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Dancing in the Dark

A conversation with Outlast's creative director about leaving AAA to build the horror game of his dreams.

Even though terror doesn’t usually kick in until October, Outlast kicked off scary season early with an asylum full of questionable subjects in September.

Outlast took direct inspiration from horror flicks like [rec].
Outlast took direct inspiration from horror flicks like [rec].

Taking more than a couple of cues from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Outlast brought together a series of ex-AAA gaming veterans to try something on their own. A small horror game makes sense for an up-and-coming studio, as the genre is often linear, limited to corridors, and doesn’t require extensive A.I. There’s a reason horror has done so well within the indie community.

With its found footage angle, Outlast was one hell of a debut from Red Barrels. David Châteauneuf used to work at Ubisoft on the Splinter Cell franchise, but he’d pitched Ubisoft on a horror game a long time ago. The publisher didn’t bite (though ironically, it would go on to produce one of the best Wii U games with ZombiU), so Châteauneuf decided to spin off with some friends and give it a go on his own.

Combined with the Quick Look, we played through a serious chunk of Outlast on Spookin’ With Scoops. We dig into some spoiler territory during this interview, though Outlast is a game that’s more interesting because of the experience, not the story it’s trying to tell.

You can also listen to our interview in podcast form, if you’d like!

Giant Bomb: I appreciate you taking a couple of minutes to chat with me about Outlast.

David Châteauneuf: It’s always a pleasure. Talking about Outlast, that little baby of ours, is pretty intense. I’m always pretty proud of what we’re doing, so talking about it is always with passion.

GB: How are you feeling a couple of weeks out, when you’ve had a chance to see people playing it?

Châteauneuf: Hah! So far, it’s pretty good. We’re seeing a bunch of email from fans, actually. People are really calling themselves fans because they really enjoyed the title. So far, people are playing and what we receive is “oh, the game is so great, it’s the best game ever!” Probably there are some guys who are not used to playing [horror games] a lot, but it’s definitely [like] people are saying “oh, I’ve never been so scared since the first Silent Hill.” Always good comments. There are people trying to reach me using Facebook and Twitter, trying to talk more with me and have some hint of what’s going to be next. People are really, really happy about it. Even the sales are pretty good. But now we’re for sure...the big [games like] GTA are completely controlling the sales for now. But so far, it’s pretty good.

GB: When you guys split off to form Red Barrels, was the intention always to create a horror game? Or did you arrive at that after exploring some other ideas?

Châteauneuf: We brainstormed let’s say maybe a week or two about what we could do, but I think it was after playing a little bit of Amnesia [we started to decide] the same time, we knew that we had an idea of what we wanted to do. Back at Ubisoft, Philippe [Morin, designer] and I--we were working at Ubisoft for 10 years. We were asking them if we could a horror game on the Wii. They said “for a big studio like us, it doesn’t really [make sense], it’s not a good strategy because it’s going to cost a lot, people are not going to rebuy that because most people like action games.” That’s why Dead Space and Resident Evil are becoming action. So we’re like “okay, let’s forget about it.”

So time passes, Philippe went on Uncharted at Naughty Dog, and I was doing Splinter Cell: Conviction. I knew, at the time, there was something happening where I knew how to do stealthy game [in] AAA. I had some experience with cameras and level design, as well. Hugo [Dallaire, art director] was the artistic director on Splinter Cell and knew how to do a pretty big AAA game. So we’re like “oh, let’s do that.” I’m the horror freak and Phillip was willing to do it, and at the same time, Hugo was like “I know how to do it.” We have one life to live, so we were really willing and really proud of trying that. We had different ideas. Philippe was open for some western types of games. Me, I was always mostly about horror. Hugo wasn’t sure. We were pitching a bunch of ideas, but it’s mostly after Amnesia and Rubber Johnny by Chris Cunningham. We saw that and there was that weird feeling. It was in night vision.

So night vision, monsters, horror games, blah blah blah. All that came up together. But there was no big idea before that, so it was like “okay, let’s do that.” We don’t have time to spent on trying to brainstorm because we had no money at the time. So that’s pretty much it.

The team's experience with Splinter Cell prepared them to create a small game with a focus on hiding from enemies.
The team's experience with Splinter Cell prepared them to create a small game with a focus on hiding from enemies.

GB: So it was partially out of this desire to make a horror game in the past, but also realizing, as a small studio with not a lot of money, you had to scope it. A horror game is guided, there’s not a lot of A.I. involved. It seems like it matched up with the first game from a studio, as well.

Châteauneuf: Definitely, yeah. We had to focus on our strengths. We couldn’t actually make any big open world games. We were discussing what we were good at, and let’s just focus on that. Because Hugo was the artistic director on the first Splinter Cell, he knew how to do all the lighting, the light and shadows. He knew that. He knew pretty well the Unreal Engine 3, which we used. On my side, I knew how to create horror stories and level design. By just defining, in detail, what we’re good at and really focusing on that, that was the only way we could manage to do the game. We were just two programmers, two artists--now with three. Two designers. Even with the sound, we had no contact at the time. Now, we are dealing with game audio.

Everyone was really focusing on what they knew, but for sure, there’s no way we could have multiple A.I. and systems and [a] living and breathing world. Asylum, corridors--good for Unreal. Light and shadow, we knew how to do it. I played pretty much all the horror games before, so all the intense sections with enemies or scare jumps, I knew what to do. So we had to go as fast as possible to make it worth the shot.

GB: Outlast certainly relies on the jump scare tactic over over, and while developing a horror game, you’re going to pretty quickly know where all the jumps are. You can’t scare yourself over and over again. How did you guys playtest the game to make sure that it was still effective?

Châteauneuf: Yeah, seriously, that was one of the biggest challenges. Like you said, we knew pretty much every time what would happen. We managed to playtest the game a little bit with Enzyme, it’s a playtesting and debug company. They have a tester that plays the game. We asked them to give us feedback about it, but we mostly grabbed some friends here and there to make sure that the tension is good. We had multiple [instances] of those sessions, and we just broke those moments into one hour [chunks], just to see if the first hour is good, second hour, [etc]. We just went building by building. The first playtest we did with some friends was the administration block, and everybody said “oh, yeah!” Because, actually, we did some quite big changes. At first, we wanted to just have...the game was smaller. There was not much action and things happening at the start of the game. We had to modify the layout. You probably played the game?

GB: Oh, yeah. I finished it.

Châteauneuf: At the beginning of the game, all the administration block, from the beginning and [until] the end at the church, that was the beginning of the game. It was so slow. There was no sense of threat. So we had to break it into two parts, and we decided “okay, let’s just cut the administration block in half and see what’s going to happen.” That’s where we brought Chris Walker, who throws you out of the window, and at that point, you have to get out. The part where the priest grabs you and throws you in the prison wasn’t there. So we had to change everything because of the feedback of the players. From the pacing, I would say it’s about feeling, as well. I played a bunch of games, and I knew that every minute, something could happen. It could be a scare jump but sometimes just sound or a shadow or enemies. For sure, we had to rely on our friends to give us feedback on that.

GB: You mentioned Amnesia was a big impact. It’s been pretty interesting to watch the profound impact Amnesia has had on horror games that have come since. When you play Amnesia, it seems like such a revelation that you don’t have a gun or a knife or anything like that. But it also seems so obvious that it would be a way of creating tension in a horror game.

Châteauneuf: I know!

GB: Did you guys ever have any consideration for having a gun?

"Everybody was like 'yeah, that’s great, that’s great. You guys have a gun?' We said 'no.' 'No? Perfect! Perfect! That’s good.' So we said 'okay, maybe we should forget about putting a gun inside.'"

Châteauneuf: What happened is, like you said, a revelation. We wanted to have a gun at some point in the game, not as a gun that you can have throughout the whole game but during some section. Just for five minutes or 10 minutes. By playing Amnesia, we realized that “oh, man, that guy I would like to kill him!” And there was no way we could do it. We thought that we should give a gun to the player in Outlast. At PAX East, we let a lot of players play the game, and it was a huge lineup. Everybody was like “yeah, that’s great, that’s great. You guys have a gun?” We said “no.” “No? Perfect! Perfect! That’s good.” So we said “okay, maybe we should forget about putting a gun inside.” People loved it, and maybe in terms a production issue, we didn’t have it in the game at that time. Aiming, all the impact [it has] for every enemy, making sure that there are enough bullets to reload--maybe that was something too big at the time. There were too many reasons for not putting a gun in the game, but we definitely thought about it. We’re still thinking about that for maybe future titles.

GB: Because you guys don’t have guns, there are fewer things you have to account for. There’s not really a health system. But you do have batteries that the player has to balance throughout the duration of the game. How did you guys work that part out? I imagine how players use and don’t use the camera was probably pretty different, and yet you had to balance the amount of batteries that were scattered in a way that worked out for everyone.

Châteauneuf: Yes. That was such a pain in the ass. [laughs] Sometimes I was almost having nightmares about that. How much should I put? How much not? We are gonna release a patch for the game. I think it’s not out yet, but we are having a hard mode and a nightmare mode that reduce the amount of batteries because there were some players complaining about it. We know it. At some point, there were some people in the studio that played the game and they were saying “there’s not enough batteries!” Man, not enough batteries? I was like “okay, I’m going to put some more.”

But you want the player to play and make sure they have enough battery, but you also want to make sure he does not have any batteries so the can feel what it is. Seriously, there was no recipe for that. By doing some playtests again and asking some friends, we came up with something that fits. There’s not much you can find in the game that push the exploration, so we had to make sure we put as many batteries as we could without making sure the player finds it too easy. I think with the patch, most players are gonna like it because you can still play it normal with enough batteries, and go on hard and nightmare and almost have nothing. We just didn’t have enough time to implement all those modes [by launch].

GB: I know the way I always play--I played Amnesia this way, I played Outlast this way, I play any survival horror game, even ones that have guns this way--I just tend to naturally hoard everything, thinking I’m going to run into a moment where I need all this stuff.

Châteauneuf: True.

GB: By the end of the game--and this happened in Outlast, too--I end up with way too much. Suddenly, I have a thousand medkits, a million bullets. In Outlast’s case, I’d run in two or three batteries and go “I don’t even know how I could have used by them by now.”

Châteauneuf: Right.

GB: Because I play this way, it made the section where you take away the camera really powerful. As a player, I was hoarding the batteries and never really having to concern myself with not having enough. But the only way the game could make me feel that was when you actually take away the camera entirely.

So many moments in Outlast are spent hiding in the corning, hoping the surrounding creatures will walk the other way.
So many moments in Outlast are spent hiding in the corning, hoping the surrounding creatures will walk the other way.

Châteauneuf: We had a guy on the team that said “we should have a section where we let the player have the camera but we just get rid of all the batteries.” I was like “yeah, it’s true, but we have a moment where we’re going to get rid of the camera.” “Wow, yeah, but because of the story it’s not going to have the same impact…” There’s a fight between those ideas. But, seriously, that was really important to make sure that you know you have the camera from the beginning, you’re playing for a long time, now let’s just get rid of what you like the most, which is, in that case, the camera. People are really, really love that. Especially after that, you see cracks and electrical things in the screen.

But I know what you mean about trying to not using your tools. I’m the same kind of player, as well. Because we have different culture in video games, me on my side, I’m more hardcore. And there were the other designers, it was mostly casual, and they don’t really play those games the way normal players enjoy horror games. In the first Resident Evil, it was well made, so there was always the ammo at the right moment that you needed them. But for Outlast, we had to be a bit more casual, so making sure that every person [who] are not used to play those games and just explore [can] have their fun, as well. Otherwise, it would have become too hard, too hardcore, less accessible. That was maybe a [reason] for why we put so many batteries. That’s why hard and nightmare are mostly for hardcore gamers.

GB: I think it’s interesting the way you talk about trying to balance the game for a more hardcore player and the casual crowd. As we’ve seen the rise of these Let’s Play people on YouTube and the rise of streamers, you’re starting to see this crowd of people that really want to engage with horror games but it’s too scary for them to play the game themselves.

Châteauneuf: Yeah.

GB: I’ve streamed a chunk of Outlast on Giant Bomb and I had people reach out and tell me they were too scared to play the game, but they went and bought a copy of it so that they knew the developer was getting some money for it. But they were more comfortable watching the game through me because there’s a big difference when you watch a horror film. If you close your eyes and you’re scared, the movie keeps going.

Châteauneuf: [laughs] Yeah.

GB: In the game, you’ve gotta get around the enemies, you have to find the key. It’s a real key difference between medium horror in other mediums that I think is really interesting.

Châteauneuf: In our case, the goal was to make the scariest game ever! [laughs] Without really thinking it could affect the sales. I don’t think it will affect the sales that much, but it’s definitely something--I was on a panel at PAX Prime and there was a guy [who said] “I love horror games, I wish I could play them but I’m too chicken. Is there a trick? Is there something you guys can tell me so I can play those games?” I had no answer for the guy, except to crank up the volume and turn on all the lights. You might enjoy it a little bit. There’s no way I can explain how to play horror games without shitting in your pants.

GB: I tell people to maybe have a drink or two. Not too many. If you have too many drinks, then you’re not going to be able to play the game. One or two can calm your nerves a little bit. I’m curious. You said you play a lot of horror games, but is horror something you’ve followed as a genre in books and movies?

Châteauneuf: Since I was 12, I would say, I was watching horror movies. Actually, I’ve got a huge collection of horror movies at home, more than 500 hundred horror DVDs. I’ve got pretty much all the horror games, all the Fatal Frames, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Call of Cthulhu. Name it. Some people in the company are considering me a freak because I just love intense feeling and horror things. It’s a pretty interesting art. I don’t know. I used to love getting scared when I was young. My mom and dad played some games in the dark in the house. They were closing all the lights, except their bedrooms, and we had to leave the bedroom and go in the house just for fun. They were crawling in some corner and barking at us. For me, it was fun and scary. It fits. Since then, horror movies...I’m watching pretty much everything that comes out.

GB: As someone that plays a lot of horror games and watches a lot of horror movies, what is it that you like about being scared? It’s certainly not something for everyone, but for the people who do like it, kind of get addicted to it.

Châteauneuf: I think it’s the adrenaline. It’s the feeling inside your bones. I don’t know. It’s maybe because we feel more alive. It’s like when you go work out and the day after, you’re sore. I like that feeling because I really feel like “oh, I’ve got muscle, I’ve got bones, I’m really living!” When I’m watching horror movies, I feel like my body reacts to something. It means that it has an impact. It’s not like just watching bullets and explosions. “Oh, it’s cool.” My body reacts to the art, which I didn’t see see any other type of game that offers that. In my way, that might be something. Also, I don’t know, something disgusting. Maybe that’s why they call me crazy a bit sometimes. There’s not much of a big explanation other than loving all those intense feelings. It’s just fun.

Evil Dead is Châteauneuf's favorite movie. He has good taste.
Evil Dead is Châteauneuf's favorite movie. He has good taste.

GB: Was there a particular movie that was a defining horror film for you when you were younger?

Châteauneuf: Oh, yes. The first Evil Dead from Sam Raimi with Bruce Campbell. That movie is my best movie ever from far away. Then, it goes to The Grudge, which is called The Ring sometimes [Editor’s Note: He might have meant Ju-On, the Japanese name for The Grudge]. The movie The Ring, as well. But Evil Dead is the one that I spent so much time [with]. I was doing drawings of that when I was young. I wish I could meet Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi one day because I’m just talking about them the most that I can because they really changed my life. [laughs] That movie is just so well done.

GB: What is it about that movie that has caused it to stick for you more than other horror films?

Châteauneuf: I think it’s the way they made it. They made it so everything that you’re afraid of is there. Small shack in the woods, cracks, the basement--which is pretty dark. Being isolated from the world. There’s always those classical things--the scare jumps are well done. At the time, it was so disgusting, so there not much else movie that offered the gruesome events inside the movie. I don’t know. You could feel it was made by somebody that really was passionate about it. It was not a big Hollywood movie but a silly b-movie. Most of the time, I’m watching those movies because they are really made by people who love doing it and they are not looking for money. I can sense that. But, yeah, the idea, the ritual of the tape, everyone turns after each other, iit was some kind of zombies but also demos. I don’t know. There was everything in that movie that I couldn’t find in all the other movies put back together. It was a full, complete movie. Well done. The filming techniques were great. Sometimes, he was holding the shotgun and the camera was at the top of the shotgun. He [Raimi] made the horror industry in a good way. You can see a bunch of movies referring to him, as well.

GB: When I was playing Outlast, the movie it reminded me of immediately of was the [rec] movies.

Châteauneuf: Oh, yes. [rec] 1 and 2, Quarantine, Cloverfield.

GB: I think the [rec] movies are some of the scariest films, found footage or not, of the last 10 years. I think it’s because they make such effective use of playing upon what it is like to hold a camera. It seems you guys drew on a lot of the tropes of those found footage films.

Châteauneuf: Oh, yes, definitely. We knew that everyone likes to film things. Everyone has an iPhone and it can record. We see a bunch of player and people putting their film on YouTube. The camera, that night vision recording, it was really something that we had to push for and make sure it was as realistic as possible. In [rec]...I cannot spoil anything but we’re thinking about taking some ideas from [rec] maybe for some next title. But, yeah, camcorders--it’s really interesting. The [rec] movies definitely inspire us in that way.

GB: Do you think Red Barrels is going to be kind of the company that sticks with horror going forward? Can you see you guys branching out in the future?

Châteauneuf: We are discussing these days about that. For sure, everybody that play Outlast wants Outlast 2. That might be something that we have to take into consideration. At the same time, we know that there’s a lot of players cracking the game, so we’re losing sales at some point. If we don’t have enough money, we might also try to adjust on what’s going to be the next title. But personally, I would be willing to do horror games for all my life. We’re good at that. But we know, also, that we want to grow up and maybe have another team, so we can switch to have variety and different ideas. We might do something similar, so maybe having two teams [would help]. That’s pretty much what I can say for now because we haven’t made any decision and we don’t want spoilers, so what can be the next big thing for us?

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