I don’t particularly blame anyone for missing Remedy Entertainment’s 2016 TV show/action game hybrid Quantum Break. There were, frankly, a dozen reasons to be perplexed by it — like the fact that it was a TV show/action game hybrid, or that it was inextricably tied up in Microsoft’s failed effort to make the Xbox One an all-in-one entertainment platform.
When Quantum Break was released, Remedy wasn’t the story; the Xbox One was. Microsoft positioned every new exclusive as a potential system seller that would rival Sony’s first-party stable, and most critics evaluated it on that basis. That’s not to say no one was wise to Remedy’s sly, referential style — the game has its origins in Remedy’s first attempt at an Alan Wake sequel, and there’s a full-on teaser trailer called “Return” you can watch right in the first level. (One that has more than a passing resemblance to the Alan Wake 2 that did finally arrive last month.) Remedy creative director Sam Lake has long been uncommonly open about his studio’s ambitions, mentioning plans for a connected universe long before Remedy fully realized one with 2019’s Control.
Quantum Break didn’t have the benefit of a fully formed Remedy Connected Universe, and it was a strange exclusive on a console that was still finding its feet, and that never really took off in the way Microsoft envisioned. Considering all of this, the kind of game Quantum Break turned out to be is woefully underappreciated. It’s a fascinating entry in Remedy’s oeuvre, a critical stepping stone on which the studio figured out how to do everything it would be praised for in Control three years later.
This is clearest in its approach to action. As a story about time travel gone wrong, Quantum Break imbues the player character — Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore), bystander to his mad scientist friend Paul Serene’s (Aidan Gillen) malfunctioning time machine — with time-manipulating powers. In an evolution of Max Payne’s Bullet Time, players could trap enemies in time bubbles, use a burst of super-speed to dash around, and deflect or reverse bullets.
In an era where the third-person action genre was defined by snappy, cover-based shooters, Quantum Break felt looser, slippery, imprecise — but so much more expressive. When so many video games were about standing still, Quantum Break was about movement. Its gunplay was loud and messy, but when you can stop time around your enemies, why do you even need to be precise? Remedy games are celebrated for their narrative quirks, but if there’s one thing the studio loves more than Twin Peaks and House of Leaves, it’s physics, and how fun it is to break its laws. In Remedy’s design philosophy, games are order, and the player is chaos — the player’s actions should always have an immediate, irrevocable, and drastic impact on their environment.
As the first game on a console powerful enough to fully achieve Remedy’s brand of chaotic power fantasy, Quantum Break revels in destruction. Wood in the background is mulched by gunfire, “chronon” ripples radiate outward when time powers are activated, bullets are physical objects in the world that can be manipulated. Remedy has often punched above its weight class visually, developing shockingly sharp graphics, and Quantum Break holds up pretty well as a result, making everything the studio was doing at the time easy to appreciate. (Though some kind of 60 fps update would be great on modern consoles.) Few games have yet to match the violent satisfaction of trapping a foe in a time bubble with a spray of bullets, only to watch those bullets hit their marks once the bubble collapses.
Quantum Break also shows Remedy leaping forward to expand and refine its approach toward narrative. I’m not talking about the TV show part — the pitch, for those who need a refresher, was that each of the game’s four acts would be accompanied by a 20-30 minute TV episode, centered around antagonist Paul Serene. Players didn’t have to watch them right away, but each episode did correspond to the act preceding it, and the ideal flow would be for players to alternate between playing Quantum Break and watching Quantum Break. The TV show is fine, it’s neat, I’m glad they did it. But it’s not the most compelling thing about Quantum Break as a video game story.
This is another point where Quantum Break as experienced and Quantum Break as marketed diverge. With its time-travel premise and a TV show that would reflect a handful of big, binary choices the player made, Quantum Break was sold as a big “choices matter” narrative experience. And to a degree, they do: While the conflict between Jack and Paul will always play out essentially the same, the tenor of some plot beats — how Paul Serene, for example, decides to deal with a campus protest of his megacorporation, for example — can shift in ways that give the game’s story a slightly different flavor.
When you replay Quantum Break to make different choices, the game’s timeline “diverges” as those choices ripple outward. This makes little difference in gameplay — the levels are the same, the plot beats are the same — but the details are different. Sometimes you fight different kinds of enemies. New documents appear to tell you more about the consequences your decisions have on the game’s fiction. One radio host is replaced by another.
Remedy’s games are fascinated with recursiveness, with the hypnosis of repetition, and how strange a place becomes if you feel like you’ve been there before. Quantum Break doesn’t materially or mechanically explore this to the degree that Control or Alan Wake 2 would later on, but the framework is there. Enough to plant suggestions: Was this here last time? Did things play out exactly like this before? How much can I really change things? Remedy delights in déjà vu, giving even its most grounded games a fickle dream logic.
Dreams are an apt comparison for Remedy’s games. Dreams are freeing; we can move through them with an intoxicating power, and the world is ours to break. But dreams are ruled by our subconscious, never entirely in our control. This is a wonderful tension to explore in a video game, one that every Remedy project contemplates in some way or another. With its hard sci-fi premise, Quantum Break seems like a divergent title in the studio’s catalog, but dig a little deeper into its violent cacophony and Quantum Break is as dreamlike as the rest. A world with rules the player is free to shatter, even if its shape eludes understanding.
Quantum Break is available on Xbox Game Pass.