For some, including myself, Red Barrels’ Outlast is one of the scariest games of all time. It’s a horrifying survival horror game that uses simple mechanics, such as a night vision camera and the ability to hide in lockers or under beds, to terrifying effect. Even the option of looking behind you while you’re running away from whatever it is that’s chasing you adds to the game’s searing intensity.
Our very own T. Blake Braddy had the chance to ask Outlast’s scriptwriter, JT Petty, about his work on the game, as well as its upcoming prequel expansion, Whistleblower — read what he had to say after the jump!
Interview by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
First of all, how does it feel to be part of the team that made the scariest game of the year and, arguably, the scariest game of all time?
JT- This is going to be a difficult interview, isn’t it? That’s crazy kind of you, and I was crazy lucky to be roped into working with such a talented bunch of psychotics. The first day in the office, I barely know some of these guys, and we’re talking about necrophilia and how many fingers you’d need left to climb a ladder with a camera in your hand. It was like an unexpected reunion with old friends.
What did you think of the Conan segment? He seemed to be pretty unnerved by Outlast.
JT- I loved the Conan segment, it’s always fun to watch the victims squirm.
How did you get involved with writing the game, and when were you contacted to start working on the story?
JT- I’ve known Hugo Dallaire (art direction/one of the Red Barrels founders) for over a decade, from back in our Ubisoft days. They had the basics of the story worked out when I got involved, and we built the characters and beats from there.
How is the process for writing a game different from working on a script? When Red Barrels came to you, was there already an idea for a game, or did they just know they wanted to do a horror title, and they gave you the freedom to write the script as you wished?
JT- The broad strokes were all there, and they gave me good deal of freedom. But everything was a constant collaboration. There’s not a story beat in the game that didn’t get chewed over and worked into game design, art direction, etc. Compared to a movie, a game script is sort of like writing in post production, you’re following and editing the game and level design with the story.
Outlast seems to carry some of the themes running through your other works, like The Burrowers and S&man, which are vastly different in terms of story but are about powerlessness and about feeling exposed. How does the game fit in with your philosophical viewpoint on horror?
JT- S&MAN is a lot about whether the experience of watching a horror movie is a more sadistic or masochistic experience. From the start, there was no ambiguity that we wanted the experience of playing Outlast to be pure masochism. Everybody on the team kept saying, “Sure, but how do we make them suffer more?”
I definitely think horror needs to break your expectations, either through extremity or form. So much of the audience is so familiar with the tropes of the genre that the expected beats get to be a comfort. There are a lot of brilliantly crafted horror films in the last few years, but if the story’s the same thing you’ve seen a dozen times before, you’ve left all the impression of a haunted hay ride. I don’t think you’re telling a horror story if your audience doesn’t feel like they’re traveling in unmapped territories.
What sorts of influences did you draw from in order to come up with the story for Outlast?
JT- We based as much in history and science as we could, then amplified everything to ecstatic levels of horror. I really like the intersections of science and mysticism that developed in the mid-20th Century, all the sort of post-Jung psychological theories getting mixed up with Satanic spiritualism and developing computer intelligence. We worked with a company called Thwacke! that consulted on mental disorders, medical practices, and science/technology. On a pure story level, we dredged through all sorts of movies, from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, of course), American Psycho, The Descent, Alien, Jacob’s Ladder, and others. I saw an interactive theatrical performance called Sleep No More about halfway through production, and it made a huge impression on me in ways to drop a player into the middle of a story.
The idea of the eerie asylum is well-worn territory, and yet you managed to avoid many of the trappings of this type of narrative. In what ways did you work to avoid cliché?
JT- We tried to make sure that the hospital always felt like a functioning environment, and keep everything grounded. As soon as you put a sane person in an asylum, the audience is waiting for a story about a person going crazy / discovering they’re crazy, (Shock Corridor, Shutter Island, etc.) But insanity or ghosts would be too easy of a way out for this game.
The visual style is obviously a big draw for the game. What input did you have on how the game looks? In what ways did you script out the environment? Did you script out individual scares?
JT- I was in the conversation, but that’s always a team effort. Every environment was a conversation about “what happened here, and how can we show that.”
I really enjoyed S&man, which conveys unease from the fact that being watched or even watching others is creepy. What about the experience of voyeurism, of looking through a lens – like the video camera in Outlast – creates tension, rather than breaks it?
JT- Point of view in a video game and point of view in a movie are enormously different. POV in a movie often creates tension through revulsion, like when you’re looking through Michael Meyer’s eyes in the beginning of Halloween, you’re especially conscious of the character’s sadism in watching, the threat he represents. You’re less sympathetic to the movie character because you’re looking through his eyes. A video game, for me, is the opposite experience; you’re more firmly rooted in the character because you are the point of view. I think POV in a video game is less about voyeurism and more about vulnerability.
On a similar note, how do you think having a lack of substantive combat creates fear? And to follow up, how did you think about writing the game – pacing and so forth – so that the lack of combat remains interesting throughout?
JT- The lack of combat was one of the first thing Red Barrels told me about, and I thought it was brilliant. It’s the vast majority of what makes the game so scary. In terms of pacing, I was usually the one arguing for slowing things down; I love the parts of the game that feel like a Polanski movie. We talked about the pacing of The Descent in similar terms, or The Exorcist III, drawing out periods of claustrophobic tension with sudden explosions of violence.
Not to mention, hiding plays a part in the game experience. It’s something that you would think more horror games would use, but they do not. The lack of combat, too, is something that seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon. How has working for an ostensibly independent production freed up possibilities to try new things with horror gaming?
JT- Red Barrels has the advantages of being a small team of very experienced designers, they’re not afraid to experiment and take risks. They also had the focus to know what would work. Everything was about tension, fear, and suffering. There was no place for the cathartic release of righteous violence.
Were you involved in the playtesting process at all? Have you played the final version of the game?
JT- I peeked over some shoulders during some playtesting, but that’s mostly work for smarter people than me.
Since the Whistleblower DLC is a prequel, did you already have some of that material sort of mapped out in your head? How early did the team start talking about and working on DLC?
JT- We were talking about DLC ideas from the first days. The original Outlast is such a forensic story anyway, you’re a reporter uncovering scattered facts about horrible shit that was halfway through by the time you showed up. So a lot of the ideas were there, and there will be some fun revelations to uncover.
Without giving away too much, what can you say about Whistleblower and what players can come to expect from the experience? Were any changes made based on the original content’s release?
JT- We learned how much people like to suffer, so we’ll pile on more torment. From a story-specific viewpoint, it’s been fun seeing how much people have latched on to some of the characters (the Twins, Trager.) We definitely want to introduce folks to more of our friends.
With the game’s success, is Outlast a property that you would think about returning to in the future? If so, would it fit within the world you have created, or would you take the player somewhere else, to another unsettling location?
JT- I’m on board for as long as the rest of the team puts up with me. I think we could take Outlast to all sorts of places; we’ve planted a flag as to what the game is and how far it’s willing to go. From here it’s just the limits of horror, which are asking to be broken.