Outlast outlined – PS4′s survival horror indie game cut open by Red Barrel’s Philippe Morin

Outlast PS4

It’s an interesting proposition: a combat-free survival horror built around investigation and escape. It’s also an indie game. One of PS4′s heavily featured line up of small studios. In this case Red Barrels, a ten man team made up of ex-Naughty Dog, EA, Ubisoft and Eidos staffers. Here I speak to co-founder Philippe Morin about the game to find out more.

So let’s talk about the game itself, can you set up the premise. I know what’s going on, but I’d like to get it in your own words. 

You’re playing an investigative reporter, you get a tip from an anonymous informant that something fishy is going on at [Mount Massive] asylum, so you go there to find a story and of course, early on you realise that all hell has broken loose and it’s probably a good idea to leave the place, but it’s too late, you’re trapped inside. From that point on it’s a matter of you surviving, but at the same time we’re giving the option to players to investigate and find out more about the experiments and who is behind those experiments. That part is up to the player, do they want to focus on surviving or go all in with the investigation?

So it’s almost like the investigation is a side mission if you want? If you feel like you want to delve in deeper?

Yeah, the camcorder, obviously the main reason for the camcorder is the night vision, but when you raise the camcorder it’s also recording. So if you saw the ten minute gameplay demo, the camcorder was up all the time, but that’s player choice, it’s up to them to decide if they want it up all the time which would allow them to find information about the asylum and what’s going on there, or if they just want to focus on surviving.

The PS4′s Share button seems a good match for a game about recording video footage? 

In our case, we are trying to make the investigation as organic as possible, we could actually use this functionality so players who are experiencing the game at the same time could share the investigation to one another to try and solve the puzzle together.

So people could send videos and leave them in the game to be found?

Stuff like that yeah.

I wrote a piece a week or two back where I described Outlast as Found Footage Horror Movie: The Game. Was that intentional?

The two starting points were… one of the co-founders sent us a clip from Chris Cunningham called Rubber Johnny. That gave us the direction of using night vision. That was around the time when Amnesia: Dark Descent came out. We played it and we loved the idea of focussing on stealth and having no combat. So those two things were the starting point. After that it evolved based on many references, either games or movies. I think when players play the game they might be able to pinpoint our references, but I think the whole found footage thing sort of came out of those ideas. It wasn’t like we started saying ‘let’s make a horror game that replicates those things. We didn’t consciously make a decision to make a horror game that’s like a found footage movie. But the nature of a first person and night vision gave it that feel.

What are the main mechanics? I know you have to collect batteries, but what are your interactions and your constraints?

There’s no weapon, no gun. It’s mostly about analysing the environment and navigating in the environment. So all your interactions are mostly with the world around you; climbing, jumping, shimmying, stuff like that. In terms of dealing with the patients, it’s mostly a stealth game in a horror setting, you’re going to be avoiding them, running away from them, and hiding from them. Also one thing we want to focus on a lot is the unpredictability of the patient. It’s like if you saw Hannibal Lecter on the street you wouldn’t know he’s criminally insane. It’s the same with the patients – you see one down the corridor and you don’t know if he’s going to talk to you, push you, kill you, chase you. So we wanted players to always be in doubt of what’s going to happen.

“One thing we want to focus on is the unpredictability of patients. If you saw Hannibal Lecter on the street you wouldn’t know he’s criminally insane. It’s the same with the patients”

So there are friendly NPCs? Non-hostile characters?

Absolutely, in the demo you only see one patient. But the game is filled with many patients. It’s like, you know, Apocalypse Now or Heart Of Darkness, you go on this journey meeting people, some you’ll spend time with and others it will just be briefly dealing with them. So it’s the same thing here. The guy you see in the demo, might be called the main nemesis because he’s basically the predator, he’s chasing you throughout the asylum, so you’ll see him a lot. But you’ll be meeting a whole lot of patients as well.

Are they classes? A fast one, slow one, big one? Or are they more unique?

We didn’t approach it like that, because we didn’t want players to analyse the situation and be able to figure out what to do based on what they’re seeing. So we are going back to this idea of having players always be in doubt. We don’t have any classes, we approach each set up individually and we try to tweak those set ups based on what we feel will be fun or will convey the right emotion.

With the investigative side of things, is that purely ‘you find some stuff and learn things?’ Or is there a progression to it? Do you have to interact with things?

We didn’t turn it in to a mechanic, because we were concerned that it would become too gimmicky. What we are focussing on is trying to make the immersion as affective as possible. That’s why we focus on telling the player ‘you’re a reporter, you’re there to investigate’ but we don’t want to enforce that on the players, that’s why it’s up to them to decide how much investigation they want to do. There’s no reward in the game, other than you’re satisfying your own curiosity.

How does the progression work generally in the game? How do you move through the world?

Well there’s some puzzle elements, but our main influence regarding that is Half Life. So the story unfolds while you play but it feels really organic. It’s not like you go from one cut scene to another. So you’ll be stuck inside. Sometimes you’ll play for a long time with a very specific goal, and some of the time your goal will be dependent on what characters do to you.

What’s your favourite bit of the game?

I think, there’s definitely a sequence in the middle of the game that I’m really eager to see how people react to it. We haven’t play tested that sequence yet. We play tested a few weeks ago the first third of the game. It was really satisfying to see people with sweaty hands and having to take a break once in a while to relax from the tension. That sequence in the game, you seen American Psycho? You see the scene with the song? That was our inspiration for that sequence in the middle of the game. And you won’t be the one with the hatchet.