Quantum Break, the newest game from Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment, is a science fiction story that centers on what I personally find to be the most terrifying science fiction concept: time travel. The protagonist of the game is Jack Joyce (played with hyperreal facial motion capture by former Animorph Shawn Ashmore), and the key mechanic is centered around Joyce’s manipulation of broken time. It’s the stuff of superhero stories, and from the marketing materials and prerelease buzz it seems like it all came together as an easy, coherent whole. There’s an effortlessness in the trailers and footage that really makes Quantum Break look impressively mechanically and narratively integrated from top to bottom.
This was something I was really keen to know about when I spoke to Remedy’s Creative Director Sam Lake about the game. In a stumbling way, I asked him about how the various wide pop cultural references that Remedy is known for (like the Stephen King meets Twin Peaks of Alan Wake) come together. Is it a big narrative timeline? Or maybe a giant vision board? It seemed to me that Remedy’s games, with their very specific flavors, emerged as complete units from the minds of the designers and developers.
Lake’s response was far more interesting than that. Rather than the story driving the technological developments being implemented in the game, the tech side of things have sometimes pushed development at Remedy. “In Alan Wake we had dynamic shadows, day and night, and dynamic lighting up and running when we were concepting,” he explained, “so before we locked in on the actual Alan Wake idea we were exploring different story ideas that would have themes of light and darkness in there.” The same iterative creative process applies to their newest release:
“In a similar way in Quantum Break we, for example, early on had this kind of state recording technology and looking at it gave me ideas of broken timelines. You could take physics objects that would explode and you could record that and rewind the timeline, and from there came the idea that in stutters if time is broken then we could have these individual components kind of trapped there.”
While many game studios have their own particular internally developed tools and processes that feed into a cycle of narrative and technical development, Remedy’s unique process has tended toward producing things that are further from the mainstream in both narrative tone and mechanical innovation. Whether you love them or hate them, it is undeniable that there is something very particular about Max Payne, Alan Wake and the unique studio voice that produced those games.
Some of this might come from the unique approach that Lake himself has to telling stories in games. “Looking into pop culture, you can basically take a cliché and do a game with that as an inspiration and it will probably feel fresh just from the perspective that not many games have been done from things that are already clichés in movies. That’s one aspect of it.”
I was gleeful when he continued: “Somehow when we make our interpretation [of the cliché] and our thing out of it, it comes out as a unique thing. The worry sometimes there is that ‘we can’t do this because it has been done in this and this movie,’ but these days I don’t have that worry at all because when it goes through the Remedy process and we do our own thing it comes out as a unique thing.”
I think this “Remedy process” that Same Lake mentions is the apex of what videogames, in their contemporary form, can do. We live in a world where the creation of new intellectual property is a kind of totalizing mandate, and creating that intellectual property whole cloth is a way to branch out and diversify the kinds of products a company can sell. Sadly, most of the time that comes from games delivering familiar story structures (like the Hero’s Journey) within very familiar formats. The real value of the Remedy process in the way that Lake explained it to me is that it is about taking the essence of something very familiar and warping it through the iterative mechanical and narrative generation process. Getting from “hard-boiled detective” to Max Payne is a radical shift, but it is one that feels familiar and complete nonetheless.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t some surprising leaps and bounds in Remedy’s development process. Quantum Break is comprised of two different narratives: traditional television-style episodes telling the story of the antagonist and the narrative of the videogame itself. Each of these narratives impacts the other, and this parallel structure was stumbled on as a big leap forward that fueled a large chunk of development.
In contextualizing Quantum Break within the history of Remedy’s work, Lake explained to me that it is “a mix of old and new” that “brings in a mix of new elements.” That’s always a tricky turn of phrase when it comes to a game about time travel, and it seems that the elements that Remedy have melded together will be yet another unique take on third-person action we’ve come to expect from Remedy.
Watch a trailer for Quantum Break.