Scratch live-action experiments – Remedy is going fully episodic
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.
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.