Gameplay Mechanics Teach Quantum Mechanics in Remedy’s Quantum Break

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The idea that the universe has multiple histories may sound like science fiction, but it is now accepted as scientific fact.”

-Steven Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell

Hawking here is referring to the Feynman’s Path Integral formulation, a mathematical formula which calculates the path of a particle. Or not path, per se, but paths, as it was Feynman’s contention that, at the quantum level, a particle traverses every trajectory possible. Hawking in the book elsewhere elaborates, “The Feynman sum over histories has to include histories in which particles travel back in time, and even histories that are closed loops in time and space.”

For all of Quantum Break’s many narrative objects to discover, none of the emails or whiteboards I came across made any reference to the esteemed Richard Feynman, or made mention of McTaggart or Minkowski, and yet their respective contributions to physics, philosophy, and mathematics laid both the intellectual and imaginative framework which has rendered tales of time-travel not only popular but plausible. All three of these thinkers on time* would take great delight in Remedy’s rendition of the shape and substance of such, closely adhering to McTaggart’s B-Theory of Time, a philosophical perspective for which Minkowski later developed the mathematical model in reimagining spacetime as a singular four-dimensional manifold. After all, it’s only in an Eternalist model of time in which events earlier than and later than one another share the same ontological status that travel to different points in time is possible; if Presentism were to be believed, there is neither a past nor a future to which to travel.

Quantum Break takes obvious cues from Lost in this respect (it’s no coincidence two of it’s most prominent actors are Dominic Monaghan and Lance Reddick), adhering to the show’s repeated mantra “Whatever happened, happened.” Even across multiple playthroughs as the player selects new choices for both protagonist Jack Joyce and antagonist Paul Serene, the main narrative thread of their various jumps forward and backwards across time remains fixed.

Such fixity is no concession to the post-Mass Effect 3 realities of game development, wherein a litany of endings accounting for all of a player’s various choices is deemed too daunting to program. Rather, the ludic elements of player-driven choices and the narrative elements of an inalterable timeline both simultaneously serve in resonance with the underlying scientific premises of multiple quantum histories and a solidified spacetime manifold. As such, a player would be wrong to approach Quantum Break like a Mass Effect game, developing a head canon in which one playthrough is his “true” playthrough, one Shepard is his “real” Shepard. Every plot permutation of Quantum Break is equally true, every Jack Joyce equally real.

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Ludo-narrative consonance is an impressive accomplishment in itself, let alone the ludo-narrative-thematic consonance Quantum Break achieves, but the game is doing more still. It is no coincidence that so shortly after the Telltale revival of Adventure games that three of the most compelling entries into the genre – all developed independent of one another’s influence and release mere months apart – would all narratively and mechanically tackle time travel; specifically, Life is Strange, Oxenfree, and Quantum Break. The essential feature of the genre as it’s been redefined by Telltale (greater emphasis on choice and multiple playthroughs as opposed to the object puzzles of the LucasArts era) map so perfectly and analogously to the multiple histories of the universe interpretation of quantum mechanics that the subject seemed inevitable, as evidenced by this convergence.

After all, in the quest to establish games as art against the naysays of philistines like the late Ebert, the grail is not merely a game with a Shakespearian story or cinematics like Citizen Kane’s, but rather one which marries its ludic elements with it’s thematic ones so closely that such could not be communicated in any other medium. Quantum Break is not the first to do this, but few other games have done such quite as well, including Life is Strange and Oxenfree both.

Indeed, initially unimpressed by the graphics or gameplay of Quantum Break’s ludic portions, and cringing at the poor production values of the sub-Syfy quality television portions, my initial opinion of Quantum Break was that of an ill conceived gimmick. Would not the character models bear more verisimilitude had they not suffered the comparison of being interspersed with their live-action counterparts? Could not the same budget have produced an Emmy-worth cable series sans the mediocre game? Essentially I was asking: Couldn’t this have been better as just a game or just a show, instead of trying and failing to be both? Yet even as I asked that last question, over each of the five discreet acts, Quantum Break increasingly and emphatically answered “No.”

As the story of the game immersed me more and more into the universe which Remedy had crafted, the constant cheese of the show was utterly eclipsed by the emotional investment it had earned. Cut scenes would not have done justice to the material, yet neither could a television show give breath to the breadth of infinite possibilities suggested by the multiple histories hypothesis. Even Lost, in resolving its own time-travel story, was limited to presenting a single parallel world**.

Odd as Quantum Break’s hybrid-medium may seem, it was the most appropriate vehicle in which to tell a time-travel story both compelling in its own right and faithful to our current understanding of physics. Moreover, that the game makers should desire to tell such a time-travel story in the first place and that they chose to structure it so is the logical and inevitable end of the Adventure genre. Even the inclusion of gunplay, superpowers, and an RPG-like upgrade system merely reinforce the notion of Quantum Break as the ultimate Adventure game – one which has integrated elements from as many other genres as possible while still being exemplary of everything essential to Adventure games themselves.

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That’s not to say it’s entirely without faults. Studios such as CD Projekt (The Witcher 3), Crystal Dynamic (Rise of the Tomb Raider), and Massive (The Division), have proven that current generation hardware can render much more realistic, detailed, and emotive faces than Remedy has been able to achieve here. Also, even on the normal difficulty, multi-part fights can be brutally difficult and unforgiving, with each of the player’s numerous death’s setting him back to an autosave before a cutscene; the last boss battle in particular had me shouting profanity at the screen in frustration, a truly rare occurrence previously reserved exclusively for Arkham’s bat-mobile sequences. Most problematic of all, however, were the non-player characters’ constant chiding of me to move on every time I stopped to read one pf the narrative objects scattered throughout; some of the most important revelations of the game occur in the likes of Beth Wilder’s journal, Paul Serene’s letter, and Martin Hatch’s final confession, yet the game actively goes out of its way to discourage the player from fully engaging in this content.

Nevertheless, Quantum Break stands as the best time-travel story since Back to the Future Part 1, and more importantly, one of the most significant artist achievements in the games medium since The Beginner’s Guide. Its medium, genre, subject, gameplay, and plot all perfectly synthesize with and inform one another to result in a wonderfully holistic work.

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*In addition to many others. I have half a mind to exhort famed-philosopher and friend Dean Zimmerman to check out Quantum Break, whose daughter, coincidently, is running the Pokemon-themed costume party I’m attending in a few minutes. I live a strange life.

** Though to be fair, the inspiration for its “flash-sideways” universe was not Feynman’s Path Integral but the notion of quantum superpositions, with Juliet having simultaneously succeeded and failed in detonating the atomic bomb – most viewers missed this, concluding wrongly that the show was set in purgatory the entire time.

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4 thoughts on “Gameplay Mechanics Teach Quantum Mechanics in Remedy’s Quantum Break

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