Quantum Break is at once simpler and more confounding than any Remedy game that preceded it. It’s simultaneously a throwaway action shooter, a well-meaning but ill-judged experiment in cross-media, and one of the most visually arresting games ever made. It’s a truly paradoxical work, one that I think is Remedy’s most intriguing to date. Not because of the flash visuals or the ambitious time-travel plot, but because it makes a clear attempt to distance itself from the studio’s earlier output.
That it doesn’t always succeed only makes it more fascinating.
From its opening scenes, there’s a clear difference in tone to Quantum Break compared to Remedy’s previous games. Here the framing device isn’t the weary internal monologue of Max Payne or the narration of Alan Wake, but a clipped and confrontational police interrogation. The subject of that interrogation is Jack Joyce, brother of the esteemed (and soon to be deceased) quantum physicist William Joyce.
Suddenly we revert back to a couple of days prior, where Joyce is called upon by a former friend – Paul Serene – to help him test out his brand new time machine. What begins as a friendly reunion soon reveals itself to be Serene’s last-ditch attempt to save his career at the Monarch corporation, in an unsanctioned and illegal test of the machine. Naturally, it goes wrong, and the experiments ends up fracturing time itself. Consequently, Serene ends up head of Monarch, while Joyce ends up a fugitive on the run from Monarch’s private police force.
So begins a time-hopping adventures that is as action-packed as it is visually breath-taking. Remedy’s eye for visual flair has been evident since the players first dropped into Max Payne’s bullet-time. But whereas Max Payne took its visual cues from the Matrix and film noir, and Alan Wake was basically a playable Twin Peaks, Quantum Break takes its aesthetic inspiration from, well, Quantum Break.
Chief among this is the idea of the “stutter”, moments where time freezes like a paused video-tape. Objects caught in the stutter will judder and vibrate as they oscillate forward and backward in time. These objects can be small; barrels, fences, cars, or large like freight trains, oil-tankers, even entire bridges. It’s some phenomenal graphical wizardly, a deliberately created glitch, like the universe has got its foot struck through the world geometry and the ragdoll is flipping out.
Joyce’s abilities enable him to move through these stutters as if time were running normally, his movements causing a polyhedral wave to cascade out from him like liquid trigonometry. These same abilities also make him a ferociously capable fighter, able to stop, slow and speed up time to dash around enemies, create impenetrable barriers, and stack up “walls” of bullets that annihilate any enemy they hit. But you’re not alone in your time-manipulating powers. Certain enemies are also capable of defying the continuum. Some of the best moments in Quantum break see you squaring off against these time-enhanced adversaries while the rest of the world hangs frozen around you.
It’s one of the most stylish and satisfying combat games I’ve ever played. Had Quantum Break committed entirely to this half of its design, I think today we’d talk about it in much more favourable terms. But the game element of Quantum Break is only half the story – literally. Sandwiched between each “Act” of the game is a twenty-minute TV episode detailing the internal goings-on of Monarch.
Like everyone who grew up during gaming’s fleeting dalliance with FMV, I dreaded these “episodes” from the moment I heard about them. In practice, they’re perfectly watchable. This is thanks mainly to the recruitment of some serious acting talent, most notably Lance Reddick’s wonderful turn as the inscrutable Martin Hatch. But the writing and production also succeed in holding things together, although there are moments when the quality of both dips enough to distract.
The problem is these episodes are also arbitrary. You could ditch them entirely and lose little from the overall experience. Moreover, the money spent on these sequences could have been put to much better use fixing Quantum Break’s problems.
Like the stutters that interrupt the flow of time, Quantum Break constantly gets in the way of its own momentum. When you aren’t fighting, you’re either stuck in sludgy platform sections or walking around an area at a painfully slow pace while the game assaults you with an RPG’s worth of lore. At times Quantum Break resembles a museum to the audio-log, literally lining walls with “optional” story reference. One chain of fictional emails includes an entire script for a fictional character’s fictional movie. It’s utterly absurd.
It’s a flawed game, there’s no doubt about that. But to understand the significance of Quantum Break, you need to step outside of the game’s timeline and look across Remedy’s continuum as a whole. Remedy has always been a developer reverent of other creative mediums, often to the detriment of its own work. Max Payne’s pastiche of noir-fiction is the subject of as much ridicule as it is fondness – how many jokes have you seen about Payne’s tortured extended metaphors? Alan Wake, on the other hand, is an entire game dedicated to exploring Remedy’s own attempt to create a playable Stephen King novel, a running commentary on the studio’s own literary tribulations.
You can trace the developer’s evolution across these games. Max Payne’s weary cynicism and comic-book violence is almost an embodiment of teen angst, while Alan Wake is a like a distillation of a Literature student’s years at University – the product of a mind filled with dozens of half-digested novels as they search for self-identity. Whether you love them or loathe them, both are highly imitative creations, overly celebratory of their inspirations and often lacking the confidence to step outside of their shadows.
Quantum Break’s cross-media relationship with TV is rooted in this evolution, as Quantum Break is what happens when that literature student graduates and gets a job as a TV writer. In this world, you don’t get accolades for being able to point out a Raymond Chandler reference, for demonstrating your knowledge in long paragraphs and obscure phraseology. Here your work needs to stand up on its own. It needs to clip. It needs to excite. Most of all, it needs to keep your audience engaged. Whereas Max Payne and Alan Wake had metaphors that drifted off into the sunset, Quantum Break’s one notable simile almost parodies the purple prose of earlier scripts. “If time is like an egg, then the egg is fucking broken. The time egg is fucked.” Chew on that, Max.
There’s another line to this. For most of its length, Quantum Break’s protagonist is committed to altering the past, to rectifying the mistakes that lead to his brother’s death and ensuring the future flows neatly from that point. Time and again he is told this is impossible, that any attempt to alter the past will only ensure the past flows according to the laws of spacetime. Only toward the end does Joyce accept that the past is set in stone, and the only way he can enact change is to do it in the present. In other words, he needs to move on.
This, ultimately, is what Quantum Break is about. Remedy moving on. Or at least attempting to. There’s plenty of evidence in Quantum Break that Remedy wasn’t quite ready to let go. Taking inspiration from TV by literally making a TV show is classic Remedy, while in the game’s very last scene, Joyce’s commitment to let go of the past is shown to be less resolute than is initially apparent. “I’ll come back for you,” he says to fellow time-traveller Beth Wilder, dead in the future and trapped frozen in the past.
What better way to express those conflicting creative forces – the certainty of the past versus the potential of the future – than in a game where time is broken? With past, present and future all colliding, Remedy essentially give themselves permission to explore all creative avenues. To make a clear effort to move forward, while also indulging in old habits. Quantum Break really is a paradox – both the most and least Remedy game Remedy has ever made.