Games

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image