Red Barrels Games

No weapons, no HUD, no escape: How Outlast does more with less to create a terrifying horror game

No weapons, no HUD, no escape: How Outlast does more with less to create a terrifying horror game

It's not often a developer talks about having their booth get partially destroyed as a good thing.

Yet when Philippe Morin and his team at indie studio Red Barrels were showing me around the booth that held the demo for their upcoming first-person survival/horror game, Outlast, they couldn't stop smiling and telling me the story:

“One guy got scared so bad he knocked out the side panel and we had to set the demo booth back up,”  I was told.

You can't go home

The Outlast booth at PAX East 2013 was a bit different from most: where most game demo lines ended in front of a television that passers-by and onlookers could watch as someone else played, Outlast's line ended abruptly in front of two booths, neither one wider than four feet, tall and slender with black side paneling and a black curtain sealing players into the small chambers.

Inside was a PC running the first public build, with a pair of noise-cancelling Bose headphones plugged in and ready to wear. This was a horror game, dammit, and Red Barrels was going to make sure you could experience horror even surrounded by a thousand noisy fellow nerds. The result was sublime.

You began the PAX East demo outside of the asylum, weaponless and without any HUD. The control scheme was the standard FPS W, A, S, D setup, with spacebar to jump and Ctrl to crouch. This is going to sound weird, but it felt really good to crouch. Your character doesn't instantly drop down when he does so; he slowly falls to one knee, leans his weight on it, and then puts his other leg behind him, balancing with one hand on the ground.

It's strange and yet extremely satisfying to have such a simple process feel so natural from the first-person perspective, and the same principles of weight and realistic movement are present in your other actions as well: when you pull yourself up from a ledge, it's not a smooth up-and-over motion. When you run, you wobble a tiny bit from side to side. You can't fight off your enemies, and that means the developers were allowed to create much more dynamic range of motion, since they didn't have to worry about a player's crosshairs swinging across the screen.

Speaking of enemies, I don't want to spoil anything, but Outlast does a good job of building up anticipation, letting you catch a foggy glimpse here, a peripheral glance there, and your foes feel legitimately threatening. When you see what they did to the armed security forces that came before you, there's a palpable sense of dread. I actually turned around and tried to head back to the exit, but my “fuck this” strategy didn't turn out, and I couldn't reach the vent I had used to enter the inner sanctum. I wanted to leave, though. I wanted it badly.

Later, I explored pieces of a flooded basement, as well as a library full of decapitated heads, their eyes shining in the digital view of my camcorder. The camcorder is important: it's what you use to see in the dark. Keep in mind batteries are finite, and the camcorder chews through them. Every time I changed out the batteries while in the middle of a dark hallway I had three to five mini-heart attacks.

The game made me jump. It made me yelp. Everyone outside the booth heard when I was taken by surprise and let fly a string of obscenities.

The emotion of first-person

We've talked to Red Barrels co-founder Morin before about Outlast, and the premise hasn't changed; you are still a journalist exploring a what-was-thought-to-be-abandoned asylum, getting chased and hunted by its monstrous inhabitants.

The game has been updated however, most noticeably in the visuals department. The game's teaser trailer showed crisp, clear, HD environments and creatures, but the PAX East build had a strong grain filter overlaid on top of the image, similar to Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3. Morin said without the filter, the game felt “too clean.”

“It was making players too comfortable. We wanted to add that grainy aspect to give it more of a horror feeling, which we got by watching a lot of those old movies – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, stuff like that. Although we want to push the production value of the game as far as we can, we also don't want that to work opposite of what we're trying to achieve, which is to make you feel scared.”

When I asked if the lack of a HUD was also meant to make players feel scared, Morin nodded. “Honestly, it turned out as we were working on the game… of course, the team is very small, so at first you don't think very much about the HUD, and I guess after the first playtest, we just realized, we don't need one,” he told me.

“Every decision we make is about the atmosphere and emotion we can create,” Morin told the Report.

Another major change was the shift from having the game force players to look at set pieces to allowing them to look freely around their environment, even when something scary was happening. This meant changes in level layout and lighting design, since players would need to naturally be attracted to the correct piece of the environment once the camera wasn't automatically telling them what to pay attention to.

“You know some players will miss a certain amount of things, but overall, the important thing is they get their money's worth in terms of horror and scariness. As long as the experience is working, it doesn't matter so much if they miss one thing here or there,” Morin said. I brought up an example that occurred roughly halfway through the demo, where someone dressed in security gear, who is impaled on a spike, warns you not to try and fight the asylum's inhabitants.

The layout of the level leading up to the security guard doesn't allow you to get a good look until you're up close, but you know where he is because of light beams shining behind him or, if you've got your camcorder out, the reflective eyes of the severed heads that surround him. I asked Morin if that was an example of a set piece that had been through such revisions.

“That's probably the fifth iteration of that setup,” he told me. “We had him outside at one point, jumping in through a window, we had him in a different room, earlier in the game, we had him in that room, but in a different position… it's the setup that's changed the most.”

Morin told me it was the character modeler who came up with the idea that existed in the PAX East demo, and Morin is fine handing off the credit. Many at Red Barrels have AAA game development background, but working with a small team on an indie title means a single individual can implement their ideas and test them out. The proverbial ball gets passed often, and leads to many changes.

Morin said that the opening hour of the game was almost entirely restructured due to feedback from the team, and a particular section of the game – Morin wouldn't say what – was kicked to later in the story. “That's one of the things that's fun about this development process,” Morin said. “At first, you think it's not a good idea to change something, because you think you'd be doing it for the wrong reasons, and then you realize, 'Oh, you know what? It's better to have it there!'”

The game had a ton of buzz on the show floor, so it seems like fans of horror are reacting to the game as well as we have. This game is worth your attention.