The Quarry has, to be precise, 186 different ending variations. The ending you get depends on the choices you make with nine different playable characters; some of your camp counselors will be forever changed by their experiences at Hackett’s Quarry, while others may not even make it to see the new dawn. A story that shifts and changes depending on your choices is nothing new for developer Supermassive Games, but creating The Quarry was a “mathematical nightmare” that resulted in a script longer than a thousand pages.
As part of IGN First, we spoke to The Quarry’s director, Will Byles, about the challenges involved in creating a choice-driven horror game.
“Writing a branching narrative is a really interesting exercise,” Byles tells us. “We write a full, hundred page screenplay as if it were a movie. We develop our character styles, and once we've got that, then we can start looking at how we break that out into a full 10 hour experience.”
That first script is expanded to include all sorts of alternate pathways, covering different relationships, story twists, and — the classic — adapting to the potential death of all nine main characters. This colossal, final tome is then passed to the acting talent.
“Actors are used to, on a feature film, a hundred page script,” explains Byles. “So when we send the actors the scripts they get very alarmed because they're huge. The script for this is over a thousand pages. We have to shoot about 50 pages a day, which is unheard of. It's just a mad amount of footage. But obviously a lot of what they're learning is the same thing again and again and again, but a different branch.”
Anyone who has loaded a previous save to retry a decision in a choice-driven game knows exactly what this means. It’s the same scene, but one version ends with the character walking away alive, while the other ends with an axe lodged in their skull. But when a major decision creates two unique outcomes that must then be continued for potentially another eight or nine hours, the script can quickly spiral out of control.
“When it comes to branching it really is a mathematical nightmare,” says Byles. “It's just exponential. As soon as you branch, that's two completely different routes. You branch again, and [it makes] two more and two more. By the time you're 20 choices in, you're in ridiculous amounts of data. We have to look at how we make a genuinely branching game without making it so ridiculously huge that it's unplayable or even unmakeable.”
So how is this gargantuan task possible? Supermassive Games’ solution can be broadly broken down into two approaches. The first is making use of large and small decisions to ensure that not every choice creates an entirely different storyline. The second is smart placement of those choices; perhaps they happen when only a few people are around, thus forcing the wider group of characters to be ignorant of your decision.
“The big choices we have are these things called Paths Chosen, and those will significantly affect the story,” explains Byles. “We'll announce it to you. You never know when that's going to come up. You're never warned about it and it might seem trivial, but it's a big, big deal.”
“The biggest thing that affects those really big choices is how much they affect the other characters,” Byles says. “If you've got these nine stories always all leading into each other, it is relatively straightforward to truncate one of those stories by killing somebody. That's not hard to do because it's a binary thing, they're alive or they're dead. When it affects somebody else [in the cast of characters] massively, that's when it all starts to turn into a bit of a house of cards.”
To prevent that house of cards from tumbling down, there needs to be a certain amount of restriction on how often a choice can create a major story branch. In order to do that and simultaneously keep the decision-based gameplay flowing, Supermassive has created dozens of smaller choices. These are focused on adding depth to the links between each of the camp counselors rather than creating divergent plotlines.
“The smaller choices [are ones] that affect the story that you're actually playing, like relationships and stuff,” Byles says. “We really like the idea of giving you context… You can have the exact same conversation, but know that a person has just killed someone, and the context changes everything. We announce [in small text on the side of the screen] every time you do something, how that's affected the other person you're talking to or how that choice has affected a very small part of what's going on. As soon as you know that, everything else just is tilted slightly.”
To make all this easier on the script, Supermassive uses a classic horror trope. “Obviously, what we do is split everybody up,” Byles says. “That's rule one of horror. The good thing about doing that is if you split everybody up, if we do something that's majorly affective to one or two of those characters early on, we can keep it with them. It doesn't necessarily have to go and affect everybody else.”
By keeping some decisions to smaller pockets of characters, it prevents the entire story from branching and creating two completely different, unmanageable storylines from forming every time a decision is made. But Byles explains that story threads can also “go wide” and then be brought back together again. Reuniting those threads presumably gives the script moments throughout that can be reliably stable and (at least somewhat) unaffected by branching, which provides a fresh starting point for the next round of big decisions.
The concluding point of all this is the ending. It’s a vital part for any choice-based game, as it works as not just a story finale but also the final assessment of your choices throughout the game. Supermassive is not taking this duty lightly; The Quarry has 186 different endings to reflect the many, many different choices you have made. Your personal ending will reflect who lived, who died, the relationships forged, and the variety of smaller things that happened on your journey. It’s thanks to The Quarry tracking all those variables that there can be 186 unique variations of the ending, rather than just a good or bad finale.
Of course, the main thing any horror fan wants to know is: can we kill everybody? The answer is yes, and it’s the way Byles likes it. “With a horror like this, my personal favorite way through it is that a fair few people die quite horribly. But you can also play it right through and you can have everyone live. It depends on what you want to play
For more on The Quarry, be sure to take a look at our behind the scenes look at the work that goes into making the many parts of one section of the game, as well as our hands-on preview. We’ve also got a look at how it builds upon the legacy of Until Dawn, and 30 minutes of gameplay to watch.
Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Features Editor.