The Outlast Trials

Time to survive The Outlast Trials, a truly terrifying Montreal horror game

Inspired by the infamous MKUltra “Montreal experiments” that took place at McGill in the 1960s, Outlast goes multiplayer in its new incarnation.

It’s not often that a horror game is successful in the genre. There are tons of games that are gory and gruesome, full of jumpscares and tense moments — games where you hide somewhere, firmly pressing the “hold breath” button with sweaty fingertips, praying the timer doesn’t run out before the psycho-killer NPC leaves the room.

Outlast is a different kind of survival horror because it is truly terrifying. Released in 2013, Outlast left many seasoned gamers unable to finish it because the experience was literally “too scary,” and liable to give the player nightmares.

The Outlast Trials, releasing to Early Access in 2023, is the first multiplayer title in the series. You are a test subject trapped in Murkoff’s Sinyala Facility, a secret research laboratory populated by mutated grunts, grotesque berserkers and other deplorable failed experiments. But you! You are different because you have the wherewithal to escape — sneak and solve your way past a series of psychological obstacles, alone or with friends.

A Clockwork Orange-worthy

The Outlast Trials has a grungy, atomic-era feel. The institutional setting of the multiplayer lobby gives some major Fallout 4 vault-dweller vibes, and gameplay has that fight-your-way out element of the Gauntlet level in Nuka-World. While some of the retro stylings give a psychedelic ’50s–’60s drug-induced feel of We Happy Few, Outlast makes Silent Hill look twee in terms of scariness.

The Outlast universe is influenced heavily by the notorious real-life “Montreal Experiments” that took place as part of Project MKUltra at McGill University back in the early ’60s. In collaboration with the C.I.A., the top secret project sought to repattern people’s brains through severe psychotic procedures that included electroshock therapy, drug-induced sleep comas, sensory deprivation and several other A Clockwork Orange worthy attempts at neural reprogramming (note: none of the Montreal experiments were successful).

The notion of questioning your own sanity due to the brainwashing efforts of corporate overlords runs deep in the Outlast series. References like The Manchurian Candidate and psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform theories are embedded throughout the Outlast narrative. While not busy being terrified, the player is confronted with concepts of power and the balance of authority; the struggles of prisoner vs. patient and the use of fear as a method of control.

No cats, no rainbows

“The Outlast games have a very passionate and devoted fanbase,” Morin notes. “Creating a successful IP can be challenging. We like the universe we’ve built and want to keep adding layers to it. So, unless we decide one day to make a game about cats and rainbows, we’ll keep leveraging the Outlast IP.”

It’s a sensible approach. The Outlast Trials invited its greatest fans to a five-day Close Beta last Halloween. Almost 1 million people signed up, with successful players racking up a total of 35 years of play time in the Closed Beta weekend. Sadly, this probably means no cats nor rainbows from Red Barrels in the near future.

Red Barrels: A Montreal success story

Developed by Old Montreal-based studio Red Barrels, Outlast was the first project from a scrappy, underfunded studio founded in 2011 by Philippe Morin, David Chateauneuf and Hugo Dallaire, veterans of Montreal’s AAA-studios.

While Outlast was a huge success, selling over 15 million copies worldwide, the Red Barrels journey wasn’t an easy one. Back in 2013, the game was ready to launch and the studio was completely out of money. When co-founder Philippe Morin was asked about developing the Outlast series in Montreal, he concluded: “I feel like we’re in an environment that promotes ballsy risks and unbiased creative choices. I have a hard time picturing ourselves making an Outlast game anywhere else.” Montreal: the home of punk-rock creative startups.

But in game development, there are serious pros-and-cons to being indie. Morin continues: “We’re totally independent and self-funded. That means we don’t have any pressure from outside the team and no compromise has to be made to please some editorial board across the sea.” The downside? “We can’t rely on a large number of devs to join our team at the end of production. So, we have to be smart about how to scope the game. You have to push the envelope, but keep things manageable.” ■

Early Access for The Outlast Trials comes to Steam and Epic Games Store on Thursday, May 18.

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