Saturday 21 April 2018

Games: TV gets into bed with games for a Quantum leap

Innovation: Aidan Gillen in a live-action scene from Quantum Break.
Innovation: Aidan Gillen in a live-action scene from Quantum Break.
Dominic Monaghan and Aidan Gillen in the motion-capture studio in Finland.
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

An Oscar winner, an award-winning Irish actor and groundbreaking special effects - it sounds like an arrangement made in Hollywood heaven.

Quantum Break stars our own Aidan Gillen alongside Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) and Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings). But it's the new reality that this megabucks project isn't a film but a videogame.

Quantum Break, one of the biggest releases of the year launching exclusively for Xbox One and PC on Tuesday, takes film/game synergy to the next level by incorporating live-action video episodes which are directly affected by your actions while playing.

Of course, screen actors are no stranger to phoning in a voiceover performance for a hefty pay cheque. And games have featured video tie-ins several times. But Finnish game studio Remedy, well-known for its storytelling chops in moody murder mystery Alan Wake, has upped the ante with a starry cast and a TV-style mini-series built into Quantum's labyrinthine plotline.

Gillen plays Paul Serene, a power-crazed villain who's discovered the secret to time travel and forms a shadowy corporation to exploit its control. On the opposing side, you play as an old friend named Jack Joyce (Ashmore) who works to halt Serene's megalomania.

On the phone from Remedy's base in chilly Espoo outside Helsinki, Quantum Break narrative designer Greg Louden talks up the project.

"This is the biggest example of merging live action with games," says the genial Australian.

"There hasn't been anything done like this before. It's quite innovative. If people like it, if they like watching the TV show that they can twist and change, there could be a cool future in it."

Louden joined Remedy straight from finishing work on Alfonso Cuarón's sci-fi flick Gravity. He was part of the visual-effects team that won an Oscar for its stunning depiction of space. But for Quantum Break he took on a new mantle, designing levels and moulding the storyline around the gameplay.

"We have a great Hollywood cast and a lot of other people at Remedy who have worked on film. So there is this going back and forward between the industries that's now quite common and is only going to become more so."

At key points in the narrative, the game takes a breather and the TV drama steps in, featuring the same characters, locations and extensions of the plot. But each episode is shaped by your earlier decisions and the nuggets of information you've uncovered, with their running time varying between 18 and 22 minutes depending on your actions.

A separate TV company based in LA shot the live-action footage with the actors, with Remedy spending the best part of two years in pre-production ensuring the two strands of drama synced and intertwined.

But Gillen and the rest of the cast also travelled to Espoo to submit to Remedy's motion-capture studio for the computer-animated scenes, which play close attention to the emotion in the characters' faces.

Louden explains: "We got Aidan to go into this booth and we'd have a series of cameras that surround his face in a very bright light. We'd record his dialogue where he'd stand in the booth, he'd look straight into the camera and we'd capture his facial performance.

"When we wrote Serene on paper, I saw him one way. But when Aidan came along and he did his performance, it really elevated it entirely.

"He made the character so much more interesting both in the live-action show and the game. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of interaction with the actors. Where it was Shawn or Aidan or whoever, they actually made it better. They sometimes questioned the dialogue and they added a lot of performance to it."

At its heart, though, Quantum Break is a game, and a shooter at that, the most hackneyed of genres. Remedy hopes to counter any cynicism with a novel suite of superpowers granted to Jack Joyce - he can stop, reverse and fast-forward time in limited bursts. Even these are scarcely unique in video games but the studio's visual-effects team has worked some magic to animate the superpowers with real flair.

Impressive moments - such as a supertanker collapsing through fractures in time while Joyce tries to avoid getting crushed - promise a fresh kind of shooter.

Quantum Break teases eye-popping spectacle that recalls blockbuster Inception and a head-spinning plot that's influenced by the time-travel consequences of cult flick Primer. Time will tell whether its melting pot of TV and gaming will prove a glimpse of the future or a return to the past.

Watch for our review of Quantum Break soon.

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