It's easy to see, right away, why Sony went after former Ubisoft developers Red Barrels to get their indie game, Outlast, on the PlayStation 4. Not only is the horror/exploration game atmospheric and frightening, but it's a great showcase for the hardware.
In Outlast, you play a reporter who brings a video camera to an old abandoned asylum, in search of a story. The game is seen through your digital camera's lens, both as you wander through the empty hallways and when you flip on the terrifying black-and-white night vision filter.
Through the eyes of that camera, the whole game looks like a recovered snuff film of sorts, where you serve as both cameraman and victim. The motion and style of the game are both realistic, and sometimes (or often, depending on your tolerance for such things) disturbingly so. The camera's digital artifacts and heads-up display help sell the excellent graphics, and the whole experience found my scaredy-cat brain constantly having to remind myself that what I was seeing wasn't real.
Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin has admitted to wanting to scare players before, but here at E3 he professes a different goal. "What we really want to focus on is the emotion," he says. "We want to create an emotional journey. Horror is a good way to convey emotion, so it's not so much a conscious decision of making something grainier or playing with the look." Morin says the realism and the camera effects came instead out of "conveying the emotion we want to portray, and then [using] our experience to push the production value as much as we can, despite the fact that we're just ten people."
Aside from letting you explore a creepy asylum, Outlast has a few different pillars of gameplay. The first is based on your camera itself: Using the infrared mode to see in the dark depletes batteries, which you can only find sprinkled throughout the game's world. The camera display has a battery indicator that turns red and blinks as you run out of vision, only adding to the suspense, so I would flip my vision on and off periodically whenever I wandered through the dark, creating an even more disorienting strobe of images, like bloody footprints and even some headless bodies.
"You've been trying to ration your batteries as much as possible," Morin said after watching me play, "but other players tend to use it all the time." Eventually, the player will find various enemies in the asylum, after which the game will become more about stealth. You can lean around corners to see without being seen, and your R1 button allows you to try and sprint away from any dangers that come your way. Good luck with that, though; the facility's cramped corridors add some panic to the proceedings.
In addition to the visceral scares, Red Barrels is hoping to add some deeper thrills, too. "One of the comparisons we've been doing is Apocalypse Now," he says, where "you start with a simple goal, but then you meet different characters along the way." The first character you meet in the game is a sort of crazy priest type, who says the reporter has a "calling" of some kind at the asylum, and it's hard to tell if he's crazy, frightened, or prophetic. "We want to play with the unpredicability of those patients," says Morin. "If you meet Hannibal Lecter on the street, you'll never know he's a criminally insane person," he says by example, adding that "you won't know if they're going to attack you, if they're going to talk to you, to ignore you. And their behavior might change along the way also."
The game should be out on the PC this summer, and Morin says Red Barrels needs to talk with Valve before officially announcing a price. Currently, development is focusing on the PC version, but Morin says he's got "no complaints at all" about working with Sony yet. "They've taken care of us; communication is very easy."
Morin admits there's pressure after being put in such a public position on a next-gen console, but in the end "our faith is in our hands." He says the "buzz is really good, and players seem to be expecting the game, so it's just a matter for us to make sure we ship on time."