Monday, April 2, 2007

Notes on Outcast

Outcast was a remarkable game produced by the now-defunct Belgian studio Appeal and published by Infogrames (now Atari) in 1999. If you've seen the movie Stargate you have the gist of the game's plot. Your character is transported to a network of worlds connected by stargates (sorry, daokas). These worlds are populated by humanoid aliens who have learned some English (if you've seen the movie you have an idea why), and are ruled by an oppressive tyrant. It seems everyone has been expecting your arrival for many years, and you are thrust into the role of a messiah. It's a lengthy action-adventure, so you can expect much combat, conversation, and carrying of items.

Outcast was released during the early days of hardware 3D acceleration, when accelerators were capable of pushing lots of pixels but not much else. 3D-accelerated games tended to all look pretty similar. Rather than go down the hardware-acceleration road, Appeal opted to use a software renderer. This allowed them to produce gorgeous effects that would not be possible in hardware rendering for several more years. These effects included things like depth-of-field blurring, bump mapping, and environment-mapped water reflections. The terrain was rendered using raycasting (a restricted form of raytracing); doing a terrain with the same density of detail using polygons is a bit of a challenge even today.

Unfortunately, the graphic effects came at a heavy cost: you needed a top-of-the-line PC at the time, but it rendered to sub-640x480 resolutions. These ended up limiting the market of people who wanted to play the game, as gamers with high-end PCs also tended to have 3D accelerators that they wanted to see put to use.

The soundtrack is sumptuous, featuring both the Moscow Symphony and Choir. The songs are wonderful. Dialogue is spoken throughout; the games uses cell-phone GCM compression and so is able to fit vast amounts of speech into a modest amount of disk space.

Outcast made some interesting design decisions that I want to mention:

The aliens had their own language before being introduced to English. Like most situations where a conqueror's language is superimposed on a native language, lots of nouns remain from the native language, and the aliens will occasionally talk to each other entirely in their own language, leaving you feeling somewhat left out. In Outcast you are overwhelmed at first by the new vocabulary, but the game provides you with a lexicon that fills in as you are introduced to new words, and soon you know all about daokas and the rest. I found this to be quite immersive; the designers went the extra mile to make the world feel plausible.

Innumerable games have numbers representing the player's strength, dexterity, and so forth, which improve over the course of the game. Rather than the player character getting stronger or faster, Outcast gives you missions to complete which weaken the enemies. For instance, you can cut off their food supplies, sabotage their weapons production, or cut off their pay. These have different, specific effects: cutting off food reduces their hit points, sabotaging weapons reduces the amount of damage they do, and cutting pay reduces the overall number of soldiers you can encounter. I like this approach very much.

Being an adventure game, there are many, many times when you need to travel somewhere to talk to someone. The game world is fairly densely populated. Some of these characters have names and are important to the game plot; the majority of them are “extras” and can only provide general information. Finding a specific named person among the crowds could be a major challenge, but the designers provided a fantastic mechanism that I am still amazed few other games have done: you can stop and ask for directions.

When you strike up a conversation with someone, one of the things you can ask is “Where's So-and-so?” Depending on how far away the target is, you will get different answers. If the target is in a different world, the person will tell you which one. Once you're in the right world but far away, you will get an indication of the general area the target occupies. As you get closer you get more precise answers, until you are within sight; then the person you are talking to will simply turn and point, saying “That's him, over there.”

The behavior of people in general is quite good. They have business to do: moving boxes, harvesting riss, delivering water, begging, mining, or collecting taxes, to name just a few activities. When gunfights erupt they cower or run. Soldiers take cover and step out to fire. Their leaders will call them to arms, and they circle around to try and get crossfire on you.

To conclude: I'd highly recommend trying out this game if you can get your hands on it. It runs fine on modern computers with a couple of exceptions. Movement through rice paddies is excruciatingly slow (instead of being merely slow, as intended), and mounted riding on twonhas is problematic; they tend to get stuck. I don't remember either of these problems when playing it originally, so it probably has something to do with the vastly higher clock speeds modern computers have. Neither of these problems is a game-breaker.

Addendum: I wrote the post from memory, not having played Outcast in a couple of years. I fired it up tonight to grab a screenshot. Unfortunately it doesn't run so well on my current computer; it crashes consistently when I attempt to travel through the portal shown above. Hopefully your luck will be better. Outcast does some interesting things with its data files (such as the GSM compression for voice) which I hope to cover in a future article.

Next Monday: Grid raytracing code in Haskell


Worthstream said...

Quick comment, since i'm at work...
First of all: Great blog! :)
You're now being aggregated :)

I'm looking to find a copy of Outcast, the ludeme "you become stronger by weakening your enemies" seems quite interesting!

As for the compatibility problems: VirtualPC or DosBox could solve the problem, perhaps?

James McNeill said...

Thanks for the kind words! I've got loads more stuff to write up.

I haven't tried VirtualPC or DosBox yet with Outcast. It's not a DOS application so I don't think DosBox would apply. I looked briefly into slowdown utilities; something like that might help.

Anonymous said...

OK. So I just now found your blog. I also think OUTCAST is GREAT!! So much fun and round things (wheels) that are ROUND. Anyway, if anyone sees this perhaps they can help with a small problem. I reinstalled Outcast on XP+sp2 and whenever Cutter is in the swamp on Shamazaar, he moves EXCEEDINGLY SLOW. Like cold molasseses slow.

Post here and I'll be back in a couples days to check.

Anonymous said...

I just tried Outcast on XP and got the molasses swamp in Shamazaar, too. So, I'll just remember what a great game it was, because you have to go out into the water a number of times and there are goodies to pick up, too. Too bad, 'cause riding those big turkey things was the best and the dialog with the locals was amazing.

droid factorial said...

Looks like walking through swamp and riding the turkey things are fixed in a community patch. Looks interesting.

James McNeill said...

Yes, I should mention here that Outcast is now also available from Good Old Games ( It appears to be the version with the patches applied. I recently played through the whole game again (it really is great!) and the only place where I still had trouble was in trying to jump up to the lighthouse in Cyana to replace the burnt-out bulb. I think I had to employ a slowdown utility to get past that one point.