Outlast is the incoming PC horror game from Red Barrels, a Montreal studio with history in the Prince of Persia and Uncharted franchises. Dave speaks with co-founder Philippe Morin to find out just how scary it is.
Red Barrels is indicative of a big change in gaming these days. We've seen several veterans of the industry leave their comfortable positions at big-name studios to then set up independently. Be it to pursue a pet project, or to take advantage of the many routes to market available to new developers today, more and more people are making the switch.
The Montreal studio is certainly steeped in experience, as its members have worked on prolific titles ranging from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell: Conviction, so if there's one thing these guys know, it's action.
The concern is that action often fails to gel with horror - a common complain aimed at Resident Evil 6 - but in Outlast the team is taking a neat slant on the genre. The game follows reporter Miles Upshur as he breaks into an abandoned asylum in an attempt to expose a shadowy corporation. Armed with his camera's night vision as his only source of light, he soon gets more than he bargained for.
Unknown to Upshur, the facility is teeming with the remnants of human experiments - rabid, bloodthirsty patients out to kill the player at any cost. With little in the way of combat experience or weaponry, your only option is to run, and run fast. It's a first-person title with plenty of parkour action - think Amnesia meets Mirror's Edge and you're along the right lines.
"Me and David [Chateauneuf] have been trying to make a horror game for a long time, "studio co-founder Philippe Morin told me. "Horror has always been at the top of our list. Then it was a matter of figuring out what kind of twists we could bring to the mix. At this time Amnesia had been out for a few months, and we thought their move to go back to survival horror by having no combat was really interesting.
"At the same time we were trying to capitalise on our own experiences. So using David and Hugo [Dallaire's] experience on Splinter Cell for stealth and using our own experience on Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed for traversal and platform - we just came up with our own recipe for a new take on the horror genre."
As players snoop around the dank, dark hallways of the Mount Massive asylum they need to tread lightly to avoid detection. Being spotted by any of Outlast's abominations will trigger a desperate sprint to safety, and quite often you'll have to head for high ground to cheat death using the environment. You'll be given little time to stop and think as you outrun their clutching hands, all you can do is keep running.
"Traversal mostly comes into play when there are chases, "Morin explained, "so we can make the chases as exciting as possible when you're running from the enemies. When you're actually going through the level it's mostly like a stealth game, but with a horror twist.
"I think to ensure that tension is really high, players have to feel like if they get caught by the enemy, that the chances of being killed are really high. Most of the time if an enemy catches you, chances are you're going to die, and at that point we try to create maximum tension.
"When you're dealing with enemies it's the same as a stealth game, where you have to approach them and go around them without making any noise. The difference is that you can't go to enemies and do a stealth kill, or just take them out with a silenced weapon."
Although there is scope to create tense moments and a feeling of being grossly underpowered, Morin admits that some critics and gamers have questioned whether players will feel empowered enough while playing Outlast, which personally I find sad to hear, because tension and excitement doesn't always have to come from the barrel of a gun, or the sharp end of a blade.
Morin responded to this criticism by saying, "I don't think that's entirely true. I mean, of course you are powerless when facing enemies, but at the same time you are pro-active in thinking, 'How am I going to get rid of, or avoid that enemy?'
"The thing is that we're going to use darkness a lot in the game, like some of us did in Splinter Cell. So that's where we're going to use the night vision mechanic. But if you hide under a bed or a desk, the enemies might be able to see the reflection of your camcorder, so players have to turn it off when hiding or else it increases the risk of detection.
"It means that players will be in total darkness, and will only have sound to know whether the enemies are close by, or walking away. So I think that will create a lot of interesting moments of tension."
Outlast's story is being penned by one of the original Splinter Cell script writers, but while Red Barrels wants to give players enough backstory to drive progression, that classic horror ambiguity will remain to some degree. Fear of the unknown is, of course, a powerful thing.
"I think by the end of the game players will understand the nature of the experiments the asylum was doing", Morin explained. "But that's something I hope will remain a little bit mysterious, and also, that's something I think players will be interested to find out.
"Of course, the goal of the player is to remain alive, so if some players are only there for the horror then they can play it that way. But players who want to dig more will be able to find more information. It's not going to be a game where there's a lot of cinematics, or character throwing information at you. It'll mostly feel like a Half-Life game, but players who want to take the time to investigate can find more information."
In terms of what plot there is, Morin likens reporter Upshur to Mikael Blomkvist, the hard-hitting reporter from the Millenium novel trilogy that spawned The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He's a tough investigator and gets a tip-off about bogus experiments being carried out at the aslyum from an informant he meets on the battlefields of Iraq.
In closing I asked Morin if he felt that horror - the saturated zombie genre in particular - would cause gamers to make presumptions about Outlast as 'Just another zombie game'. For the record the enemies aren't zombies, but Morin offered an interesting reply.
"You know, a Big Mac is always going to be a Big Mac," he said. "People never get tired of eating them. So, as long as players feel like there's something worthy of experiencing, then I think the genre will remain alive.
"I think in our case, what we decided is that the game is taking place in an asylum, so we don't want our enemies to become 'total' zombies. What I mean by that is they already have funky personalities, and are already criminally insane, so that's what we should focus on.
"Visually the experiments have had consequences on their bodies and their psychology remains criminally insane. You could meet a Hannibal Lecter type and know that he's totally insane. That's the kind of character you can meet in our game - they look very normal, and who knows, maybe they're members of staff and you should trust them?
"This is kind of experience we want to give you. You might see a guy sitting in a wheelchair down a corridor, but you don't know what to expect. Will they keep mumbling when they pass you or will they jump on you? That's the kind of uncertainty that gives you the most out of tension. That's what we want players to feel."
Are you intrigued and/or scared by the prospect of Outlast yet? Red Barrels is currently working on an Outlast demo. The studio hopes to publish it online at some point in 2013. Until then, you can check out the project over at the official Red Barrels site.