A Moment in Time with Quantum Break’s Thomas Puha

Recently, I got to sit down with Thomas Puha, Remedy Games’ PR head, to discuss the upcoming Quantum Break and some of the complexities behind it’s development.

Since its reveal a couple of years ago, Quantum Break has obviously undergone some transformation. So how would you describe the game to someone that had no idea about the gameplay? And what would you say makes it unique?

It hasn’t really changed in terms of the gameplay and the style throughout the years. Obviously we changed the lead character, and it took a long time to figure out the time powers. That was definitely one part because what we did not want this game to be is like your average third person shooter, whatever that may be, so the time powers were designed to encourage the player to move around really fast and all the enemy AIs were designed in a way so that if you tried to hide, they’d definitely come out after you.

How I would describe the game? Well, it’s a very cinematic third person action game. It’s a single player game, with a really deep story, and I think that’s important to understand because the player can shape the story through the junctions so you can actually have an impact on what happens – there’s a lot of replay value in the game. The game is really about the heroes, it’s about Jack Joyce, then you have the live-action show that focuses on the villain Paul Serene and that gives you more insight into what he’s doing. So hopefully, people who love story will be into Quantum Break.

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From Max Payne to Alan Wake, Remedy has used less traditional narrative in video games, such as Max Payne’s comic book cutscenes. Has Quantum Break also employed a less traditional way of conveying information?

That’s a good question. In Max Payne, the reason there was this comic book way of telling the story was literally down to the fact that we only have X amount of people, we [couldn’t] do big animated cutscenes for various reasons back then, so that forces you to be creative.

Again in Quantum Break, obviously times have changed and we’ve moved on, but you’re always still bound by the resources you have, so a lot of the decisions are made on like “How can we produce really good end results but with a smaller team?” so that’s why we built a lot of our tech to support our own way of working. So in Quantum, we have your traditional in-game cutscenes – we have quite a few of them – but in many of them, the player still retains some amount of control like you can still keep walking around while the action is happening around you. We try not to take control away from you.

But then, we do have the live-action show and Remedy has always played around a little bit with live-action show, even in Max Payne or at least had a couple of frames on the TV. Then we had Night Springs for Alan Wake, so it [was] kind of a natural progression that we made the live-action component bigger in Quantum, very much thanks to Microsoft’s support on that. We wanted to tell the story of the heroes and the villains [but] it doesn’t make a lot of sense if we make a 20 minute-long cutscene about Paul Serene. That would be incredibly challenging to pull off and also expensive, so it was like “Let’s have the live action, let’s use another medium to tell the story and give the perspective of the other side.” Sam, our creative director likes using live action and in many ways, it’s a natural progression like I said, but you have to also think about how it works for the experience. In Quantum, that was something that was thought about very early on, but also, “What else are we going to do for the next game?”

“Let’s have the live action, let’s use another medium to tell the story and give the perspective of the other side.”

SCREEN_0006_Layer 1In 2014, Microsoft underwent that restructure. So did that cause any panic in creating additional content for Quantum Break?

Right, so I guess you’re referring to when the whole Entertainment…

Division, yeah.

… side was shuttered. Of course, the first reaction kind of is “What’s going to happen?” But from day one, the live action for Quantum was actually being produced by a company in LA called Lifeboat. Lifeboat has actually been involved for over four years now, [and] they’ve never been part of Microsoft, so we were actually not really affected by it at all, fortunately. So no, not really. There’s always, you know, change. I mean it’s when publishers decide if there’s a reorganisation or something, you start working with a different set of people and that always takes a little bit of time but that’s kind of like, the same goes on with the Remedy side. So no, it didn’t really affect us.

So just last month, you announced the game would be getting a PC release. Given that we are now so close to the actual release date, can we expect this game to be fully fleshed out or there will be difference in features?

Remedy started out on the PC, it’s a very important platform for us, so we definitely lobbied for a while to have the ability to bring the game out on Windows 10. A lot of fans asked for it, so you know, we’re glad that Microsoft was also keen to let us do it. We have a lot of people at Remedy who have been there since day one, who are like really part of the whole PC master race. So they’re taking very good care of the Windows 10 skew and just making sure it’s as good as it can be.

But I mean, the game, the experience is supposed to be the same, right, it’s not like it’s a separate game. On the Windows 10, you can get better resolution and if you have better hardware, then obviously that’s supported. So there [are] things you can improve on like lessen the shadow, tamper with the lighting a little bit and all these sorts of things. You know, we’re close to the release date and we’re still working on the Windows 10 version, but without going into too much detail, the certification process is very different between the Windows 10 and the Xbox One, or the console world in general. So that just allowed us to have a little bit more time. But rest assured, Remedy takes [a] great deal of time to make sure that when the game is as good as it can be. I can keep talking about that, but when you see it, you should be happy.

“Remedy takes [a] great deal of time to make sure that when the game is as good as it can be.”

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So on the topic of the PC release, were you taken aback at the hostile reaction from some Xbox gamers? And do you feel Quantum Break should be played on the Xbox One, or do you feel that both platforms will contain the perfect experience?

So, the last question first. The bigger audience we can get for our game, the better. I mean, if we were able to be on Windows 10 or Xbox One, that’s great, that’s not taking away from either one. It’s just nicer to get a bigger audience for the game.

For the “hostile” feedback, console gamers are very passionate, I get that. I’m a console gamer first and foremost, and so in some ways, I get that they somehow feel that since we’re bringing it out on Windows 10 that somehow it takes something away from the Xbox One, but I don’t think so. But you know how the Internet is, they ask for something and then they get it, and then they’re like “It’s not good”, they’re not happy. I kind of expected it to be like that, so I’m not really… I don’t think most of us were that concerned. But like I said earlier, we just want to make sure the Windows 10 version will be as good as it can be. And from our perspective, like I said, the more platforms we can bring it out on, the better.

How difficult is it to base games such as Max Payne and Quantum Break around time control? Does it take a lot of tweaking to get the perfect balance?

Yeah. Remedy has always made its own technology for the most part. The core engine and everything from the lighting is done by Remedy. So it’s always like the technology comes into play. When we were working with Max Payne, the guys were figuring out how to do bullet time and then it became a really big feature of the game. Then in Alan Wake, we worked on the lighting and that sort of turned into the whole fight with light mechanic.

And in Quantum Break, the engine, we sort of discovered, we could quite well do this thing where we destroy things and we could kind of rewind it. So that’s what you see when time breaks down in the game and in the stutters that everything breaks, but then it moves back and forth in a crazy way. It’ll get a lot crazier [later on in the game].

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Tech is important. The stutters took a long time; from everything, like the prismatic look of it, thinking about the lighting of it, and how does it look when you have normal time, how do you make broken time very different. And even audio comes into play; we spent a lot of resources on audio because when you’re playing in the normal world, it’s regular audio. When time breaks down, all the audio is different. It’s all in real time; everything from the speech to the ambient sounds to the gun sounds, everything is different.

So literally there is audio for two games in Quantum Break. It’s not all about putting your processing power into graphics or things like that, it’s also about the audio. But these things take time. Like with the controls and the time powers, it took years to figure out and then when you figure out the time powers, how do you make them feel good as possible. That’s a very difficult thing, it’s very trial and error. That’s too long a time, [but] at least I think we really got there and nailed the time powers in the end. But its a lot of work; its not months, sometimes its years. You build something, and it’s a combination of lots of things, from the combat, animation, its frame rate, its how do the controls feel, it’s all these things coming into play and it takes a long time to make run perfectly.

To bring Quantum Break to life, you built Northlight. So can we expect to see more of its use in the future?

I would hope so! After all the years and the money spent on building the technology, obviously, its built in a way that we can make games faster the next time around. So of course, we have a really advanced lighting system in the engine, and the whole character pipeline of how we can import the acting – when we shoot it live and we can bring it into the game – the pipeline has been built for that. We’ve learnt a lot, so of course. We don’t build our own technology for the sake of doing it. We’re a relatively small team for a triple-A so we always think about “So if we build these tools, how do they enable us to work faster?” And yes, ironically, we always seem to take like four, five years with our games, but we really think about how we can produce really good results with a smaller team. And that’s really why we built Northlight. But yes, hopefully it allows us to build the next game faster.

The game features some notable actors like Shawn Ashmore, Aiden Gillen and Lance Reddick. How did actors like these get involved with the project?

It’s a question of obviously money. But really, it’s about timing as well, and availability, since all these actors are busy. We’re not getting famous actors just for the sake that they’re famous, it’s about performance. We can really bring with our performance capture, we can really nail the performance with our digital character, I think we’ve done really well there. So it’s about getting good actors.

You know, the scope of the project changed, and it was like “If we could go a bit bigger, and if we could get actors, who would you want?” and then suddenly “Oh, we could actually get those guys.” Microsoft was very good about that, and I know we wanted Shawn Ashmore very much, and it turned out, he’s really honestly an awesome guy. He’s totally part of the extended Remedy family, he spent months down in Finland with us and [he’s] just a great guy to work with, as has been the rest of the cast. There are many things that come into play, and it’s not something that’s an easy decision or was taken very lightly, because there’s lot of different things involved in making that happen.

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Can we expect to see more references to previous Remedy titles? 

I don’t want to spoil things, but if you’ve played our games, we put a lot of our history into them. Remedy is 21 years old, we’ve had people who’ve worked there for like 15 years. We even have guys who started on Max Payne when they were 17 and they’re still there. So obviously you want to have a little bit of fun there, it takes a long time to make these games. So a lot of these things, like the live-action things we have on the TVs, we want to have a little bit of fun. It’s fun making games, and also very tough, but it’s a Remedy thing.

There’s definitely a lot of reference to our past and popular culture in general, that I’m really looking forward for people to figure out. A lot of the humour is like, if you’re part of the dev team, you’ll laugh at it, because half the studio is basically in the game in one way or another. But it’s important to not take it too seriously a put a little bit of fun there and sort of reference your past, so people who have been fans of Remedy and play our games can go “Huh, I know that.” I think that’s important to do.

“There’s definitely a lot of reference to our past and popular culture in general, that I’m really looking forward for people to figure out.”

So final question now. The premise of the game is so heavily grounded in theoretical physics. Do you think that will go over the heads of some players, or would the game be accessible to a wider audience?

Well, when we started out making Quantum Break, we definitely wanted it to be more of a blockbuster. More of like a summer blockbuster, where a large audience gets it. That doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down, it definitely doesn’t, you just have to think about your choices a lot more.

So we have a lot of what we have coined as optional storytelling in the game that you probably saw. There’s a lot of the traditional emails you can go read, but there are a lot of things on the radio that you can listen to, [and] all that changes depending on what you choose to do at the junction. So there’s a lot of optional storytelling that changes to accommodate your choices in the game. You can play through the game and not deal with that, you can just run through it and watch the cutscenes and understand what happens. But if you want more detail, there’s tonnes of it in there.

Now, quite a bit of research was done about time travel and quantum physics and that, but it’s not like we’re going to bore you with details. There’s some stuff in there, so if you want to dig into it, you can. We talked to a physicist back in Finland, and a lot of the stuff he talked about went completely over our heads. But we tried to take a lot from that, especially for the time travel aspect, and tried to at least somehow make it believable, as believable as time travel can be. Obviously, we took a lot of liberties, like we can freeze times in certain areas, but it’s not about being realistic, it’s about being fun. But having said that, we do like to ground things into the real world. It’s important, it just makes it more believable that way.

… we do like to ground things into the real world. It’s important, it just makes it more believable that way

Alright. That’s all, thank you.