Developer Red Barrels talks to us about The Outlast Trials, and turning its horror series into a Saw-style co-op survival game.
If I were to get a penny for every minute I spent hiding in barrels while my fellow test subjects were chased around by mutilated lunatics and gas mask-wearing scientists, I’d have enough to buy an extra copy of The Outlast Trials.
I’m a wuss when it comes to first-person horror games shrouded in darkness, and I have to thank Red Barrels’ amusingly disturbing Outlast franchise for letting me learn that about myself. Which is why I was thrilled to hear that, in the latest entry, The Outlast Trials, I won’t have experience those blood-curdling horrors all by myself.
It’s been a good month since The Outlast Trials launched in Early Access, and about eight months since Red Barrels’ designers allowed players to get their hands on it during a closed beta weekend in October. And while it’s finally here in all its gory, mind-bending beauty, letting groups of three and four tackle Saw-like gauntlets that involve a lot of running, screaming and getting lost – all to hilarious effect – it’s still hard to believe that a co-op Outlast exists and works so well. Particularly, knowing that there’s an alternative timeline where Trials didn’t exist.
“We weren’t sure if we were going to work on another Outlast game,” says Philippe Morin, the co-founder of Red Barrels studio and Trials' lead designer. Spending a bigger part of the decade working on a game-changing debut and its ambitious sequel, while trying not to exhaust all of its best tricks, can be demanding (see: Layers of Fear 2 and Deadly Premonition 2). It’s only understandable, then, that putting Outlast to one side was considered. Thankfully, the team soon changed its mind.
“After some time off,” Morin continues, “we brainstormed ideas. And one of them was, ‘what if we took the asylum of the first game and dropped four players in it? What if these players have to work together in order to survive and get out?’”
And thus the basis for The Outlast Trials was born -later publicly confirmed by the 2019 Red Barrels’ tease of two glistening hands clinging to one another.
For Red Barrels, figuring out how to turn Outlast into a multiplayer game without losing its sense of isolation was a million-dollar question. And while the move to multiplayer required its developers to sacrifice the scripted events that gave us some of the previous games’ most terrifying moments, Red Barrels co-founder David Chateauneuf thinks it’s a worthwhile trade off. “There are plenty of chases in Trials, but they happen organically,” he explains. “It may mean less scripted moments or fine-tuned staging, but it also means you never know what to expect.”
We soon learn what Chateauneuf means by that. After making our way through a funfair that saw our team participate in some less-than-pleasant carnival activities, such as throwing bloody, beating hearts at targets, we went for the exit, limping and bleeding. Right when two of us made it to the finish line, our third teammate was pummelled by a terrifying sock puppet lady who looks like a close relative to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Leatherface. Standing in the safe room, listening to our crewmate’s cries for help as he’s about to be executed by a drill in the face, we have to make a life-or-death decision: should we try to save him, jeopardising our chances of success, or play it safe?
These exhilarating moments will probably be familiar to players of games like Dead By Daylight and its asymmetrical contemporaries. But for fans of Outlast, this is completely uncharted territory. Which doesn’t make it any less impressive, considering that Trials is actually two games: one you can play alone, the classic Outlast way, and the other you can enjoy with co-op buddies. The latter usually results in less horror and more frantic running around. “Some players take their time while others take more risks and may alert more enemies,” Chateauneuf explains. “Because of this, some players want to be as far as possible from their teammates.”
As Chateauneuf readily admits, making Trials fun to play in single-player or with friends was no easy task. “To make the experience enjoyable whether you play solo or co-op,” he says, “we had to make sure the environments weren’t too big or too small. Creating something too big would take too much time for a solo player to explore. If it’s too small, then players aren’t going to have enough space to navigate without impacting the other players.”
Sure enough, each map is pretty big, and trials typically involve locating an objective or escape hatch. Finding these can be even more terrifying – and, admittedly, sometimes more annoying – than the actual monstrosities hunting you. In the last trial I finished, it took our crew a good 10 minutes of nerve-racking running in circles before we found our way out. And just the thought of losing an hour’s worth of progress due to our inability to track the beginning of the level made me shiver more than that poor chap whose legs we had to brutally saw off in the previous level.
If all this sounds familiar, not only to the Outlast series – which is notorious for its gruesome and disturbing imagery – but also to classic horror flicks, such as Saw 2, that’s because films have been a big influence on the game’s creators. Morin tells us that the Red Barrels drew huge inspiration from films like Cube, The Manchurian Candidate and even Rob Zombie’s 31. Since the brainwashing theme is a big part of Outlast's DNA, the team also delved deep into the cases of The Milgram Experiment and MK Ultra, the infamous CIA drug experiments from the early 1960s, and read books on the subject by Robert J. Lifton and Edward Bernays.
Considering that Trials is an entirely different beast than its predecessors – there are now cooldown-based abilities (called ‘Rigs), like X-ray vision, which allows you and your crewmates to see your hunters through walls temporarily, and passive skills (called ‘Prescriptions’), such as sliding or “Stay Of Execution”, which, as the name suggests, grants the ability to save a comrade before he’s dead meat – it’s no surprise that Red Barrels decided to go the Early Access route.
“We worked on this game for more than five years,” Chateauneuf says. “We obviously didn’t plan everything right from the start, but doing Early Access has been part of the plan for a couple of years at least. We knew we needed fans to help refine the balance, the rules and the scope.”
So far, it appears to be paying off. In the most recent (and biggest) update, which introduced Trials' first time-limited special event, Program Omega Ω, that invites experienced players for the “ultimate coop challenge”, developers addressed one of the game’s biggest weak points: single-player. “Given the feedback we received, we realised we may have been a bit too brutal on those playing alone,” the update’s notes read. “We’ve decided to revisit some mechanics to ensure solo players have a good time and that they can make continuous progress without being overly punished.”
With only a few protestations in the comments (“Unlimited lives seem a little wild for Solo,” one of them argues), it sounds that the tweaks were well received.
The Outlast Trials, like most asymmetrical horror games, is meant to be played many times, with four difficulty levels that can make loot more scarce, enemies more aggressive, and even add motion cameras that need to be avoided. And if things weren’t challenging enough, there are also a few permutations, like the recently added “Stay Together”, which forces your team to (you guessed it) stick together.
Upgradable abilities and additional difficulties are the obvious hooks that give Red Barrels’ players something to experiment with in future updates. But at the end of the day, it’s the variety of levels and new monstrosities that should provide real longevity. At the moment, there are only three chapters – The Police Station, the Fun Park, and the Orphanage – which can feel pretty limited, considering it takes up to an hour to beat one.
After six hours inside the Murkoff facility, however, I still feel like each playthrough has something new to offer. And even if there are complaints about there not being enough meaty material in Trials' current state, the relatively humble team of 45 is working hard to prove that Trials is here for the long haul. “We have a lot more ideas on the table than we can do in the short term,” says Chateauneuf, “but after we’ve released the full version, we’d like to reach a steady production velocity and provide more content on a regular basis.”
If Red Barrels can sustain this level of quality and communication with its growing player base in the years to come, then, we might get to call the Murkoff facility our second home. And if that sounds like a possible case of Stockholm syndrome, it’s only because hiding in barrels, with the shrieks of our teammates echoing in the distance, is so terrifyingly enjoyable.
The Outlast Trials is available now in Steam Early Access.