About Time: Revisiting Quantum Break

By: John Wahl

Four years ago developer Remedy released their follow-up to Alan Wake, a game which had achieved cult classic status since it’s release back in 2010. This new game, Quantum Break, was an ambitious science fiction title that featured blistering gunplay, stylish visuals, and a mind bending story about a fracture in time threatening to put an end to the universe as we know it.

The game told the story of Jack Joyce, who was portrayed by actor Shawn Ashmore (X-Men). Jack is summoned one night by an old friend, Paul Serene, to meet him at the University where Paul has been researching the concept of time travel. When he arrives he finds that this research has resulted in the development of a prototype time machine which Paul plans on testing out with Jack’s assistance.

During the test, something goes wrong (doesn’t it always?) resulting in an explosion which sends Paul off through time and leaves them both with abilities that allow them to manipulate time itself. As this happens, the mysterious organization known as Monarch Solutions arrives to clean up the accident and ensure that there are no witnesses to what happened. Jack, now on the run, must uncover the mystery behind the accident and find a way to undo the damage done by it.

In addition to Ashmore, the game features an impressive supporting cast including Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones), Lance Reddick (John Wick), Dominic Monaghan (Lost), and Courtney Hope, who would later go on to star in Remedy’s next game, Control.

Quantum Break also attempted to blend the art of gaming and television by including 30 minute live-action interludes between each act that played out differently depending on your actions and served to flesh out the stories of some of the game’s characters. Remedy had dabbled with live action segments in their games before, but this was them going all in on the concept.

This was also a feature that publisher Microsoft was keen on as they were launching the Xbox One which (at the time) was being pitched as an all-in-one entertainment device. While that marketing strategy for the Xbox One turned out to be ill conceived and was later abandoned, the live-action segments of Quantum Break were well done and helped to flesh out the universe by focusing on some of the supporting characters in the story.

When Quantum Break released, it’s stylish action and well told story (which I still maintain is one of the best time travel stories I’ve seen) made it one of my favorite games of the year and I still look back on it as one of the better exclusive games of the Xbox One. In a generation of gaming which hasn’t featured an abundance of great new IP, it was a stand out title that in my opinion suffered from a case of terrible timing. Despite being critically well received, the game suffered from being an Xbox One console exclusive at a time when Microsoft was trying to rehabilitate the reputation of their troubled console, and a PC version which was only available through the Windows 10 store and was a buggy mess at launch.

Despite those issues surrounding it’s release, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Quantum Break and last month I finally got around to revisiting it for the first time since in came out. Not only did I find that the game held up incredibly well 4 years later, but I think I maybe enjoyed it even more than I did the first time around.

The story obviously holds up well, and the gameplay felt as satisfying as ever. The abilities are so much fun to play around with during combat, from freezing those around you to speed around like the Flash, to creating a time bubble around enemies that let’s you pump dozens of bullets into it only to see them all connect at once when time resumes. It’s just a damn fun game to play.

It also features some of the most epic set pieces I’ve seen in years. One moment you’ll be jumping around the frozen wreckage of a bridge as it collapses, and the next you’re taking on a group of Monarch soldiers as a train barrels through a wall into the lobby of the building you’re in, rewinding over and over again as time loops around you. The way in which the developers play with time during these sequences is brilliant and visually stunning.

As I played through the game I felt like perhaps Quantum Break was a bit ahead of it’s time. You can see much of the visual flair in the game that Remedy would later refine for their follow-up Control, which was at the top of many website’s Game of the Year lists. And I can’t help but feel that maybe if the game was released a few years later, now that the Xbox One has managed to turn their image around and has the massively popular Game Pass to release games on, it may have become the massive hit that I think it deserved to be.

As I set the controller down on my second playthrough, I had a lot of questions about how studios go about making such an ambitious game, and about whether or not we may ever see the follow-up that was teased at the end of the game. So I set out to try and find some of those answers from one of the people who would know, the Story Team Manager of Quantum Break, Mikko Rautalahti. In addition to writing the game with Tyler Smith, he also worked with the actors during performance capture and coordinated with other departments such as the level designers and audio department.

Lance Reddick and Aiden Gillen

Mega Dads: The story behind Quantum Break revolves around the concept of time travel and the science behind it, as explained in the game, seems fairly plausible. How much research was done on quantum mechanics to get that aspect of the story right?

Mikko Rautalahti: “Well, we did do research! A lot of this stuff really is thanks to a good friend of mine, Dr. Syksy Räsänen. He’s a cosmologist and theoretical physicist who’s worked at CERN, and he’s got a pretty good handle on this sort of stuff. He’s also somebody who understands games, so it was very useful being able to talk to him and ask questions along the lines of “how could we adapt this stuff for a game?” He knew which filters to apply to the things he was talking about so that it was relevant to us and our purposes, which was great. So there’s a certain… I hesitate to call it a scientific basis, because that’s misleading, but let’s call it a plausible logic to how the time travel and the rest of the fictional physics in the story operate.

Still, though, at the end of the day, we were writing a science fiction story and we just made a bunch of stuff up — so things like Meyer-Joyce particles (which give things time) are somewhat analogous to the Higgs boson (which gives things mass) and it allowed us to do certain things with the story, but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t just us coming up with stuff. So I guess you could say that we did enough research to to make it all sound sort of convincing, but it’s pretty damn far from realistic.

What was more important than actually somehow being “real” was being consistent — we wanted the logic of it to hold up and for our chosen method of time travel to follow its own rules and limitations instead of being hand-wavy in a way that, frankly, a lot of time travel stories are. Which is not a dig at them; something like Back to the Future, for instance, is an enduring classic, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that its concept of time travel is very loosey-goosey. It works very well for what they’re doing in the film, but we were going for something different that required a very strict approach to the time travel logic. And I think we accomplished that.”

MD: You mentioned Back to the Future, were there specific time travel stories that served as inspiration for the writing team?

Mikko: “Not really. We certainly consumed a lot of fiction with time travel in it — Looper came out during development, for instance. We actually had a company outing to see it. A big film about time travel felt immediately relevant to us. But it was obvious that what it was doing really had no connection to what we were doing. Still, at least to me, it felt useful to immerse ourselves in the genre and just pick different time travel stories, take them apart and see how they worked and why. I mean, did I watch Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure again for the first time since I was a kid? Yes. Was it an inspiration or something that informed our work? Well, no; it’s just utterly different. But was Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure a good time? Yes. Yes it was. At the same time, some other stories felt a lot more relevant to what we were doing. Primer, for example — obviously we have a very different tone, but there was a lot in there that resonated with me, too.

It was actually quite hard to find anything that we could point to and say, “this, this is a great example of the kind of thing we’re doing.” At a fairly early point in the development process I re-read Octavia Butler’s Kindred and was again impressed by it, but at the same time, now that I was thinking about it specifically as a time travel story, it was pretty obvious that it’s not really about time travel as such, it’s about other things — way more important things than what our story is about, I’m not going to pretend otherwise. That illustrated an aspect of many, if not most time travel stories: they aren’t really about time travel, that’s just a catalyst for something else.

And of course that’s somewhat true for Quantum Break, too — but at the same time, we had a very strong focus on what this particular version of time travel is like and what it does to people who’re exposed to it. We made a conscious choice about that. And once we were committed to our specific time travel logic (i.e., it’s complex, but nothing changes), it meant that the very typical time travel stories (“I go back/forward in time and experience a completely different world,” “a key historical event changes and now the world is X,” and “during time travel, I accidentally change my personal history”) were no longer very relevant to us. Looking back on it, a big part of that was the way we had to balance between the “closed timelike curve” mode of time travel combined with the looming disaster of the End of Time — it just cast it all in a somewhat unique light”

MD: Over the course of the game, we jump back and forth throughout the timeline, how difficult was it to keep all the story elements straight so as not to get anything mixed up?

Mikko: “It was probably the single hardest part of the whole undertaking. I mean, keeping track of everything was not that difficult in itself, but figuring out what affects what and how, while making sure that all of it still fit together? That was another thing entirely.

The thing is, generally speaking, if you’re working on a story, if you make a change to the story around the mid point, it affects everything that takes place after it, but everything up until that point is still fine. But when you’re dealing with time travel, and particularly the kind of time travel we had in Quantum Break where (spoilers) nothing actually changes, that’s no longer the case, because the story tweak you made can actually affect earlier parts of the story as well. And if the earlier events are affected, they may very easily invalidate the situation that would necessitate for the tweak to be made in the first place, which means the tweak won’t actually work.

This, in my experience, is something a lot of people have trouble wrapping their minds around, so here’s a practical example: you asked me to do this interview, and I agreed. Let’s say that I’m a jerk, and during the interview, I say something that thoroughly offends you. Maybe I crack a joke about your face, and it doesn’t land at all the way I thought it would; I thought it’d be funny, but you think it’s the worst thing anybody’s ever said to you.

And in your insane rage (nobody talks that way about your face, goddammit!), you decide to take your revenge on me by going back in time and messing with my face as a lesson. This seems like complete overkill, I know, but, hey, I’ve got it coming. So you step in your time machine and you go back to, say, 2009 and tattoo “THIS IS WHAT A STUPID FACE REALLY LOOKS LIKE” right on my forehead when I’m asleep. You add “I’M A BIG INCONSIDERATE JERK” on my cheek, just for good measure. That’ll show me.

And it DOES show me. Because I am mocked mercilessly for my inexplicable facial tattoos, I do indeed learn my harsh lesson, and thus when the time to do this interview comes, I don’t say anything about your face at all. Mission accomplished!

Except… it isn’t. The thing is, I have to insult your face, or you have no reason to go back and mess with mine. If I don’t insult you, then you don’t go back, and you don’t tattoo my face, and then I will not learn my lesson, and then, logically, I will crack my joke and insult you. Within the established rules of our time travel, it just fundamentally doesn’t work; the reasons for you to go back, as well as the consequences of you going back, have to be baked into the whole time travel pie right from the beginning. Nothing changes.

And of course, in a huge project like this, the story is constantly adjusted for all sorts of reasons, and every single change we made had to be tested to make sure its logic was sound. We didn’t have an “oh, you can change things as long as nobody notices” out; that’s emphatically not how the time travel in Quantum Break works.

That was very tricky to pull off, and definitely made the writing take much longer than it otherwise would have. It got both easier and harder the closer to the end we got — harder, because we had already locked down so many story elements that we were seriously running out of runway… but also easier, because we got better and faster at working out the consequences and implications of whatever changes we were making. Practice makes perfect, I guess. We had a good writing team, that helped — I wrote the game with Tyler Smith, who was a fantastic writing partner for me, Cam Rogers did a lot of super important conceptual heavy lifting, and of course Sam Lake was a constant part of the process as our creative director. It wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t all been in sync as much as we were, everybody made a huge effort to get it done and get it done right.”

MD: Was it challenging trying to write the story as both a video game and as a television show? Were the live actions segments Remedy’s idea or something that Microsoft was looking for?

Mikko: “Well… when Quantum Break was in early development, Microsoft was focusing heavily on the Xbox One as a sort of the ultimate entertainment center for your home, chock full of unique TV content. As we all know, as time went by, the market kind of went in a different direction and the drive to produce content along those lines was no longer what it had earlier been. I know the change of direction affected a lot of projects, and Quantum Break’s live action segments were one of the very few things that actually made it out there.

Suffice to say that getting it made was a difficult process at a time when everybody already had a very full plate, it came together very late in the process, and I wish we could have been much more involved with it than we were.”

MD: In addition to writing the game, you also worked closely with the actors during the performance capture and VO process, what was that experience like?

Shawn Ashmore as Jack Joyce

Mikko: “That was one of my favorite parts of the whole process, but also one of the most demanding. We were based in Finland, and we did most of our motion capture work with Digital Domain in Los Angeles, which really meant doing very long days at their studio while being completely jetlagged. The stakes are pretty high, because you can only have the space for so many days, and you have to get through everything. We had a small core team from Remedy on those trips, and by the end of it, we had a very good routine established, so even if we were kind of dead on our feet, we got the job done. In addition to that, we also did facial capture at our own studio in Espoo, Finland, and countless VO sessions in London. So it was pretty international, all things considered.

In general, working with actors on a video game really depends on who you’re working with. Some people have done it so many times that they just know what’s expected of them, no problem. On the other hand, many very good and well-trained actors just haven’t worked on a video game before, so they aren’t used to the technical aspects of it, and it’s hard to do your best work when you’re distracted by things you don’t understand, so there’s definitely a learning curve. Not just for them — we had to learn how to bring people up to speed properly. One key question I learned to ask very quickly was “so, do you actually play video games yourself?” If the answer was yes, great, that meant I could skip like a half an hour of explanation. If no, then you’d have to start from pretty basic things and explain concepts like the difference between a static cinematic and a dynamic gameplay scene.

And of course, because so much of the game is interconnected in weird ways and it’s quite complicated, and you’re shooting stuff out of order, for an actor just understanding the context for what they’re doing could be super difficult. The material they were given generally only had the scenes they were doing, and those scenes weren’t necessarily chronological in ANY sense of the word, so I had to spend a lot of time just telling them what was going on and why. It was a little bit easier for somebody like Shawn Ashmore, who played Jack Joyce, our main character; at least he was present in the majority of the scenes, so he had a good overall understanding of what was going on. He was very committed to being on top of it; it was obvious he cared about it, he wasn’t there to just pick up a paycheck. But it took us several years to get all of it in the can, so even with him there were a lot of conversations about where in the story a particular scene actually was, or why it was happening.

And a lot of the time, it’s just hard work for an actor. For example, the facial capture process we used for Quantum Break required that the actors stare forward into an array of cameras, and they couldn’t turn or tilt their heads at all, and they had to remain at a precise fixed distance from the camera. There are bright lights in your face, you aren’t really interacting with anybody, it’s just completely unnatural, and yet you’re expected to give a nuanced and emotional performance. That’s not something your typical acting class teaches. When Shawn first did it, it was obvious it wasn’t easy for him. But he spent such a long time doing it that by the end of it, he’d very much acclimated. I bet it never felt particularly natural to him, but he could get in the zone quickly and stay there for a long time. He could give us Jack Joyce and do a great job of it.

For me, the whole process was a kind of a “this is where the magic happens” thing; we’d spent literally years putting this material together, writing and rewriting and rescoping and rewriting again, and suddenly you had these amazing people giving life to the words. It was pretty great — whether we were doing the full performance capture with all the bells of whistles, or just me, an audio engineer and a voice actor in the booth, it felt like things were clicking into place.”

Courtney Hope as Beth Wilder

MD: There are several references in the game to Alan Wake, and it’s been established that Alan Wake and Control exist in the same “universe”, so is there a Remedy-verse where Jack Joyce, Max Payne, Alan Wake and Jesse Faden are all running around together?

Mikko: “This isn’t really something I’m in a good position to comment on, given that I own none of these IPs. I will point out, though, that the Alan Wake and Control IPs are owned by Remedy, the Max Payne IP is owned by Take-Two, and the Quantum Break IP is owned by Microsoft. That would get pretty complicated if you wanted to actually do anything with that kind of concept…”

MD: If you had Paul Serene’s power and could both manipulate and see forward in time, what would you do with that power?

Mikko: “Honestly? I’d be miserable. That’s pretty consistently the price of time travel and awareness of the future in this particular world. Serene’s power is useful in that it allows him to make informed choices about what happens, but it’s useless in that it doesn’t actually let him change anything. As far as his personal existence is concerned, whatever choice he makes is the choice he always made; he was never going to make any other choice. (The player can, of course, go back and replay those junctions and have a different experience, but Serene can’t.)

It’s like… you can continue to read this interview, or you can stop right now. You have now made your choice; either you’re still reading or you’re done with me, but either way, that moment has passed. The junction moments aren’t any different, except for the visions of the future — but despite them, once you’ve made your decision, that’s it, you can’t change it any more than you can change whether you brushed your teeth this morning. That’s not to say that this power isn’t at all useful for Serene, of course! But at the end of the day, it’s not so much power as an illusion of power. And, I mean, there are lots of words you could use to describe Paul Serene, but “happy man” aren’t likely to be among them…”

MD: The game ends with the tease of a sequel, did you and the team have ideas or plans in mind for where the story would go from there?

Mikko: “Oh, absolutely. We had lots of ideas, which, depending on who you ask, may or may not be entirely compatible, which is definitely a part of the fun of shooting the shit in a writers’ room. But we did have a framework that extended beyond the game, with various paths we could choose from. Personally, I have some solid thoughts about what I’d do with the story going forward… but of course I can’t tell you what those are.”

Thank you so much to Mikko Rautalahti for answering our questions. Quantum Break is available now on PC, Xbox One, and on Xbox Game Pass.

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