A detached head on a stick helped shape a significant part of The Quarry, the new narrative horror game from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games. And that's not a B-movie euphemism, either. I'm not talking about some fibreglass prop dripping in fake blood, impaled on a wooden stake. I'm talking about a real human head on a stick, being wheeled around the film set where The Quarry was shot, directing horror genre royalty and mo-cap operatives. The head belongs to game director Will Byles, who learned a difficult lesson about trying to build an ambitious new game during lockdown.
"Digital Domain does all of our facial stuff, they're the guys who did Thanos in The Avengers, and they've got a really good set up in California," says Byles. "The thing is, they need to shoot there, and while we'd started filming before COVID in 2020, we suddenly weren't allowed in – no one from Europe was allowed into California almost overnight. We decided to try a remote shoot. So I was sat here in England and, at the same time in the States, my face was on a little iPad on top of the stick which was on wheels. I was like, 'Can I go over there, please?' and was then dragged to the other side of the stage like a child."
The walking head
The COVID-driven hurdles endured by Supermassive during The Quarry's development are hardly unique, but they are a small insight into how game studios have been forced to adapt at various stages during the ongoing global pandemic. Byles says his remote-head situation just about worked, but it was such a time-consuming process that he instead sought special dispensation from the American Embassy, which involved travelling to Bern, Switzerland because the UK consulate was closed. A three-week quarantine period was required in Switzerland at the time, and when Byles finally did make it across the Atlantic, customs officials Stateside had never heard of his new documentation, and held him in the airport for several hours while seeking clarification. "All in all, I think I quarantined for about three months in various places – one time in Barbados, which was a real hardship," says Byles. "Even then, when shooting we had to test every other day, we had to wear three layers of protection – a cloth mask, an N95 mask, and a plastic shield on top of that – the whole thing was crazy!"
Byles, of course, believes The Quarry is worth it. Three years in the making, and a spiritual successor to the BAFTA Award-winning Until Dawn, Supermassive's next venture is a star-studded open-ended narrative game that stars the likes of Scream's David Arquette, Modern Family's Ariel Winter, and A Nightmare on Elm Street's Lin Shaye among other Hollywood actors.
From what we've seen so far, The Quarry is suitably tongue-in-cheek while not taking itself too seriously. It's a teen horror game in the mould of Until Dawn, but marks an evolution of everything Supermassive has since learned via its Dark Pictures Anthology, and pulls on everything from Friday the 13th to Deliverance and The Hills Have Eyes. "I'm not going to give it away because it'll be a spoiler," adds Byles, "but there's also a creature in there as well."
As a result of its plot-heavy and twisting narrative, wherein pretty much every important decision determines whether key characters live or die, 2015's Until Dawn became an instant hit with streamers who were keenly pushing the boundaries of the game. Streaming is an industry unto itself seven years on, and this, coupled with the fact Until Dawn has accrued an accumulative two billion views on YouTube, has naturally altered the scope of The Quarry, as it strives to be approachable for all types of players.
In doing so, Supermassive has incorporated a suite of gameplay-altering options into The Quarry that determine how you can play. You might, for example, wish to experience everything the game has to offer – from its third-person exploration, to its over-the-shoulder combat, its QTEs, and, the feature which defines narrative games like Until Dawn and the Dark Pictures Anthology, its life-or-death decision-making. But you might, on the other hand, simply wish to play The Quarry with only the latter switched on – a virtual choose-your-own adventure-type deal, in the same vein as Black Mirror's Bandersnatch. The choice, as these games are wont to do, is yours.
"The idea is that gamers and non-gamers can enjoy The Quarry. You can play, or your grandparents can play, and by turning all of the extra settings off, you've ultimately got a movie," says Byles. "And then you can then decide what sort of movie you want it to be: you can make a happy ending movie, you can make it a really bleak ending movie, and you can choose my own favourite, which is the gore fest movie. That goes down a fairly dark path."
"You can also go into the characters and map out their characteristics: this person's fairly grumpy, they're argumentative, and they're clumsy, they're this and they're that. Then you just hit play and see how it plays out. There's a whole lot of stuff like that, a lot of which leads into where streamers are concerned. We're going to add some DLC later in the cycle too that will, again, allow streamers to tailor their games for their audiences."
Securing the likeness of so many famous faces will surely help The Quarry reach a wider audience, with the likes of Arquette and Shaye having a particular pull among horror fans. Byles says he and his team were fortunate enough to land the majority of their first picks for each character, meaning, for the most part, The Quarry's story has been written with this on-screen presence in mind. Character roles were established within an initial one-and-a-half-hour screenplay ahead of casting, which meant by the time actors had been locked in, the final scripting stage was written around their personalities. It's a two-way street from there, because as actors get to know their role they're then able to offer their own thoughts on how their characters might act and behave in specific situations.
When you introduce decision-making and moral consequences into that mix on the player's end, that's when things get really interesting – for Supermassive and the player themselves, each on either side of the fence. Byles continues: "We're really careful not to add our own morality. It's really important that we don't impress our beliefs on an entire audience, and I think that's a harder thing to do in the current era. Otherwise you're tainting their choices. Those choices can be really hard, and they should be really hard."
"With each character, we've added two arcs – there's the very selfish arc and a selfless arc. Neither will win or lose, it's more: 'okay, do what you want to do, it's your call.' Through this, one weird thing we've found is that people can disassociate a little in these moments. They say: 'yeah, that wasn't me that did that, that was her'. So, basically, you can set up people's characters and then allow the player to make moral choices with a degree of impunity. There's some weird psychological stuff that we're gradually discovering coming out of these games."
I find that last part fascinating, because it makes me think of watching old horror films and screaming at the comically bad choices made by characters being pursued by knife-wielding baddies. "You would never do that if put in the same situation", is something I'm sure you've said before while watching someone get brutally murdered on screen. In these games, though, we do get to put ourselves into these situations, therefore it's interesting to learn Supermassive has observed players picking and choosing when to adopt morality – a grey area for players in something which otherwise feels pretty black and white.
Byles' closing message to players, on the other hand, is far from ambiguous. "I can't wait to see the choices players make," he says. "Who they'll save. And who they're willing to sacrifice!"