly, there’s a pandemic. I’m not allowed to leave the apartment without wearing a mask, and I’m supposed to maintain some amount of distance between myself and others. Secondly, riot police have been dispatched in the city to “protect” the downtown area from looters and rioters. I use scare quotes around that word intentionally — the mismanagement of this situation by the authorities has caused a rapid escalation that’s led to an extended period of unrest, which is exacerbated by the late-summer heat and the level of cabin fever we’re all experiencing after having spent the summer in lockdown.

When I first started Outbreak: The New Nightmare, it didn’t feel like a new nightmare at all. The themes of global pandemic and civil unrest can be witnessed by simply putting on a mask and walking around town for a bit.

Outbreak: The New Nightmare

And that feels indescribably weird. The game isn’t scary. It’s the slow, plodding sort of zombie game that I’ve been enjoying ever since the first Resident Evil in the 1990s. But there’s a familiarity to it that’s eerie. The things in the game that are designed to make it a survival horror experience are the same things that are happening in this city right now. Well, minus the zombies, of course.

What makes this even weirder is that everything about Outbreak: The New Nightmare is disempowering. Characters move slowly and clumsily. The controls are frustratingly counterintuitive. The menus are disorienting. Zombies accumulate faster than your ammo reserves until you’re ultimately overwhelmed and your run comes to an end.

None of this is deliberate. The game might be new to the PS4, but it initially came out on Steam back in 2018, long before the COVID-19 pandemic or the real-world protests, so any references to current events are coincidental. And though the survival horror genre goes hand-in-hand with disempowerment, some of the design choices here — especially the menus — just seem poorly designed and confusing. I don’t think the menu design was a deliberate attempt at disempowerment so much as a clumsy attempt at putting all the necessary elements of a menu into one place.

I’ve only just begun my time with Outbreak: The New Nightmare, but I can already tell this is going to be a strange experience. Maybe the controls will start to feel more natural as I get deeper in, and maybe the menus will start making sense to me at some point. But the sense of unease that I’m feeling right now? I think I’m going to carry that with me through this whole game.

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