Oh what a tangled web we weave … when we’re playing and watching Quantum Break. I discovered that the story behind the big Xbox One and Windows 10 video game coming from Microsoft and Remedy Entertainment is very complicated. That’s the hallmark of Remedy, which made memorable story-based games such as Alan Wake and Max Payne before it started on the four-year journey of making Quantum Break.
Quantum Break is one of the most important new original games coming from Microsoft, which needs exclusive games like this for its hardware platforms to stay competitive. Sony’s PlayStation 4 is pulling far ahead in the hardware battle, and potential blockbusters like Quantum Break are critical for Microsoft to remain relevant to gamers. If the story holds the gamer’s attention as Microsoft and Remedy hope, the game will steal gamers back from Sony.
That story becomes even more complicated because of the way Remedy has interleaved a TV show within the game. In Quantum Break, you play as the hero Jack Joyce, who is trying to save the world from a time travel experiment that has gone horribly wrong. The player plays the first act of the game as Joyce. Then the player makes a choice. That choice spurs one of two different videos. The video is a 20-minute episode in the TV show that tells the story of Jack’s opponents. It goes on this way for a total of four video episodes and five game acts. Altogether, there are dozens of different videos that reflect player choices.
That’s a lot of story to keep straight, and it could drive a writer or game designer crazy. One of the people responsible for making sure the story stays consistent and understandable is Greg Louden, senior narrative designer, who has to communicate with both the writers and the level designers, as well as the TV show creators. (See our preview story here and our video story here).
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me more about your role, what you’re responsible for.
Greg Louden: I’m senior narrative designer at Remedy. I’m a blend of a story guy and a level designer. I work with the writing team and review the screenplays with them, and then I work with the level designers – I’m a level designer myself, working on Act One of the game. I work across the game with the writers and propagate the story.
The other large role for me was the optional storytelling. I organized where all those are and what they are. The junction consequences—My constant thing for the writers was, I’d read a screenplay and say, “How can we get more junction consequences? Can you make this dialogue sequence a bit more branched up?” Then finally I worked a lot on the show connections. How can we get more crossover locations and more crossover characters?
GamesBeat: Have you been on this the whole time?
Louden: I have. I’ve been on board since preproduction, so just under four years.
GamesBeat: How do you keep it all straight in your head as to what’s going on?
Louden: It’s quite a complicated story. Combine that with, as a designer, the junction consequences and other things—The key way is, I have a lot of charts. I have a time travel chart which shows where the characters are placed in time. I have a timeline, which shows an interest curve and all the larger story beats so I can keep track of it. And then I’m just very lucky. I’ve always been told I have a great memory. I leverage that quite a lot. And I take meticulous notes.
It’s been a challenge, but it’s great for players. You want to play it again to understand it all. That’s the thing I’ve always loved with Remedy games. They’re always quite meta in a way – a lot of storytelling and subplots and things you may not understand the first time. Most games you play through once and forget. Quantum Break and Alan Wake and Max Payne are games you remember.
GamesBeat: How many different combinations of the episodes do you have?
Louden: We have around 40 variations, which is pretty crazy. When you go through and do all your choices, the show experience is around two hours. But we have what we call quantum ripples, which unlock deleted scenes and add more variation to it. We also have the junction consequences. We have four junctions. You got to experience one. The complexity layers in. That’s been another chart to track everything and see how it all goes.
And then the game has a lot of consequences and changes going through it. There’s a lot of value for players. It’s another reason to play it again.
GamesBeat: You guys seem to have found a way to make a linear, cinematic story more interactive.
Louden: The one thing for us was, we always had this vision as game developers—People have always been experimenting with changing up a game’s story based on the player’s decisions, but it hasn’t been done in live action before. The challenge for us, working with Lifeboat, was making this happen, telling a live-action show crew, “We want you to have to shoot a sequence twice. We want the opening scenes of the show to be different.” Most shows, you shoot the screenplay. Our screenplay had scenes done twice and different endings and all these different things.
Now that we’ve done it, I think we’ll be able to do it again even better. We want to push the connection of the two experiences.
GamesBeat: The video you showed here had something like the graphics history.
Louden: Yeah, and also the game history.
GamesBeat: I wondered about that style and some of the choices you’ve made. It looks like you dialed back the graphics a bit, making it more stylized than realistic.
Louden: It’s evolved over time. One big thing I should say about those videos—We don’t want players to think that any of that isn’t there anymore. All those sequences still exist in the game. The story’s never changed. Obviously the actor, we’ve changed over. But apart from that, things like the sequence with the office with the frozen thing, that’s still in the game. That’s Sophia’s office. You still play that. The ship crash you see, you still play that with Shawn Ashmore. You’ll have the same experience, the same stories. Some people online have suggested that some of that was just demo material. That’s not the case. You’ll still get the full experience.
Artistically, as you said, a lot of the colors we’ve experimented with have changed, but in general we’re happy with the current look. We’re really happy with the quality of the whole experience.
GamesBeat: It almost seems like, when you’re freezing time—It almost fuzzes out a bit. Is it supposed to sharpen or blur?
Louden: We call them stutters, when time freezes. At first there’s the fracture. That’s what causes the fracture in time, which means that the end of time in our game is when everything freezes and life doesn’t exist. Nothing gets burnt or blown up. No zombies. Everything just stops, which I think is the saddest end of all. There’s no afterlife, no fallout, nothing. That’s it.
The big thing for us is, stutters are dynamic. They change. Some stutters are blurry. Some are clearer. Some have more distortion. The one thing that we do have, which the VFX team worked really hard with, is it’s audio-driven. I don’t know if you noticed the ripples going through the environment, but that’s based on your time powers and sounds. If you’re shooting and you create an explosion, the distortion will go and that stuff will rewind back.
A lot of the time, the stutter itself—They do give it a bit of a blue tinge. We want to differentiate for gameplay purposes. We want you to be able to tell the difference, because things have different properties. In a stutter, you encounter different enemies, different challenges and obstacles. We need to make that very clear for the player.
GamesBeat: The basic set of abilities Jack has, is that established for the rest of the game, or does he get more powers?
Louden: There are more time powers. In this demo we’ve shown time stop, the ability to freeze time. If you can time it right and catch all the enemies, you can take out up to five guys at once. They’re all frozen, and by the time the bullets drop they’re all taken out. There’s time shield. Did you use time blasts, how you can throw an unstable bit of time?
GamesBeat: I didn’t get to do that. I used the shield and the time stop.
Louden: We also have time rush, which we haven’t shown. That’s the ability to run very quickly and confuse your enemies and do a takedown, which is really cool.
GamesBeat: What I wonder about is rewind.
Louden: Oh, we do have the rewinding capability as well, insofar as we have specific areas you can rewind, and certain puzzles. Some things you need to rewind so you can climb on top of them, and other things like that. You need to rewind some scenes to go back there. But the one power that’s really cool, the one the villain has, is the junction power. In most games, you get asked a question. “Would you like to do this or that?” But you don’t get to see what that choice means until later. In Quantum Break we show you your choice, which makes the choice harder. You can see the two paths and you need to choose one or the other.
The other thing I should mention with the time powers is that you can customize and upgrade them. One customization I like to do with is the time rush. I can customize that with the time vision, so I can see enemies when I’m running very quickly. You can get the lay of the land and throw a time blast to take them out. There are lots of ways for players to interact with the powers.
GamesBeat: You don’t want to make them all-powerful, though, I’m sure.
Louden: We want a balance, yeah. We want it to be challenging, but we also want you to feel like a superhero. The enemies you fight start getting your powers as well. There are enemies called strikers that can run very quickly. You try to shoot them and they zip away. We move up the challenge as you play through. But you’re right. If we make you too powerful, it’s too easy. We’ve struck a balance.
Some of the versions from earlier in development, when we were still working on the time powers, were crazily easy. You could just take everyone out and blow everything away. It was cool, but it wasn’t the right experience in the end.
GamesBeat: Within the acts, are there multiple pathways as well? Or are you generally following a linear story from one level to the next?
Louden: A better ways to put it is, the junctions in the game change the story. They don’t necessarily change the gameplay or the paths it follows. You go through the same experience, but the story along the way changes. The optional storytelling, the V/O, the allies that you have in those scenes, all that changes.
In some sequences, though, it does all change. We have these pinnacle moments. The ship crash sequence is one of them. When you get there, we have two different gameplay setups. In one of them, a stutter hits and you have a striker fight against time-enabled enemies. In the other one you don’t. There’s a pretty cool bit at the end that I can’t spoil, but yeah, we do have sequences that change.
GamesBeat: It all seems very complicated. How big is your writing team?
Louden: The thing about Remedy is we’re actually quite small in a lot of ways. The writing team, including Sam Lake, was around four people. At this point we’re down to two. Toward the end we had just three. Level design-wise, the people who adapted the story, we had about eight. Quite a small team. We’re just over 100 people altogether.
GamesBeat: What about the TV episodes, though?
Louden: The TV show had a different writing team, yeah. Remedy does the game experience and Lifeboat Productions did the show. I think we had three writers working on Lifeboat’s end. That said, there was a lot of collaboration. The game and the show really connect. That’s from countless Skype conversations and conferences and screenplay review. The show guys would read the game scripts and the game guys would read the show scripts. I’ve read so many screenplays of the game and the show—I’m more than familiar with it all.
GamesBeat: Did they have to change their stories around a lot on the TV side?
Louden: Definitely, yeah. Not when they shot. Like a game, when it’s in production it’s in production. But there was definitely some iteration. The big thing for us was we never wanted to be two separate experiences. We wanted the game to go into the show and the show into the game, and then cross in and out.
GamesBeat: Can you watch the show independently of the game?
Louden: The only way to watch the show is if you unlock it, so no. If you just buy Quantum Break, you have to play through the game before you can watch it. Fortunately, we do have balanced modes. Easy mode is relatively simple. You can play through the experience and get to the show. But you do need to unlock it. The reason we do that is because it does all progress through one story. We want you to play the game and then watch the live action show together.
GamesBeat: Otherwise you have gaps in what’s going on.
Louden: Exactly. You can still follow both storylines. If you play through the game and then you want to check out the show with a friend after, you can watch the show on its own. But it needs to be unlocked first. There’s the replayability there, because you can change it. It’s a lot of value.
GamesBeat: Did you get any tips from other time travel stories or games?
Louden: Life Is Strange has been a cool one. Prince of Persia, you mentioned the rewind ability. We have some of those. And just the classics, like H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, that great novel. For me, working on the stutter scenes, it reminded me of Salvador Dali. Dali had this great picture of him jumping the air with a cat and this frozen water all around. When I was designing the stutters, I wanted to do that kind of surrealism. Another big reference was Inception, with the dream landscapes there. It’s been really inspiring.
But as far as time travel, the thing I really like about Quantum Break is there’s never been a realistic, triple-A, cinematic time-travel game. There was Ratchet and Clank, which I love, but it hasn’t been a character story like this one. It feels like such a great genre and a great story to tell it in.
GamesBeat: Were there any tricks or reminders that you’d use to keep the player from getting confused by the story?
Louden: There’s part of it where—I think the story can be quite intimidating at the beginning. It’s a bit of a jumble. In a lot of ways that was intentional. We want you to feel a bit of what it is to be Paul and what it is to be Jack. But we definitely do have a lot of flashback sequences to show what you’ve seen before. We reuse a lot of the same locations, trying to make sure that’s more ingrained.
Obviously we have to use the worst of all, too – we have exposition where characters just explain things. In general we try to stay away from that, though. For me a big mantra I like to follow is that in film, you’re supposed to show and not tell. In games it should be play and not show. I like to think we allow you to play a lot of the story. You can experience the story rather than be told the story. We do have some exposition to get it down, but a lot of it is through—When you watch the show, they’ll explain things. Reading an email gives you more explanation. But in general, if you don’t want to read stuff or watch the show, you’ll still get the gist of the story.
GamesBeat: How extensive is this idea of how you don’t know who to trust? Whether it’s Paul or your brother. There’s a moment where you wonder which one is the good guy. But it seems like we figure out pretty quickly that your brother isn’t the bad guy.
Louden: Or is he? One thing I like about the overall story is there is this element. Games are always so black and white. You’re the hero, that’s the bad guy. In Quantum Break, no, you play the bad guy. And then you wonder if he really is the bad guy. Is the show really about the villains? Is the game really about the heroes? When you play the game and understand—That’s the thing we really like.
It’s really down to your perspective on the story. That’s a thing I love about Remedy games, like Alan Wake. Did it all really happen? Is it all in his head? With Quantum Break, at the start of the game there’s Jack and Paul. They’re best friends and they’re torn apart by this event. Will, the brother, is clearly a bit out of it. He’s crazy. Is he really the good guy in this?
You play through this experience, going through this really traumatic experience as Jack Joyce, and you get to the end with your brother, and you see your friend 20 years older than where he was. And he basically betrays you. Then you play your best friend, play Paul, and get to a decision point. You decide how you’ll treat this witness that you as the player have played. Will you kill her? Do you make it easier for Jack? Do you make it harder? You should feel torn, and that’s something we play with a lot. We have four junction choices, and I guarantee they’ll get harder as you play on as Paul.
The more you watch the show, the more you understand Paul’s goals, and the more you understand who William and Jack are. In the end it’s your choice as far as who’s who and what’s what.
GamesBeat: The first number I saw was that zero percent of my friends agreed with my decision.
Louden: Of course! Not many friends playing yet.
GamesBeat: But it looks like everyone else here has been [doing the opposite].
Louden: Yeah, yeah. We were inspired by a lot of contemporary games, building in that social element. We definitely have that.