A new console generation starts, and you wait for something special. The launch games are okay, but they are really just shinier versions of last-gen releases. Eventually, though, you play a game that hadn’t been done before, couldn’t have been done before. For this generation, for me, that game is Quantum Break, which is imperfect in content but fascinating in form.
Quantum Break comes from Remedy, the studio behind Max Payne and Alan Wake. Like its predecessors, it demonstrates the Finnish development team’s desire to mix shooting gameplay and storytelling. This time around, they’ve added a twist: Quantum Break is a video game interspersed with a malleable live action TV show. Playing it is like playing a game and watching its TV adaptation at the same time.
It starts, unremarkably, just as a game. You play as Jack Joyce, a fairly blank character who you control in what initially feels like a standard third-person action-adventure. You show up late at night at a college campus in the town of Riverport. You’re there for a meeting with your scientist brother’s old friend, Paul Serene. En route to Serene’s lab, you talk to a student protester named Amy Ferraro, who is organizing a rally against the menacing Monarch corporation. Serene runs Monarch, but you don’t dwell on that. He greets you and invites you to watch him turn on a time machine. Soon enough, things go bad, your brother shows up, bad guys with guns arrive too, and you grab a gun and start shooting.
The game carries on that way for an hour or so as you battle your way through the university’s campus. Thanks to a lab accident, you get some time-manipulating powers that let you rewind specific parts of the scenery, though the time stuff is mostly used in combat. In the game’s first chapters, you shoot a lot of Monarch goons from cover. You hear plenty of stock banter. You gain added insights about what’s happening by reading computer monitors. It all feels like a more technologically advanced Alan Wake, spooky shootouts in the woods replaced with sci-fi shootouts in a city. It’s fine but forgettable.
Then you hit the first junction and the game blossoms. Quantum Break contains four junctions, each of which put you in the shoes of Serene and require you to make a binary choice that affects events in the rest of the game. By the time you’re playing the first Junction, Joyce has escaped the campus and Monarch’s security forces. You must decide if Serene will use his Monarch forces to strongarm the community and ruthlessly track Joyce down or whether he’ll concoct a false story about Joyce to win the public over and smoke Joyce out.
The idea here is that you can change how the game will unfold. That’s the point of the game’s timeline structure. Changes stack up and affect the outcome in what you play and what you watch. That concept is in interesting tension with the internal logic of Quantum Break, where events seem to be immutable. The fixed nature of time in the game panics our heroes and villains as they face the threat of a looming reality-ending event and consider whether a time machine can help them. In these junctions, though, you can shape events or even replay the junction, choose differently and change what happens next.
In the first junction, the choice about the Monarch company’s plans most vividly involves whether the protestor Ferraro will be executed by Serene’s henchman or will be scared into publicly denouncing Joyce. In any other game, the branching outcome would simply play out in subsequent cutscenes, but Quantum Break tells a lot of its story through 24-minute live-action episodes which the game assembles on the fly to depict the decisions players have made.
These episodes star some familiar TV actors including The Wire’s Lance Reddick and Aidan Gillen. The stitched together shows have the mix of car chases, fistfights, board room tough talk and occasional relationship scenes you’d expect from an action-oriented cable TV drama, albeit one shaped by how you were just playing a game.
In the first episode, if we had chosen the “hardline” approach, we see Ferraro get shot:
If we chose to go the “PR” route, she’s forced to read propaganda:
As the game’s first episode unfolds, other scenes also change. In a scene featuring Monarch’s top computer hacker, the Ferraro-dies version of events features some generic computer-text stuff in a pair of monitors.
In the Ferraro-lives version, he’s watching her confession.
In that first version, our computer guy winds up chatting with a colleague about how Monarch is manipulating the mayor. In the second version, the two men laugh about the embarrassing footage they’ve obtained of a newscaster and then plot to blackmail the newsman into running the anti-Joyce propaganda.
A little bit later, you’ll see another background change, depending on what you chose:
Quantum Break’s idea of a video game that can manipulate a TV show isn’t new. The recent SyFy series Defiance tried the idea by merging missions in an online game with a weekly cable drama. Further back, many games in the CD-ROM boom of the 1990s interspersed gameplay with live-action video. Never, to my knowledge, though, has this convergence happened all in one package like this with the game parts and the filmed parts taking turns telling the story.
If nothing else it’s a neat trick to see the virtual actors...
... soon show up as their real selves:
It’s even cooler, later on, to see a scene set at a party...
... and then, a few hours later, be able to walk through the aftermath of that scene (too bad the couches don’t match):
The gameplay is all pulled from Quantum Break’s disc; the live-action material is streamed (and streamed fine for me with minimal buffering). On Xbox One, players can download all the video files, but be warned that it’s an optional, extra 76GB download.
The changes you trigger in the junctions can affect how Quantum Break’s game parts play out. In my initial playthrough, for example, Ferraro died. A little later, the cab driver featured in the game’s opening scene showed up and started serving as a comic relief buddy character. I ran through a few levels with him. But when I switched the first junction to have Ferraro live, the cabbie was gone from a later scene. Ferraro was the one walking around with me. Later in the game, I went to a bridge that was frozen in time. In my initial playthrough, it had been full of protestors fighting with Monarch security.
When I had Ferraro live, however, Monarch’s PR charm offensive significantly changed the scene on the bridge.
Quantum Break also features some subtler changes that show up in the live-action footage as a result of players starting “ripples” in the game parts. The concept is good, but the execution is disappointing. In the first junction, for example, you can pick up a statue of a ram. This triggers a ripple which seems to lead to this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual in the live-action episode that follows:
Employees are posing with the ram. Some ripple. The game’s database attempts, not that convincingly, to outline some comical consequences that unfold from there. Somehow, picking up that ram statue leads to a spike in the dairy market:
The underwhelming outcomes of the game’s ripples effectively encapsulate the game’s mismatch of fascinating structure and mediocre narrative content. The actual story being told in Quantum Break, one of people evading an evil corporation while trying to secure a time machine, hardly measures up to a half-season of Fringe or The Wire, from whose casts some of the principal actors have been plucked. This is a generic sci-fi tale presented in a technologically brilliant way.
But the meta-game of playing a video game with the intent of triggering changes in a live-action show is seductive. I played Quantum Break with a vigilant eye for anything that could change the next scenes or that represented the result of a change I’d already set in motion. I noticed that the story was so-so, but I didn’t care. My desire to find out what happened next was displaced by my zeal to see what I could make happen next in a live-action show. Pretty cool.
The playable parts of Quantum Break are routine. They’re a mix of satisfying time-manipulating gunplay and lots of optional but recommended reading of in-game e-mails and documents.
The shooting starts plainly, but, as Joyce gains time-manipulating powers, it leads to fun clashes against Monarch security forces. Your upgradeable set of powers let you speed-run toward enemies, trap them in time bubbles which multiply your bullets, set up healing barriers, and blow up blue containers of Chronon energy to freeze most of the people around you. I do a lot of that in this clip, which shows Quantum Break at its most action-packed:
I didn’t play the game as if it was a shooter, though. I played it more as a document hunt. The shooting scenes were just interruptions in my quest to read every optional e-mail and file I could find. You walk the game’s corridors and activate your special vision powers (as seen in Assassin’s Creed, the Arkham games, etc.) and pick up the pick-ups. As I played, I constantly pecked at the Y button to spot the next thing to grab.
I don’t recommend playing Quantum Break without obsessively collecting the majority of hidden files. Remedy has long demonstrated a knack for including humorous collectables and easter eggs in their games, and Quantum Break is no different. Some of the files are funny, like the set that chronicle a Monarch employee’s attempts to impress a top scientist with his terrible Time Knife action movie script.
Most of the optional files, however, simply flesh out the story that the gameplay doesn’t tell. They explain character motivations, chronicle off-camera events and help the entire game cohere. They also undercut the value of the shooting gameplay, which can feel like an interloper getting in the way of Quantum Break’s attempt at a science-based, emotional tale.
The game’s shooting feels good mechanically and can steal the show when it’s set amidst time-paused boat crashes and laboratory accidents. It just doesn’t bear much on the story that the rest of the gameplay and the four live-action episodes are telling. In the game’s first half, shootouts are frequent. Late chapters nearly do away with it as Remedy tries to calm things down to focus on narrative. In the last act, as if only because this is how games must work, the shooting floods back into Quantum Break. The final levels are loaded with enemies seemingly placed to prevent the story from swiftly ending.
And then it does end, with a tacit invitation to poke through the game’s timeline and enter chapters to tweak their outcomes and their cascade of effects. It’s not that surprising who triumphs, who lives and who dies, especially given your hand in things, but it does feel like you’ve affected events, at least in the bulges between the story’s endpoints.
Despite how pedestrian some aspects of the game may be, I concluded Quantum Break feeling like something new had happened. Something special had happened that more than compensated for some of the flatness of the story and the mostly rote gunplay. A game simply never worked like this before, nor has a TV show. Because of that, what might have otherwise been ordinary feels extraordinary.