When the new teaser trailer for Avatar: The Way of Water—the next entry in James Cameron’s CGI-heavy film franchise—came out, many viewers opined that the footage resembles a video game. As praise or pejorative, that comparison is a touch hyperbolic. Yet it signals, too, the perceived overlap between the video game and film industries, which have increasingly come to share technological, narrative, and visual approaches.
Multiplex screens are nowadays laden with game-like images—exceptions exist, but a sense of green-screened unreality certainly abounds, whether you’re watching an explosion-rich action film or a well-paced drama. Other ideas also flow freely across mediums: Games and movies alike have set their watches to Matrix-style “bullet time” effects; both forms have shaken up their cameras à la Bourne; and as virtuosic a filmmaker as Brian De Palma has marveled at how certain games have deftly repurposed cinema’s roaming, first-person point-of-view shots.
And in a more recent development, high-profile games now routinely feature the performance-captured likenesses of movie and television stars. The last is not so surprising, for it was long ago prophesied—sort of. In the October 1982 issue of Videogaming Illustrated, one finds the vaguely manic headline “THE ROBERT REDFORD VIDEOGAME,” and an exhortation: “Don’t laugh, we may yet see one as more and more motion picture studios enter the videogaming ring.”
Smash cut to The Quarry, the newest horror adventure game from British developer Supermassive Games, or the latest movie-addled pugilist to cross the ropes. Granted, Supermassive isn’t a movie studio—nor overtly affiliated with one—but it does specialize in horror games with conspicuously cinematic ambitions. The Quarry is therefore an interactive movie of sorts, and its cast is made up of new and established screen actors. Skyler Gisondo—who recently appeared in the Oscar-nominated film Licorice Pizza—has a key role in the game, as does Jurassic World Dominion costar Justice Smith, among many others. Performance-capture technology registered each cast member’s vocal, facial, and bodily expressions, which were translated into the computer-generated facsimiles that players control and/or encounter in the game itself. Supermassive was in this respect assisted by Digital Domain, a Los Angeles-based visual effects studio that was cofounded by James Cameron, and which has since worked on a raft of movies, games, and TV shows.
Will Byles, who directed and cowrote The Quarry, found inspiration in the 1980 summer-camp slasher film Friday the 13th, and in the baroque death scenes of the Final Destination franchise. But the game is particularly indebted to the 1981 horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London, which Byles remembers as “the first horror film that I ever saw where I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is funny.’” As he tells me over Zoom, Byles admires the way the film combines its humor with credible relationships and “real horror.” In The Quarry, as well, there is a commingling of tones: It careens from maudlin needle drops to low-brow jokes to its own fearsome werewolves.
The game is set at Hackett’s Quarry Summer Camp, which boasts the usual trappings: cabins, canoes, corpses floating in lakes. At the outset of the story, the campers have been driven home, but the teenage counselors are still milling about the grounds. When their own ride home is delayed, they opt to reignite the bonfire and seize the night. As they’ll discover in the hours ahead, the sprawling woods hold many secrets, though a Robert Redford cameo is sadly not among them.
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Byles did, however, call on one of Redford’s contemporaries—Grace Zabriskie, whose screen presence is as arresting as Redford’s own. The octogenarian actor is rightfully well known for her eccentric turn as Mrs. Ross in Seinfeld, and for her variously poignant and eerie performances in the work of arthouse filmmaker David Lynch. In The Quarry, she plays Eliza, a delirious backwoods prophet equipped with tarot cards and a beclouded crystal ball. Her scenes ominously bookend the game’s 10 chapters. “It was lovely,” Byles says of collaborating with Zabriskie. Lingering still in his memory are the actor's “extraordinary, hypnotizing eyes.”
Though Zabriskie had previously appeared in a video game—the 1993 FMV (Full-Motion Video) oddity Voyeur, another movie-game hybrid—The Quarry’s technological rigmarole was fairly new territory. Pondering this same topic, Byles’ memory flashes to an image of Zabriskie clad in her mo-cap vestments: “She’s covered in a Lycra suit with little dots on it. She’s got a helmet on, with her arm out and a 3D camera there, and little dots on her face.” But Zabriskie, already well accustomed to strange production contexts, “took it entirely in her stride.” The in-game results are certainly graceful enough. Zabriskie’s likeness is nicely approximated, and her half-lidded glares are minutely rendered, the occasionally sour curl of her smile unmistakable.
“The actors are scanned,” Byles stresses. “I mean, a really, massively high-tech scan.” A head-mounted camera vacuums up fine performative details, which are granted steady passage to their in-game destinations via Masquerade 2.0, the proprietary machine-learning software used by Digital Domain. Masquerade helps keep the footage stable and legible, even as the actors leap, race, and—in the case of venturesome cast member Zach Tinker—break a thumb. (“The take was fantastic,” Byles quips, finding the silver lining.) The software also reduces postproduction fuss, strengthening the isomorphic bond between the stippled faces on the performance-capture stage and their corresponding computerized meshes.
As Aruna Inversin—Digital Domain’s creative director and VFX supervisor—tells me, each actor’s “digital face is fully driven by their facial performance. Nearly all the facial work shown in the game is untouched by any animator, save for 27 out of 4,500 shots.” Masquerade is also tried and tested: It facilitated Josh Brolin’s turn as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.
The Quarry, however, is more than its visual pizazz. It also dares to ask the important questions, like whether to use a chainsaw or a shotgun to amputate a werewolf-bitten hand. At such junctures, two choices are displayed onscreen. Each option nudges the narrative toward a different path. Some choices have negligible consequences, others are life-and-death quandaries. As the player guides the counselors across the game’s shadowy locales, QTE (short for quick-time events, where you have to quickly move an analog stick or press a button to complete an in-game action) prompts will also appear. Alternatively, one can activate The Quarry’s Movie Mode, establish a few preliminary settings, and watch as the game unfolds automatically.
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As Byles points out, players rarely have to wait “much more than a minute before there’s more interaction, whether that’s a choice or a QTE or whatever it is.” The Quarry, in this sense, elaborates on the “interactivity” already present in meta horror films like Scream or, more recently, The Final Girls. The latest Scream sequel offers an instructive example. At the film’s midpoint, franchise stalwart Dewey (David Arquette) strides toward the collapsed body of the slasher villain Ghostface. “You have to shoot 'em in the head, or they always come back,” Dewey insists, before drawing his gun. In such ways, horror films can provide savvy moviegoers with proxies—characters who likewise understand genre rules, and who wield that know-how on the viewer’s behalf.
The Quarry takes this tradition to the next level, ceding agency directly into the hands of spectators. But spectators, like slasher movie victims, aren’t all-knowing. Indeed, in that Scream confrontation, Ghostface briskly rises up at the last moment and digs two blades into Dewey’s torso. The Quarry is similarly a tricky gauntlet. The player’s choices can unexpectedly blow up in their face—and in Arquette’s, actually, as he also has a role in the game. In my own experience with the PlayStation 5 version, many of the counselors suddenly perished, bringing to mind the famously abrupt demise of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in Hitchcock’s 1960 proto-slasher film Psycho. In this respect, The Quarry gets a little carried away. The body count can easily accumulate, and several narrative threads once thought important can vaporize into nothing.
“Whatever happened to good ol’ fashioned authenticity?” asks one of the imperiled counselors. Here and elsewhere, The Quarry seems to poke fun at its own liminal quality, for it is neither entirely game-like nor thoroughly cinematic. Supermassive “wanted to try to make it as close to live-action as possible,” Byles affirms, reemphasizing the team’s filmic ambitions. But the game’s computer-generated style inevitably falls short of its live-action forebears. One will not find in The Quarry anything like Marilyn Burns’ vivid expressions of pure terror, long ago set to celluloid amid the sweat-soaked production of the 1974 film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Nor is the game ever as effortlessly mirthful as Crispin Glover’s dance in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, still among the most oddly poignant—and authentic—interludes in horror film history. There is, however, enough verve and authenticity in The Quarry to give skeptics pause. The game is often deliberately silly, but it has its emotional undercurrents. The counselors look ahead with unease, keenly aware of the dwindling summer hours. They reassess crushes, relationships, and tentative career paths.
That The Quarry hits these notes without much clumsiness or artifice is a testament to the technology and storytelling, but also to the sophistication of the actors, none of whom phone it in. Byles, too, applauds the cast’s dynamic: “There’s a chemistry that bounces off them,” he says. “It’s palpable.”
Especially impressive are the jailhouse scenes between Laura (Siobhan Williams) and Max (Skyler Gisondo), who are held hostage by an unsavory sheriff (Ted Raimi). The repartee between Williams and Gisondo flows naturally, even as their discussion moves from college rejection letters to woodland monsters. The digital makeup, as it were, isn’t as distracting as one might expect; their performances are charismatic, tangible. At such points, The Quarry makes a compelling appeal for the attention of both game and movie aficionados. The respective destinies of those mediums often intersect, and they will surely continue to do so, in ever more robust ways. But The Quarry’s high-fidelity performances are a particularly nimble step forward, and an outsized sign of things to come. Much like Zabriskie’s Eliza—with her skillfully digitized thousand-yard stare—the game itself envisions and foretells, gazing all the while toward the future’s bleeding edge.