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On Building Dueling Narratives in Quantum Break

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"A time travel story is always complicated."

When Remedy Entertainment first announced Quantum Break alongside the Xbox One in 2013, the developer was adamant that it was a dual property: a television show wrapped into a game. The choices players made in the game would impact episode the television show, and events from the show would be explored in greater detail in the game.

This still holds true for Quantum Break, nearly three years later. Although, there is still much shrouded in mystery: just how much do the properties influence each other? Peppered through Quantum Break are moments in which players are asked to make major decisions--these are called junction points. Decisions made at these junctions will permanently affect the course of the game's narrative, as well as determine what you see in the following show episode.

GameSpot sat down with Greg Louden, narrative designer on Quantum Break, to talk more about the story's influences and just how deep the time-travel hole goes.

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GameSpot: How long have you been working on Quantum Break?

Louden: For almost four years. I've been there from pre-production until now. It's been--I like to say--it's been a lifestyle in a way. It feels like I graduated in Quantum Break, it's like a degree. It's been really cool. The team has worked so hard so I'm really proud and happy to be here to show the game.

Did you come up with the original story concept? Where did that concept come from and when did you come in?

The original concept came from Alan Wake back in the day. I joined for Quantum Break. In Alan Wake there was this side TV show that they had called "Quantum Suicide," which basically played around with string theory and quantum theory. From there Sam and the team were thinking of a new game to do and they latched onto this time travel story.

From there the game evolved to include superheroes, and then it evolved to include this Hollywood cast, like Shawn Ashmore. It evolved to include the live action show. When I got on the project, basically we knew it was a time travel story, we knew some of the super powers, but we didn't really know where to go and I was really happy to be designing the opening of the game.

I got to design that. Kind of take the story of Jack Joyce turning from being an ordinary guy into a superhero. It was really exciting.

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Are you working on the show and the game or do you focus on the game?

I've been largely focused on the game, but I've also worked quite closely with the writing team [for the TV show] to make sure they're showing the game overlap.

What is that like, working on the two?

It's been, as you can imagine, amazing. It's really exciting to get to work on a live action show as well as a game, but it's been incredibly challenging. A time travel story is always complicated. We have time travel webs and we have all these different shots to get and the mountains of screen plays I had to read through--you have no idea.

It's been so exciting and empowering. What if we took this character from the show? We scan him in, like surface capture technology, and then he's a crossover character. We have crossover characters, crossover locations, you get to play in the same locations. Our optional storytelling: there's emails written by the characters from the show. The show and the game were originally like this [motions with hands apart], they were separate. But now they just crossover and they blend in and out. I don't think it's ever been done before, it's really exciting.

At what point in development did that happen? When it was like--these are no longer separate properties, we're going to put them together? How does it happen?

[It happened] relatively early on. I think at first it was like, let's just do a show and a game and then instantly Sam and the writing team, and even myself were all like, what if you could play with the show and the show would interact with the game? From there it was this momentous task of collaborating with Lifeboat Productions, the TV show guys we worked with, and blending to go through.

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There are two separate, but not separate properties. Is the show informed by the game or do you come up with concepts for the game with the show also in mind?

Basically the way that it works is that you play the game and then once you play the game you play a junction moment. You play Jack Joyce as the hero, and then you play Paul Serene, who's the villain. There's Shawn Ashmore and Aiden Gillen. The villain, he runs a company called Monarch Solutions. You make a choice as the lead of Monarch and essentially your choice informs Monarch Solutions and the show is about Monarch, the villains. Basically the game and the show blend in and out. Your villain evolves based on your decisions and the villain is really uncovered in the live action show.

It's a really hard game to talk about... That's the general thing. The show informs the game and the game informs the show. We really weave in and out. I can't wait for players to play through it all.

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For you, the narrative designer, what has been the most challenging thing about working on a game with this sort of storytelling depth?

I think at first it was the time travel, trying to get my head around the time travel and trying to think of every instant: having moments that cross over [from the game], [the] concept of time travel and then from there it was the live action show. Once we had the live action show connected, the final thing was the junctions, the player choices. We had to set down the time travel map, show this is how the time travel works, set down the philosophy of the live action show, get that running, and then set down how you change the show and how you change the game. It's been, as a narrative designer, I think, it's a dream project. You get to design a story for a live action show, you get to design the story for a game. It's a time travel story, which everyone says is the hardest, so I feel like it's been a brilliant option. We have such a great team at Remedy. It's been challenging but really rewarding and exciting.

You mentioned people say that time travel stories are hard. Why do people say it's hard?

I think it's hard because there are so many plot holes and ways for the audience to pick it apart. I think our writing team at Remedy is so insistent on wanting to make sure we actually make it perfect, but that's been challenging. The time machine we designed and the science of it all... We wanted to do it right, we wanted this really grounded science-fiction experience. We didn't want it just to be random, we wanted to think of every instance, as we said we wanted to surprise and challenge the audience. We want you to play for a level and think, "This is cool," and then play through the same level and you're like, "Holy moly! I've been here before and I've seen these things, and this is why it happened and that's why that happened."

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Why do you think time travel is so popular? If it's so difficult to do, why do you think people love it?

I think that's part of people--that they always want to go back in time and they want to fix things or they want see what's going to happen in the future. I think that's the big thing. For me personally, with time travel it's always a "What would it be like if I could go back and I could change what I did here or what would it be like if I could go in the future and see what things would have been like if, after all this time has passed...?" I think that's why. It's been great for us because there have been so many great influences. There's been Interstellar--obviously has some great time travel--and Looper. A big reference for Quantum Break was Primer. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's really intense time travel movie. There's just so many great time travel references. It's been really cool to develop and be inspired by all these great stories.

Can you think of any other media or books or anything that's influenced...?

For me personally, Inception was always a big thing. It's not a time travel story, but it's a trip, and it has all these smaller things and the whole idea of the dreams--and as you've probably seen with Quantum Break, we have these really extreme environments where time breaks. We have these things called stutters. When the stutter hits with a ship crashing into a bridge or in combat where things are flowing over, it just creates these real surreal, almost dreamlike landscapes, so that was inspiring. I think last but not least is Terminator 2.

Really?

Most people think it's a robot movie, but it's also a time travel movie. That's been a really cool reference of characters and story telling.

It's pretty cool references when you've got Inception and T2 and you get to do a game. It's pretty rad.

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Would you describe Quantum Break as "a trip?"

I think so. I think it's a great story. It's definitely a hero story. So you get to see Jack Joyce and you get to see this great cast of characters evolve. The best thing of value is you have this whole different medium as part of the whole experience. You get this great live action show that you can walk [through] and change. You get all these different stories. We have optional storytelling, we have live action show bits, we have radio stations.

One of the coolest things, actually, that I'm really happy with, is we have radio hosts in the game and the first decision you make in the game will change the radio host and the music that plays on the radio... The amount of complexity into the junction stuff, we have characters that change and they provide different insight into the stories.

You have some really nitty gritty smaller decisions, here.

We do. Basically we have so much optional story. We have just under a novel of text that you can read. Emails, newspapers... You'll see it when you play. You can investigate so much more than any other Remedy game. We've really stepped up to create this world that you can get involved in and shape; it's really exciting.

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What is the one thing you're hoping that players notice?

I hope the players get immersed in the world. If anything, if they notice things, particularly, I think the time travel stuff for me is really important, and also if they understand the story. I think that's the bigger thing. I really want them to notice. I want them to know what our message is. I want them to know what we're trying to say. I think Remedy games have always had a bit of a message. That's the most important thing, all the rest of it is just detail. There's so many great things... I want them to notice how hard we worked, I want them to notice a whole bunch of things. It's hard to say, but if they can grasp the story and they can basically want to play it again because they realize that the story has changed based on their decisions, then that would be really great for them to notice.

You keep mentioning screenplays. Did you write the script with more of a screenplay feel to it?

Yeah, definitely. The way that Remedy has always worked is that we have obviously...everything starts from the story, everything at Remedy. Even our tools that we use are story based. We have a workshop with the writers. The level designers and the writing team, they sit there and we collaborate. We have a story chart and we figure out how to tell the story. As a level designer, similar to a director, your first thing you do at work is you have the screenplay on your right or on your left, if you're left-handed. You basically look through and you're adapting the screenplay into a game experience.

The screenplay has everything. We have the detail of the characters, the looks, everything. They're really inspired. Like a great director, I think Remedy is such a great studio that when the writers take it to a whole other level. They're always so inspired as well. I think the thing with working at Remedy is you always want to inspire the person after you. The writers write a good story, and you're inspired, then you want to top it, so you do a good level. Then the level designers do a good level and you want to do good lighting. The animators want to rock it so they do great animation, and it's just this one-up-manship that creates the whole Remedy experience that fans love.

What did you do before you were at Remedy?

I've actually got an interesting background. Before Remedy I worked in film. I worked in effects and animation. I started off and worked on Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole in Sydney, which is a Zack Snyder animated movie. From there I worked on Sucker Punch for a tiny bit.

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I bounced over to work with George Miller, the guy that directed Mad Max: Fury Road, and on Happy Feet 2. From Happy Feet 2 I bounced over to London and worked on Prometheus for Ridley Scott. From Ridley Scott I bounced on to World War Z. In that job I simulated zombies, which was pretty cool. From there I jumped onto Gravity and I worked in an effects studio in Gravity. I joined Remedy as more of a visual effects designer. I was so into the story that they let me grow into a narrative designer.

I've got a very interesting background. I've kind of swung from full quality art direction into more of story role and I'm loving it. It's a great company. You'll see the visual effects in the game are superb. The guys we worked with are...I worked with one of them on Hollywood VFX films. Our rendering tech and our sound designers were just top, really top. So everything we're really getting in the highest level.

I don't really see the difference between film and games, to be honest. There's more opportunities for storytelling for me right now in games, so I'm really excited.

So you were pulled into narrative by the specific story of Quantum Break?

Yeah, and also just me being really inspired and constantly giving notes and reviews, just being into the story. They were like, "Greg, you're actually pretty good at this. Could you read this screenplay?" Then all the level designers: "Hey could you help me with this?" I kind of made my own role. I'm the first narrative designer at Remedy.

I work really closely with Sam Lake and the writing team and the level designers. I champion the story.

It sounds like Remedy is a really nurturing studio.

It is. I think you can see it in the work. It comes across well because it's made in a really great place.

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Alexa Ray Corriea

Alexa Ray Corriea is never not covered in glitter at any given time.
Quantum Break

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