Can Microsoft’s Hybrid ‘Quantum Break’ Succeed as a TV Show and a Video Game?


At first glance, Quantum Break, an upcoming video game for the Xbox One and Windows from developer Remedy Entertainment, looks like a polished, broadly appealing, but not especially imaginative action adventure. What you may not know from watching the trailers or looking at a billboard is that it’s not just a video game, but a hybrid video game/TV show; it alternates between playable sections and live-action TV “episodes” meant to coalesce in a single story.

Quantum Break is, in many ways, a vestigial piece of a larger plan by Microsoft, which published the game, to pioneer a set style of interactive TV. The game/show features a high-profile cast that fans of genre TV and film will likely recognize, including Shawn Ashmore from Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, Aidan “Littlefinger” Gillen, and Lance Reddick from Fringe and The Wire, all of whom appear both on camera and in game. When the Xbox’s sales faltered, along with its first original programming efforts, Microsoft abandoned its ambitions to compete with the likes of Netflix and Hulu. Most of its television-related projects, such as an interactive live stream of Bonnaroo where viewers could switch between stages on the fly, got the axe. Quantum Break survived because it was developed as a game first, and a show second.

If any producer on either side, TV or games, seemed capable of blending the two, it was Remedy. (Or maybe Dan Harmon.) The studio wore its TV influences on its sleeve in its last game series, the spooky thriller Alan Wake. Wake and its sequel, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, took strong aesthetic cues from Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone, including short episodes of a Twilight Zone facsimile called Night Springs. (Quantum Break also has a few Alan Wake and Night Springs easter eggs.) More generally, Alan Wake was divided into named episodes, which featured their own sequential but distinct narrative structure.

Despite having so many factors working for it, Quantum Break never achieves the smooth fusion you’d hope for from this kind of experiment. Like separating the right and left halves of the brain and trying to engage them independently, the game’s story feels insurmountably disjointed. Where Quantum Break might have potentially made an interesting game or TV show, it doesn’t feel capable of getting what it wants to say across in its bifurcated form.

A sort of sci-fi action/disaster mash-up, the story follows vagabond Jack Joyce (Ashmore), who returns to his hometown after years abroad to help his brother Will (Lost actor Dominic Monaghan) and longtime friend Paul Serene (Gillen). Serene, who has become CEO of the massive company Monarch Solutions, has funded an experiment based on Will’s research. (Non-spoiler: It’s a time machine). Jack and Paul test the experiment, which creates a “fracture” in time, which causes time to stop and start at random, until, one day, it stops permanently.

The test also makes Jack “chronon-enabled,” which allows him to keep moving when time temporarily stops, and gives him “time powers,” such as stopping people in place, and stopping time in the area around him, effectively creating a “time shield.” Shortly after, Jack learns that Paul knew about the fracture, and has been using his company to engage in a massive conspiracy around it, leaving Jack as the only person capable of fixing time.

The playable portion of the game unfolds exactly as you’d expect. Players control Jack and figure out how to prevent time from ending. By the end of the game, he will have navigated his way through multiple structures in mid-collapse while they’re frozen in time, and shot hundreds of Monarch agents. (Mechanically, the game is standard cover-based shooter fare from front to back. Thanks to Jack’s time powers, even large numbers of heavily armed enemies get taken down without too much trouble.) Expect the usual time travel-related twists and turns, though they are often transparently telegraphed. Don’t expect to see or hear any ideas that weren’t already in Back to the Future Part II and 12 Monkeys.

The show, meanwhile, follows Serene and some of his employees at Monarch Solutions on a parallel and, occasionally, intersecting journey. It turns out there’s more to what’s going on at the company, a conspiracy within the conspiracy surrounding Serene’s plan to deal with the end of time. The show bounces between multiple perspectives à la Game of Thrones. Unlike the game, whose narrative pacing can be slowed down by story-less combat sequences, it keeps a fast, sometimes even unrelenting narrative pace.

The two portions come together at the end of each playable episode in short playable asides called “junction points,” where players briefly take control of Serene and make a tactical decision which affect how the rest of both the game and show stories play out. In the first Junction Point, for example, players can choose whether to cover up a paramilitary action by Monarch’s security team by coercing witnesses into lying to the public on the company’s behalf, or killing them and denying responsibility. While the choices do have a direct impact on how the game and show play out, the choices rarely feel difficult or involved. Selecting your option feels more like picking an episode on Netflix than making a critically important choice.

Despite showing direct points of connection and even interaction, the show and the game never really feel in sync. As with most video games, the narrative of the game is limited and extremely exposition-heavy. Even the basic “how” and “why” are left out of many key conversations, which seems particularly essential in a game about time travel. Instead, much of the game’s story, including a few critical plot twists, come through optional reading material and video diaries scattered throughout the game environment. Many of these snippets, which often come in the form of internal emails between Monarch employees, explain the story around Jack, but often don’t impact his story directly.

These added details do little to help the show’s story, which never quite establishes the level of narrative independence to really be called a “show” of its own. Despite later episodes opening with “previously on” recaps, many of the episodes lack proper beginnings, endings, or any sort of individual narrative arc. This can feel particularly disjointed, since players see a sort of abstract synopsis of imminent events as part of the junction point played right before each episode.

Aside from Serene and his mysterious right-hand man, Martin Hatch (Reddick), the characters only receive a cursory amount of personal screen time before getting dragged into an action drama with 24-esque levels of rapid-fire exposition. The show characters receive superficial personalities and motivation early on, but then make decisions that fly in the face of what you’re made to understand about them. The show gives off the distinct impression that there are personal factoids or story details you just don’t know. As a result, it feels overpacked with information about people you have no interest in watching.

And not all of that information pays off. The story pivots heavily towards setting up a potential sequel. Like other recent, critically unsuccessful pop culture entities, its occupation with setting up a franchise directly gets in the way of its ability to tell a story. Many of the game’s biggest secrets, as it turns out, are never revealed (or at least not properly explained). Unlike comic book movies, however, if Quantum Break can’t impress its fans, there probably won’t be a sequel.

Quantum Break launches on Xbox One and Windows 10 April 5.