Quantum Break

Scratch live-ac­tion ex­per­i­ments – Rem­edy is go­ing fully episodic


Xbox One

Half of Quantum Break is the safest game Rem­edy could ever have made. That half is a cover-based shooter with time­ma­nip­u­la­tion gim­micks ripped from Max Payne, framed in the episodic struc­ture that worked so well for Alan Wake, and pre­sented on Xbox One along­side the count­less other shoot­ers that Mi­crosoft is so good at sell­ing.

“The theme of time and time ma­nip­u­la­tion [is] very much a part of Rem­edy’s his­tory,” cre­ative di­rec­tor Sam Lake tells us. “And at some point it clicked that a sea­son of a TV se­ries is close to the length of a game, and this is a re­ally nat­u­ral [and] good sto­ry­telling struc­ture; it’s episodic in the sense that you have a be­gin­ning, a mid­dle, and end inside ev­ery episode, and usu­ally you have a cliffhanger that makes you want to go on. We did it for Alan Wake. I feel that we learned a lot, and ob­vi­ously we are putting all of our learn­ings into cre­at­ing op­ti­mal pac­ing.”

In con­trast, the other half of Quantum Break seems almost sui­ci­dally ex­per­i­men­tal. “We’ve been try­ing things out with live ac­tion for a while,” Lake says. “In Alan Wake, it was the in-game TV se­ries and the pre­quel live­ac­tion show, Bright Falls. We were try­ing it out and tak­ing baby steps, but it felt like the right time to do some­thing big­ger.”

Quantum Break’s in­ter­ac­tive TV drama plays out be­tween episodes, but live-ac­tion video is a mine­field in games. The dis­con­nect be­tween real ac­tors and polyg­o­nal mod­els can break im­mer­sion, and the tal­ent and ex­per­tise nec­es­sary to match mod­ern-day TV is beyond the bud­getary reach of many de­vel­op­ers. Even if those episodes are ex­e­cuted fault­lessly, does any shooter player re­ally want to en­dure a half-hour in­ter­lude be­tween gun­fights?

Yet so con­fi­dent are Rem­edy and Mi­crosoft in the idea that Quantum Break was sold upon those live-ac­tion in­ter­ludes at the Xbox One an­nounce­ment in May 2013. It would be another 15 months be­fore the stu­dio fi­nally showed the game it­self, in which ev­ery­man hero Jack Joyce walks through frozen mo­ments in time. The nar­ra­tive jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for all this is a failed ex­per­i­ment that cre­ates a cas­cad­ing stut­ter and threat­ens to bring about the end of time, but Joyce finds him­self able to per­ceive and move dur­ing th­ese mo­ments. When time stops, thou­sands of par­ti­cles are frozen in place as ex­plo­sions halt mid-blast, de­bris hangs in the air and bul­lets pause mid-flight. Joyce steps be­tween the cracks in time and sees ev­ery un­fold­ing scene in its full beauty or hor­ror, each one its own tableau: a riot in progress, a jug­ger­naut mid-crash, a bridge mid-col­lapse. Out­side of the stut­ters, Joyce’s abil­i­ties let him play cat and mouse with en­e­mies by zip­ping through time, or freeze them in place along with any bul­lets or ex­plo­sives caught in the time bub­ble. Inside frozen mo­ments, Joyce col­lides with his en­e­mies in re­al­i­ty­warp­ing gun­fights that dis­tort the en­vi­ron­ment and bend space around the player, and his abil­i­ties also let him briefly un­freeze parts of his sur­round­ings, turn­ing an air­borne car into a fly­ing mis­sile, or a bar­rel into a bomb that can be det­o­nated count­less times. In shat­tered time, the game also be­comes a plat­former where ob­jects caught in a loop present space-warp­ing nav­i­ga­tional puz­zles. The same car will crash over and over again, ren­der­ing a space im­pass­able and forc­ing Joyce to slow it down or speed him­self up to avoid the dan­ger.

As an ac­tion game, Quantum Break looks beau­ti­ful and solid if un­sur­pris­ing, while the episodes – only glimpsed in pi­lot form – are sur­pris­ing if not yet par­tic­u­larly solid. For now, then, per­haps it’s enough to know that you can al­ways skip the video if you pre­fer.

On air

The days of the live­ac­tion game se­quence have passed into no­to­ri­ety, cre­ators hav­ing long since dis­carded ‘full­mo­tion video’ as a de­pend­able op­tion for set­ting a scene, so to call mix­ing live­ac­tion and games a risk in the mod­ern mar­ket is an un­der­state­ment – re­mem­ber Lo­coCy­cle? But Rem­edy is shoot­ing Quantum Break’s episodes right now, un­hin­dered by the clo­sure of Xbox En­ter­tain­ment Stu­dios. Frag­ments of the pi­lot episode we’ve seen looked ques­tion­able, but the real episodes have more money and more tal­ent on board, with the prom­ise of match­ing the qual­ity of a full-scale mod­ern TV pro­duc­tion.

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