One of the main announcements of the June presentation of the PlayStation 5 was The Outlast Trials, the next title from the Canadian studio Red Barrels. Previously, the developers talked about their intention to release Outlast 3 immediately after the success of the second part, but then decided to diversify the series of numbered titles with something else.
This dedication to the franchise stems from the fact that Red Barrels immediately hit the jackpot with their first project, offering something new to the horror genre.
The studio itself was founded by former EA Montreal and Ubisoft employees Philippe Morin, David Chateauneuf and Hugo Dallaire. Prior to Red Barrels, Maureen and Chateauneuf worked on series such as Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia, while Dallaire served as art director on Splinter Cell and Army of Two.
At some point, all three were working at EA on a new series that was unexpectedly cancelled. The developers were so frustrated with the whole situation that in January 2011 they left their posts and started working on Outlast. Six months later, they had a piece of gameplay on their hands that helped them get funding from the Canada Media Fund.
The decision to found their own indie studio was also caused by the fact that game designers were eager to return to the very creation of games, and not to the endless meetings that their working days in large companies consisted of.
In the story, the player takes on the role of journalist Miles Upshur, who learns about illegal human experiments at the Mount-Massive psychiatric hospital, and decides to go there to conduct his own investigation. However, once Archer transcends the clinic’s vice, he will turn from a seeker of the truth into a desperate victim, trying to hide from all the horrors that this place is fraught with.
The idea to debut on the horror scene came from the developers while working at Ubisoft. On various forums, they saw a lot of interest in the original horror, which was released less and less. Ubisoft did not share the ambitions of game designers, and the idea had to be shelved.
“I think the big studios think horror is a genre of the past,” says Chateauneuf. “Even a series like Dead Space ended up being a shooter anyway.”
“We took the gameplay from Frictional Games’ Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the music from The Shining, and the art direction with video footage from the “Rubber Johnny” short film clip for the Aphex Twin track “Afx237 v.7”,” said Chateauneuf.
In addition, certain parts and events of Outlast were inspired by films such as Cloverfield, The Ward, Session 9, as well as the games Silent Hill, Half-Life, and Mirror’s Edge.
When choosing a scene, the developers were looking for a setting in which it would be easiest to implement enemies with unpredictable behavior. As a result, they realized that the mental hospital would be an ideal place for Outlast levels, because the patients of the hospital can be both aggressive and completely calm.
“You wouldn’t see a maniac in Hannibal Lecter if you met him on the street, would you? At Outlast, you are surrounded by patients. Someone will ignore you, someone will talk, and someone will want to kill you.
The game takes place in the first person, and the hero himself is not able to attack the attackers, and is forced to run away and hide. The player can use the video camera not only as a night vision device, but also to get additional information about the plot and setting by recording certain scenes.
Initially, Outlast had more characters that the protagonist had to meet in the hospital, but they were later cut in order to create the desired feeling of loneliness.
The team brought in screenwriter Splinter Cell to work on the script and overall story. He was supposed to help achieve the same natural storytelling that Half-Life boasts.
“The plot of Outlast needed an unexpected turn of events. We wanted to add a sci-fi element, slowly immersing players in the nature of the hospital experiments,” said Morin.
Music was called to write Samuel Leflemm, and as a guide they pointed to the work of composers Krzysztof Penderecki and Dmitry Shostakovich.
As a result, the starting point of the soundtrack was the sound obtained by the contact of a violin bow and a drum cymbal, reminiscent of a heart-rending human scream. It was this sound that guided not only the composer, but also the sound designer.
«There’s a thin line between music and sound design, and it’s the moments in the game where it blurs that cause the most fear,» Leflemm said.
Red Barrels never planned to expand much. The developers aimed to release AAA-quality titles on a small budget, while having as much fun as possible in the process. However, this approach backfired towards the end of development. By that time, the studio had grown to ten people, but all the same, the last weeks passed in a terrible crunch.
Whatever the case, when Outlast hit digital store shelves in September 2013, critics hailed the game as the epitome of the genre. Scolded, except perhaps a slurred ending, however, according to Maureen, the studio simply did not have enough time to bring it to mind. In three years, the developers have sold more than four million copies of the game, which exceeded all their expectations.
Outlast: Whistleblower (2014)
Six months after the release of Outlast, Red Barrels released the Whistleblower DLC, which in many ways the public accepted even warmer than the original. The developers did not forget the situation with crunch, and work on the DLC went more smoothly, although the release date still had to be pushed back a couple of weeks.
In Whistleblower, the developers wanted not just to add content, but to introduce a new hero and plot, taking into account all the complaints of the players about the last part. The player again had to play hide-and-seek with Mount-Massive patients, but this time on behalf of Waylon Park, an employee of the Murkoff Corporation who decided to expose his employer’s immoral practices. Unfortunately, very soon he himself will become a victim of the experiments of the corporation, unless he manages to escape from the hospital.
Red Barrels hoped to refresh the player experience in every aspect of the game, be it the storytelling or the crazy characters.
“Every scene we asked ourselves: “What can we do differently?”. The new palette of the game is largely set by the patients, their insanity and methods of murder, ”explained Morin.
Outlast 2 (2017)
The proceeds from the sales of Outlast allowed Red Barrels to develop a sequel without a hard time frame. The studio grew to twenty people, and its founders realized that they would never have to deal with big companies again.
The sequel turned out to be 30% longer than the debut part and pleased the players with a variety of locations. The developers presented a more complex plot, which they hoped not only to scare the player, but also to get into his mind.
Outlast 2 stars Blake Langermann as he sets off into the Arizona desert to investigate the mysterious death of a pregnant woman. At some point, Langermann’s helicopter crashes, after which his wife disappears, and the hero himself finds himself in a mysterious village, whose inhabitants believe in the imminent end of the world.
Although this is a completely different setting, it is still connected to the first part, as the developers talked about in specially released comics. This time, the authors of the title were inspired by a variety of material, such as «True Detective», «Omen», «Wicker Man» and others.
In addition, game designers studied the history of the American religious community of Jonestown, which ended in the mass suicide of 909 people. The developers looked to these events to better capture the same level of horror, anxiety, and hopelessness that players felt when they first entered the hospital in the first Outlast.
When creating the soundtrack, Leflemm used guitars, banjo, wood and metal sounds instead of an orchestra, not to mention various percussion.
“Something more was required from the music for Outlast 2, because the player cannot be frightened by already familiar tricks. I had to start all over again,” Leflemm said.
As for the gameplay, the key mechanics of the first Outlast have not gone away. The developers took a step forward in the visual component, and also rewrote the enemy AI.
“We build our games in such a way that the player suffers as much as possible. We want him to experience emotions that he does not associate with video games. If these moments remain with the player for a long time, then we have done a good job. We hope that after the completion of Outlast 2, the players will call for mom, curled up in the corner, ”said Morin.
As in the first part, one of the stressors of the game is the regularly running out of batteries for the video camera. Fans have been asking for a mode without this mechanic to explore the game’s locations, but the developers have instead added an easy difficulty level, at which the battery problem almost disappears.
According to the developers, before you push the player with the enemy, you need to let his imagination run wild.
“In a way, it goes against the basic rules of game design. In most titles, a bunch of mechanics fall out on the player, but in horror it should be the other way around if you want the player to feel helpless. ”- Maureen.
Although after the release, the sequel was criticized much more than the studio’s debut, critics noted the constancy of the developers with which they delight the industry with good horror films.
Probably the most intriguing element of the upcoming The Outlast Trials is its multiplayer, because, as the developers promise, this time you can experience the horrors of the game with your friends, and the setting of the title is somehow connected with the Cold War. Full development was launched at the end of 2019, and the studio promises to release the game only in 2021.
When the studio announced the title in December, there were rumors that Red Barrels would finally enter VR territory. However, very soon the developers denied this information.
“It seems to me that if you work with VR properly, you need to create a separate title. We have too few employees to work on several projects at the same time,” Morin explained.
At one time, Red Barrels promised that Outlast 3 would be practically unrelated to the first two parts, so perhaps The Outlast Trials will be the last return to the universe of the series.