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Open environments, more varied gameplay, and a plot inspired by Jonestown.
We spoke to the creator of 2016’s most anticipated horror gaming sequel.
Few people sound so happy inspiring terror and discomfort as Philippe Morin does.
But as co-founder of Red Barrels, the studio responsible for the grisly, gorily popular Outlast series, he’s just glad that the people who’ve got their hands on the demo of the eagerly-anticipated second title have been suitably freaked out.
“We weren’t sure how people would react to the new setting,” he deadpans.
“So hearing the screams was really satisfying.”
For the uninitiated, 2013’s Outlast was a gloriously unrestrained and nail-biting breakout indie horror hit; a first-person chiller that thrust you into an insane asylum gone to hell – overrun by murderous inmates, with something even nastier lurking in the dark recesses of its rotting core.
Armed only with a video camera, its night-vision a necessity for navigating the pitch-black hallways, players were confronted with all manner of messed-up sights, sounds and torments in their bid to escape.
Those familiar with the original’s effective cocktail of intense chase sequences, cat-and-mouse encounters and grotesque shocks will be curious to see how Outlast 2 plans to build-upon the first experience.
Morin and his team certainly don’t seem to be resting on their laurels on that front.
“We wanted a new challenge with Outlast 2. As developers, I think it’s important to come out of your comfort zone and put yourself in danger. It fuels the creative process.
“So, we decided to have more outdoor and more open spaces. We really wanted to have a wider varieties of environments, so the player could feel they’re on a journey, instead of simply being trapped in one place. We wanted to create something that will mess with the player’s mind.
“The first one was like a sprint. The second one will feel like a marathon.”
Crucially, Red Barrels seem to have listened to fan feedback, and taken on board some of the most common criticisms of the original – especially the feeling that Outlast became ‘predictable’ or ‘samey’ after a while.
“We’re trying real hard to make sure the game never feels repetitive. We want the player to progress without having a clue what’s coming next. So, we have a lot more of varieties in terms of environments, enemies and setups.
“The game will also be 20 to 30 per cent longer.”
But what of the plot of Outlast 2? Here’s where it gets really interesting.
Initially shrouded in total mystery, save for an intriguing teaser featuring a burning cross and fire-and-brimstone voice-over, it’s now apparent that the sequel takes place in a remote, hidden Arizona town, run by a fanatical Christian cult.
You play Blake Langermann, a cameraman working with his wife, Lynn. The two are investigative journalists willing – much like the original’s Miles Upshur – to take risks, and uncover the stories no one else will touch with a barge-pole.
Following a trail of clues that start with the seemingly impossible murder of a pregnant woman, they are led to the fanatical cult and its horrifying, sprawling den.
There are shades of BioShock Infinite in the God-like devotion inspired in his flock by cult founder and probable main antagonist Sullivan Knoth, but Morin and his developers drew on real-world inspirations for their subject-matter.
“Jonestown was a starting point, but we took those events several steps further. I think what we mostly took from this incident is the dynamic of a village following the orders of a leader.
“We also read about other types of similar incidents like the Waco siege, the Order of the Solar Temple and the Heaven’s gate. We were also inspired by Allister Crowley and the Jesus of Siberia.”
You can certainly expect things to get as disturbing and nasty as the first game – if not more so.
After all, Outlast gave us the mutilation-loving ‘doctor’ Trager, its Whistleblower DLC introduced players to arguably gaming’s most disturbing serial-killer in ‘The Groom’, and Morin teases that the sequel will have foes to rival, or even surpass those two (“we sure hope so”).
Red Barrels readily admit they have a lot of fun pushing the boundaries with such outlandish creations.
“We basically try to upset each other and see how far we can go,” remarks Morin.
In a sense, both Outlast and Red Barrels itself were born out of a sense of frustration with the lack of risk-taking in the mainstream, Triple A industry.
Morin, who had previously worked on games such as Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed, tried in 2008 with co-founder David Chateauneuf to convince Ubisoft Montreal to let them make a horror game. But they were told that there wasn’t a large enough market for it.
The pair subsequently went indie, and have never gone back.
“When starting our own studio, 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 Assassin’s Creed in order to be profitable.
“Horror felt like a new challenge, but at the same time it has a lot of action-adventure elements. So, it meant we could maximise everything we learned on previous projects.”
Outlast’s eventual concept was arrived upon via an interesting mix of inspirations.
“Hugo Dallaire, also co-founder, came up with the idea of night vision after watching the video for ‘Rubber Johnny’ by Aphex Twin.
“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.
“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.”
It’s a formula that has served them well so far. But as to whether there will be an Outlast 3 after the second game releases, Morin is uncertain.
“Currently, we honestly have no idea. We’re a small and flexible studio and we want to take advantage of that. So, we’ll see after the game comes out.
“We always have a bunch of ideas we’re discussing on and off.”
As one of an increasing number of Triple A developers who have left big studios to go independent, Morin thinks that trend will only continue.
“The digital distribution makes it a lot easier to create a product and reach an audience.
“I got tired of spending most of my time in meetings. I like to be hands on and just try different ideas instead of debating about them.”
Still, that doesn’t stop him from keeping up to date with his former colleagues’ creations.
“Uncharted 4 was amazing,” he says. “My 13 year-old daughter started watching me play, and soon she took over my save game.
“So I had to start over…”
Outlast 2 will be released later this year.