I didn’t want to like Quantum Break. The sci-fi shooter from Remedy, releasing April 5 on Xbox One, resembled the worst of Hollywood CGI tentpoles and had zero of the elements that make them fun. This isn’t to knock Remedy, known for the awesome Max Payne and Alan Wake, but Quantum Break seemed like the Finnish studio’s equivalent of a rock band’s experimental dubstep album.
As indie games get artistically more daring than their triple-A competitors, I doubted Quantum Break would engage me, just as the movie blockbusters the game looks like fail to. I hoped I was wrong. After spending time hands-on at a demo in New York, maybe I was.
A new kind of “game show.”
The hook of Quantum Break isn’t the sweet time-warping superpowers — we’ll get into those later — but the double serving of a game and a live-action show. Players control Jack Joyce (played by X-Men star Shawn Ashmore), who participates in a time-travel experiment that goes awry, giving Joyce and best friend Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen, of Game of Thrones) time manipulation abilities.
The game allows players to access Jack’s time powers, but the show (mostly) follows Serene and his ability to see the future. It’s through Serene that players can alter the story, and the ramifications are played out in 22-minute “episodes” filmed in live action. (Check out our interview with John Kaefer, the composer of the series portion of the game.)
Remedy’s oeuvre proves it’s worthy to make “cinematic” gaming. The noir shooter Max Payne was richer cinema than the actual Max Payne movie, and Remedy secured an ace cast of recognized genre performers: Lance Reddick (The Wire) and Dominic Monaghan (Lost) join a cast who flesh out Quantum Break. Though it sounds gimmicky, a player-driven video game with a “TV” show has been brewing at Microsoft since the beginning of the Xbox One.
“They were looking for an idea with the component of interactive narrative, that players make choices to shape the story,” director Sam Lake told Inverse. “They were thinking they want to explore TV and movies as part of this.”
According to Lake, Remedy got on board when the studio pitched Microsoft a sequel to Alan Wake, its sleeper hit horror game from 2010, with an intention to make Alan Wake 2 partially live-action. Instead, Microsoft gave Lake and his team a counter-proposal. “They actually said to us, ‘Why wouldn’t you be even more ambitious and do a bigger show as part of it?’”
“If you aim for impossible, you get something great.”
Ambition was how Lake convinced Remedy to forge ahead.
“I firmly believe the right way to approach something like this is to be as ambitious as you can,” he said. “I think if you aim for good enough, you will get mediocre. If you aim for impossible, you get something great. That’s the right way.”
But does aiming for the impossible actually work when you’re fusing two disparate storytelling forms? I expressed my skepticism to Lake about the Quantum Break experience: Are we actually going to put our controllers down for 22 minutes when we’re playing a video game? Surprisingly, Lake understood. “I believe having it as live-action because we are used to watching [TV] makes it easier for you to put down the controller and watch. If it would be a twenty minute cutscene then the temptation of pressing B [to skip] would be stronger.”
There’s a more profound reason, too. The combination allowed Remedy to explore how form dictates story — which quickly became story dictating form. “I feel the beauty of these two mediums [being] very close gave us the nice opportunity of [asking], ‘What are the roles of the story in the game? What is the role in the show?’” he said. “The idea was, ‘Let’s play with the strengths of these different mediums.’ With that, we will get [what] we wouldn’t otherwise.”
Lake also says breaking up the story into live-action wasn’t just experimental. It was cost-efficient. “It would have been impossible for us to do the show as game [cutscenes]. Twenty minute cinematics, with the fidelity we were aiming, would have been too much.”
Lake said he’s “proud” the game charts a “superhero origin story.” That’s funny, because the man they enlisted to be Joyce has a fitting resume. Remembered by older millennials as Jake from Animorphs, Ashmore donned black spandex in Fox’s X-Men movies as the cool superhero, Iceman.
“A lot of the projects I’m attracted to as an actor are because I would want to watch them. I would want to play them,” Ashmore said. An avid gamer — in spite of his schedule, he makes time for StarCraft II — Ashmore admits he’s a cutscene skipper. But with Quantum Break, he wouldn’t want to.
“I’ll be honest. If you’re not invested in the story, you’re not going to want to sit and watch the show,” Ashmore says bluntly. “When you’re playing, you want to play. [But] what Remedy does and I was so excited for is they tell a great story. You’re invested in the characters so you want to know more.”
So, how much was I invested?
Breaking in ‘Quantum Break.’
At a press demo in New York, I was allowed to play all of Act 1 and two chapters of Act 2. It included one live-action episode, which — for time’s sake — I had to skip halfway. I’m worried time constraints like that will hinder the final experience, where convenience and gaming adrenaline will constantly supersede the deliberately passive moments in the.
My initial impression, though: the show looks goo. It’s not polished like a prestige drama on HBO, but Quantum Break is perfect for TNT. And yes, you can pause, rewind, and fast forward.
Mechanically speaking, “bullet time” is not novel. Gamers have slowed time to dodge gunfire since Remedy’s own Max Payne and through Prince of Persia, Viewtiful Joe, and Red Dead Redemption. But Quantum Break isn’t just that (although bullet time is in here too). Players can “freeze” (“Time Stop”) specific enemies, increasing the damage when you shoot at them. You can also generating a protective “Time Shield” that knock back bad guys when activated beside them. Quantum Break is secretly about experimenting, and giving players the ingredients to improvise the best recipe for chaos.
But you need to pick your spots. The powers need recharging and it’s slower than dial-up. This isn’t a hindrance, but strategy: You’ll save powers for the stronger henchmen, some able to manipulate time. Often I was backed into a corner without ammo and only my powers could save me. In other moments, I narrowly freezed a guy only to realize I still had to reload. I would barely have enough time to do the damage, and I was up shit creek, surrounded by fully-armed soldiers.
But it was awesome. Quantum Break isn’t a superhero game, but it might as well be. Few games successfully let players feel like a superhero, and arguably, the best superhero games ever made, the Batman: Arkham series, are really glorified stealth games. Quantum Break filled a void I didn’t even know was there.
Is ‘Quantum Break’ the future?
I was given a lot of context around Quantum Break’s story during my time with the game, right from the people who made it. While I knew Remedy was referring to its novel mixture of video game-plus-show, not its groundbreaking sci-fi in the tradition of Margaret Atwood or Isaac Asimov (it isn’t), Quantum Break is remarkably prescient.
Quantum Break is confident: it thinks itself the future of gaming, and the ambition is admirable. Remedy has crafted a fine piece of work with no shortage of ingenuity, and it will be praised for its reinvention of mechanics they introduced more than a decade ago, in Max Payne.
I still don’t know if the TV thing works, and I can’t skip ahead to know for sure. But at least I’ll have fun when I try.
Quantum Break will be available on the Xbox One on April 5.