After my recent chance to go hands-on with Remedy Entertainment?s upcoming Xbox One exclusive Quantum Break?which you can see in a two-part video here?I sat down with the game?s senior narrative designer Gregory Louden to talk about the work going into the narrative portion of the project.
EGM: Why is time interesting as a storyline?
Gregory Louden: Good question. I think I’ve always loved time travel stories, and time in general. I think part of the reason is, people look back on moments in their lives, and wonder, “What would happen if this didn’t happen?” Or, “What if I could go back and I could change things?” Or, “What’ll it mean if I do this thing? If I take this job, what’ll it mean in the future?” Or, “What if, instead of going left, I went right?” I think immediately, for everyone, we’ve reached these positions in our life, when we’re growing up, and we always wish we could go back. Fiction is a way to really entertain that idea, and I think in Quantum Break, we really play with that in these junction moments, where we have you actually make these decisions, and see the impacts of them in both the game and in the live action show.
EGM: So in you saying that, as a human being who has experienced things in your life, do you feel that pull to make stories, or even small segments of them, that do play with that idea so that, in some cathartic way, you can go back and ?fix? things from your past? Or do you try to separate yourself on a personal level?
Louden: No, I always find I put myself in my work. I always put in my passion. I’m a very passionate guy, and I’m really lucky to be able to say this is my work, and that I can put my passion into my work. I think, if anything, it makes it more honest, and it makes it more real. But there’s definitely parts of the entire team as well. I think everybody at Remedy’s worked so hard?every line of code, every tool that was written, every bit of the game. Of course, Lifeboat as well, with the live action show, but yeah. It’s definitely them.
EGM: So when you started this project, what were the first elements you guys had in terms of what you wanted to do with the story, or the game overall? What pieces did you know had to be there to make what you wanted to make in Remedy?s next project?
Louden: Yeah, so I’ve worked on Quantum Break for just under four years. At that point, the definition was that we wanted to do a time travel game. We have a protagonist, Jack Joyce, we have a villain, Paul Serene, and we want to do a live action show. That was pretty much it. Already, it was a very ambitious start. We want to do a superhero game, we want to do a live action show. What does that mean? How do we do it? From there, it evolved and changed. As a narrative designer, one of the things that I’ve been very passionate about working on is connecting the live action show and the game. It would have been easier for us to keep them separated, but I really tried to blend them together and make it all cross over. Combined with that, as you play it, we have this great optional storytelling, so there’s a whole bunch of aspects that we have that have been developed constantly during production.
EGM: I think the live action part is the piece that a lot of people still don?t totally understand about Quantum Break. When you decided to do those, was it a case that the live-action segments had to build on the narrative of the story, or did you know what you wanted to do with the live-action stuff and wrapped some pieces of the game around them? How did you balance out those two different segments?
Louden: I think the key way we’ve always explained it is that the game is about the heroes, and the show is about the villains. From those two separate points, we had two sides of the story. I think Remedy’s always been quite famous for subplots, and more subtle things, and wanting to explore multiple sides of the story. So, we’ve always had those two things. The next thing was that, as I had mentioned, we didn’t want to make it separate. We wanted to make it cross over; we wanted to make an experience. A revolutionary, innovative experience that no one’s ever done before, so we always wanted to connect the two. With that mantra, we just basically continued, and as the product evolved, this connection kept going. Obviously, you only got through the beginning of the game, but you’ll see characters cross over, you’ll see environments come into the game. The e-mails that you’ve been reading, some of them are from characters in the show, and Amy, the girl that you met, she’s quite a critical character in the show.
We really weave the two, and you only, unfortunately, got to see the first junction, but we have lots of junctions and lots of live action. We have four live action episodes and four junctions, and they basically blend together. You’ll see lots of this crossover in and out. That’s been the big thing, is that it started at the simple level of ?the game is about the heroes and the show is about the villains,? and from there, we just populated it, and crossed it over. I think the cool thing as well is you actually get to play the villain, and I think we as a team really like that. Because once you’ve played a villain, you start to question the villain, and you wonder, “Are they really a villain? Is Jack really the hero?” You can go through all these different interpretations. As per usual, it’s up to the audience how you interpret the story.
EGM: Who do you think is more interesting to play as as a character: the hero or the villain?
Louden: I think the benefit is we get to play both. For me, personally, I really like playing as Paul Serene, because at the start, you have two best friends. You have Jack Joyce and Paul Serene, who basically come together to try to do the first time traveling experiment in this fiction, and it ends up tearing them apart. You see your best friend do these things, and then you get to play as him, and you get to make these decisions that are really quite tough. When you know the background of how close these guys were, and how torn apart they are, and then you have to go into this situation, and actually potentially push them further apart, it’s quite tough. I find the villain part interesting?but saying that, Jack Joyce is really cool, and he has all these crazy awesome time powers. So, he’s a blast as well. I think, you don’t know much about Jack Joyce at the beginning, but by the end you really know who he is, which I like.
EGM: I think one of the challenges of stories that deal with time is that you complicate the continuity errors, or just the scope of the project period. I know I?ve talked with other developers about how the ideas you have at the start can be so much harder to actually create, but how difficult is it when you?re doing that with time? Were there occasions when you had to decide that you might just have to be okay with some of the pieces not totally fitting with the rest?
Louden: It was so, so challenging. We’re very meticulous with plot holes and continuity errors. Mickey our narrative lead, and Tyler, and Ken, and Sam, they’re so insistent that this needs to make sense. And yet, I think there was one time when the writers went through the entire story, and they found a continuity error. You may have noticed, we do time and date stamps across the game. I went through, and that must have taken days to check and double check the dates constantly. Then, we had to do it for the live action show as well. The live action show time and date stamps cross over with that. We have time travel charts, we have full breakdowns, we have so much. We really want the time travel to be perfect in a lot of ways, and we don’t want to break immersion, where players are like, “That didn’t happen.” Or, “They didn’t think of that.” We want it to be, ideally, “They thought of everything.” Which we’ve really tried to do.
In saying that, I’m sure that players are smart?they’re going to find some things that we missed. But, we tried hard. It was really challenging, but I think it’s worth it. Aand we really tried to make sure that when you play the game again?not just for the junctions, but for the time travel?that if you look around, you’ll find some really interesting things, which is cool.
EGM: What is the challenge in crafting a game and its narrative when you have to go back and forth between story scenes and action scenes, and you have a game that?s trying to include both? You see a lot of games now, like a Gone Home for example, that can just focus on the narrative, but in a bigger title like Quantum Break, you have to have that division, and jump back and forth between the two.
Louden: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenge. I think the interesting thing with the indie scene nowadays is it allows you to just focus on one area. Whereas, I think in triple-A games?obviously Quantum Break is made to be highly accessible and a big essentially blockbuster game?we have a different audience in a way. The thing I like is that I’ve always found Remedy to be almost like a gateway to a lot of different things. I think shooter fans will probably experience a lot of storytelling stuff they haven’t seen before, while story players potentially will experience a lot of action stuff they haven’t checked out as well. Regarding balance, we always see pacing as critical at Remedy. We have so much discussion and thought that goes into it.
Obviously, every choice is intentional. We create everything, so opening the game with a slow start was intentional. A lot of action games start with a very explosive, crazy start. We want the story to start slow. We wanted the pace to be that you’re in the real world, and when the real world breaks with the experiment, we want it to go crazy. Basically, that’s what you’re playing?that’s all very intentional. The whole division of blending narrative with the gameplay, Remedy’s got a history of trying to do that, like we have in Alan Wake, where you fight with light. In Quantum Break, you fight with time. We have this thing we’re trying to do, but you’re right, it is a blend. And Jack, as a character, he isn’t similar to all of our characters. He’s quite flawed. He has a bit of a dark past, and he has a lot of things that he wishes he could go back and fix. Basically with that, we?re trying to blend it into his character mechanics. In saying that, in the future I think you’ll see more Remedy games, and more games in general, that may swing their focus to be more focused on one side or the other.
But, at Remedy, we really like to have both. We’d like to have the best storytelling that we can, and we’d like to have the best action for players. It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s been difficult to do, where sometimes you want to get these certain story beats across. Like, we have bullet banter, where characters are talking to each other as they’re yelling over gunfire, and we have a lot of really great story moments as well.
EGM: What about the game has changed between the earlier days of development and now, and what were some of the elements that you weren?t expecting to change but have?
Louden: I think for us, one of the most visible changes to the public, and to yourself, is probably the cast change. For us, we were prototyping for a long time, from the mechanics, even down to the story. We wrote multiple screenplays that evolved, and so on. One of the big things was the moment we decided to fully cast. Sean Durrie, who was originally Jack Joyce, he still has a role in Quantum Break, he’s Nick, who’s this hilarious crazy cab driver that you get to play, who gets to be in your story if you choose a particular junction.
Basically once we had Shawn Ashmore as the character, he brought so much personality to the role. Then bringing in Aidan Gillen, he helped evolved Paul Serene. Then Martin Hatch. One thing was, when we found out the quality of the show, we were like, “How do we get these guys into the game?” So we’re like, “Lance, we need to stand you in.” Basically, the junction scenes were, for example, originally very Paul focused, but when we knew we had Lance Reddick, we were like, “We need Lance here.” When you play it, you’ll see he’s walking with you and talking to you, and he’s a great actor, so we really wanted to integrate him. I think, if anything, as the game evolved, we blended the two experiences more and more. It’s definitely evolved, but we’re really happy with what we have, and I think players are in for a great experience.
EGM: If you could go back in time to four years ago and give yourself any advice about what would happen over Quantum Break?s development, what would you tell yourself?
Louden: Man? that is a very good question. What would I tell myself? I’m really happy with everything on this project. I think working at Remedy’s been very good.I actually started off doing more visual effects work, and I’ve evolved into the first narrative designer that Remedy’s ever had. It’s always been a division between story and gameplay, and I’m the first one. I think there will be a lot more, which is great.
The first good advice would be I wish I knew more…I don’t know, that’s such a good question. I guess it would be that I wish I knew more about how to make games. I think game developers, every game they get better at making games. There’s some really classic things I did at the start of development, that in hindsight?now that I know everything?I wouldn’t have done. I worked on the start of the game, and we had a much more elaborate sequence that was very complicated, which was never going to work. As a game developer, maybe as a junior game developer, I was naïve in thinking it would?but I’m so happy with what we have, when I collaborated with people. Great question.
EGM: Well, to twist the question a bit, would you go back in time and warn yourself about any pitfalls along the way, or do you think you should have experienced them?
Louden: I think everything I’m not makes everything I am, so you need those points to actually give you that. All the stuff I’ve learned over those years has made me a better developer as a result. If I didn’t have those lessons, I would have failed on the next project anyway. It’s critical. Of course, if I could fast forward the production, that would be great. I wish we could do a lot more games. That’s the big thing for Remedy, and we’re going to try really hard to get more games out. If this game is four years, I really hope the next one is two.
EGM: Finally, if you could go to the past or the future, but have no confirmation that you?d be able to return, and you had to pick one, which would you pick?
Louden: I’ve always found everything gets better going forward, so I’d say the future. If you asked me ten years ago if I’d be sitting in San Francisco promoting Quantum Break, I’d say, “No way in hell.” And here I am, so I can’t imagine where I’ll be in the future.