TV Inside a Video Game: Xbox One's 'Quantum Break' Shows That Mixing Mediums Can Work

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Quantum Break asks what happens when you meld sometimes frustrating, occasionally rote gunplay with a modest, often network-style TV series.

Video games have long found inspiration in films. The reckless carnage in the Call of Duty franchise, for instance, has regularly been justified as turning a summer blockbuster into something more playable, more interactive.

It goes both ways.

The popularity of digital effects has lent many films a game-like sheen. Critics of the action-first plots of so many superhero films could argue the works often look more fun to play than watch. Think of, say, the cartoonish set pieces of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

But another player has interrupted the love affair between games and film.

Now it’s television, specifically our on-demand, binge-watching age, where many recent games have found motivation. Franchises such as Breaking Bad or Six Feet Under are what designers of the recent Playstation 4 game Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End reference in conversation. Television, after all, shows how singularly focused character and plot development is done over the long haul.

Then there’s the rise in episodic interactive entertainment, driven by the success of the Bay Area’s Telltale Games, whose takes on TV’s The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones feel more like spinoff chapters of the popular series rather than a game-y interpretation. Here, button-pressing often is left solely to conversation choices rather than action. They give players the illusion of crafting a script on the fly.

In fact, the brief attempts at action in Telltale’s games are clunky, indicating that an emotional investment in a character or story is as much fun to toy with as one’s reflexes, the latter being the terrain games have more traditionally focused on. This is largely true too in Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break, the recent Xbox One would-be-summer-blockbuster, which comes with its own live-action television series embedded in the game.

Quantum Break asks what happens when you meld sometimes frustrating, occasionally rote gunplay with a modest, often network-style TV series. Good news: Both aspects of the game -- or, more accurately, interactive TV show -- become elevated. At various intervals throughout the title, Quantum Break asks players to put down the controller for 30 minutes to watch what is essentially a TV episode about how their choices affect the universe.

Recognizable actors -- Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe), Aidan Gillen (The Wire, Game of Thrones) -- star. And momentous player decisions, such as whether a young character should live or die, alter the live-action series and in turn cause ripple effects throughout the game. Such control, once of choose-your-own-adventure gimmickry, is rather seamless in Quantum Break. When dialogue shifts, or characters outright disappear from the narrative, it’s invisible to the end user.

Quantum Break has a convoluted, somewhat confusing plot, one centered on an evil corporation that has discovered the ability to halt time. The protagonist, Shawn Ashmore’s Jack Joyce, gains superhero-like abilities after coming in contact with a combustible time machine, essentially allowing him to put the world on pause or fast-forward for brief moments.

Such manipulation of physics isn’t easily explained by running around and pulling a trigger. The addition of a television series acts as something of an explainer, in addition to bringing some much-needed changes of pace to the game and welcome backstories for the antagonists who are working for a mysterious technology company named Monarch. Though there’s some weirdness that comes from shifting from full-motion video to digital likenesses of the same actors, this sensation fades after a few hours.

Extended periods of gameplay can be likened to a more participatory form of binge-watching. All told, expect to spend 15 hours with it, give or take, depending on your game experience. None of it is perfect. The shootouts are a little rough around the edges, and the dialogue in the show could be sharper -- try not to roll your eyes when a wife says to her absentee husband, I dreamed you were a cat -- but it’s a worthwhile experiment in gaming and television.

Also one that feels increasingly vital. At a time of fractured but dedicated fan bases, where highly devoted audiences are spread among less mainstream and more niche networks, followers are cultivated, for better or worse, to feel a greater sense of ownership over a pop-culture product. Look at outcries over the fates of favorite characters from The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones or The 100. Games and their branching narratives, to some extent, can solve this issue. It’s entertainment perfectly molded to our watching-anything-anytime era.

As Quantum Break’s Jack Joyce attempts to get to the bottom of Monarch’s motivations and restore time to its rightful order, the in-game shows manage to create ample intrigue -- as well as the requisite cliff-hangers -- to inspire enough curiosity to explore all of Quantum Break’s secrets. Thus, over time, the game’s arcade-like shortcomings fall away as interpersonal dramas and their fragility move to the forefront.

Quantum Break is far from the only game in 2016 with such tenets. Teen thriller Oxenfree and adult drama Firewatch take a more animated approach, but each patiently lets largely action-free plots unfold over five to seven hours. In the latter, a husband no longer can communicate with his wife, so he takes to the wilderness, and in the former, teenage growing pains are made more difficult by a mysterious haunting.

All understand some of television’s most important lessons: Story and character may ultimately matter most.

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