Red Barrels’ Outlast has raised a ruckus of fright-fueled excitement since being shown at trade shows like PAX East. We previously spoke with studio co-founder David Chateauneuf about his thoughts on the recent Evil Dead film – a remake of the cult 1981 horror film that launched his obsession with the genre. This time we invited along another co-founder of Red Barrels, Philippe Morin, for a broader discussion about Outlast, its influences, and the current state of mainstream horror games.
In recent years Capcom’s popular Resident Evil series has exchanged horror for action, leaving EA’s Dead Space series as the poster child for big-budget horror games. EA president Frank Gibeau previously stated Dead Space 3 would need to move roughly five million units in order to perpetuate the franchise, but last we heard only 605,000 copies of the game had been sold. With mainstream horror games seemingly on the decline (save for Shinji Mikami’s recently revealed The Evil Within), we asked the developers at Red Barrels what they think.
“The thing about big studios [is they] are always looking for how they can have the biggest audience possible,” says Morin. “And I guess they feel with the horror genre, even though there might be a minimum they can count on, they also feel like they’ll never be able to exceed a certain amount of units sold. So they don’t want to put like 15 or 20 million dollars in this kind of game. I guess it’s the same rationale you might find in movies. You see a whole lot of movies that come out with a smaller budget because they know they can at least count on the fans out there to go see the movies, but then again, you’ll never see a horror movie with the same budget as Avatar. And that’s what digital [distribution] is allowing us these days: We’re able to figure out a way to still make these kind of games but with a much lower budget. And suddenly it makes sense again for a team of 10 people like us to make this kind of game because we know the market is there. We know that there are fans of the genre. They might not be the same numbers as Call of Duty, but for a team of 10 people it makes sense.”
On the topic of small teams creating horror titles, I brought up Frictional Games’ ground-breaking Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The studio’s scary first-person title shares many similarities with Outlast. Both games pass up combat in favor of sneaking past deadly monsters, and emphasize a dark, oppressive atmosphere. I asked the team how much of an influence Amnesia had on Outlast.
“So that was like the initial thing that gave us the direction,” says Morin. “After that we were looking for direction in terms of gameplay, and after playing Amnesia we decided that going all-in with the idea of no combat would be pretty interesting.”
Amnesia may have helped Red Barrels nail down gameplay concepts for Outlast, but both games obviously draw inspiration from the horror genre’s long history of films. I asked Chateauneuf, a horror movie buff, about other inspiration for Outlast. The game features a reporter exploring an ominous, shuttered asylum armed with nothing but a camcorder – a familiar scenario to horror film fans.
“The one that really inspired it was the most I would say – it’s in little pieces – but Rec and Quarantine were really something that inspired us,” says Chateauneuf about the found-footage horror flicks. “In those movies they are always recording or a reporter gets into places…and then you always have that night-vision camera where we can see some things. That was something that I thought, ‘Why is there no game like that?’”
The 2007 trailer for Rec
In addition to looking at the dangerous world through a camcorder screen, Outlast immerses players with intense audio design. A muscle-bound monster mutters to himself as he hunts for you, offering clues to his position. Fleeing from a close encounter also causes the protagonist to breath frantically.
“The breathing of the main character – that’s a tricky one, because if you do it too much, then for some players it will become a disconnect,” says Morin. “If there’s too much breathing, then they start feeling like they are playing a character and they are not themselves in the game. Because that’s the strength of a first-person game. You feel like you are the one that is actually there in the game. But if you do it enough, then it becomes a tool to affect the player’s emotion to have an impact on the intensity.”
After speaking with these Red Barrels team members, it’s clear that the developer knows how to get a reaction from its audience. The unnerving audio design, immersive use of night vision, and Chateauneuf’s familiarity with the genre have me confident that we’re in for a disturbing time when Outlast arrives on PC later this year.