Interview: Red Barrels Designer Philippe Morin On Crafting First-Person Horror In 'Outlast'

Let's talk a little about horror--particularly first-person horror.

Outlast is the first project from Red Barrels, the Montreal-based studio made up of Ubisoft vets. The trailer for the game made its debut last week via a teaser trailer, and today, they'll be releasing a full trailer for the survival horror project set inside of a very haunted asylum. I spoke with designer Philippe Morin, who's credits include Assassin's Creed, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune about the genesis of Outlast and getting survival horror right in an era where most games in the genre have traded in frantic gun battles for sustained scares.

First, a little history: Red Barrels got its start back in 2011, Morin and and a handful of Ubisoft vets left that company. Casting about for their first project, Morin says they started making a list of the kinds of games they wanted to make--and a horror game was at the top of that list. "[This] was for two reasons: we always wanted to make a horror game but were never given the opportunity to make one. And the other one is that we were always looking for a new challenge." That meant going beyond their experience making action adventure and stealth games to try something all-new.

The seed of Outlast was born of two points of inspiration--one, an acclaimed game that was an injection of new blood into the survival horror genre, the other a creepy music video that may figured into the institutional setting. Red Barrels co-founder Hugo Dallaire introduced the team to the latter: six minutes of grainy, night vision camera work, featuring a heavily deformed boy speaking into a camera while being gently interrogated by someone off camera. This was "Rubber Johnny," a video by electronic artist Aphex Twin, directed by Chris Cunningham. Morin says he and his team were struck by the imagery of the boy in the wheelchair and felt like it would be a good point of departure for their game.

At the time, the Red Barrels team looked around at some of the other titles out of the market, and instead of gravitating towards the Silent Hill and Resident Evil-style third-person action/horror blend, they took their inspiration from the then recently-released Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Frictional Games' IGF Award-winning release from that year. "This felt like a good move, because we were going back to survival horror, and because of our experience with Splinter Cell and stealth games, it felt like we could bring something interesting to the mix." And blended into that are any number of horror movies, points of reference provided by co-founder David Chateauneuf's DVD collection (the size of which Morin says is as scary as anything else).

There's another game that exists in Outlast's DNA: hide and seek. "That's one thing we want to focus on--the fear of getting caught, and not knowing what's around the corner, and once you've been seen, running for your life." That fits into the design vision for the game, which Morin says is about "progressing, surviving, and moving on from one setup to another." The game puts you in the role of investigative journalist Miles Upshur, who suspects shady goings on by the Murkoff Corporation at the long-abandoned Mount Massive Asylum. Inside, Miles finds something horrible that blends both the supernatural with the scientific.

Telling the story meant bringing Splinter Cell writer J.T. Petty on board for the script and figuring out how that narrative would be delivered. Miles' story will take place in real-time, with less of an emphasis on breaks for cutscenes. Morin tells me that Half-Life was a great point of inspiration here to tell the story as seamlessly as possible.

For Morin and his team, it was important to make the running and chase sequences as exciting as possible, while integrating stealth elements to push players to avoid direct confrontation with enemies. "[Combat] is really not part of the core of what we're doing. We're still trying to explore had that a little bit to the mix, but it's not going to be the core experience." Besides, for Morin the horror is way more effective when you're powerless or at least at a disadvantage.

Morin says what truly scares him (besides interviews) are games that take their time to establish their atmosphere. He says that many others would rather rush the player through the experience, more of a ride than something that can the player has to take their time with.

We'll be able to take our time and absorb the world of Outlast when it's released on the PC next year.

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