There’s no escaping it, literally. Time has been a key component in video games from day one, with the earliest arcade titles incorporating countdowns to ensure that players were continually kept on their toes.
However, the way most games use and manipulate time hasn't changed all that much in the past 30 or so years; sure, we have games like Life Is Strange, Braid and Race Driver: Grid where it's possible to rewind events whenever you make an unfortunate mistake, but these are the exception and not the rule.
Time is rarely there as anything but an additional layer of pressure, a threat hanging over the player which forces them to react and maintain momentum – but in Quantum Break, it holds additional dangers which haven't yet been explored in any other video game.
One of Microsoft's key exclusives for 2016, Quantum Break is the work of Finnish studio Remedy, perhaps best known for the original Max Payne film-noire shooters, and was born out of the work done on the company's previous outing, Alan Wake.
"Quantum Break came to be from multiple influences and our creative director, Sam Lake’s, vision of wanting to merge a Remedy game and a live-action show," explains Greg Louden, senior narrative designer on the game. An episode of Night Springs – the Twilight Zone-style fictional TV show within Alan Wake's world – entitled Quantum Suicide offered the initial inspiration thanks to its time-travelling premise, but it would be Alan Wake's abandoned sequel which would supply the biggest creative push.
"During the prototyping period of Alan Wake 2, a series of gameplay mechanics started to reflect what Quantum Break would be," continues Louden. "The team all brought different aspects that inspired science-driven art direction, story, gameplay and VFX to create Quantum Break. The time-control concept came early on and came from Remedy’s heritage of wanting to blend our cinematic action mechanics [Remedy all but invented the slow-mo shootout with Bullet Time mode in Max Payne] with the story. In Alan Wake, it was fight with light; in Quantum Break it’s a fight with time at the simplest level."
A narrative quantum leap
Quantum Break's storyline is packed with experiments gone awry and shadowy corporations, and places the player in the shoes of an everyman caught in the middle of the mounting chaos. "The game starts off with the hero Jack Joyce getting a message from his old friend Paul Serene [played by Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen] who invites him to Riverport University for an experiment that he needs help with," explains Remedy's communications director Thomas Puha.
"Jack has been gone from Riverport for five years because he didn’t get along with his scientist brother William [Lost's Dominic Monaghan] who Paul has been working with. It turns out that it’s a time-travel experiment and it all goes wrong. William shows up waving a gun trying to stop the experiment, which simultaneously goes haywire, causing time to break down. Paul then enters the time machine to try to save things but comes out 17 years older and now he is running the shadowy corporation Monarch Solutions. Jack and Will escape and try to figure out what the hell is going on and save time from ending. It turns out that the failed time travel experiment altered Jack and he starts to gain time powers."
These powers are central to Quantum Break's incredible action sequences, and allow the player to dominate a world where time doesn't behave as you might expect. "Time is breaking down in Quantum Break – 'Stutters' are a sign of the impending apocalypse," reveals Puha. "Stutters aren’t something anyone can control; rather the player is desperately trying to survive them. Originally time just froze in Quantum Break and the player navigated through frozen time, but while that visually looked cool, we quickly realised it’s a one-trick pony and hence we came up with Stutters, where time is broken and shifting back and forth violently. This creates much more exciting gameplay and is visually stunning at the same time. You have moments in the game where Stutters start to collapse, meaning enemies that were frozen suddenly come back to life – so Joyce has to be alert all the time."
While a stutter comes with massive risks and hazards, it also affords the player the opportunity to utilise some of Joyce's newfound time-bending powers to create astonishing pockets of action. "A typical action sequence in Quantum Break can range from a normal combat, stutter combat or Jack adventuring in an epic moment of destruction," says Louden. "As a quick example, a combat sequence can start with Jack encountering Monarch Solutions patrolling, investigating or ambushing him. Jack can overcome the enemy by using multiple time powers in combat, ranging from Time Rush to perform a takedown, Time Shield to protect himself from an enemy’s bullets or Time Stop to freeze a bunch of enemies together and then blow them all away at the same time. Later on in the game, enemies will start utilising experimental Chronon technology which gives them similar powers to Jack, evening the odds."
Making time for the visuals
The process of creating the amazing visual effects seen in Quantum Break calls for some serious processing muscle, and Puha states that such an experience simply wouldn't have been possible prior to this console cycle. "Our previous games were on the older generation consoles and PC, so it’s quite a leap from that to Quantum Break," he says.
"We developed a lot of new technology for our Northlight game engine which took plenty of time; when you are dealing with a new platform, there’s a lot more power, but of course there’s also more to learn and solve. We’ve really concentrated on creating spectacular visual effects, namely our prismatic Stutters, where the environment seemingly breaks down only to rewind itself back to a normal state, and back to breaking down again. None of this would be possible without the processing power of the Xbox One."
The team at Remedy isn't content with simply changing the way we view and manipulate time in video games – they’re also trying to revolutionise how live-action footage can be used to drive a game's narrative forward. Quantum Break is accompanied by a series of filmed segments where the actors who supply the voice and mannerisms of the in-game characters play out their roles in front of camera, giving the production an authentic Hollywood feel. This might suggest that the plot in the game is rigid and totally linear, but that isn't the case.
"Quantum Break is a story-driven single-player game, but players do get to shape the story and make choices that impact both the game as well as the live-action TV show," Puha explains. "The way the experience works is that the game is about the hero and the show is about the villains. The game is the story of our hero Jack Joyce and his friends, but the live action focuses on the villain, Paul Serene, and his company Monarch – you actually get to see both sides of the story, which we think is really unique. The game has four Junctions where the player gets to control the villain Paul Serene in short playable sequences. Paul can see visions of potential futures, and based on that, the players get to make a choice in the Junction that has a long-term impact on the story. You make your choice in the Junction and once you do that, you get to watch a 20-minute episode of the live-action show. The length varies depending on the choice Paul makes, and there are four episodes in total."
The ability to alter the outcome of the narrative obviously helps give the game replay value; while Remedy won’t be drawn on the length of the game, Puha did reveal that the use of plot junctions means that players will want to play through Quantum Break several times to ensure they have seen all it has to offer. "There are four Junctions where your choices shape the story, and it’s not only the live-action that changes based on your actions, but the game as well. You might have different characters in your play-through compared to your friends’ experience."
Puha is adamant the cut scenes won't outstay their welcome and will in fact enrich the experience. "The game’s story is cohesive so you can follow it without watching the live-action, but the experience is designed and written in a way that you get the most out of it by playing the game and watching the live-action. Using live-action this extensively is new to us and rather different than what we have dabbled with in the past. It’s important to understand that we have full live action episodes in the game; they are not cut scenes."
Quantum Break was announced prior to the launch of the Xbox One and was originally expected to hit retail in 2015. However, the game was pushed in 2016 in order to add a little more polish and ensure it didn't clash with other big Xbox One exclusives. For Puha, the additional time will ensure that the end product is as good as possible. "This has allowed us time to polish the game mechanics and get this complicated mix of gameplay and live-action into great shape. We spent a long time in pre-production figuring out the mechanics and how the live-action would work together with the game; it takes a long time to try out ideas and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, Quantum Break is also a new IP, so you have to figure out the rules of the universe, and the back-story – it takes a lot of time."
While other story-driven franchises like Uncharted and Gears of War include multiplayer modes, Remedy has stuck steadfastly to the solo path with Quantum Break. "Remedy is a small studio at around 130 employees, so we really have to focus carefully on what we can pull off with a new game," says Puha. "That is what Microsoft also wanted from Remedy, to concentrate on what we do best, a strong story-based action game."
Puha also reveals that despite the fact that several ideas were left on the cutting room floor, there are currently no plans to release additional content for the game post-release. "There are always plenty of ideas discussed in the initial stages of creating a game – way more than humanly possible to fit into one game," he says. "That said, we are very happy with what we are shipping, but there have definitely been challenges along the way. We don’t have any DLC plans, but that’s not to say we don’t have plenty of ideas for the future of Quantum Break."
That future includes a release on PC, a fact which recently rankled some Xbox One owners as Microsoft had previously promoted the title as a purebred console exclusive. Despite the move to PC, we won't see Quantum Break follow in Titanfall's massive, mech footsteps by appearing on Sony's PlayStation 4. "Microsoft owns the Quantum Break IP, so its future is up to them," says Puha. "The most important thing for Remedy is that we make the game as awesome as possible, hopefully players like it and we’ll see what the future brings."