One of the biggest struggles when it comes to independent creators, both in gaming and in other forms of art, is getting exposure and achieving their big break. Sometimes, however, they break through and prevail, with their work making its way into the mainstream.
Red Barrels, a Montreal-based studio, got its big break with its debut title, Outlast.
Before moving on to found Red Barrels with David Chateauneuf and Hugo Dallaire, Philippe Morin worked at Ubisoft Montreal. After working on big titles like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Assassin’s Creed, Morin went on to work on Uncharted: Drake’s Deception with Naughty Dog.
Morin then returned to Ubisoft Montreal, where he spent a bit of time before venturing out and creating Red Barrels.
The trio founded Red Barrels in 2011 and officially released Outlast on Microsoft Windows in 2013. Since then, it has been re-released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Mac OS X, Linux and the Nintendo Switch.
“It’s a cliché, but it was a lot of extreme hard work and a bit of luck. Outlast came out when players were hungry for horror games and, at that time, big studios were not making them anymore,” Morin said.
Outlast is a survival horror game where you take on the role of Miles Upshur, an investigative journalist. Upshur is lured to Mount Massive Asylum via an anonymous email claiming that the institution is conducting cruel treatments on its patients. Once inside, it is revealed that Mount Massive has been overrun by the patients. From there, the journey only gets crazier.
The architecture for Mount Massive was inspired by the Richardson Olmsted Complex in Buffalo, N.Y.
“We simply liked the vibe of the architecture. It felt appropriate,” Morin said.
Once a hospital for people with mental illness, the real-life complex has been renovated into a hotel. The Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center will open for business in April of 2018.
Although Mount Massive was inspired by a former asylum in Buffalo, the game itself takes place in Colorado.
“We needed the player to feel isolated and far away from any cities. Also, the scenery felt similar to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining,” he said.
Generally speaking, people tend to go for originality with their projects in order to differentiate themselves from the competition. For Morin and the rest of the gang, they took an interesting spin to achieve their goal of originality.
“We didn’t think about it. We just focused on making a game we would want to play ourselves. I think it’s dangerous to pay too much attention to what others are doing because you must focus on what comes naturally,” Morin said.
Though they decided not to put too much thought into what others were up to, they still took cues from films, books and other video games. Shutter Island, Quarantine, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Call of Cthulhu are just a few of the inspirations behind Outlast.
Due to Outlast being made as the debut project for Red Barrels, the pressure was on for Morin and the rest of the development team. One of the big roadblocks, as would be expected by any debut company, was finances.
Due to the limitations, time quite literally equaled money. Red Barrels raced against the clock to get Outlast out before they ran out of funds. The team was so strapped for cash, they couldn’t afford to not use any of their characters.
Despite the financial struggle, there was a newfound essence of freedom when it came to developing a game entirely on their own. When it came to the development process, according to Morin, “the people on the floor are the people in charge.”
Based on numbers provided by Red Barrels, Outlast has sold approximately 15 million units. Although the three co-founders have released games under different companies, this is the first title to be released by Red Barrels as a collective. The result of their efforts led to a game that soared into the mainstream, earning accolades like “Best PC Game” from GamingBolt and “Scariest Game“ from Press Play TV in 2013.
“It was freaking awesome and it exceeded our hopes. The game was really well received, and we were lucky in terms of timing because Outlast was almost a launch title for the PS4 and Xbox One,” said Morin.
After the initial release of Outlast, Red Barrels released a prequel in the form of downloadable content. Outlast: Whistleblower was issued in 2014.
The fanbase for the Outlast series is vast, seeing fandom from the United States to Paris and to South Asia. With so many fans scattered about, the internet has provided a means of connection between them on discussion boards and channels on Discord, the free voice and text chat software. For many of these fans, Outlast was a breath of fresh air for the horror genre of gaming.
“I was never sure if it had been Red Barrel’s intention to make some of the statements they have made with some their games, but it’s part of why I have such a love for the series,” said Marco, from Oregon.
For fans like Marco, who is diagnosed with bipolar, PTSD and experiences symptoms of psychosis, Outlast has had a deep impact on him for having a more inclusive feel to its gameplay and characters.
“For a game that is dealing a lot with mental illness, it has been able to make me feel less alienated as a mentally ill audience. It hardly shames those with illness and more so shames those who abuse the vulnerable, and show how horrifying mistreatment can be,” he said. “It’s an extremely layered concept, however, and I’m not sure if even Red Barrels understands how they could [create] a very well struck balance.”
With other fans, like Diogo from Portugal, Outlast got them into the horror genre when other games just wouldn’t cut it.
“Outlast was one of, if not the main reason horror is my favorite genre in gaming. Before Outlast I played games like Slenderman and that kinda stuff but horror wasn’t really a genre I liked that much; then Outlast happened. I got the game for my then brand new PS4 and played through it and absolutely loved it,” he said.
In October 2014, Outlast 2 was officially announced to be in development. Due to the success of Outlast and it’s DLC content, the bar was raised significantly to make Outlast 2 an even more memorable title.
“Making a sequel is hard because suddenly you must deal with people’s expectations and they’re not the same for everyone,” Morin said.
Unlike Outlast, Outlast 2 didn’t have the same struggle when it came to money to develop the game.
“Financially, it allowed us to take our time and try a lot of different things. One thing was for sure, we didn’t want Outlast 2 to be a glorified DLC. We wanted to take risks and try new stuff,” he continued.
Red Barrels successfully took a huge risk when it came to Outlast 2 by flipping the script entirely: new characters, location, enemies and horrors await.
The only real similarity between the two games is that you are once again an investigative journalist. This time, you assume the poise of Blake Langermann, who must find his wife after a helicopter crash in Arizona. This time you are up against two cults: one believes his wife is pregnant with the Antichrist and the other wishes to bring about the end of days.
As with their predecessor, Outlast 2 has also sold upward of 15 million units. The reach of their game has exceeded their expectations.
“Red Barrels tends to create unique characters with complex backgrounds and I’m a pretty big fan of that. I really appreciate their works and everything they’ve put in the Outlast games,” said Lesley, a fan from Paris, France.
For Zarin, a fan from South Asia, the world of Outlast has intrigued him so much that he has engaged in deep research into the universe and all of the nitty-gritty details.
“Initially, I did not play the game. I decided to watch other gamers play it. Then I was finally interested enough to play the game myself” Zarin said. “I knew all about the game, its structure, themes and ending before even playing it. It was thrilling that the horror could function by itself but there was a lot of meaning behind it too.”
Currently, Red Barrels is in the early stages of an unidentified project. According to Morin, they’re “trying something new, but not too far from our previous games.”
The Outlast series is available on Steam in both individual copies and in a bundle titled Outlast Trinity.