Back to the future.
Remedy Entertainment is aiming to create a perfect unison of video games and TV shows, a task many would say is both impossible and unnecessary. By its own admission the studio faces an uphill struggle, but believes the payoff could be huge: A new milestone for not one, but two mediums at their cultural peak.
The hurdles the Quantum Break team must overcome are numerous: deploying vast amounts of content over the internet, ensuring the episodes supplement the game in a valuable way, making it so those that choose to bypass it entirely still have a complete experience, to name a few.
We sat down with Quantum Break creative director Sam Lake, game director Mikael Kasurinen, and narrative designer Greg Louden, to discuss the various challenges it faces, how the studio has matured to rise to them, and the impact it believes Quantum Break will have.
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GameSpot: In early interviews Sam Lake referred to Quantum Break as the “ultimate Remedy game.” What does that mean to you and, now that you're close to going gold, do you still feel that's accurate?
Mikael Kasurinen: I think he also said our best game is yet to be out there [laughs]. Of course, we're always striving to get better, but I do think that Quantum Break is definitely the most ambitious, defining Remedy experience we've built so far.
Sam Lake: Of course saying something like that is tied to time and place. I feel this is our latest and greatest. Obviously we are so deep inside it that we can't really see beyond it, so it's impossible to objectively take steps back and look at it. Ultimately it will be decided by the gamers.
A lot of raw passion went into Max Payne. We were kids so we couldn't really analyse it or truly make calculated choices when developing that, there was no experience there. In some ways Alan Wake was also that, we just poured our hearts into it. With Quantum Break I feel like we took a couple of steps back and asked ourselves what a Remedy game is. We looked at what our strengths are and what the criticisms towards Alan Wake were, if there were any.
At that stage we made certain choices and decisions consciously. On the action side, for example, we said let's make sure gameplay caters for as wide an audience as possible. Let's take inspiration from Hollywood's summer blockbuster movies when it comes to the accessibility and the speed of the action.
We took the learnings on storytelling and pacing that we got from Alan Wake and put it to use, but also went further with it. As developers and creators of games, we took a slightly more grown up approach to it by figuring it out. We used a formula we've been iterating and perfecting to make the best game we can. That was the thinking and maybe that's where the “ultimate Remedy game” comes from. Ultimately, it's a journey, and after this there will be further games, but yeah.
How would you describe Quantum Break to someone who isn't familiar with it? On top of being a time-travel story, it also feels like a superhero story.
Kasurinen: There's definitely similarities. We have a character that gains these amazing powers and the ability to manipulate time. It's also a disaster movie where time breaks at the beginning and everyone is scrambling to figure out how to stop that from escalating. All of those different things are part of the experience.
We have a complicated story. It's time travel after all, and those are always paradoxical and complicated, but it all makes sense and is explained. This is the most ambitious game I've worked on. The multiple themes all create something quite unique, which is why I kind of recoil when it's simplified to “a sci-fi story.” Modern TV shows are really difficult to categorise, some people could say Game of Thrones feels authentic, but it's clearly pure fantasy. There's elements of it that make it seem real and relatable. I'd like to imagine Quantum Break does that too.
Doing a purely story-focused thing really doesn't feel triple AAASam Lake
As a studio you're great at creating worlds and telling stories, yet you always return third-person shooting. Why is that genre the best vehicle for your narrative ambitions? I'd expect you'd gravitate towards the Telltale style of episodic games.
Lake: First of all, never say never. Who knows what the future will bring and what our next project will be. At the same time I feel part of the reason for that genre choice is the size of the game. If we are making a AAA experience, doing a purely story-focused thing really doesn't feel triple AAA. You're talking about focusing on a certain aspect [there].
That's part of where the action side of it comes in, as it is part of the AAA feel. Obviously we also have a lot of talent and experience for creating [third-person shooters]. We can make that really engaging and exciting because of that.
Third-person has always felt like the way to go with the characters we make. It fits into the idea that we have a very strong main character that you always see on the screen. It's part of the storytelling to see him move and be there at the centre of everything. From Max Payne on it just suited the kind of character development and character-focused stories we are doing.
People always talk about the overall feel of the world in Remedy Games. The noir grit of Max Payne, for example, and the tension of Alan Wake. Is that strong sense of atmosphere and world identity there in Quantum Break?
Lake: I think so and I definitely hope so. There has been a very conscious effort to make sure the world feels like a character and always is. From the story perspective I always look at it as the internal conflict of the main character becoming the external conflict and state of the world.
Max Payne has horrible stuff going on inside him and then outside it's the worst winter storm in a century on a really dark, gloomy night. And it's always night, it's never day in the first two Max Payne games. It's almost like this guy hasn't seen the sun since his family was murdered. Alan Wake was going through an identity crisis, plus problems with his marriage and his work. That turned into a supernatural threat in the world.
In Quantum Break it's maybe not quite as direct, because this game isn't called Jack Joyce. We have the show side of it [looking at other characters] and you get to play the bad guy as well, so there's more of a TV series-like ensemble cast in it. At the same time it's still about Jack's personal life. He has a troubled relationship with his only family, his brother. Then his best friend turns out to be his worst enemy.
If you go back to the themes of all of our games you'll notice they are about personal struggles to keep families together. For Max, it's a lost cause but he's on a path of revenge for them. In Alan Wake, he has problems he's trying to work through by rescuing his wife. For Jack in Quantum Break we have a broken family to start with, but maybe there's something that he has misinterpreted and it's still worth saving. It's a crisis he's trying to fix, and at the same time there's an external threat in that time is breaking down.
Do you worry the nuances of the story may be lost under the complexities of a time travel story?
Lake: For us, the model is a season of a TV series. If you think about ensemble casts and plot threads in a good TV series, there's room for quite a bit in there. In a game there is this side of exploration to it and optional story in it, so you can discover aspects of the mystery while taking your time. I like the idea that Quantum Break can be enjoyed as just an explosive action romp, but then those that want to immerse themselves in the world can do that.
It's a very Breaking Bad approach. That show left subtle clues for people to latch onto. Was that an influence, and if not, what was?
Lake: It's a time travel story so we have echoes of classics like Back to the Future and Terminator. Relatively recently there's been a surprising amount of time travel. Interstellar had an aspect of it, X-Men: Days of the Future Past had it, and so did Looper. There was quite a bit of time when time travel wasn't a thing that people were using.
I love modern TV. Fargo season two was the latest show I watched and really loved the quirkiness of it. I take more inspiration from TV on pacing and structure, along with how characters and plot twists are handled. Working on stories all my life certain things become predictable and formulaic, but with modern TV you have absolutely no idea what's coming. The best shows are the ones you watch and say "I have no idea who's going to survive and what's going to happen."
It's wonderful because it's liberating, it frees you from analysing it too much. We're definitely drawing from that. Of course there's certain modern sci-fi things like Inception and things like that too. I don't know what the right term for them is, but we like material that is grounded in real life and present day but still have that sci-fi layer.
If you go back to the themes of all of our games you'll notice they are about personal struggles to keep families togetherSam Lake
Kasurinen: Previous games have been very directly focused on one single idea, Alan Wake for example on a Stephen King type story, and Max Payne is hardboiled cop. Quantum Break is difficult to place like that. We're trying to tell a modern story with the feeling of the best HBO shows, like True Detective and Game of Thrones.
Stories in games tend to be quite complicated when you factor in player choice, so adding a TV show element on top of that and trying to connect it using time travel sounds like quite the task. Greg, you come from a movie background, how has it been joining that world with the world of video games?
Greg Louden: In film I worked in visual effects and more of the animation stuff, but I've always made films for fun. I live films, cinema, games, and music. So for me, connecting it all was just natural, the tools I learned in film all came across. I do feel like games is one of the best ways to tell a story because you can add in so much content whereas with a film you sit down for two hours, have a great experience, and learn everything, but you can't stop and read what's on the wall, or make decisions that change things.
Has it been easier to reach that goal of furthering storytelling by creating the game alongside an actual TV show? The worry is that when games are adapted into movies, they include touchstones for fans and the experience is worse off because of it. A lot of fans might have similar concerns for Quantum Break's show.
Kasurinen: That's a good point. I think it's kind of short-sighted to think that the same ideas and tricks will work on movies, TV shows, and games. They require different talents and experiences and focus on the right things to make them each a compelling experience. The key thing in Quantum Break is how we're first and foremost thinking of it as a game. That's an important thing to say out loud. It's an experience made for people who love playing games. But we're also taking elements of high-quality TV and weaving them into each other.
The things that you do in the game have an impact on the TV show side. You actually play the villain, who is the main star of the show, and you make decisions that have an impact in the game. You'll see small things that are slightly different because of what you did. These are built together and in total create an experience that is larger than the sum of the parts. They're made to work together.
Having a TV show seems to help give weight to moments in action games that devs want to be poignant, but usually don't because of the nature of action games and the pace they move at—the death of a supporting character for example.
Kasurinen: Absolutely. I think it's one of the solutions to that problem. I totally understand what you're talking about, there's a frame of mind that people go into when they're playing a game. They want to focus on playing, they want to control the characters, they want to interact with the world. A big problem in games when you try to convey the nature of a character is the player wants to have control, so it's very hard to have the information there while the player is running around. TV and movies truly let people understand a character as they give them breathing room. People are in a more passive frame of mind where they look at what's presented, so they can assimilate information and internalise it. That is a good way of making people understand who the characters are and making them relatable.
Do you think the gaming audience is open to being passive in that way? Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, heavily relied on the player absorbing narrative like that and it didn't go over well.
Kasurinen: I agree there is a problem there and I think that was an attempt to combine these two different worlds, but maybe not in the most effective way. It's a tough goal, and figuring out how these two elements work together is not easy. There's definitely going to be built in resistance towards it based on the experiences people have had. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of blanket statements that it's too passive and so on-but I do wish people would give it a chance and at least watch the first episode. That will help them understand what we're trying to do and why. I think what we are trying is definitely interesting and different. I don't think anybody has done what we are doing right now, where we so carefully combine these two things. But I do agree with you, it feels to many people as an unnecessary element, but it's not. It's a part of the whole that gives you the best possible understanding of who is doing what and why through experiencing everything.
The key thing in Quantum Break is how we're first and foremost thinking of it as a game. That's an important thing to say out loudSam Lake
MGS4's mistake was the big imbalance between watching and playing. Is Quantum Break a complete, well-rounded experience even without the TV show element?
Kasurinen: When I spoke to you earlier about the maturity and so on, I should have also said it's not black and white, where we show good guy doing good and evil guy doing evil. There's reasons behind his actions and nuance behind his intentions that can't be easily encapsulated in short cinematics. I feel like when you understand that, the way you interact with the characters from the show in the game becomes more meaningful and gratifying.
In terms of concluding the story, is there a resolution for both characters? We get to make decisions and spend time exploring the motivations of the villain, will we get a resolution for his story?
Louden: Yes I think you will. We have one ending for the game, but your choices definitely impact what that looks like. You can play the game in an evil way and you get different cinematics and other characters are different because of that. Serene--the antagonist--for example, can be twisted by your actions, and can become more and more twisted as you go on. That's what I like, usually it's "there's the bad guy, you're the good guy.” But our game is always throwing whether he is a bad guy into question, You're reading emails and notice he's doing things similar to what Jack is and that may spark an idea in your mind about what he's doing and why. And you can replay the game, do it all again, and see that different side of him.
Given the investment, the technology and the effort to establish a world, can we expect more stories to be told within this universe in the future?
Kasurinen: We approach every game we build in a way that it feels like a universe that we can easily expand and build more products on top of. But at this point in time we're focusing on getting Quantum Break done and have no further plans beyond that.
Have you thought about delivering new content through the TV show. Extra episodes after the fact?
Kasurinen: From our perspective it's definitely a natural thing, but at this point in time we're still all focused on Quantum Break we have now.