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It isn’t just prestige television series that want to be thought of as “like a 10-hour movie.” For years now, video games have sought to become more cinematic by focusing as much on narrative as they do on interactivity. This often doesn’t work — if the story isn’t there, long cutscenes (also known, not coincidentally, as cinematics) interrupting actual gameplay can be more tedious than immersive. Some purists would even argue that the medium undermines itself by trying to imitate another. Movies are meant to be watched, video games are meant to be played and never the twain shall meet.
There are exceptions, of course, with “The Quarry” being the most recent game — and, in some regards, one of the most notable — to blur the line between passive and active entertainment. Developed by Supermassive Games and released on Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S by 2K Games, it’s essentially a choose-your-own-adventure slasher flick in which the player has near-complete control over who lives, who dies and how the entire story plays out. The game is the spiritual successor to 2015’s “Until Dawn,” also made by Supermassive, which functioned the same way but wasn’t quite as sophisticated in its branching paths.
Those paths begin with a prologue. You watch as Laura (Siobhan Williams) and Max (Skyler Gisondo) drive through the night for several minutes before you actually do anything, by which time you’ll have learned a few key pieces of information: The two are on their way to Hackett’s Quarry, a summer camp in Upstate New York, where they will spend the next few months as camp counselors. If you’ve seen literally any horror movie, you’ll already have an idea of where this is going. Here’s what makes this game different, though: You watch “The Quarry” as often as you play it, with extended cutscenes contextualizing those crucial moments in which you make decisions that reverberate long after those choices are made. The development team is said to have written more than 1,000 pages and 186 possible endings, all of which depend entirely on player choice.
At least on the screen, those choices are made by a cast anchored by horror mainstays: David Arquette, Lin Shaye, Lance Henriksen, Ted Raimi and Grace Zabriskie, to name a few, all of whom provided motion-capture performances in addition to their voices. To say that David Arquette’s character really, really looks like David Arquette would be an understatement, which is precisely the point — relying on familiar faces may even be the game’s most explicit attempt to feel like an interactive movie. Some choices are time-sensitive, giving you just a few seconds to decide whether to keep running from danger or find a hiding spot and hold your breath until it’s safe to exhale.
While it might sound counterintuitive, there isn’t total overlap between those who love horror movies and those who love horror games. The reason goes beyond some in the former camp simply not playing any video games at all, as the survival-horror genre tends to be highly stressful. You don’t have the option of putting your hand over your eyes and bracing yourself for the next jump scare while playing a “Resident Evil” game — you have to actually take control of the situation and progress through the story yourself. When a dreaming teen dies at the hands of Freddy Krueger, it’s lights out forever; when one of the inmates running the asylum in “Outlast” kills you, you have to go back to the last checkpoint and try again. There’s also the question of duration: “The Witch” is over in 93 minutes, but “Alien: Isolation” will stress you out for a full 20 hours.
If you fall into that camp, “The Quarry” might still be for you. It features a movie mode that allows you to choose certain presets — every character survives, for instance, or even every character dies — and simply watch the chaos you’ve wrought without ever having to pick up the controller. You may want to anyway, as the haptic feedback of PlayStation’s DualSense controller adds to the immersion: The way it rumbles in your hands or flashes different colors lets you know you’re in trouble. If you aren’t content to watch your masterpiece by your lonesome, there’s even an online mode in which up to seven friends can spectate and vote on every choice you make — not that you, brilliant auteur that you are, are bound by their input.
For all that, “The Quarry” isn’t actively scary much of the time. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, as the game is often so immersive on a technical level that you’re likely to be too impressed by its visuals to be dreading whatever’s on the other side of the door you may or may not open. “The Quarry” looks incredible in a way that few games before it have, especially when one of three optional filters — indie horror, ‘80s horror and classic horror — is applied. The first of these adds film grain, the second makes everything look as though it was shot on video and the last is simply black and white. Though film grain is usually the way to go, the VHS aesthetic works best here, serving the story’s throwback vibe while adding an extra layer of unreality to the proceedings.
By the time it’s over, though, it can be difficult not to feel like the causality was overstated. If you were thinking that one small choice early on — taking the scenic route back to the lodge rather than the direct path, for instance — will produce a butterfly effect that locks in one character’s fate hours later, you might be disappointed. Whether or not an individual survives the night usually comes down to a single action that takes place immediately before their potential death, such as deciding to open a door to the roof of a cabin rather than keep exploring its comparatively safe interior. Even so, “The Quarry” still manages to feel life-or-death even when it isn’t — it’s not until the credits roll that you realize you were often in less danger than you thought.
That, too, is a hallmark of horror. We like scary movies because they raise our pulse and tempt us to look away from the screen even though we’re perfectly safe on the other side of it. “The Quarry” understands this as well as any actual horror movie, and uses its inside-out knowledge of the genre to compelling effect. And unlike the films it’s modeled on, it allows you to instantly start over for a completely different experience — it makes you not just participant but director, and what fan of everything from “Bride of Frankenstein” to “The Shining” hasn’t wanted to be just that?