Here’s why The Quarry ‘s shlocky horror roots make for great game design


After the surprise smash success of 2015’s teen horror survival story Until Dawn, developer Supermassive Games spent a few years wandering through other ends of the horror genre. Through games like Man of Medan, Little Hope, and House of Ashes, the studio’s Dark Pictures Anthology showed off gripping tales of psychological horror, ghost stories, and ancient mythical monstrosities. 

But for its latest game The Quarry, Supermassive swung right back to familiar territory: a group of teens unaware of exactly how memorable their trip would be. Teen slasher movie plot staples like underage drinking, ill-advised skinny dipping, and brutal, gruesome kills on the shores of Hackett’s Quarry Summer Camp punish the characters for their hubris. It’s a love letter to teen horror, and with familiar genre faces like David Arquette, Lance Hendrickson, Ted Raimi, and Lin Shaye, The Quarry goes out of its way to cash in on player expectations about the genre.

Expectations about horror have been ripe for riffing in the world of horror films (see the Scream film series, which stars Arquette). In plenty of other genres, familiarity and expectations might be weaknesses. But according to game director Will Byles, the genre itself is partly what makes Until Dawn and now The Quarry so dang compelling. 

In a genre defined by bad choices, inviting players to figure out which choices will help them survive the night, and which ones will get them impaled on a stick is a brilliant move. But as Byles told Game Developer, having to build that game in a pandemic, when you need to film real actors on a motion capture stage, turned into a horror film of its own.

The power of teen horror

To talk about the power of teen horror in video games, Byles had to start with the raw mechanics of Supermassive Games’ titles, which at a glance play out like interactive movies. “It’s not directly 100 percent interactive,” he pointed out. “The gameplay itself is the changing of the story.”

Byles made the comparison to Chess, and how Chess is a series of unique choices that changes the outcome of a game. In Supermassive’s games, the aim then is to make “entertaining” choices, not just “good” or “bad” ones. If every choice has a clearly “good” outcome, players will tend to pick that one.

It’s also not great if choices are just “arbitrary,” in Byles’ view. Players need context for what they’re doing, and having choices bifurcated on simple axes like “left or right” also aren’t fun. 

Which brings us back to teen horror, a genre that Byles said is “so known.” “Everything about it is so known, so established now about what the rules set up.”

The massive success of the Scream franchise shifted the world of teen horror, literally spelling out the rules of teen horror of what characters could do and what they couldn’t do if they wanted to survive. Scream also showed that once you let the audience in on the rules, you could start to “muck about with them” as well.

In the first Scream, those rules were as simple as “you won’t survive the movie if you have sex, you won’t survive the movie if you drink or do drugs, and you won’t survive the movie if you say ‘I’ll be right back,’ ‘hello?’, or ‘who’s there?’.” 

Originally, Jamie Kennedy’s character in Scream, Randy Meeks, spelled out these rules in a meta-commentary moment that spelled out who was likely to die by the end of that film’s runtime. Scream was able to subvert those rules just a few minutes after Meeks’ speech by revealing the unexpected identity of the Ghostface killer, and have characters who broke the rules survive the movie.

The Quarry has a lot more ground to cover. “With this sort of medium…it’s longer than an hour and a half,” Byles said, comparing the length of The Quarry to the average major motion picture. “We can subvert your expectations.”

That’s not to say The Quarry is filled with unending twists, but again, it’s all about context. That super familiar set of rules that players have inherently absorbed through cultural osmosis layers extra context on why things are going the way they do. “It’s well established in the way that people kind of understand what’s going on, and that lets them make slightly more contextual choices without being cheated.

Relying on the tropes of teen horror does come with some development downsides. “The characters in most teen horror are generally kind of obnoxious,” Byles noted. “You do have to have an affinity with them, and that’s a really tricky area.”

An obnoxious teen making an entertaining choice
An obnoxious teen making an entertaining choice.

Byles called the standard horror movie cast a group of “primary-colored characters.” You have your jock, your geek, your weirdo outsider, etc. Most of these characters are usually given traits that make their deaths feel “justified.” They tempt fate, ignore societal norms, and often disrespect or harm the main character of the story.

In The Quarry, players control eight of these tempestuous teenagers, and that means they’ll spend more time with them than you’d get in a normal horror movie. They’re shaped but still moldable clay that the player can choose to make nicer or more hateful depending on the context. “Their facades are kind of the pinnacle of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” he said. “They’re spoiled and very self-centered, and then gradually that stuff’s broken away as we start to push the horror in.”

So the teens in question need to be horrible, but also likable. That’s a tough road to travel when you’re trying to lock things down in game development. 

That road only got tougher when it came time to film the game’s actors on a motion capture stage in Los Angeles, and the COVID-19 pandemic turned everything upside down.

Catch motion, not COVID

Much of The Quarry’s in-game content is structured around the motion-captured performances of its cast. Arquette, Raimi, Hendrickson, Shaye, and their younger colleagues don’t just voice the characters, they act out scenes on a stage as well with full-body motion capture. This was a major leap forward from Until Dawn, where Supermassive merged voice performances with facial capture.

Which was why when COVID-19 hit, The Quarry’s production ground to a stuttering halt.

Byles said that the pandemic “bollocksed everything up a bit” and forced Supermassive Games to rewrite its production process. The company had to abide by SAG-AFTRA’s work agreement for actors to return to set, wrangle with the American Embassy to get Byles out of the U.K. and into Los Angeles, and when he finally could make the trip, it was a solo journey. No producers or camera people from Supermassive could join him.

This was all after Byles attempted to direct actors via video call. “I was a little face, on an iPad on a stick,” he recalled with distaste. “That was horrendous. That was really really bad.”

In the name of COVID-19 safety, many of The Quarry’s scenes shot in the pre-vaccine period of the pandemic were done with no more than three actors on stage at any given time. The crew used Tennis Balls to stand in for actors who couldn’t be present while doing larger ensemble scenes.

Byles doesn’t think this slowed-down process hurt The Quarry’s final performances, but the challenges were incredibly strenuous. No one could eat or drink on set. Byles spent hours wrapped up in an N95 mask and with a visor shielding his eyes. And in the biggest impact on production, Byles couldn’t bring a camera operator onto the stage. 

The actors would perform scenes that would be captured full-body, and the team’s camera operator would enter the stage later, building shots out of previously-recorded performances.

David Arquette's character in The Quarry
David Arquette’s character in The Quarry

It’s a similar production process to what James Cameron’s team uses on the Avatar films, but not having a camera operator on set with the performers was more of a hindrance than help in this situation.

Thankfully, other technological advances since the release of Until Dawn helped Supermassive make up for lost time. With that game, the team would individually edit scenes in Maya and wait hours for them to render. For The Quarry the team used a sequencer system in Unreal Engine (with modifications) to make more nuanced edits.

Supermassive also used AI and machine learning to help assemble facial animations, pulling from a library of “face shapes” to get really accurate translations of the actors’ faces in The Quarry

“It was tricky, and hard, but ultimately it was fun,” Byles said, looking back on the process. He recalled that sticking to the full-body motion capture threw some of the film industry veterans on set for a loop, as the team would film up to 50 pages of script each day, far more than the 1-3 pages that would be filmed on feature films.

It’s a little ironic that making a teen horror game would require such major technological advances. The genre’s generally known for making the most out of cheap budgets and budding actors. 

But when you throw the impact of the pandemic into the mix, what was already a neat love letter to a beloved genre becomes and impressive feat of production. Just like they say at Hackett’s Quarry Summer Camp: that which didn’t kill them, made them stronger.

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