From ‘Night Trap’ to ‘The Quarry’ – Chronicling the Evolution of Interactive Horror Movies

Horror

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Since the dawn of the first horror movie, there have been genre fans yelling at the screen and criticizing ill-fated characters, often claiming that they would have made better decisions in their place. That’s why it’s only natural that the eventual rise of videogames would lead to digital media attempting to repackage that scary movie experience with an interactive twist.

While we’re still a far cry from the completely immersive virtual reality that was promised to us by science fiction, interactive horror movies have come a long way since the days of full-motion video and clunky arcade cabinets. In fact, from the charmingly lo-fi thrills of Digital Pictures’ Night Trap to Supermassive Games’ recent The Quarry, there’s a surprisingly interesting history behind the evolution of these choose-your-own-terror projects.

As it turns out, the first instances of interactive movies actually predate the digital age, with pioneer filmmakers borrowing from live theater productions and experimenting with audience participation during the early days of cinema. While most of these examples involved alternate endings and live moderators, carnival workers were also appropriating film technology to create interactive experiences as far back as the 1910s, coming up with primitive shooting galleries that incorporated real footage and often featured rudimentary narratives.

These fun little gimmicks eventually inspired a whole genre of arcade cabinets during the 80s, with many of them running on the then-revolutionary Laserdisc technology. Most of these titles simply repurposed footage from obscure sci-fi flicks and even anime, but it was here that developers really started playing around with quick-time events and branching storylines. While there were a few unprecedented hits like Don Bluth’s infamous Dragon’s Lair and the live-action Crime Patrol, it would be quite a while before these games began to lean into the scary side of interactive storytelling.

It was only with the rise of home-based FMV games that we’d start to see some legitimately spooky thrills akin to truly interactive horror movies. Since gaming as a medium depends on technological advances, these experiences were originally limited to VHS/board game hybrids like Atmosfear, which mixed traditional role-playing elements with a surprisingly compelling cinematic narrative. Of course, the ever-evolving world of home consoles meant that the 90s would offer up more interactive experiments like Corpse Killer (a rail shooter that incorporated campy live-action horror elements) and the aforementioned Night Trap.

Night Trap is an especially interesting example of interactive storytelling as it was originally developed for an unreleased VHS-based console exclusively meant for movie-like gaming experiences. While the “Control-Vision” was never released, Night Trap eventually found a home on the Sega CD a few years later (though it was popular enough to warrant a much-needed remaster back in 2017). The game was never considered a masterpiece, with even contemporary critics pointing out that the clunky controls and inherent limitations of live-action video made it unnecessarily frustrating, but there’s no denying the B-movie charms of Digital Pictures’ vampiric romp.

interactive horror movies corpse killer

This was apparently too racy for 90s parents.

Sure, the whole thing is a bit too janky to be properly scary, but I’d argue that Night Trap has some of the most innovative use of live-action elements in a videogame, predating most Found Footage movies with its voyeuristic thrills and making up for a lot of its limitations with a sense of humor. The game is also notable for the controversy surrounding its “creepy” subject matter, with both Night Trap and Mortal Kombat becoming key players in the formation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

Beyond Night Trap, we’d also see a plethora of horror-themed point-&-click adventures that incorporated cinematic elements and live-action footage. From the surprisingly polished Dracula Unleashed (which was later remastered and released on DVD) to Sierra On-Line’s seven-disc juggernaut Phantasmagoria, this era saw plenty of experimentation on the FMV front, with some titles even featuring celebrity guest stars like Tim Curry and Christopher Walken. We’d even get peculiar licensed experiments like Hyperbole Studios‘ The X-Files Game, which was basically an interactive episode of the third season of the show.

At the same time, Japanese developers were also experimenting with interactive cinematic horror experiences with the rise of visual novels. While they were often cheaper to produce and had varying degrees of interactivity, games like 1992’s Otogiriso proved that there was an international market for immersive horror stories, with the title even being adapted into a successful feature film with 2001’s St. John’s Wort.

The late 90s and early 2000s brought advances in both DVD technology and 3D rendering software, which made it even easier for creators to close the gap between gaming and film. Even blockbuster movies were getting in on the action, with films like Final Destination 3 releasing with special “Choose Their Fate” editions which allowed audiences to affect death scenes and added alternate endings. Meanwhile, developers like David Cage were starting to forgo the live-action elements of previous “interactive movies”, replacing full motion video with motion capture technology and focusing on real-time gameplay.

Unfortunately, while titles like Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain borrowed heavily from the horror genre, there were few explicitly scary experiences to be found until the 2010s. One of the first exceptions to this lack of notable horror games was Telltale’s episodic The Walking Dead, which not only garnered praise for the heartbreaking nature of its interactive elements but is also my personal favorite incarnation of Robert Kirkman’s undead franchise.

Later on, we’d see a resurgence of FMV elements in indie games like 2015’s Her Story, which incorporated real footage into a retro gaming experience with a surprisingly somber narrative. While it’s definitely a nostalgic throwback to the heyday of FMV titles, the added benefit of modern hardware meant that gamers didn’t have to deal with most of the technology’s frustrating drawbacks. The success of Her Story even led to a spiritual successor in the form of Telling Lies, as well as other similar titles like Erica and At The Dead of Night.

interactive horror movies until dawn

Things were about to get a whole lot scarier.

That same year, Supermassive Games would also release the PS4 exclusive Until Dawn, which revolutionized the interactive horror movie experience with production value that rivaled most big-budget monster movies. Featuring a diverse cast of talented actors and an intricately branching story that believably adapts to your choices, Will Byles’s game remains a shining example of why this sort of interactive experience became so popular in the first place.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Until Dawn led to wave of like-minded successors in the form of The Dark Pictures Anthology, and I’d even argue that the game’s success influenced Netflix’s decision to turn their 2018 Black Mirror movie into an interactive horror experience. Naturally, this also led to a proper successor in the form of 2022’s long-awaited The Quarry, which is the clear culmination of a style that has been honed by Byles during these past years.

While The Quarry ditches some of the excessively game-y elements of Until Dawn (like the emotional character stats and overly complex quick-time events), it keeps and improves on the midnight movie spirit that made its predecessor such a compelling romp. The experience isn’t exactly perfect, as the insane amount of variables means that the story has a hard time tying up all the loose ends, but I still think The Quarry is the closest we’ve come to a truly interactive horror movie without literally being trapped inside of a haunted house.

While overly cinematic gaming experiences have been the subject of controversy over the years, with the FMV trend often being cited as one of industry’s biggest failures and art critics having mixed opinions on the merits of story-focused videogames, I think that this negative reputation is unfair. The way I see it, this kind of interactive adventure is simply a natural progression from the way that we traditionally immerse ourselves in our favorite narratives.

The desire to overcome challenges and survive cathartic experiences is at the very heart of gaming, so it makes sense that developers would try to find a compromise between virtual playgrounds and the vicarious thrills of horror movies. These experiences may not be for everyone, but with constantly advancing hardware opening up new storytelling possibilities, I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait to see what kind of terrifying interactive narratives we’ll see in the future.

Interview With 'The Quarry' Creative Director Will Byles! [Exclusive]

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