Half game, half TV show, ambitious Xbox One exclusive Quantum Break forges new paths through both
Telling a story about time travel, a good one, is the scriptwriter’s Everest. A subgenre predisposed to paradox and plot holes, narrative threads getting knottier with every rewrite, it’s a stern enough challenge in any form of media. In Quantum Break, a thirdperson adventure from Remedy in which the narrative plays out both in-game and via live-action TV show episodes, and which allows players to impact the story with their decisions, it’s more like climbing Everest in a blizzard. “If we had a time machine and we knew everything back then that we know now,” says creative director Sam Lake, “certainly there’d be things we’d do differently to avoid extra work and time.”
Remedy is attempting to do something narratively ambitious with Quantum Break, but even setting aside its dual approach to storytelling, its core gameplay fizzes with possibility. Bestowed with five time-related abilities, protagonist Jack Joyce uses his chronology-bending talents to turn cover-shooter combat into a game of setting traps. He teases enemies, giving them clear line of sight for long enough to lure several into a cluster. Then he’s gone. With time paused, he outflanks them and unleashes a temporal blast at their bunched formation.Using a ‘dodge’ that causes time to dam up and then burst forward, he lurches from one assailant to the next, hanging in the air unnaturally before letting punches land. Soldiers who step out into the open are frozen in stasis, or sprayed with bullets that hang ominously motionless in the air before leaping forward and tearing up their target with renewed force. Before the fragments of explosive barrels, crates and human viscera from one encounter have hit the floor, Joyce has lined up the next. In 2001, Remedy gave the gaming world Bullet Time. What it’s gestating for 2016 brings a new level of spectacle that transforms time from a silent killer into a thunderous one.Fundamentally, it’s an origin story in the modern superhero movie tradition, boasting big-name acting talent in Shawn Ashmore, Aidan Gillen and Dominic Monaghan. Taking place after a time-travel experiment at Riverport University inevitably goes awry, the fallout causes a devastating temporal instability and bestows the power to manipulate it on Paul Serene (Gillen), Jack Joyce (Ashmore), and Beth Wilder (Courtney Hope). While the latter two can alter time’s flow, Serene is able to see future events, an ability that warps Joyce’s erstwhile friend into an antagonist apparently bent on bringing about the end of time. To pursue his aims, he’s assembled a private army named Monarch, which has access to sci-fi gadgetry capable of similar powers to Joyce.In part, you’ll digest this story through in-game cutscenes and gameplay created in Remedy’s native Espoo, while a live-action series produced more than 5,000 miles away in LA shoulders the rest of the narrative load. What that means is the opportunity to view the same tale from opposing perspectives, the gameplay told through hero Jack Joyce’s eyes while the filmed material follows Serene. At the end of each gameplay act is a ‘junction’, in which the player assumes the role of Serene and makes a big decision, bifurcating the critical path.
It sounds straightforward, but for Remedy and TV production company Lifeboat Productions, each headed by a different director, that split is not trivial, requiring a scene to be shot for the game in Remedy’s own performance-capture space, then shooting it again on the other side of the world with the same actors from a different perspective. To make matters more complex, the studios are aiming for one-to-one parity between the two, and each scene’s also subject to variables – some tiny, some significant – depending on your past decisions. Lake tells us that there are in the region of 40 different factors affecting the game’s final scene. This is not the kind of thing that translates well to vertical slices and gameplay demos. Where Quantum Break becomes more than merely another superpowered shooter is in the fanatical attention to digitising its cast, and blurring the boundaries between its two storytelling mediums. In LA, director Ben Ketai calls the shots. Back in Espoo, Remedy’s drama director, Stobe Harju, is responsible for all in-engine cutscenes, gathering his performance-capture data using a virtual camera system weighted exactly like the hardware used for live-action shoots. In the corner of the room is Remedy’s polarised scanner, an array of off-the-shelf DSLR cameras used to record faces in pore-rich detail. The lighting’s cross-polarised to produce images without any reflections – even, Harju says with pride, on eyeballs.In the room adjacent is another array of cameras, which are used to create 3D images of the game’s stars and track their facial movements, a refined spin on the tech Team Bondi used for LA Noire’s visages. Harju calls this the sweat room, due to both the warmth and intensity of the lights within and the fact that Ashmore once spent upwards of ten hours straight filming material in here. Behind the lights and cameras is a tennis ball gaffer-taped to the rig at roughly head height. Actors must remain perfectly still while their expressions are being recorded, Harju explains, so the tennis ball’s there to give them a reference point for their position. More importantly during a lengthy shoot, it also offers them a surface to rest on. Ashmore signed the tennis ball after his marathon session, but already the autograph is barely visible, worn away through his colleagues’ use. The end result of the process is an in-game character model with over 80,000 polygons, and a facial model used for tighter camerawork that’s correct down to each actor’s teeth, which are recreated from plaster moulds.It’s a demanding way of working, and one that Lake explains has produced many unforeseen complications. “It’s been a huge push to do specific locations one-to-one, actually building the sets like that,” he says. “But everything doesn’t always go as planned. For example, in scenes of [eye witness] Amy [being interrogated], there is a slightly odd-looking lamp we accidentally left in the level in the background. It’s a whiteboxed version of that lamp. And [Lifeboat Productions] just took it and created a real version of that whiteboxed lamp. It’s a small detail, but for us it was a hilarious example of all the challenges of communication and getting things in sync.”
It’s a continuity editor’s nightmare, but it seems logical that, of all studios, the developer behind Max Payne and Alan Wake would be the one to realise it. In the studio’s 20-year history, it’s forged a reputation for cinematic presentation and narrative panache, even before games felt the need to justify pulling the trigger. “We see ourselves as storytellers,” Lake says, “and when we start to think of a new concept for a game, we often start with story… and we try to look into other mediums than games. Movies, TV series, books, graphic novels: [we’re looking] for things that excite us, but at the same time have not necessarily been made into games before. It’s served us really well, because it means we can find an audience who have loved watching a movie about something, but they have never had the opportunity of being in there, immersed in the experience. Obviously, game stories have come a long way in the past 20 years of Remedy history, and we have more and more phenomenal game stories out there, which is wonderful, but it wasn’t always that way. Stories were always kind of an afterthought. We wanted to change that and create characters who are deep and flawed, just as you would expect in a modern drama. That is part of the DNA of a Remedy game.”More than that, Remedy’s games have married those stories to mechanics that make sense within the logic of the whole. Bullet Time never seemed gratuitously game-like in Max Payne’s world, because the gunfights in the Hong Kong blood opera movies it evoked rolled between shells in much the same way. That close relationship between theme and gameplay is made possible by the team opting to build its own engine for each game, Lake says. “It gives us the opportunity to look at what we [want] on the story side, and then we can focus on and invest in those aspects on the tech side.”In Quantum Break’s case, its core gameplay once again plays with the passage of time, but in more dramatic and complex terms than Max Payne explored. “In the public’s eye, I think people could easily see it as Remedy taking Bullet Time and making Super Bullet Time,” game director Mikael Kasurinen says. “We’re doing something that’s fundamentally different.”As much as an integrated live-action element suits Remedy’s storytelling MO, the concept of Quantum Break originally seemed to align perfectly with Microsoft’s launch vision for Xbox One, back when the console was pitched as a vehicle for consuming TV as much as games. But in actuality it was Remedy that made the first move, approaching Microsoft with a pitch for an Alan Wake sequel that would include live-action elements. That pitch morphed into ‘Quantum’, whose focus on sci-fi and time manipulation offered Remedy the chance to empower the player with a broader toolset than its previous titles. In time, Quantum became Quantum Break, one of precious few games revealed alongside Xbox One in May 2013, and the one that appeared to buy into Microsoft’s unpopular new view of consoles the most.Microsoft, of course, backtracked on its initial focus in the months that followed, even closing down its original programming division, Xbox Entertainment Studios, by October 2014. While, given its apparent ties to Xbox One’s old pitch, Quantum Break may have seemed from the outside as though it were in danger of going the same way, Remedy’s agreement with Microsoft to outsource production of the live-action content would keep the game safe. “[Lifeboat] was not part of Microsoft’s LA studio,” Lake says. “This was on a separate track from the very beginning. That’s the big reason why Quantum Break wasn’t affected in any way by the internal shift that Microsoft made. Maybe it was lucky that, when we started with Microsoft with this project, it was decided early on we’d outsource to a production house in LA.”
There’s an irony in Remedy’s desire to set the history of Quantum Break straight – the theme of its game bleeding out into the narrative around it. Back in-universe, however, a shaky hold on present realities is decidedly more codified, made manifest in temporal phenomena known as ‘Stutters’. These anomalies see the flow of time lurch forward and backward as if being played on a mistreated VHS tape and, on a purely visual level, create environments that morph and warp around Joyce, shadows fluttering over an ever-changing mise-en-scène. It’s a technique used often in digital animation – accelerated day/night cycles, buildings falling to ruin in seconds – but as an example of realtime, in-engine gameplay, where frames are processed for milliseconds rather than hours, Quantum Break’s Stutters feel new, offering a spectacle that wouldn’t have been possible on older silicon.Lake and Kasurinen demo gameplay of a Stutter, which follows on from August’s Gamescom showing. Joyce, in pursuit of Serene, finds himself in a ship construction site, which is abruptly transformed into a laboratory by a temporal tear. Here the Stutter’s deployed as a storytelling device, offering a flickering viewport into the events in the lab that led up to the ill-fated experiment. Back in the construction site, Serene flees via helicopter and unleashes a time blast that destroys a nearby vessel. Now the Stutter becomes a gameplay device, remixing the glitched-out environment around Joyce every few paces to create a platform/puzzling sequence. Joyce runs, dodges and jumps between parts of the ship in various stages of destruction.The scene climaxes with a gunfight between Joyce and Serene’s Monarch forces, including a newly revealed Technician enemy type, which is also able to manipulate time. Coming after examples of Quantum Break’s inventive storytelling and adventure design, combat looks satisfying but has less to differentiate it from familiar forms. Ostensibly, Joyce’s powers are a unique palette with which to dispatch enemies, but many games have bolstered protagonists with similar abilities. Infamous: Second Son’s Delsin Rowe might not explicitly hold the power to control time’s flow, but it appears to slow and accelerate when he deploys his powers nonetheless. The same can be said of Batman in the Arkham series’ hand-to-hand combat. The result is that Quantum Break has yet to stamp a truly distinct personality on cover shooting, though its well-animated and effects-showered battles feel like solid foundations for novel gunplay.
The earliest prototype of the Stutter was born when Remedy started to experiment with the possibilities of state changes within its own Northlight engine, discovering it could record sequences of rapidly changing object and lighting conditions that the player would still be able to interact with in realtime. “That’s where it started off,” Lake says. “The very earliest iteration of the Stutter was just that: everything was frozen [temporarily], but that gets old quite fast. Adding the time powers into the mix, we felt that it was more natural and promising to add further detail with the special effects. With that, we also get danger in there – things collapsing in the broken timelines and being a threat.”“It’s actually tied to audio,” Kasurinen says. “You have these distortion effects within the Stutters where the environment seems to shift and wave and so on, and audio is the cue.” The Northlight engine, he explains, is reacting to certain key audio pieces that the player triggers, which have been tagged to effect state changes. “On some kind of fundamental level, having it match perfectly already makes it much more believable,” Lake says. “As we know, in films audio plays a huge role and if the audio is wrong, no matter how good [a film] looks onscreen, it loses impact. Whereas in some cases, if it’s the other way around, where the audio is right, even if it doesn’t look quite right, you imagine that it does. In this case, we’re fundamentally, even in the code, tying them together so that the audio creates the [onscreen] distortion.”Cohesiveness is something of a theme for Remedy and so, back on the narrative side, its attitude towards the signposting and consequences of its junction moments is surprisingly relaxed. Live-action content can be skipped in its entirety, too, though Lake isn’t enthused by the idea that anyone will choose to do so. “It’s not the intended experience,” he says. “Obviously, in this kind of game, you will be missing out on a lot. You are learning things from the show that play into events later on, and we are doing small things with collectibles and whatnot to encourage people also to check out the show. When you watch an episode, you will see certain props, which we are calling Intel Props, somehow related to the characters there. And if you have watched the show, you can search for those same props in the following act of the game and you’ll be gaining more information on the story.”Each choice at the game’s junction moments also calls upon aspects of that Swiss army knife of Quantum Break’s fiction, the Stutter. “Visually, there’s some similarity in the junction moment to what you see in a Stutter,” Lake says. “So around Paul Serene, time essentially freezes. Frozen glimpses of two paths appear, and you get to explore several of these frozen glimpses on both sides, and you hear fragments of dialogue. And then you have Paul Serene thinking it through, wondering what this could mean. You’re presented with these two paths, and then you make a choice. It’s never black and white.”Seeing the story from Joyce’s side and then from Serene’s, Remedy hopes, will colour each decision. Do you pave the easiest possible path for Joyce, or do what seems to serve the greater good in Serene’s eyes? Games tend to trip over themselves when offering divergent paths, misrepresenting the repercussions of decisions in an ill-advised attempt to convey ethical murkiness. In Quantum Break, “the intent is never to give an impression and [then]… ‘Ha ha! Fooled you!’” Lake says. “That’s not what we want with this. Sometimes it can be surprising, but not [misleading].”In many ways, Remedy built its reputation on linear experiences. Nobody berated Alan Wake for its lack of sandbox gameplay, nor Max Payne for its railroad plot. But in a climate in which the mountain in the distance ought to be reachable and press releases must find at least some tenuous justification to include the word ‘emergent’, there’s a sense that Remedy’s tried-andtested linear action gameplay might come across as old-fashioned. There’s also a sense that the team wants to test itself. “Let’s just say that with our time power palette, and with our enemy palette, we do have more gameplay variation second-to-second than in any previous Remedy game,” Lake says. “That has been the focus.”Is there a danger that Remedy’s avoiding playing to one of its greatest strengths to comply with changing trends? It is, says Lake, a balancing act. “We want to evolve and discover new ways [to] be better and make better games, always. But at the same time, we do understand what our strengths are, and the elements that we know how to do and do really well. We definitely don’t want to lose that, which can happen if you go too far and abandon all the old stuff. So they go hand in hand. With each game we are finding ways to evolve and push it further, while at the same time holding on to the things that we feel are important to us.”