When Remedy announced its follow up to Alan Wake was going to include a TV show, many – including me – grimaced at the thought. We shouldn’t have, we should have been ecstatic; the gaming industry needs developers like Remedy to focus on advancing narratives in games. If any studio was going to make FMV integration work, it was those crazy Fins, and hot damn have they done it.
Quantum Break is not a game that just relies on one narrative tool to create its story, but rather implements a multitude of the most successful and previously unsuccessful tools into one incredible package. FMV, cinematics, choice-based systems – you name it, Remedy has integrated some aspect of it into Quantum Break and taken every single one to a whole new level. The result is one of the most immersive and developed narratives that gaming has ever seen, one that has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for storytelling in the medium.
Quantum Break follows Joel McHale lookalike Jack Joyce’s attempts to repair a fracture in time caused by his somewhat estranged best friend Paul Serene’s experiment in time travel. This is undeniably a schlocky science fiction premise, but fans of the genre will know that the same idea can be handled very differently by Philip K. Dick than some B-grade author. This story falls very much closer to those of Mister Dick, with a weaving time-travel narrative that spans 17 years dexterously.
Most impressive is how easy things are to follow despite how intricate the plot becomes. Instead of feeling lost or bogged down, you are constantly intrigued, presented with mysteries and answers in a satisfying progression. The genius of this structure is how invested it makes you. By the time you’ve constructed a picture of the events and how they intertwine, the game has subtly endeared you to the cast. Unfortunately, this leaves the ending feeling a little hollow, with the conclusion struggling to maintain the game's level of intensity, all narrative threads neatly resolved. But still, the game sets the bar so high that even a dip down still leaves it head and shoulders above the rest.
A significant hook is the game’s fascinating cast of characters, and how deeply the game explores the psychology and motivations of each. Your thoughts and feelings about characters will constantly shift as you learn more about them, and even antagonists become sympathetic characters.
Much of the wider story is presented through narrative objects around the world. Emails, diagrams, and audio logs litter each area, and each delivers a keenly-considered aspect of the narrative. These techniques have been done to death in games, but seldom are story items as well-written and informative as those presented in here. The flipside, however, is that if engaging with this kind of content is not your thing, you are likely to miss out on a deluge of pertinent information, as well as what turned out to be a large chunk of game time. My first playthrough with reading these items was around 13 hours. My second playthrough without reading them was about half that.
Despite their obvious differences, the live action sections and game are the epitome of synergy, each using the strengths of their medium to telling the story together. There are four live action episodes within the game, and each takes place after a junction scene, where you make decisions which change the storyline. Like many choice based games these days, these choices do not send the story is polar opposite directions, but rather create different paths which both arrive at the same destination. The ways in which they do diverge the story, however, are consistently interesting both in large and small scale: different characters, story items and story arcs feature in each.
In terms of the quality, the live action isn’t quite at AMC or HBO levels, but more along the lines of a high-end NBC drama such as Hannibal. The production values are high, but on a small scale, and the performances are mostly excellent.
The actors add a great deal to Quantum Break within the show, but more importantly add much to the game via motion capture. Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) do incredible work in the lead roles, giving the same calibre performances they have become known for in other mediums. These performances are endlessly enhanced by the quality of the performance capture. It’s not hyperbole to say that Quantum Break features the best performance capture work ever displayed in games.
But that’s just one aspect of the incredible visuals the game has to offer. The graphical fidelity is excellent, but more impressive is the wide array of visual effects which represent the time effects. Time stutters and your time abilities cause the world to ripple with prismatic fractures. The effect is hard to imagine, but incredible to behold, particularly when combined with the equally stellar audio design.
Gameplay itself is broken up into moments of exploration, puzzle platforming and combat. The puzzle platforming is not a real challenge, designed mostly to demonstrate the creative uses for your time powers. It can be disappointing how straightforward the solutions to these challenges are, but despite this, they do a great job of diversifying the ways in which you traverse the environment.
The combat feels awesome. Combining third person shooting with a range of time powers creates some really fast paced, kinetic and brutal encounters. The powers mean that cover is rarely necessary, which feels so good considering how dominant it has become in shooters. Unfortunately, the mere presence of combat doesn’t always gel with the story itself, particularly at the start of the game. It feels quite unnatural to be involved in shootouts given the situations your characters are in, especially taking into account what you know of them at that point.
Quantum Break is just amazing. It feels amazing, it looks amazing, and the story it tells is absolutely amazing. By taking a chance and marrying together two mediums, Remedy has shown once again that writers and designers are still learning what is possible in video games. A new bar has been set.