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The Outlast Trials Isn't Outlast 3 But It Can Still Be "Classic Outlast"

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We spoke to Red Barrels' co-founder and game designer Philippe Morin to discuss Outlast's co-op makeover, and how fans of its past haunts will still find what they're looking for in The Outlast Trials.

In all my years of playing horror games, one of my strongest memories is from 2017, when Outlast 2 scared me to the point of a professional quandary. Up against the review embargo and needing to finish my assignment, I cut it very close because the game was so tense and unnerving that I found it hard to return to whenever I'd step away. The game's terrifying cult at the center, purposely dizzying level design, and powerless protagonist combined to haunt me in a way that even the memorable original game did not. In the end, I got my work done on time--at the cost of some psychological distress. Can The Outlast Trials make me feel that way again?

That was the central question I posed to co-founder and game designer at developer Red Barrels, Philippe Morin, when we recently spoke via email. Outlast has always been so relentless and engrossing. But The Outlast Trials moves much of the series' MO into a co-op environment. Is that similarly conducive to scaring players, and if not, will it benefit the experience in other ways to make up for it?

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Now Playing: The Outlast Trials' TERRIFYING Opening Gameplay

With the game launching in Steam Early Access on May 18, soon you can jump in and decide for yourself. To his credit, Morin does admit playing The Outlast Trials may sometimes take players willing to try something new, though he importantly adds that the traditional Outlast experience is here too, if your heart can still stand it.

You can read GameSpot's full interview with Morin below. We spoke of the game's scare factor, how Red Barrels has scaled up since its first game, and the prospects of a true Outlast 3.

I regard Outlast and especially Outlast 2 as some of the scariest games I've ever played, and I know I'm not alone. How does co-op affect the tension for better or worse in The Outlast Trials? Might this game sacrifice some tension for the advent of co-op?

First of all, I should point out that you don’t have to play with other people if you prefer to go through the trials alone. It’s totally up to players to decide how they want to play. That being said, the experience is obviously different depending on how many players start a trial. Their personalities might also change the way things go down. For example, four players rushing through will create more chaos than four players who are stealthy.

Another thing to consider is that the game organically creates situations in which players can be separated, like when an enemy jumps on them or a gate closes between some of them. The players might also decide to split up to perform different tasks. So, regardless of the number of players, you can still end up alone at times. I think, in general, playing alone will give you the maximum level of fear, like a classic Outlast, but playing with others will be more stressful and filled with moments of panic.

How does The Outlast Trials fit into the larger Outlast universe? How does it tell its story in such a new framework?

It takes place in 1959, back when Murkoff was working with the CIA for the MKUltra project. So, it precedes the events of the previous games, but the quest for mind control and behavior modification is the same. The facility is located near Temple Gate in Outlast 2. When you’re by the lake, you can see part of it in the distance. Rudolf Wernicke, the old scientist we meet near the end of Outlast, was much younger in 1959 and he was involved in what was going on at the Sinyala Facility.

There are two narrative layers in The Outlast Trials. First and foremost, there’s the journey of the player. He is kidnapped and brought to the facility. He must go through brainwashing therapy in order to be released back into society. The events and challenges players face create the story of how they succeed or fail. There’s the story of the Denizens you meet in the Sleep Room (lobby). Those employees of Murkoff will develop a relationship with you over time and you will learn more about them. The main thing to remember is that our goal isn’t to create an experience of a few hours, we want to build a world in which many things can happen in the long run. For example, maybe one day you’ll take the shuttle to go play a trial, but then an accident will happen, the shuttle will crash and you’ll get an opportunity to escape… or maybe one of the enemies will break free from the building next door and he will come and attack players in your lobby.

The early access and the 1.0 version will be like Act 1 of a story. We’re introducing the world and its characters and the rules. Once it’s done, we’ll be able to add more parallel stories and twists.

Moving to a co-op structure likely required all kinds of new solutions during development. Can you talk about what sort of new problems arose during development and how you solved them?

The co-op aspect offers more types of interactions in the game. Players can:

  • Trade Items
  • Save each other from being killed by NPCs
  • Grab or pull each other up when either jumps
  • Bash doors open together

So, the impact is more in terms of mechanics than game structure. It adds depth, without taking anything away from a solo experience. The one thing we can’t do is to have big scripted moments in which we must take control of the player, like the wheelchair sequence in the first Outlast. So, the biggest challenge was to find ways to make a trial feel like a narrative experience.

Could someone play this game solo and have an optimal experience? What sort of benefits and/or detriments might they experience?

The experience can be optimal whether you play alone or in a group. It depends on what you’re looking for. It can be satisfying, but for different reasons. We’ve done multiple playtests over the years and some players prefer playing solo, some prefer a two-player game, while others really enjoy the group vibe of "us versus the enemies." That’s why we decided to support all those scenarios.

The strange t facades players explore may leave them feeling like doomed rats in a twisted maze.
The strange t facades players explore may leave them feeling like doomed rats in a twisted maze.

How does the game scale differently for each team size? What sort of variables change to accommodate for solo play, full teams, or something in between?

Actually, we realized along the way we didn’t need to do much because the challenge comes from different elements. For example, when you play solo, nobody can revive you, but you’re a lot more in control of your game and how stealthy you want to be. In a group, players can revive each other but communication is key and there’s often a player who screws things up for the others by attracting an enemy. So, the only thing we do is scale the steps of some objectives, like, there might be two generators instead of one, for example.

How many maps are there and how do they change between rounds?

For Early Access, we’ll have three different environments from which we’ll derive the following:

Programs

  • One of the biggest changes we introduce in Early Access is the concept of Murkoff Programs.
  • Your rebirth is a journey, separated into clusters of Trials called Programs.
  • A program is a list of Trials and Mk-Challenges that you must complete to earn rewards, make progress and unlock the next Programs.
  • The “Programs” is a platform that will be populated with new content and experiences over time.

Program X

  • Once you finish all Programs, you will be able to access Program X.
  • Program X is a seasonal stack of Trials and MK-Challenge. Our team will renew it occasionally.
  • Complete Program X to earn your freedom.

Trials and MK-Challenges

  • Trials are immersive story-driven therapies that take a certain time to complete.
  • Mk-Challenges are shorter therapies occurring in modified or redesigned sections of an existing map.
  • POLICE STATION
    • Program 1 occurs in the Police Station setting.
    • The Prime Asset of Program 1 is Coyle.
    • The Trial “Kill the Snitch” has been revisited and improved since the closed beta.
    • Program 1 introduces new Mk-Challenges.
  • FUN PARK
    • Program 2 occurs in the Fun Park setting.
    • The Prime Asset of Program 2 is Gooseberry.
    • Program 2 introduces a new set of Trials and Mk-Challenges.
  • ORPHANAGE
    • Program 3 occurs in the Orphanage setting.
    • The Prime Asset of Program 3 is Gooseberry.
    • Program 3 introduces a new set of Trials and Mk-Challenges.
  • TRIAL VARIATORS
    • We are introducing Trial Variators.
    • Trial Variators alter aspects of a Trial when you revisit them as part of a Program.
    • You can see the list of Variators when selecting a Trial in a Program.
    • You can also see the list of Variators when opening the Menu (ESC) while in a Trial.

Can players "beat the game" in a traditional sense or is it meant to be open-ended?

It is both. You can conclude the journey of your character by completing the therapy and getting out of the facility. But you can create new characters and try to release as many as you can, while the world around you evolves and new content gets added.

Behind safety glass, researchers record your torture as mere data points.
Behind safety glass, researchers record your torture as mere data points.

In the beta, I thought I noticed an element of asymmetrical multiplayer, with human enemies mixed in with AI enemies. What was going on there?

Dr. Easterman has enemies dressed up as players and wearing masks. No one can be trusted.

How much did the team look toward other multiplayer games--horror or otherwise--for guidance versus looking inward at the series' past games? How did you balance that, if at all?

That was the biggest challenge and why the game took so long to make. Finding the sweet spot in order to retain the Outlast flavor, while maximizing replayability took a lot of trial-and-error. There wasn’t one game we could go back to as a main reference, because Outlast Trials is an odd mix. So, we would have to constantly analyze ideas from scratch to make sure they would fit with one another. We tried so many things and probably made more than one game in the process. The upside is now we have a backlog of ideas we will be able to revisit in the near future to add content, variators, and game modes.

What will the early access launch allow you to do differently, and how long do you expect to be in early access?

Compared to the closed beta, there’s a lot more content and now players have access to the character progression with the Rigs and the Prescriptions. If all goes well, we’re talking months and not years. Our goal is to switch to the 1.0 version as quickly as we can.

Beyond early access, what sort of post-launch support will The Outlast Trials receive?

We’re just getting started. Now the foundations of the game are almost done, we’ll be able to focus purely on content and ideas to keep players entertained… and scared.

Who is the scariest enemy in The Outlast Trials and why?

Well, ultimately, I would say it's Murkoff himself, but then again… no one I know has ever seen him.

Does The Outlast Trials replace a traditional Outlast 3, or should fans expect something like that still to come?

It doesn’t replace Outlast 3. We still want to do a straight-up sequel to the first 2 games. But we’re a small team and we can’t do it all at once. We were 10 on the first Outlast and 20 on the second one. We’re now 45 for The Outlast Trials.


The Outlast Trials launches on May 18 via Steam Early Access.

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markdelaney

Mark Delaney

Mark is GameSpot's guides editor, meaning he tries to keep his backlog short. His favorite genres are battle royale, sports, and horror, but he'll play pretty much anything other than fighters. In his spare time, he likes biking around Portland, listening to Circa Survive, and advocating for animal liberation.

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