Sam Lake, whose name is an anglicized version of Sami Järvi, has provided the creative spark behind Remedy Entertainment’s games from the beginning. He’s the writer of Max Payne, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, and Alan Wake. But he stepped up to the role of creative director with Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, and he performed that role for Microsoft’s new exclusive video game, Quantum Break.
This consistency of creative vision tells you why Quantum Break has so many familiar nuances, such as the television episodes, timing-based combat, a story with a broken family, and a bunch of Easter eggs related to Alan Wake within Quantum Break.
But Lake was much more ambitious in the four-year project that created Quantum Break, which debuted on April 5 on the Xbox One and the Windows PC. Not only did Remedy create a five-act narrative video game with a complex time-travel story. It also interspersed 20-minute live-action television show episodes in between each act. The gameplay events and choices you make as a player will affect the kind of video sequences you see, with a total of more than 40 variations on the videos.
That makes Quantum Break into a very complicated action adventure game, and Lake’s team of writers had to keep track of everything that happens in the timeline.
I caught up with Lake in a conversation after I finished playing Quantum Wake twice. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Not there are some spoilers in the conversation, but we tried to keep that to a minimum. (See our review of Quantum Break, our report on the game’s Easter eggs, and our tips for playing the game).
GamesBeat: What story did you want to tell here, to start with an open-ended question?
Sam Lake: To me, the fascinating thing about this project is that it’s the first project where my role at Remedy has shifted, from being a lead writer to being a creative director. That changes your perspective.
First and foremost, I wanted to create an experience and a game where all the different areas somehow talk to each other and hopefully click into place to create something that’s ultimately more than the sum of its parts. The first thing we had on the table when we started going into this project, even before we knew it would be Quantum Break, was the idea that we wanted to push Remedy’s storytelling in an interactive direction. Giving players some power to affect the story.
From that idea, I started thinking about—what would be the story, then, that would somehow thematically deal with the idea of choices being made? That led me to time travel, because as a fantasy, a very common fantasy for all of us, time travel plays on the very basic human feeling of regret. You feel, “Well, I wish I’d done this differently. I wish I could go back and make a different choice and fix this.” When I came to this I felt that we had a story that thematically dealt with the idea of choices being made. That was the starting point.
At the same time I knew that, being Remedy, we were going to do an action game. I felt that this should be, more than anything, a Remedy version of a summer blockbuster, a sci-fi spectacle. Something big and colorful and fast-paced. From there, bit by bit, the story started to suggest itself. Time travel doesn’t necessarily give you large-scale action, but I still wanted everything to tie together thematically. So how about using time as a broader theme? If time is breaking down, that leads us to the big spectacle, and we could throw in the superhero aspect to give the player powers.
Time ties it all together. These elements started to click as we built the experience. But then obviously, as a story, the important thing to me was the idea of a broken family. In a way that’s been part of the story in all of Remedy’s games. If you think back to Max Payne, his family is taken away from him. In Alan Wake he’s trying to save his family. That’s very much part of Quantum Break as well.
We have Jack, whose only family is his older brother. They have trouble getting along and communicating. Will’s tried to raise Jack, but Will isn’t the kind of guy who fits well in that role. He’s preoccupied with his science and they have their falling-out. But we learn that this family is still worth saving. That’s what Jack is working toward. And then the best friend, Jack’s kind of surrogate family, turns out to be his worst enemy.
GamesBeat: It seems like you could do interactivity in a regular game, and likewise time travel as a story. Where did you pick up the greater ambition to incorporate the live-action story?
Lake: The mixing of media has always been part of Remedy’s games. We’ve been exploring, for storytelling purposes, different media all through our history. Max Payne incorporated a graphic novel. Alan Wake had the manuscript of a novel. Now we have a TV show.
Obviously the live-action part was something we were taking baby steps with earlier on in Alan Wake. We had live action on the in-game televisions and the live-action episodes we used as a prequel. In American Nightmare we tried out using live-action cutscenes. All that felt to me like there was something interesting to work with. I wanted to explore this further.
Before we had Quantum Break, we had the idea. We knew that TV series pacing, for storytelling reasons, is a good way to go. I liked what we had in Alan Wake. Then we had the idea of, well, what if you could watch a live-action show in between the episodes of the game? We pitched this to Microsoft. This was at a time when Xbox One wasn’t even out yet. In their plans they were thinking of it very much as an entertainment device, and that live action should be a part of it. When we pitched the idea they fell in love with it. They came back and said, “Guys, can you be even more ambitious with this?” We were happy to do it if we could get the funding and support.
That’s how it started out. But we did pick up ambition along the way. The initial idea was that there would be a show, but it would be on its own track parallel to the game. It would happen in the same area during the same crisis, but it would have a different set of characters on their own journey. To me, though, it felt more and more like we should push the game and the show closer together. Both of them should have a logical role.
That led to the crossover elements – characters, locations, certain scenes – which made it much more challenging, but I felt that we could pull this off and add the interactive element. If we could do the branching story on the show side, we’d be doing something totally new that no one had ever tried before.
The actors, having known talent on this level—that was in the talks, very early on. It came from this idea of creating a big Hollywood blockbuster type of experience. But it was in large part thanks to Microsoft being willing to fund the idea and give us the support to pull it off.
GamesBeat: It was interesting that it kind of grew up with Xbox Entertainment Studios, and ultimately outlived it.
Lake: Purely from the perspective of Quantum Break being what it is, it was very lucky for us that we were never production-wise part of Microsoft’s L.A.-based thing. From the very beginning, the idea was that we would handle the show separately, finding a production company that would create the show. That’s the reason why Quantum Break’s show survived. I’m happy it went that way.
GamesBeat: You had different challenges. It seemed a little scary when you had to change some major actors.
Lake: This was a very long project. We were creating a new IP, and we always build our own technology, our own engine and tools. This time we were also investing quite a lot in hardware to be able to push the character technology forward, as much as it could be done with today’s technology. We built our own scanning lab here at Remedy. We created our own surface capture studio to capture the actors’ facial performances in as high a resolution as is possible. We created a pipeline for making that happen.
There was a long period of prototyping. It would have been very hard to secure high-caliber actors for a project that takes that long. There’s some unpredictability within scheduling as well, in that prototyping and discovery period. When we were at the point where we felt we had this nailed down and knew what we were doing, then the proper casting started rolling forward. But we obviously needed actors way before that in order to do the prototyping.
Shaun Derry, who was our standing Jack early on, he ended up being in the 2014 Gamescom demonstration. We already had Shawn Ashmore on board with the project by then, though. We’d had him for half a year, more or less, building the character and all the animation and all the details. It takes a lot of time, but we weren’t there yet. Everybody involved knew that Shaun Derry wouldn’t be our final Jack, but he was kind enough to lend his likeness to the public demo of where we were at that point. He’s still in the game in the role of Nick, the taxi driver, who’s a brilliant and hilarious character on his own.
GamesBeat: Could you explain the science behind Quantum Break in 30 seconds? Or would it take a Ph.D dissertation?
Lake: It’s been a fascinating journey, creating the fictional science of it. We hired a proper science consultant, a Finnish scientist who’s worked at CERN and teaches at a university in Helsinki, a physicist. We brought him in and explained our crazy ideas. He tried, patiently, to explain to the writing group how today’s quantum physics sees different aspects of the subject. Then we were brainstorming and exploring ideas.
We went back and changed quite a few details based on what we learned from him, or at least our interpretation of what he was saying. It was great fun. For example, our time machine design came from that session. I’m proud of how it turned out. It’s unique, but it still has a scientific foundation in the idea of rotating black holes. Being close to one at a certain distance, moving through space actually moves you through time. That’s what the time machine core and time machine corridor are all about.
The benefit of that idea is that it’s gameplay, too, because the most basic thing you do in a game is move around. How you move around affects the way you move through time. We were also talking about the Higgs boson and Higgs fields and how that ties to gravity. What about if there’s this other field that no one has discovered yet, which is tied to time in a similar way? We named them the Meyer-Joyce particle and the Meyer-Joyce field after the scientist that had discovered them.
GamesBeat: It has a lot of nods to Alan Wake. Did you have a particular reason for this?
Lake: That’s kind of the Remedy formula at work as well. If you go back to Alan Wake, you can find quite a few winks and nods toward Max Payne. It’s not spelled out as Max Payne because we don’t own Max anymore, but we have a writer who’s written this hard-boiled crime story about a tough cop character that has all kinds of familiar details. So we’re doing what we’ve always done. It’s just that we can talk about Alan Wake more openly.
I’ve also said many times that Alan Wake is very dear to us. It would be wonderful to return to Wake’s world at some point and do more to continue his story. In one way, if we’re talking about the live-action trailer you can find inside Quantum Break—I have no news about any further Alan Wake products at this time. Nothing to announce or anything like that. We’re actively looking for opportunities.
But the idea was to create a trailer—in a game studio we do a lot of concepting, a lot of prototyping, a lot of ideas being explored on the side all the time. This kind of work is happening. Mostly it remains invisible to anyone outside the studio. Some of these ideas live on and become published games. Many, many more never go anywhere. Maybe they come a joke on an in-game TV. But in this case we wanted to create a live-action trailer that kind of reflects what our thoughts are. If we were to do another Alan Wake right now, it’d be something along those lines. It felt like a nice opportunity to give Alan Wake fans a little glimpse at that.
Some time back we released a demo video of the prototype work we did on Alan Wake 2 right after the first Alan Wake game. It was just nice to give people a glimpse of this. It was a safe thing to do, too, because our ideas and concepting for what Alan Wake 2 would actually be have evolved so much. We weren’t spoiling anything. The trailer felt safe in the same way. It doesn’t really reveal anything.
GamesBeat: I wonder if people are finding and experiencing what you wanted them to. I’ve played through Quantum Break twice. What more would I learn if I played five more times?
Lake: There really is a huge amount of optional story and exploration in the world. That was part of what we wanted to do. A big part of our idea was that should be a reward. If we have fans who want to explore and replay, then they can find quite a lot of things.
It’s always a struggle from a creator’s perspective. We create a story and your instinct is, well, we should definitely show every bit of this to the player. We should work hard to make sure they don’t miss anything. All of it feels so important. But that’s where I see my role as a creative director. I’ve tried to push as much as I can push away from the critical path, making it something you can just discover as you look around.
It’s a roller-coaster ride, a very action-driven story. You can enjoy it as such and it should make sense. You should understand enough to have a cool experience. But there’s a huge amount of extra text alone. If you read all the emails, it’s like half of a novel in terms of word count. All of it’s somehow tied to the backstory or the character motivations. It all gives you a deeper perspective on what the story is about and what’s going on behind the scenes.
That, to me, is a big part of the richness of video games as far as the storytelling devices we can use. There’s a mystery that’s up to the player to discover, and when you discover it, it’s not forced upon you or just given to you for free. When you have to look to find it, it feels more relevant and more rewarding.
GamesBeat: You still wind up at basically one ending. I’m curious how you struck a balance between all the choices and butterfly effects and having the ending still wind up being mostly the same.
Lake: That was a decision we made pretty early on. We wanted an interactive narrative. We wanted the player to be able to make choices. We wanted to have definite consequences for those choices. But at the same time, we decided that this is not a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of thing, a branching spider web of multiple choices.
Our design philosophy, among other principles, was that this would be one story told many ways. That refers to Jack’s journey, essentially. We have one beginning and one ending to the hero’s journey. But along the way, thinking about the ensemble cast side, you’ll determine the fate of many different characters and affect what the situation in Riverport is and a lot of different things. At the same time, from Jack’s perspective, no matter how things shift around in the middle, it’ll always come to a set conclusion.
That’s where the idea comes in that you begin by playing the game and end by playing the game. The show is in the middle, because in some ways—if you think about the show’s point of view characters, like Liam and Charlie, in a very definite way you affect their fates with your choices.
GamesBeat: Why couldn’t you slow down time and make this game faster?
Lake: [Laughs] You could say that all of what we have here is a metaphor for the struggle of making a triple-A game. You’re always feeling like, “Oh no, we’re running out of time.” “If we only knew what we know now a year ago, if we could go back and tell ourselves to do this prototype instead of that prototype, everything would be fine.” Maybe that’s part of where the inspiration for the story came from.