The end product is a carefully plotted sci-fi game and an underwhelming live-action series (streamed following each of the game’s first four acts), made all the more disconcerting because some of its fine actors shine brighter in their digital incarnations. (Talk about your simulacra effects!) With its overlapping timelines and steady character reveals, “Quantum Break” feels much indebted to “Lost.” It’s a shame, however, that the game’s expository elements are more intriguing than the television show, which aims to flesh out the game’s supporting cast of characters.
“Quantum Break” opens with Jack Joyce — Shawn Ashmore, who played Iceman in “X -men: Days of Future Past”– returning home to the fictional city of Riverport after sojourning abroad for six years to escape legal troubles. At the behest of his best friend Paul Serene–Aidan Gillen, aka. Littlefinger in “Game of Thrones” and Tommy Carcetti in “The Wire” — Jack meets him at the Riverport University’s physics building.
After a brief catching up, Paul broaches the subject of the innovative work conducted by Jack’s older brother William. The elder Joyce’s contribution to the world of particle physics has resulted in a way to manipulate time. Paul has built a business around the fruit of William’s work but it would seem that his enterprise is in jeopardy. According to William — vividly portrayed by Dominic Monaghan, who played Charlie in “Lost”– the time machine Paul’s team has constructed is flawed, and its activation will lead to a fracture in time, a calamity resulting in a “zero state” where time will stop functioning normally. This assertion gives Paul’s investors cold feet.
Paul tells Jack that he needs to prove that the time machine works. But since human testing isn’t legal, he’s trusting that his old partner-in-crime will help him verify it. With little deliberation as to the consequences of their actions, the two go ahead with a test. Unfortunately, the time machine creates a micro black hole that disturbs the field of time. As a result, Paul and Jack are exposed to large concentrations of so-called chronon particles, which regulate the flow of time, and both acquire time-altering superpowers.
Paul emerges from this situation the worse for the wear because he entered the time machine while Jack stayed behind at the controls. In the course of his time travels, which are more extensive than he initially lets on, Paul develops a degenerative disease that eats away at his mind and body. He is also possessed by a sense of purpose to help a small slice of humanity survive a future catastrophic event that he refers to as The End of Time.
The central conflict of the game revolves around Paul’s certainty that some events are inevitable and Jack’s belief that regardless of whether fate exists, one should rage against it. Determinism vs. relativity, you might say. With the knowledge Paul obtains from his time travels, he builds a company called Monarch Solutions, whose name is a model of ironic effrontery. Paul believes that with his company’s resources, a small slice of humanity can be saved. Jack, however, believes that it is better to try to save all of humanity, even if that would eliminate a more viable possibility of saving a tiny fraction of it.
You spend a lot of the game as Jack shooting at Monarch’s goons. The game’s combat would be undistinguished if not for Jack’s various abilities to warp time in his favor to gain an edge on his enemies. It can easily be said that “Quantum Break’s” environments, which are stuffed with documents, visual gags, and other points of narrative interest are the brightest spots in the game. They tell a more multifaceted story than the four episodes of the live-action series.
Depending on your actions and choices in the game, you’ll see a few different scenes in the television show. This minor form of interactivity probably tacked on a decent amount to the production cost. Still, its novelty can’t mask the so-so quality of the show which is full of highly motivated characters who cast few shadows as it were.
For all of its sci-fi, bullet-popping action, “Quantum Break’s” story loops around some of the big themes of our day — the unanswerable power of oligarchs in society and the necessity of political protest in the face of overwhelming odds. At a couple of points, the game’s time travelers try to avert 9/11 but find they cannot. The game makes the point that for all of the characters awareness of the past, present, and future, they are dupes of time, not its masters.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.