Montreal developer creates unforgettable chills with ‘Outlast’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
You are trapped. You walk quietly down a desolate corridor of Mount Massive Asylum, desperately trying to find an exit. The half-lit halls are polluted with signs of decay and violence.
As you round a corner, the path in front of you is pitch dark. Gasping in fear, you raise your camcorder to your eye, turning on its night vision to see what’s ahead. A few steps in the murky black you see him. The hulking brute who wants to rip you to shreds. You have no weapons, no way to defend yourself.
There is only one option. You run for your life.
In an era where “survival horror” games are a dime a dozen, “Outlast” — the new PC and PlayStation 4 title from Montreal-based developer Red Barrels — is something truly different. A first-person game set in a horrific asylum of the damned, “Outlast” generates more genuine scares during its relatively short length than most big-budget horror titles put together. Its success comes as a triumph for its creators, for whom the game represents a big step in artistic independence.
“We’ve tried to do a horror game before, while we were at Ubisoft Montreal back in 2008, but the upper management wasn’t interested,” Phillippe Morin, co-founder of Red Barrels, said in an e-mail interview with Toledo Free Press. “So, when we stared our own company, we just decided it was time to do it. I guess we were looking for something we hadn’t tried before, but at the same time would allow us to leverage the expertise we’ve learned while working on action-adventure games.
“For a few months, we worked on what we call a Fake Game Footage, which became our trailer. It helped us shape our vision for the game and also it became an important tool to find money and partners.”
The creation of Red Barrels was an important step for Morin and his fellow founders, David Chateauneuf and Hugo Dallaire. While working at one of the biggest software companies in the world, they found themselves increasingly frustrated by the process of developing a new game franchise — “IP” in industry shorthand.
“We were working together at EA Montreal on a new IP. When the project got canceled, we figured it was life’s way to kick our butt,” Morin said of the circumstances surrounding Red Barrels’ founding. “So, we resigned around January 2011 and we started working on ‘Outlast.’ It took us 18 months to find the budget. Most of the money came from the Canada Media Fund. The rest came from our own pockets.”
Between them, Red Barrels’ three leads have had hands in some of the biggest titles of the past decade — “Prince of Persia,” “Assassin’s Creed,” “Uncharted,” “Splinter Cell.” But the larger the games got, Morin said, the more difficult making progress could be.
“When you become a senior developer in a big studio, you end up doing more management and meetings. You spend more time talking about the game than making it. We wanted to go back to a small team development style, so we could work on our game without having to spend an enormous amount of time managing huge teams or waiting for the upper management to make a decision.”
The resulting title is something remarkable, a sort-of “found footage” horror game where players fight for their lives in an expansive mental hospital where unspeakable things have happened — and continue to. The mechanics of the title enhance the feeling of helplessness, as players have only their camcorder’s night vision to help themselves find their way through the barely-lit halls, and if you run out of batteries, you’re as good as dead.
“We did a lot of playtests,” Morin said. “One thing we found out was the players would use their night vision a lot more than necessary. That meant we had balance batteries really well. From a visual perspective, we work out the environment so it fits the atmosphere we’re looking for, than we revisit based on gameplay needs and playtests results.”
Adding to the tension is how defenseless the player is. Your character cannot fight back against any of the horrific creatures roaming the corridors — if spotted, your only hope is to run and hide. “We liked the purity of this design choice,” Morin said. “It allowed us to focus on the player’s emotions, instead of game mechanics.”
Later this month, a new downloadable add-on to “Outlast” — “Whistleblower” — will be released, deepening the story of what happened at Mount Massive and giving players another jolt of terror. As far as the future, Morin said that after “Whistleblower” is released, he and his fellow creators have grander plans — both long and short term.
“We still have lots of ideas for another horror game, but first — vacations!”