As Supermassive add a new multiplayer mode to The Quarry, GameCentral talks to the director about the difficulties of making an interactive horror movie.
British developer Supermassive Games has been making interactive movies for a long time now. Despite starting out creating DLC for LittleBigAdventure, they hit it big with 2015’s for PlayStation. A survival horror that put the emphasis on cinematic presentation and binary decisions, it was an unexpectedly big hit and despite a falling out with Sony led to series and last month’s .
The Quarry already had plenty of multiplayer options at launch but now it’s added the Wolf Pack mode via a free update: an invite-only mode where one person plays the game as normal and up to seven others watch, while voting on the decisions as they come up and forcing them on the player.
It’s one of several clever ideas that change how you experience the game and creates new ways to involve people that would never usually play video games. So we spoke to director Will Byles about Supermassive’s unusual approach to survival horror and why it is they make video games instead of movies…
GC: Why have you characterised this as the spiritual successor to Until Dawn and not any of The Dark Pictures games, considering they all work in broadly the similar manner?
WB: So, the biggest difference between The Quarry and Until Dawn and The Dark Pictures is… length is one thing. The Quarry is about eight to 10 hours depending on how you play it. So it’s much more about character development and character relationships. They’re all pretty douchey characters to start off with, ’cause it’s teen horror. If you remember at the beginning of Until Dawn, they’re all really super unpleasant, baring perhaps Sam. And then the journey that you go through with these characters… there’s redemptive arcs and real development.
And a large part of that is about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So you have these very self-actualised, self-obsessed teenagers, all kind of just pottering around with their hormones flying all over the place and then you kind of throw stuff at them until those things start to break down. It’s really about that and how you deal with it and what you wanna do with it. With these games there’s no winning. You can, if you get everyone at the end to survive it’s kind of a win, but it’s the dullest version of a horror movie.
WB: The choices you make aren’t always just ‘Should I do this or that?’, the choices you can make are, ‘Do you know what? You’ve got yourself into that situation, I’m gonna lose that quick time event because you did that.’ [laughs] And that’s cool because that all just changes the story. And that just makes it a bit more of a horror. So, yeah, I guess that’s the big difference, really?
GC: I noticed you were going to use the word cliché there for a second but didn’t, but I think in this case it’s not really a negative. Horror has its traditions and fans love to see them followed.
WB: I do hesitate over using the word cliché, because it does have negative connotations. I often try and use archetype, which is a slightly more positive word, but cliché is the right word and it even goes back to the storytelling techniques of Joseph Campbell and that sort of stuff.
GC: There is something very mythical about horror and the way it’s evolved these very rigid tropes.
WB: There is, there really is. There’s that side of it, there’s the character change, there’s the transgressive punishment – which we’ve had to slightly alter based on just the nature of modern morality, which is an interesting change.
GC: The most common transgressions are having sex and doing drugs, neither of which video games ever show. So are you leaving those out because you think they’re old fashioned or because video games are restricted by the puritanical beliefs of America censors?
WB: We have left out drugs on this one… again, partly because, yeah, you’re right, there’s a huge anti – bizarrely out in California where it’s all entirely legal – but there is kind of a thing… I think it’s partly because games are counted as toys, that there’s a different level of censorship, so it doesn’t count like a movie. So you can portray it but you can’t actively do it with agency. I think that’s the danger.
So we do have the transgressive stuff, but also we’re aware that punishing people for sexuality is in itself a dangerous area. So we don’t punish people but what we do do is have repercussions that you were allowed to choose from.
GC: The other big trope is the final girl, but how difficult is that to manufacture in your games? Presumably it’s fairly easy to get them all Ki**ed early on, either by accident or on purpose.
WB: We did it on Until Dawn. Sam is always potentially the last girl in that. She has plot armour all the way through…
GC: Oh, I just thought I was really good at keeping her alive.
WB: [laughs] It’s not that we didn’t put her in situations where she could die. Wherever she can die, she can get Ki**ed, but that’s not till the end with her. And that was very much kind of like, ‘Okay, we do want to have a final girl in this because it’s, again, very tropey, it’s very, very clichéd. Rather than going with super mad wide narrative branching, which becomes untenable as far as production goes, each character is like a spoke on a wheel and they’ve got their own journey and their own story – that’s either combined with somebody else or alone so that we can truncate that story at any point.
So anybody can die at, not at any point, but at set points in the narrative. Some of those points are later in the game than others but we don’t have any that just go right the way to the end automatically. You can definitely have a final girl because of the nature of the story, but that’s not necessarily the end.
And in fact, even the number of endings is different because if you get Ki**ed earlier on a bunch of scenes just don’t happen. There’s even endings where you can find out absolutely everything that’s going on and kind of win – even though I just said there isn’t a win state – but we had to try and make sure that the story still felt satisfying, even if that didn’t happen.
With horror that’s kind of easier, you don’t necessarily need to wrap it up. It can just be a desolate horror ending. So we are very careful. We’ve also got a set of relationships in there that are… so there’s a gay character in there and there’s a scene around a fire pit, which is horribly awkward. It’s designed to just be one of those things where everybody is being a bit of a dick. And there’s kind of a game of truth or dare, and people are getting people to kiss each other… but the choices come down to the player, about how that plays out. So, again, with that sort of sexuality you couldn’t then necessarily use the trope of having sex being treated punitively.
So you’ve gotta be a little bit cautious and also, with the final girl, we did a thing where very, very early on… I always do this thing when I’m writing characters, where I set the archetype of what that character is, and it might be a hero, it might be a messenger, it might be a harbinger, often there’s a princess character… the princess character in this game is a boy. And so he gets rescued, not necessarily by a female, but we’ve really poked around in what people’s expectations are and then try to fit that into a very recognisable format.
GC: I always find it odd that even as Hollywood and elsewhere tries to be more even-handed with hero characters you still never have female characters rescuing male characters. It seems such an obvious trope reversal, but it never happens in the way it used to happen with women. Even something like Wonder Woman only really skates around the concept.
WB: Yeah. It’s weird. Isn’t it? You’re right. The good thing is with this is we can make all these choices, the player’s choice. So we’re not fostering our morality, or our views, on anybody. We’re just setting it up in a way that’s… you know what, that’s your choice. That’s literally your choice. There’s never a right or wrong choice – well, there is one, actually – but it’s really, if I go that way, this is gonna happen, if I go that way, this is gonna happen.
And we try as much as possible to make them non-arbitrary, to be as informed as it possibly could be via your own experiences in horror and by the story that you found out so far, and by the nature of the character that you’re playing.
GC: One issue I’ve had with the first two Dark Pictures is that I didn’t like most of the characters. That’s not such an issue for a 90 minute horror movie but it is when you’ve got a 10 hour video game. Nine characters is a lot of douchebaggery, but I guess likeability must be a very difficult thing to write when you’re relying so much on the performances.
WB: You’re right, it really is. So just as a kind of a classic thing, we do have this real dick of a character called Jacob. And he’s this kind of jock, just super kind of… he’s just an a***hole really. And he’s written that way. And he has a very redemptive arc as you go through. Basically, everything is his fault, because he’s just selfish. But he does have a hugely redemptive arc all the way to the very end – if he survives, obviously he can die super early as well.
The way it’s written he sounds like a douche, the performance – a guy called Zach Tinker, who’s the actor, is just the most lovable person you’ve ever met. He’s so nice. And it comes over as kind of an irritating puppy rather than as a kind of a menacing dick. And, again, obviously there’s the choices.
Every time you play them, there’s the choices of how you behave. And you could be sort of arrogant or you could be a little bit more contrite. And people are mean back to him, so then you start to take on sides. It’s hard to write super likable characters without it being saccharin, especially to start off with. There’s very much a thing where we try and write the early chapters as this kind of façade, in the way that most people have a façade.
And that gradually gets broken away and their actual characters come through. And it’s really important that we do that over the period of that time. If we start off with 100% super likable then you get no conflict. It’s really important that we have this fire pit scene fairly early on, where they’re all sitting around drinking beers, doing this truth or dare, where it needs to have so much conflict that it disperses everyone. ‘Cause obviously it’s horror and we just wanted to try and break everybody up. But if they were all nice that’s where the story would end. They’d just sit there being nice for the rest of the evening.
So we needed that kind of thing happening, but what I’ve noticed, and the way we try to write it, is that as people play it they start to lean into it and they start to become super engaged in it, in the kind of the way these things are playing out.
And they’re very different the way the characters are, you have Ariel Winter who plays this sort of fairly meek, mild, and really quite annoying character. But she’s quite sweet, she’s not horrible. She has no malice in her, not a malicious bone in her body. And then you have her friend, Emma, who’s played by Halston Sage, who at first feels sort of overly confident, very pretty, likes to manipulate people. But, again, as you play through, she starts to show herself through from that as she’s shown to be overcompensating for things.
So it’s a longer journey and that’s, I think, the luxury we have with a game like this; with The Dark Pictures, it’s a shorter journey. So it’s very punchy, with this we have a nice long time to be able to do that. Some people will think it’s maybe too long, in the early chapters there’s not an awful lot of horror going on. There is the prologue and then the first chapter and a half, really, is getting to know people and that’s a big part of it.
GC: I have to admit, I generally don’t like this sort of game, but I surprised myself by enjoying Until Dawn. In fact, one of the biggest complaints I had was not so much as a gamer but as a horror fan, in that it wasn’t really scary and there was virtually no gore.
BW: So we did a thing, to make it super accessible to as many people as possible. So one of the things I was very anti is having quick time events, which are mapped to buttons – which for gamers is fine, but for non-gamers it’s punitive.
So in order to not have people’s stories be done based on a failure of a skill that they never knew that they needed we’ve simplified that down. And even then, within the menu, you can go, you make that super easy. It’s the same with basically all the interactive parts of the game, the sort of agency interactive, as opposed to the choices.
So you can dial all those down and effectively just get to movie mode. And movie mode is just like, ‘Okay, well, I will play this through and I want everyone to die. I just want an everyone dead movie’ and just watch it through. And obviously we take out the exploration and those sorts of things. The choices are kind of preset to that version. There’s an everyone dies version. There’s an everyone can live version, there’s a gorefest version, which is just the goriest version. And it’s fairly horrible, some of the deaths are quite gross.
There’s that version there’s even, a thing called the director’s chair, where you can go to every single character and there’s four attributes, like clumsy or adroit or indecisive. And you can set these parameters of their personalities, of all the nine playable characters, and then just hit play. And it will play out with those as being the presets to whatever the choices would’ve been had you had an interaction. So you can sit and watch it as a movie.
GC: So is there a sense that this is meant to be a notch up from Until Dawn, in terms of being a more traditional horror experience?
WB: So I have a little chart of where we sit on the horror scale and on the left hand side of that chart is something like Hostel. So that has zero humour, lots of gore, kind of frightening/not really frightening. And on the right-hand side is something like Ghostbusters, which is quite funny, not very gory, and kind of scary but not really.
So you have those there, and then there’s a whole bunch of films and TV series in between. So Ghostbusters there, something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer next to it. Something like the TV series Supernatural next to that. And then we are kind of around that area, we’re not down by Hostel or Exorcist or Saw.
GC: I don’t want it to seem like a back-handed compliment, but I’m always surprised how good your graphics are. And yet, given you’ve got all the actors there did you ever consider just filming it instead of making it CG? It doesn’t really seem like it would make that much difference?
WB: Weirdly it makes loads. And the reason it makes a massive differences is… and you’re right, it would be so much easier I can tell you – and probably cheaper. But the biggest difference is we’d have to either green screen and do it like Mandalorian or just build more sets. We have to build sets anyway, because if they’re going upstairs they’ve gotta go upstairs and all that sort of stuff.
But, for instance, very, very early on in the prologue you play as Laura, you’re running through the woods, there’s a few quick time events. If you miss one of them and you fall over, you get mud on your face. And that’s there, that’s then a persistent amount of mud on her face that if she gets into the car, it’s still there. The policeman, Ted Raimi, comes up and they kind of get rescued by him and there’s a point in there where he gets his handkerchief out and will starts leaning in, in a really menacing way to her.
And she doesn’t know what’s going on and you can recoil from this as a choice. If you do it really p***es him off, because he feels insulted. If she didn’t fall over, there’s no mud on her face and that thing never happens. Or somebody loses an arm or a leg or gets a scar. And again, there are literally hundreds of variables as we go through the game, based on all of these things that may or may not happen, that if you did live action, you just have to clear all those out.
It would only be a very, very narrow field of choices. So the number of variables, alongside the number of choices means that literally no one will ever, ever play the same game twice; unless they literally do exactly the same on purpose.
And for that reason you get a much richer, I think, a much richer feel to it. But having said that, who knows for the future. When you look at the kind of special effects, it’s always gonna be one of these things of what’s the best balance to try and get the richest experience? So that’s the biggest reason I think we’re still keeping it the way it is.
For the facial animation and stuff, we went to Digital Domain who are just amazing. And again, I think we’re probably the only people who’ve done it this way. It’s done with AI, so the animation is recorded off their own scans and all their own movements. And then AI does the animation interpretation back to the screen again.
GC: Did Ted Raimi [brother of Evil Dead and Doctor Strange director Sam Raimi] help at all or was he there just as an actor?
WB: Him and Lance, Henrickson… the way I see it is if somebody comes up with a really good idea, I would be stupid not to listen to it. I’ve gotta focus it all down so that it’s not incongruous, but if it works, it works. So, yes, he definitely added stuff. Not in the story side, because that had already been written and by the time we get to the acting… it’s like a house of cards, if you change one thing down here, the knock-ons are huge.
GC: So does that mean you can’t really have any improvisation?
Quite a lot of actors did quite a lot of improv in it. We had a script supervisor on the set trying to rewrite it all, ’cause we’ve obviously gotta subtitle it and all this sort of stuff that goes with it. But because the way we’re recording in three dimensions we don’t need to come and do a second take with a close-up or a reverse shot or anything like that. ‘Cause we can do that later.
It’s like a little play. Each one of the scenes is like an entirely self contained little play that we can then edit and move the cameras around separately afterwards. So yeah, all the actors had an input at some point. Ted was very, very, useful… I’ll put it that way,
GC: That’s very interesting, thanks for your time.
WB: No, no; it was a real pleasure.
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