2018 Summer Backlog: Quantum Break

Time travel stories are just great. It doesn’t get any better than following a character who has traveled or been displaced to a completely different era and must find a way to get back or fix something to prevent a terrible future from existing. What’s more fun, though, are discovering the different rules of time travel and the limitations they impose on the characters and how they interact with the world. As best as I can tell, there are two types of rules: those that get all loosey goosey with the science (like Terminator 2, Back to the Future, and The Time Machine) and those that take an approach grounded in reality (Primer and Interstellar). No matter what the situation, though, I am endlessly fascinated with it and the higher risk of danger and time paradoxes, the better.

Another thing I really like is Remedy, the studio responsible for the Max Payne series. They have always had a flair for the cinematic both with the games they make and the in-universe television shows they put in them. Blending cinematic sensibilities with action-oriented gameplay, Remedy’s story-driven games always fascinate me and Quantum Break is no different. From the very beginning, the game feels like a retry of the television show style they went with for Alan Wake, only this time it actually works.

Quantum Break is one hell of a Remedy video game. A TV show within a TV show! Sam Lake wearing a Max Payne-like outfit! Hammy acting! Well, actually, the acting was better than I expected. At any rate, Quantum Break is a scientifically-driven time travel yarn starring Shawn Ashmore as Jack Joyce, a normal everyman who is gifted with temporal-based super abilities as a result of a time travel experiment gone awry. Joyce is friends with and later antagonized by Paul Serene, played wonderfully by Game of Thrones’ Aidan “Littlefinger” Gillen whose perpetual smirk should have received a co-star billing. Serene starts out innocently enough but his use of the time machine exposes him to an event dubbed “The End of Time” which causes him to be a villain driven by what he believes are good intentions.

The End of Time serves as a catastrophic ticking clock that drives the action forward - and backward. Quantum Break can be a little cheesy at times in its delivery but it has everything I love about a story that deals with time manipulation. Curious events that mark the early parts of the game are revealed to have been organized by future versions of characters and things Joyce witnesses may not be true from a certain point of view. The rules of time travel in the game follow the real world Novikov self-consistency principle which postulates: “if an event exists that would cause a paradox or any "change" to the past whatsoever, then the probability of that event is zero. It would thus be impossible to create time paradoxes.” In more simpler terms, “You cannot will yourself to kill your younger self if you travel back in time. You can coexist, take yourself out for a beer, celebrate your birthday together, but somehow circumstances will dictate that you cannot behave in a way that leads to a paradox in time.” Of course, this doesn’t account for why Joyce is able to create damage dealing time bubbles, speed up time, and restore broken environments with a wave of his hand, but the whole thing is still cool. The science might be silly and reaching but it’s done in a way that makes for compelling storytelling.

Speaking of storytelling, the most fascinating element of Quantum Break are the 25 to 30 minute television shows that play after you’ve completed a Junction, a scene in which you must compel Paul Serene to make a choice that will have either positive or negative ramifications for himself and his company, Monarch Solutions. Once the choice is made, you get to see how it immediately plays out through live action episodes featuring the actors and actresses that lend their likenesses to the game. Surprisingly, I found these episodes to be the better part of the game. You can tell that Remedy dedicated a sizable budget for sets, actors, and special effects. There are some moments where the dialog gets to be more than a little cheesy and threatens to buckle under the weight of its own silliness but on the whole, I found myself wanting a fully-fledged television series based on the game.

Quantum Break can feel a little indulgent but it makes me happy that Remedy got to make a game like this. I’m really excited to play their next game, Control, if only to see where they can go after this. Quantum Break has its less than stellar moments - some enemy encounters can be a chore and the final encounter with Serene is a wet fart of a boss fight - but I can forgive all that purely based on the level of ambition on display. The science may not be perfect, though it didn't stop me from keeping me off the edge of my seat the whole time.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.