Time travel has always been an interesting concept to me. I have been drawn to Sci-Fi movies and books featuring the topic for what feels like my whole life. But hardly any movies or books really pull off a world where the rules of time travel makes sense. The only exception I came across was the fairly recent anime Steins;Gate, which just blew my mind at how the rules fit perfectly well and drove the story along with it (I’m sure I’ll write a post on that one of these days). So when I heard that my favorite story-focused videogame producer Remedy developed a time travel game, I played it immediately. Here are my thoughts. Just remember, spoilers ahead!
What I played:
Quantum Break follows Jack Joyce as he returns to his hometown after living as a nomad for several years. His friend Paul Serene asks for his help to witness the first (unauthorized) usage of a time machine which his brother, Will Joyce, said will have dire consequences. There is an error in the machine, and it exposes both Jack and Paul to chronon particles which gives them abilities to manipulate time. Paul, however, is sent to a not-so-distant future where time has stopped, caused by a fracture in time due to the malfunctioning machine. Paul’s goal is to create a shelter to allow a select number of people to survive and attempt to restore time after it ends. Jack, along with an accomplice Beth Wilder, attempt to repair the Fracture before the End of Time with a device called the countermeasure.
What I experienced:
Let me start with the storytelling aspect of the game. The story is told with a mixture of gameplay, CGI cinematics, and 4 live action episodes. Each of the episodes can vary (slightly) depending on a choice you make as Paul Serene at certain junctures where time is malleable. The live action piece has been highly criticized as unnecessary or even bad, however I felt they were okay. The episodes focused more on the support characters along with Paul Serene and added a little bit of information on what was going on behind the scenes of Jack Joyce’s exploits. It wasn’t really enough to make me clamor for more games to be designed that way, but I applaud Remedy’s attempt to create a new medium of storytelling.
Now, on to the game’s portrayal of time travel. I would have to say I really enjoyed the rules of time travel in this game. Time travel is limited to when a time machine’s core was first activated, and no earlier. In this case, Will first created a time machine and activated it’s core in 1999, and that is the year Paul Serene travels to and starts the company Monarch to aid in his crusade to survive the End of Time.
The other rule which came into play was that time is a closed loop. If you see something in the future, then that is the future. If something happened in the past, no matter what it will happen again even if you travel to change it. Beth Wilder and Paul Serene both emphasized that point with their own experiences, as they both tried to change things but ended up causing them. Both of them end up broken somewhat psychologically due to this fact, with Beth turning into a nihilist and Paul becoming so driven to prepare for the part of the future he didn’t see.
Paul Serene was actually a very relatable villain. He was not power hungry, trying to master time travel for his own selfish gains. He was just scared, knowing there was the threat of the universe practically ending and no way to prevent it from happening. Since he believed time couldn’t be changed, the only choice he had left was to find a way to restore time instead of preventing it from being broken in the first place. The player can make Paul more “evil” depending on your choices at the junctures, but honestly it was more of either choosing to use violence or not. His goal was still the same: to save the world.
Beth Wilder is practically the same as Paul, only she believed the End of Time could be prevented. When she was a little girl, a woman told Beth she would be the key to saving the world from the End of Time along with Jack Joyce. A notebook with events of the future, both personal and global, causes her to become zealous in her cause to fix the Fracture. Since time was a closed loop, she believed whole-heartedly that it could be stopped because someone from the future said it was. She was given the rare gift of knowing she had a purpose in life, while the rest of us (including Jack) struggle to find our own meaning.
That is until she does some traveling of her own:
It’s not until after she is abandoned in the both the future and the past that she realizes her adult-self gave the message to her child-self. By that point she didn’t even believe in what she was saying anymore. She saw the End of Time herself. And, with time being a closed loop, she ends up feeling broken and without purpose anymore since she knew the end of time arrives despite her best efforts.
Jack Joyce, the protagonist, is actually pretty selfish. He didn’t really want anything to do with saving the world; neither with Paul or Beth. All he wanted was to get revenge for Paul killing his brother. He joins up with Beth to retrieve the countermeasure, but his goal was to prevent the Fracture from happening to begin with and save his brother whereas Beth said his death was necessary. And even as he reluctantly agrees with Beth on the timeline can’t be changed, his motivations return to revenge again when Paul kills Beth (which is one of the best death scenes I’ve seen in a long time):
The scene where Beth dies was well balanced. There was enough emotion from Jack to feel bad about what he is going through, without it becoming too cliche. She doesn’t give a minute long speech gasping for air as he holds her in his arms sobbing. All Jack can do is watch helplessly as the act is carried out, and he channels the pain into his path to vengeance once again. True to his character, he even lies during the narration that he didn’t feel anything for her, even though his actions clearly showed he did. And to top it off, the song that comes in at the end of Act 4 is about falling in love quickly but the opportunity slips away just as fast; which matches perfectly with what he is feeling.
By the end of the game Jack saves his brother and uses the countermeasure to repair the Fracture. Jack pulls Will away from falling debris while still keeping the appearance to his past self that his brother was crushed. Timeline preserved! Will repairs the Countermeasure and time is saved. This would imply that the closed loop narrative being hammered into us as the player is not be true. However, the main theories are the Countermeasure was only a temporary solution or another event will occur and lead into the End of Time, just as Paul and Beth had witnessed. Of course, until the story is continued, they remain as a theories. Sequel bait!
In conclusion, Quantum Break does a good job in creating rules of time travel that makes sense. Little events and hints of future versions messing with things the player is experiencing all seem to fit perfectly in that closed loop. The biggest drawback for the story of Quantum Break is how that story is told. The qualms people have with the live action cinematics aside, the real disservice is the deeper details of the world are stashed in several documents and recordings. These documents are usually bunched up, dumping all the information information at once. This makes the story feel like it’s stop and go, which you don’t want.
Despite the flaws in the storytelling, I would say it is definitely worth experiencing.