The interactive game The Quarry pulls on horror tropes to create an enjoyable social experience. By Jini Maxwell.
Early in The Quarry’s branching narrative, Detective Pikachu’s Justice Smith (2019) leans against a door, the screen displaying a relatable prompt: “eavesdrop” or “listen to podcast”. He’s spying on the suspicious camp leader of Hackett’s Quarry, the ill-fated summer camp where the game’s spooky events take place. Sam, sitting next to me, offers me a Sapporo beer while I send a screen capture to our mutual friend: “haha that’s you!”
The Quarry is an interactive horror drama by Supermassive Games with a classic B-grade movie plot: a group of teenagers staying in an isolated summer camp find themselves targeted by evil forces, and must try to survive until sunrise.
Like all the best B-grade horrors, The Quarry features (motion-captured) performances by young actors who are just tapping their potential for stardom. Alongside Smith is a cast including Booksmart (2019) and Liquorice Pizza (2021) actor Skyler Gisondo, and veteran horror actors such as David Arquette (Scream, 1996) and Ted Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981), with each fulfilling a different genre archetype. Their characterisation is slight, and their lives, loves and deaths are plot fodder, rarely lingered on as the narrative continues.
This attenuates what could otherwise be a grim undertone to the game. Rather than offering binary conditions for winning and losing, the game offers 186 unique endings, with player decisions affecting who lives and who dies, and whether the mystery is ultimately solved.
As with previous Supermassive Games titles, The Quarry’s narrative switches between the different viewpoints of its ensemble cast, introducing a co-operative mode that assigns players different character viewpoints.
The gameplay is pointedly simple. The player watches cutscenes or walks around specific environments, occasionally finding clues or making narrative decisions. These periods of exploration and decision-making are offered without the time pressure present in many branching narrative games, allowing players to deliberate on their course of action.
The Quarry is also peppered with quick-time events – in-game prompts that require speedy button pressing from the player. These have been drastically simplified from similar mechanics in Until Dawn, opening up the game to an even wider audience. In addition, The Quarry introduces a “movie mode”, which becomes available after one full playthrough, regardless of its outcomes. This mode allows players to decide upfront who survives the story and to watch a non-interactive version
of the game, where their decisions play out like a film.
It is immediately apparent that The Quarry has learnt from the successes of Supermassive Games’ best known title, the 2015 sleeper hit Until Dawn. Designed for a single player, Until Dawn found unexpected popularity with video-game streamers, who polled their viewers on their decisions as they played.
In addition to the allowances made for local co-operative play, The Quarry is one of a growing number of video games designed with an online audience in mind. At time of writing, popular streamers such as jacksepticeye have racked up tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of views on their live playthroughs of The Quarry, and edited highlights from the stream are reposted to YouTube for an audience of millions. The main menu even offers a “streaming mode” that disables any copyrighted music from the game.
While some more active viewers will vote in polls that decide the fate of different characters, it is just as easy to tune in and out of the game’s genre-laden narrative, idly following its multiple outcomes without worrying too much about the detail. In the same way that previous generations left the radio on for companionable chatter, or turned on the television while cooking or cleaning, video-game streamers on Twitch and YouTube increasingly offer a comforting, ambient texture to domestic life. This is a context that Supermassive Games understands intimately.
The Quarry’s simple, choice-based interactive narrative strikes me as similar to the interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018), Netflix’s tedious attempt to reinvent the genre. Unlike that underwhelming outing, The Quarry was made by game developers with professional experience in structuring and writing interactive narratives, designing the experience to reflect the changing dynamics within their audiences.
The game makes no promises to break ground or defy genre, and it’s better for it. While The Quarry has its banal moments – I could have spent less time schlepping bags into a car that would obviously never leave the campsite – it is saved by its absolute lack of embarrassment about its own triviality. At its most hair-raising, The Quarry is still more likely to make players laugh than scream – in my first playthrough, the hand of one of my characters was cut off to stem the spread of supernatural contamination and they remained utterly unfazed. Another lost an eye to a werewolf attack, responding only with a quip about her aspirations to study veterinary science.
Like a late-night screening of The Room (2003) with audiences throwing spoons at the screen, The Quarry is an experience that is most enjoyable when shared. It belongs broadly to horror in the same way that The Cabin in the Woods (2011) or the later seasons of Stranger Things might be considered part of the genre, interested in how its tropes create a common language with its audience, rather than using them for scares.
The Quarry’s simple approach to narrative and play caters to an emerging video-game audience that uses games as a method to spend time with others as co-operative players, streamers or viewers. Its social design features dovetail with a lightweight approach to narrative, creating an experience where complexity will always take a back seat to sociability.
If I describe Supermassive Games’ titles as simple, generic and unserious, these aren’t criticisms; they present a compelling set of features. The Quarry is a finely tuned iteration of a very silly subgenre that I could comfortably recommend to anyone who has watched It (1990) at a drive-in cinema, or dressed up as Ghostface for Halloween. If the experience aims to be entertaining and nothing else, it hits its target squarely.
About five hours after the eavesdropping scene, our hero the podcast fan will have amputated his love interest’s hand, been stabbed, turned briefly into a werewolf, and ultimately recovered in time to save the surviving band of teens. Despite these apparently high stakes, The Quarry’s most compelling achievement is its contribution to an atmosphere that extends beyond the confines of the controller and screen: a cold Sapporo; Sam laughing as I retake a doomed scene in vain. I boot up the game for a second run while writing this review, watching familiar characters make their way through the opening scenes. Haha, that’s you!
The Quarry is available on Windows, PlayStation and Xbox One.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Horrible fun".
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