In Quantum Break, time is just as much an ally as it is a foe. The player has some special abilities when it comes to time manipulation, but occasionally time stutters will freeze the action and shift time in dangerous, uncontrollable ways. It’s up to the player to survive.
During time stutters, aspects of the world will pause, but many others will get caught in these indefinite, indecipherable loops. During one of our demos for the game, we saw debris stuck in a time loop where it continually fell, threatening to crush the player. We spoke with narrative designer Greg Louden about the process of designing a world that isn’t necessarily in motion and what goes into making it a compelling experience.
Louden has an interesting background that doesn’t involve work on video games. He joined Remedy in 2012, and before that he was heavily involved in the animation and special effects for the motion picture industry. He worked on films like Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Sucker Punch, and Happy Feet 2. He was also involved in Prometheus, helping to create the digital effects of the ship landing and sandstorm sequences. Louden also had a hand in one of World War Z‘s most memorable aspects – the simulation of the massive mobs of zombies. However, Louden seems most proud of his work on Gravity. “Usually in film you work on maybe five seconds of film. In Gravity I worked on maybe 45 seconds,” Louden says.
For Quantum Break, Louden’s job title is narrative designer, but he is also involved with level design and the game’s Junction Points, where players make decisions that direct the story. The time stutters, which Louden is also involved with, offer some of the most compelling aspects of level and visual design, as it’s much more than a simple pause of the action. “Stutters are basically the apocalypse,” he says. “You can’t control it. Basically, you’re going down the street, a stutter happens and everything starts going crazy. It’s not slow motion – it’s a stutter. It’s a frozen moment of chaos.”
The creators looked to long exposure photography to help influence design, painting streaks of light from assorted light sources, and made sure to fill the environment with debris and leaves where appropriate in order to fill the world with elements that show the world was in motion when the time stutters occurred.
Time may be mostly paused in these moments, but some aspects of the environments move and shift. These moments are meant to feel dangerous. The animated .gif above showcases, with a handful of connected screenshots, how the world changes when a time stutter is activated. The color and tone of the world changes, creating an uncomfortable environment that you’re clearly not in control of. Alan Wake experimented with the idea of the player versus the environment, and that idea appears to be moving forward in Quantum Break, albeit in a different way where everything is not shrouded in darkness. “We really want to scare the player with this,” Louden says. “We don’t want them to want stutters to be normal. We want them to think, ‘How do I get out of this?’ Whether it’s during the level having cars that go back and forward as they are stuck in a violent loop, or how do we kind of illustrate that this is kind of what your trying to stop. This is the goal of the game.”
Even when the world is not paused during a stutter, Quantum Break requires a different set of design ideals, because the player can manipulate time to a smaller degree. “[The time powers] have made it so much more complicated,” Louden says. “Being able to run around the enemies all the time, and how do we design that? Always having to find ways to gate players, which is a very level-design thing. Like how do you block the player from proceeding to the next sequence?”
During one moment in the game, which was shown earlier this year at Gamescom, a ship crashes into a dock during a time stutter. Louden says this differs from the typical set-piece moment. “In most games, you would just play through that and it would be over, but in Quantum Break we can freeze it,” he says. “We can freeze that, so you are jumping on cars that are flowing down. We’re not inhibited by natural environments. We can create our own environments to create new and exciting ways for players to adventure, which has been really cool.”
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the author Kyle Hilliard