Seeing Through the Dark

How three game developers took a gamble to form the studio Red Barrels and create their hit Outlast

Montreal has become a hub for the video game industry, with household names like Ubisoft and EA setting up shop in the city.

But beyond the big names, there are also independent companies like Red Barrels, which was formed by a group of developers who risked everything to chase and their dream of creating a studio of their own.

“The challenge of the whole thing was to always believe in what we could do,” said one of the studio’s founders, David Chateauneuf. “It’s like playing poker. When you know you have the deck, you go all in and you believe in it.”

After many years of toiling away on triple-A games with the big video game studios Hugo Dallaire, Philippe Morin and David Chateauneuf took their ideas and created Red Barrels after EA Montreal cancelled a game they were working on.

The decision to leave was not done in haste. “The risks were calculated,” Chateauneuf said.

But for the three developers, it was “now or never, like all the stars aligned,” he added. “That’s pretty much how we kind of made it happen, like we always believed in what we could deliver.”

The biggest challenge in starting the studio was money and, despite being a new company, the list of suitors offering Red Barrels an opportunity were nothing short of prestigious and well-known companies.

“Microsoft came to us to ask us if wanted to do something, Sony proposed us something,” said Chateauneuf. “There were so many solutions, so many propositions with advantages and disadvantages.”

Finally, after six months of waiting on other companies for help, the founders at Red Barrels took control of their own futures, putting their financial lives at risk.

“We were going to just grab our own money,” said Chateauneuf. “So I put my condo [up for sale] and I grabbed money made from my condo. Hugo did a thing, Phil’s family got [involved in] the whole thing and that’s when money, ideas, all came together.”

“We were going to just grab our own money,” said Chateauneuf. “So I put my condo [up for sale] and I grabbed money made from my condo. Hugo did a thing, Phil’s family got [involved in] the whole thing and that’s when money, ideas, all came together.”

After establishing themselves as a studio and breaking off into their own offices, the studio received $1 million in funding from the Canadian Media Fund to kick start the production.

With the funding, will and ideas in place, the team at Red Barrels started working on their first horror game, Outlast.

The idea for Outlast didn’t come from nowhere. David and the rest of the team at Red Barrels had some outside inspiration.

“At some point, the inspiration came from Amnesia [a popular Swedish survival horror game],” said Chateauneuf. “The idea of not having a weapon was quite fun so we were like, ‘that game has some things, and we have the background to make a game like that as well.’”

In addition, Chris Cunningham’s 2005 short film “Rubber Johnny” had a significant impact on the game’s direction and design. The film’s main motif—what Chateauneuf described as an “alien, crazy head in night vision”—and its use of the soundtrack from The Shining gave off creepy yet “cool” vibes that provided inspiration for Outlast, Chateauneuf said.

Having the idea prior to forming the studio meant development on the game started quickly. However, like every game, problems emerged, particularly in the new team’s chemistry.

“I think [the hardest part] was always trying to find the sweet spot in communication and put everybody on board, because we all came from different companies,” said Chateauneuf. “It was a long process of making sure people fit at the right place.”

As is the case with most teams of independent game designers, doubts during the development process always lingered. And yet all the worries were quelled when the game went public for the first time at the 2013 edition of the Penny Arcade Expo gaming festival.

“I think it’s when we went to PAX and we realized that there were a bunch of guys having so much fun and were so scared,” Chateauneuf said. “When we [went] to the public, and people are like, ‘it’s really scary,’ that was a pretty good and intense moment for us because we knew we had something in our hands.

“We just had to deliver it and push for quality, and that really gave a lot of power and motivation to the team. That was the key moment of the production.”

Outlast eventually came out on various platforms and achieved commercial and critical success, much to the team’s delight. In IGN’s review, Marty Sliva said, “Outlast can stand proudly as a unique and terrifying survival horror game.”

Post-release the team continued to work with a new piece of technology, a virtual reality headset called the Oculus Rift. The work didn’t go as planned, though.

“It’s interesting, [Outlast] is so not made for [the Oculus Rift],” Chateauneuf said. “You might puke, there’s people in your face, it’s crazy, so we just did a port.”

Despite the fact that the game didn’t work with the Oculus, Chateauneuf believes that the Oculus Rift and virtual reality may have a place in gaming in the future.

“I think [the Oculus Rift] is going to stay. I think it’s tempting, a new gadget,” said Chateauneuf. “There are some things that make you wonder if it’s going to work but they have to find the proper recipe for that.”

With their destiny in their own hands, the team at Red Barrels is diligently working on a sequel to Outlast.

“So far the team is more concerned about trying something new,” Chateauneuf said. “So the same essence, trying to keep the same focus, the strength we have, but we’re looking for a new setting, a new adventure that doesn’t really imply being always in one big building.”

The first game was set in an asylum. Chateauneuf remained cryptic about the Outlast sequel’s setting, only saying that “there are places on earth that you feel alone.”

As for a release date, Chateauneuf said it’ll be “done when it’s going to be done.”