The horror genre has been a significant staple in all forms of entertainment for nearly one hundred years, giving birth to iconic characters ranging from the classics of Nosferatu and Frankenstein to the more recent of cult villains like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. The genre itself is one of the longest-running in all of film, but it’s also played a major role in video games too, albeit on a slightly lesser scale.
Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Clock Tower have all been pivotal pillars in the horror genre’s growth within the video game landscape, and while the aforementioned series aren’t quite as potent in today’s modern society – they’ve paved the way for new and exciting experiences that breathe dread, terror, and suspense.
Alien: Isolation, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and Outlast are among a vast selection of modern horror titles that embrace what the classics have worked so hard to build, with the genre developing its own niche audience. Fans of film and video game horror are always on the lookout for new experiences to engage in, and technology is allowing experiences of both a AAA and a smaller scale to filter through for fans to enjoy.
One of the more recent examples comes from independent developer Red Barrels Games, the developers of Outlast and its DLC, Outlast: Whistleblower. With horror engrained in their minds, they jumped the AAA ship and made their own independent games studio to create experiences that they wanted to share to the world. I recently caught up with one of the Co-Founders of Red Barrels Games, Philippe Morin, and talked about the origins of the studio, Outlast, the independent games industry, and Outlast 2. Here’s what he had to say.
In the late 2000’s, Hugo Dallaire, David Chateauneuf, and Philippe Morin were working at EA Montreal on a project that was inevitably cancelled. Dallaire, an Art Director whom had worked on the first Splinter Cell game, and Chateauneuf and Morin, both designers on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the original Assassin’s Creed, were ready to work on something different.
The project that was cancelled at EA Montreal acted as a catalyst to push the developers into gear to work on something both new and frightening — that being the creation of their own studio, Red Barrels Games.
“It was life’s way of kicking our butt,” Morin said. “We were pretty much at the same point in our career, we all felt it was the next move we should be doing.”
The independent game industry was still very young at this point in time, and it was a major risk to embark on such a big task — although the small team felt like it was a risk worth taking. They wanted to create an environment in which they could make the games they wanted to create without the boundaries of a major publisher, and this gave them the opportunity to solely focus on single-player action and adventure games.
“We just went for the best developers we could find who had the guts to join a start-up and were interested in making a horror game.”
That of course was not the easiest of tasks, as the weight of running an independent studio started to bare its teeth very early on.
“You need insurance for employees, a payroll provider, accounting, lawyers,” Morin continued.
“It’s a lot of paperwork and it can sometimes drive you insane, but it is vital. If you underestimate it, the project will be like a cruise on a sinking ship and you may not reach your destination.”
There was a year and a half of uncertainty during the early days of Red Barrels Games, as the team sought after money to finally begin work on their own horror game, Outlast.
“We had a lot at stake and we didn’t want to fail.”
The idea of making a horror game had always been floating around the developers minds, so much so that the team had gone to Ubisoft Montreal to try and convince them to make one. The studio remarked that there wasn’t a large enough market for it.
“We reasoned that since we were going to make Outlast with a small team and a small budget, we wouldn’t have to worry about making revenues like that of Assassin’s Creed in order to be profitable.”
The team were rebuffed. Outlast had to be made on their own accord, without the pressures and time spent in a studio focused on major AAA series. This was another factor at play for the developers decision to move out of the AAA business and create their own independent studio. The question was, though, where do they start?
Dellaire suggested the team use Rubber Johnny, a YouTube short film created by Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin, as a base reference for the game.
“We immediately agreed it would be a very good starting point for a horror game, and just like that – it was settled, the first project of our new studio would be a horror game.”
“Starting from scratch with our own studio would allow us to use the expertise we had gained on past projects and execute according to our own priorities,” Morin continued.
“We were excited and eager to meet the challenge.”
It took Red Barrels Games eighteen months to find funding to make Outlast, and during this time the team spent a lot of their time brainstorming and refining ideas on what Outlast will entail and how it’ll be executed. The team wanted to create something different to what had previously been seen, and their ideas and expectations for Outlast were further reinforced by their knowledge of the genre.
“We played a lot of horror games and watched a lot of horror movies, and dissected them to learn as much as possible.”
“It took us a little while to figure out the nature of the experiments the Murkoff Corporation would be performing on the patients,” Morin said.
“We wanted something that could be a twist but also allow us to create cool mutations.”
“We wanted to create an intense and emotional rollercoaster ride.” – Philippe Morin, Co-Founder of Red Barrels Games.
Outlast had a plethora of influences that helped shape it into what it eventually turned out to be, of those the most notable are horror staples: Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Call of Cthulu.
Red Barrels didn’t just want to go for jump scares though, as they wanted to make an atmosphere that exuded tension as well as mixing in a story that genuinely had purpose and meaning behind it.
“We wanted to create an intense and emotional rollercoaster ride,” Morin said.
Blending a good story and horror gameplay is never simple, and because of the eighteen months of fund-finding, Red Barrels had done most of their research and understood the pressures of creating a game that would bring in both fans of story-rich, narrative-driven gameplay as well as a genuinely frightening and foreboding experience. They knew that the task at hand was a difficult one, but it had to be fine-tuned to really flourish.
“Making a horror game is tricky because everything has to be in place in order to find out if the game is scary.”
“As the developers, it’s really hard to take a step back and see for yourself if the game is working because you know it inside out and it isn’t scary for you,” Morin continued. “You have to rely on your instincts and play tests.”
Testing was vital to gauge the game’s scare level, and the team made use of PAX conventions to test out how scary Outlast really was.
“At PAX East, we had our booth built specifically to isolate players and put them in the dark as much as possible.”
“We had two stations enclosed by curtains, which meant that people passing by couldn’t see the content in the demo. We also got the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones we could find.”
“We were anxious,” Morin said. “We didn’t know what to expect.”
“Slowly but surely, a line started to form in front of our booth and to our great pleasure, the screams began.”
“It was so satisfying to hear players reactions and then to see the people in line giggling nervously. Twice a player jumped out of fear and partially knocked down one of the booth’s walls!”
“By the third day, people were lining up for up to two hours to play the demo. We were ecstatic.”
The team also used PAX as a way of gauging how players interacted with the world of Outlast, and used player feedback to determine whether or not to implement certain items in the game.
“At some point, we also had the main character get a gun with limited ammo, but we did a little survey at PAX East and realized most people didn’t use any weapon.”
It was an important and fundamental part of Outlast’s development, but showcasing a horror game at an event like E3, PAX, or Gamescom is not necessarily easy, considering the events are very noisy and there’s a lot of traffic moving in between booths.
While the goal of Outlast was to blend a rich story with a frightening experience to scare players, it probably wasn’t expected that someone would literally collapse while playing the game at E3.
“His legs just gave up because of the stress or something,” Morin said.
“For a second, I was afraid it was something serious.”
Luckily it wasn’t something serious, and the team continued to show off the game to nervy gamers in line.
Of course, one of Outlast’s most prominent mechanics is the fact the player isn’t able to use a weapon and attack any of the enemies that fill the world of Mount Massive Asylum. The protagonist is very much vulnerable to the mutations surrounding the world.
Complimenting this is the use of the camera and batteries, which have to be managed by the player. The camera acts as the primary light source for much of the journey throughout Outlast’s enclosed corridors and rooms, with the batteries a limited resource scattered throughout the world. This forces the player to consistently check their battery percentage, all the while trying to avoid confrontations with enemies at all costs.
The idea of this transcended nicely from the original idea of what Outlast and its protagonist were going to be.
“Dallaire came up with the idea of night vision, but we needed a protagonist that required it.”
“We considered a member of some kind of SWAT team with night vision gear, but we wanted to sell the ‘no combat’ concept, so we dropped any kind of law enforcement characters,” Morin continued.
“At the time, a lot of movies were using the found footage concept, so we thought ‘why not games?’ – Camcorders also have night vision, so it fit nicely, with the batteries feeling like a logical resource.”
Outlast launched on PC on the 4th of September 2013 to a widely positive reception, garnering praise from a host of media outlets and becoming a very well-covered game on YouTube and Twitch. It was always going to be if, not when, the game made the jump to the newly-released next-gen consoles.
“After shipping Outlast on PC, the team was split. Programmers worked on the ports and the rest of the team worked on the add-on, Outlast: Whistleblower.”
It was also important to get Outlast out to as many people as possible, as the team considered it to be a franchise rather than just a one-off title. This included having the game feature on February 2014’s PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection, with an Xbox One version following in June.
The expansion to Outlast, dubbed Outlast: Whistleblower, launched in May 2014 and covered the story of the character who’d originally spoken to Outlast’s protagonist about visiting Mount Massive Asylum. Whistleblower had generally average reviews across media outlets, although consumer reviews were much more positive.
Following the release of Whistleblower, the focus had already been shifted to Outlast 2. The team told Bloody Disgusting, a website completely dedicated to the horror genre, during an interview and used it as a platform to officially announce that a sequel’s on the way.
“It was simply timing,” Morin said. “During the interview, we felt the timing was right to let our fans know that Outlast 2 was in the works.”
Outlast 2 is set to take place in the same universe with a new setting and new characters, with a return to Outlast’s original asylum officially off the cards.
The game has officially entered production with details to come in a few months time. It should be releasing across all three platforms (PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4) simultaneously this time around as well.
“Our faith relies solely upon the result of our work. If we fail, it’s our fault and we have nobody else to blame.”
Red Barrels Games are amongst a plethora of diverse and creative independent developers creating games that are different to that of the modern AAA title, and the industry has thrived because of it.
But what is it like to be a part of the growing number of independent developers across the world?
“Part of it is the same as any studio, but perhaps the biggest difference is that you never have to wait for somebody else to decide for you, or wait for somebody across the ocean to make a call.”
“The decision-making is made by the team on the floor.”
“The biggest difference [in the day-to-day running of the studio] is the size of the team, your co-workers are no more than five meters away from you.”
The risks involved in the creation of an independent studio are also fairly significant, although the team are aware that it’s all about the quality of content they put out.
“Our faith relies solely upon the result of our work. If we fail, it’s our fault and we have nobody else to blame.”
With the line between the AAA and independent development scene essentially blurring, it now all comes down to the entertainment and enjoyment a player gets out of the game, which is a massive positive for the industry as a whole.
“It doesn’t matter where it comes from as long as people feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. It’s all entertainment.”
Red Barrels Games are still considered to be a very young studio within the industry, and they’ve only just embarked upon a diverse and unpredictable journey through an industry that thrives off the latest and greatest in technological advancement. The times have changed, most certainly, but the influx of independent developers has sparked a creative drive that can only improve the gaming landscape as a whole.
The horror genre has become synonymous with the independent development scene as well, and it’s been thriving because of it. Developers with shoe string budgets can create a title that hits the mainstream with force, with a perfect example being Five Nights At Freddy’s. Similarly, we’ve seen Outlast, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and A Machine for Pigs, Lakeview Cabin Collection, and Neverending Nightmares all release within the last five years to a very positive reception, and that’s just to name a few. Comparing this with the influx of mediocre horror films, it’s quite clear to see how beneficial these studios have become for gamers and for those seeking something a little more diverse and spooky than your average FPS or sports title.
When it comes down to it, though, Red Barrels Games are one of a handful of independent studios that started up when independent development was a particularly dangerous avenue to take for those trying to support themselves and their families, but in the end they’ve showcased what it takes to persevere and to create a game that they wanted to make without the pressures of a major studio and publisher weighing on their minds. And that’s a major achievement.
“The response to Outlast has exceeded our hopes and today the studio is entirely independent and self-sustained. We couldn’t ask for more.”
“We have no regrets.”
With the focus now shifting to Outlast 2, it’ll be quite an interesting couple of years for Red Barrels Games and what follows thereafter, but one thing’s for sure – Outlast 2 has a lot to live up to.