You’ve seen Evil Dead, right?” one teen incredulously asks the other in Supermassive Games’ latest horror spree, The Quarry. His foot’s hovering above the step. Beyond, in the darkness, lies an unexplored basement that’s as likely to be filled with demons as it is cobwebs. But these kids are smart. They’re as in tune with horror conventions as Scream’s Sidney Prescott and pals were back in 1996. And The Quarry, in turn, is fully aware of how little separates it from the films it enthusiastically homages.
There’s a little Friday the 13th-style pre-titles carnage, where a jock mindlessly bumbles into the lion’s den of a murderous bogeyman. And propping up the young cast are a handful of horror doyens, including Lin Shaye (Insidious), Grace Zabriskie (Twin Peaks), and David Arquette (Scream).
When Supermassive Games released Until Dawn in 2015, it signalled a drastic change in direction not only for the British developer, who’d until then stuck with family-friendly IP like LittleBigPlanet and Doctor Who, but for survival horror at large. The game’s multibranched storyline gave players control over action and tone (heroic or chaotic? Take your pick). The use of established stars like Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere helped boost its credentials. In short, Until Dawn rewrote the very meaning of ‘cinematic’ gameplay. It wasn’t merely about replicating aesthetics, but about radically rethinking the relationship between the two mediums. The Dark Pictures Anthology that followed applied those ideas to an array of terrors, from ghost ships to Iraqi vampire dens to ghostly colonial towns.
The Quarry even comes with its own set of optional filters, so you can transform your playthrough into a lo-fi indie film production, a black-and-white classic, or the kind of eighties slasher you might stumble across on scratchy VHS. At this point, you really have to start asking the question – how many times do you have to press a button for a game to be a game? Is that too existential? What separates The Quarry from, say, Black Mirror’s interactive episode, Bandersnatch, which had you guiding the story at crucial points?
Supermassive has itself acknowledged how thin the line between film and video game can be by releasing Movie Mode, a feature in which you can put your controller to one side and watch The Quarry with zero interruptions and zero decision-making. There’s a cut where everyone lives, a cut where everyone dies, and an option to play at director by dictating each character’s personality before allowing the chaos to unfold.
It’s easy to brush this off as a sort of black hole effect, where every medium’s crushed together into one, amalgamated blob of ‘content’ – aren’t all these CGI-washed blockbusters starting to look like games anyway? But horror, as a genre, has always been a fertile testing ground, a place to launch conceptual rockets at the barrier between spectator and participant. Does a scream, let out by the lowly audience member, mean they’ve empathised with the figure on screen to the point they feel their own life is in danger?
Movie director William Castle, called ‘King of the Gimmick’ by filmmaker John Waters, installed vibrating devices under cinema seats that would randomly activate during screenings of his 1959 film The Tingler. A year later, for the release of 13 Ghosts, audiences were handed special filtered glasses that would allow the on-screen phantoms to appear and disappear at will. Would Castle think of The Quarry as just another horror gimmick? With gaming traditionally centred on the idea of achievement, Supermassive has offered the somewhat radical position that (in-game) dying can have its own rewards. As studio head Will Byles said in a recent interview, “Officially, you can see it as a win in just terms of ‘I got everyone to survive.’ And people like that, and that’s one of the reasons we made sure that that could happen. As far as the story’s concerned, that’s the worst horror film I’ve ever seen. Everyone got through? You want some degree of carnage, that’s what makes it a horror.