“To be very blunt, Alan Wake was not a big enough success.” That’s Remedy head of PR Thomas Puha explaining why we are at a preview event for sci-fi thriller Quantum Break rather than one for a sequel to Remedy’s now-beloved psychological horror title.
“It became a success in the long run, [but] it was a slow burner,” Puha adds, and Alan Wake publisher Microsoft wasn’t keen for an immediate return to Bright Falls. Instead, it wanted to explore a new property it knew Remedy was working on – the game that would eventually take shape as Quantum Break.
That was 2011, and Redmond’s plans for the Xbox One were much different than they are today (remember Xbox Entertainment Studios?) The company wanted TV-style media on its upcoming console, and idea of live action content pitched as part of Alan Wake 2 was expanded and carried over to Quantum Break.
Those were the days when TV content tied into game properties was regarded as a new and untapped source of easy revenue and fan engagement, but since then we’ve seen Defiance and Microsoft’s own Halo: Forward Unto Dawn fail to find much of an audience (or much warmth from critics). Surely in today’s climate, such a thing is akin to burning money? Isn’t that a concern?
“For me personally before I joined the company, yes,” says Puha. “But Remedy is ambitious. We aren’t naïve. We know the sentiment is ‘Why put that in?’, but why not?” He cites the closely intertwined nature of the game and its live action sequences (although you can play the game without watching the live action), as well as the live action’s production values as reasons to watch.
The latter is thanks to LA studio Lifeboat Productions, which handled Quantum Break’s ‘TV’ side from pretty much from the beginning. Remedy could have kept it in-house with a few hires, but wanted to focus on the game. “The thing we found with live action is: gamers expectations are very low,” says Puha. “They still think that live action means what they saw 15, 20 years ago like Night Trap on MegaCD.”
By contrast, Quantum Break’s live action is high budget, looks great, and features acting that’s actually convincing – qualities borne out of a desire for it to be network TV quality. “When people play they will understand,” says Puha.
There are four 20-minute live action passages shown during each playthrough of the game, but the content of each changes depending on what the player does while playing. Investigating items and responding to NPCs are two ways the player can change things, and Puha reckons that many players will spot intriguing items in the live action segments that they will then track down in-game, reverse-engineering the process. There are also junction points before each live action episode that drastically alter the narrative.
The twist on these live action sections is that they are shot from the point of view of the game’s villains, and so provide an interesting counterpoint to the player-controlled action. It’s a great way to further humanise the baddies and flesh out the game’s lore without viewers getting sick of following protagonist Jack Joyce, and the series features a number of quality actors including Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones), Dominic Monaghan (LOTR, Lost), and Lance Reddick (The Wire).
However, the live action components were “a real struggle” to put together, Puha admits. That’s partly because publisher, developer, and production company were so far removed from each other that it was hard to get the overall vision across to the TV team (the live action was shot in Atlanta, the game made in Finland, and Microsoft is headquartered in Seattle), but also because everyone wanted creative ownership.
However, the bigger obstacle was getting the game’s vision locked down early so the live action could proceed – no easy feat given how much games change throughout their development. That meant costumes, props, and hairstyles had to be easy to match (“There’s not a lot of beards in the game for various reasons,” says Puha with a smile), but also locations and times of day had to sync up. It’s easy to change a scene’s variables in-game, but prohibitively expensive to reshoot live action scenes because you’ve decided something should take place at night rather than noon.
It was “a huge, huge learning process” that Remedy could do much more easily a second time around, “but it’s good to challenge yourself” says Puha. The final product contains about two hours of live action film that came at a “sizeable” cost, but although Microsoft gave Remedy a lot of leeway, the Fins didn’t like to waste money. “It’s an expensive game, but not something insane like some AAA,” says Puha. “We’re quite frugal – we want to make sure that once we ship the game, everyone still has a job.” “AAA is expensive,” he adds.
Weirdly, the live action content can be downloaded on Xbox One, but must be streamed on PC – something that if you read between the lines, appears to have been a publisher rather than developer decision.
Puha tells me that the live action packages clock in at a whopping 78GB on PC – surely we won’t be attempting to stream 4K video? “It’s very, very high quality… that just is the amount,” he responds. “There’s a million technical reasons why you do things like this… [solutions] seem very simple (like shipping on two discs), but things that seem obvious rarely are when you make games. It’s annoying that we can’t always explain everything.” Fortunately the game itself can be run offline.
Then there’s the small issue of the Windows Store: a dog of a platform, just like its predecessors. Using a few colourful adjectives, I explain to Puha the depth of people’s disdain for it, and ask gently whether the game will come to Steam. “Quantum Break is coming out on Windows 10. That’s all I can say.”
Given that Remedy is known for story-driven games and has poured resources into a glossy and substantial live action component, it’s no surprise that Quantum Break’s most immediately hooky features are its story, characters, and setting. It begins with Jack meeting up with old friend Paul Serene under mysterious circumstances – yes, Remedy retains its penchant for on-the-nose character names – and it quickly spirals from there, keeping the plot moving forward and the intrigue high.
It’s an action-heavy title though, and the hour I played (long enough to get through the first of five acts) involved a lot of spraying bullets from both behind cover (which Jack ducks behind automatically when close) and wildly from out in the open after activating Jack’s time powers – the result of his proximity to an event that recalls Half-Life’s resonance cascade.
It’s clear the latter is the way to play, particularly given the aggressiveness of enemies when it comes to flushing you out. Nothing here is ground-breaking – you can freeze enemies, shield yourself, and move short distances at near light speed among other things – but chaining time powers together is good fun, and the time distortion / time anomaly effects are clearly pushing the Xbox One hardware to its absolute limit.
Puha explains that when time breaks and everything is crashing and looping, it’s all driven by the game’s audio in real time, with the prismatic visuals taking cues from a pair of unsettling Chris Cunningham / Aphex Twin music video collaborations. Even on the lowest setting, I found the aiming a bit sensitive, but the action is serviceable, and there were hints of puzzles that required the use of time powers to complete. I didn't strike any enemies that required tactics beyond a basic pop 'n' shoot or rush, but recent trailers have shown what look to be tougher baddies that require the full extent of Jack's powers to put down.
Quite a lot of research went into the science behind the game’s time trickery, most notably aided by a black holes and quantum physics scientist in Finland. Puha is adamant that there are answers for almost every fan enquiry hidden somewhere in the game, including the reason why Jack doesn’t suffocate when he stops time. “We try to make things believable as much as we can,” he says.
The dev team also imbibed a lot of relevant pop culture during development, including Aussie-made hard sci-fi mind-bender Primer. Looper was a particular inspiration as well. The hardest part was making sure there were no loopholes in the time travel rules of the game. “That’s a big theme in the game: can you change things?” asks Puha. “It’s definitely a blockbuster-y game [but] there’s a lot of thought.”
From what I've seen, there are broad similarities between Alan Wake and Quantum break. Both are third-person action titles with similar-feeling controls, and both pack in the action but remain thoughtful and suspenseful. Needless to say, fans of the former (and who wasn't?) are likely to enjoy the latter, and if they don't, they may still see a full Alan Wake sequel somewhere down the line.
“We’d love to make Alan Wake 2 for sure," says Puha. "There’s a lot of ideas for it, but we need to find the right time, and it needs to make financial sense – we don’t want to make too much of a compromise with our vision. It’s expensive to make these games, but it’s definitely something we’re looking into.”
I don't imagine too many people will be upset with being offered Quantum Break instead, live action and all, which begs the question: what do we call the whole package? A trans-media property? An interactive movie? To Puha, it's a video game, and with any luck, a unique one: “Hopefully it is something a little bit different, and hopefully people take to it.”