Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment is a studio that knows exactly what it is. Since 2001’s Max Payne, the studio’s second and breakout game, they’ve created two new IPs: 2010’s Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, which was released last Tuesday.
If there’s one common thread uniting these games, it’s an adherence to the spirit of ‘B Movies,’ lower-budget genre fare that often takes up the bottom half of a double feature. You know what a B movie is. Remedy makes B Games. Remedy makes extremely self-aware B games. What makes them Remedy games is how they build off of this basic formula in ways both surreal and metaphysical, often through live-action sequences inserted right into the game world itself. Before I talk about Quantum Break as a game, I’d like to talk a little about Quantum Break as a Remedy game. Sometimes, it’s how you tell the story that ends up being more important than the story itself. Form over content. That should be Remedy’s motto.
Max Payne is B game in the guise of film noir. Starring the titular former NYPD detective, it follows his three-night rampage against the organized criminal forces responsible for the death of his family. It’s standard fare, complete with a post-game framing device, constant narration, and handfuls upon handfuls of cliche-filled noir dialogue. The element that brings what could be farcical into something if not a little deeper, at least more unique, is that personal Remedy touch. Max’s dreams twist into labyrinthine nightmares of the house his family died in. Low-level mob bosses openly talk about being the Antichrist (“the flesh of fallen angels”). Most of the game’s titles and names come directly from Norse mythology, including the apocalyptic snowstorm currently hitting the city. Ragnarok. The end of days.
Most importantly, nearly every cutscene in the game is told through the style of a graphic novel, with most of the game’s developers standing in for the characters (most notably the game’s writer, Sam Lake, playing Max himself). As rote and cliche as the game’s plot can be, this interface always keeps it interesting. Max Payne’s gameplay was greatly praised, mainly for it’s nigh-revolutionary “Bullet Time,” mechanic, but what I remember most is how strange and metatextual the actual storytelling was.
A sequel happened, and it was fine. The only truly notable bits were the sections of the surreal live-action TV show Address Unknown that Max can watch throughout the game.
Flash forward two console generations, and Remedy returned with Alan Wake, an adventure game starring, you guessed it, famous writer Alan Wake, who finds himself stuck in a Lynchian hellscape against a mysterious dark entity that has kidnapped his wife and left him stranded and alone in a strange Pacific Northwest town. It’s equal parts Stephen King and Twin Peaks, and is every bit a B game. While that’s a unique enough premise on its own, what gives it that personal touch is the running mechanic of Wake finding pieces of a manuscript he doesn’t remember writing that describe his current predicament to a T.
Another, perhaps more memorable touch is Night Springs, an obvious homage to The X-Files that works both as parody and as loving homage. Going further, several sequences in the game portray a live-action version of Alan Wake, which the game version of Wake reacts to perfectly normally. There’s something inherently bizarre about a game so brazenly shattering your suspension of disbelief, then just assuming that you’ll go along with it. Going EVEN FURTHER, Wake’s most famous literary creation, Alex Casey, is voiced by the same actor (James McCaffery) as Max Payne himself.
In Quantum Break, this meta-thread comes to a frankly perplexing head when, in an early game video, Alex Casey is killed (?) by Alan Wake. To recap, a writer (or his doppelganger) murders his own creation, which is played by his creator, who also portrayed Wake’s more famous forebear, who was voiced by a man who voiced Wake’s creation and also the man who may have created Wake in-game. It’s a Gordian Knot of creators, their creations, and their relationships with one another.
Moving onto Sam Lake’s most recent creation, Quantum Break is, on its surface, a generic, whitewashed science fiction game. It’s the sort of game where people yell things like “TIME HAS BROKEN. WE’RE APPROACHING THE END OF TIME,” completely seriously, which is wonderful. What makes it interesting, however isn’t just its gameplay (which gets better the more it goes on, and is decent enough at the start), it’s that personal touch. Gone are the days of developers standing in for real actors — here are the real actors. The game’s primary cast comprises of Shawn Ashmore, Aiden Gillen, Lance Reddick and Dominic Monaghan, all genre actors in their own right, all cast to their specific type. Ashmore is likable and bland, Gillen scheming and petulant, Reddick an inscrutable corporate stooge, Monaghan a twitchy loner. It works because it was designed to.
One of the big selling points of this game was its television tie-in. Built off of decisions made in the game proper, the series is split into four 20 minute episodes designed both to develop some of the game’s side characters and provide a perspective different from that of protagonist Jack Joyce (Ashmore). On their own, they’re hardly bad, but exactly the sort of thing you might on Syfy. Combined with the game itself, they create that same sort of strange dissonance the live-action sections of Alan Wake did. There’s something weirdly charming about seeing the real Lance Reddick and Aiden Gillen begin an argument only to see their virtual selves finish it in the game later. The game’s facial engine is perhaps the best one I’ve ever seen, so the uncanny valley factor is negligible.
The phrase “more than the sum of its parts” is used perhaps a little too much for my taste, but in this instance, it is entirely warranted. The game narrative, the show narrative, the little bits of narrative found in the margins, in emails and notes and video journals are what makes this time travel tale pop, and in all the ways you don’t usually look for. Part of me is envious of Remedy’s ability to sneak the surreal into a high-budget, high-concept title like this. They made the only game they knew how to. As a game, Quantum Break is good, if unremarkable. As a Remedy Entertainment game, it’s another entry in one of the most fascinatingly bizarre and aggressively unique house styles in the industry.