Sam Lake on Quantum Break and what’s next for Alan Wake
I know the first thing I’d do with the power to stop time: watch a live-action minisode! Heck, I could watch all the minisodes in the world with time frozen. Hopefully my enthusiasm for the idea is rewarded by Remedy’s new sci-fi shooter, Quantum Break, which combines time-manipulating action with TV-style episodes that fill in the story. It’s out next week, and from the looks of the reviews appearing online today, the critics don’t hate the concoction that began as a pitch for Alan Wake 2.
I’m afraid our review will have to wait, though: the Xbox One version was sent out to critics early, but we’re still waiting on a copy of the recently-announced PC version to get started. In the meantime, I recently had the opportunity to talk about Quantum Break with Remedy’s Sam Lake. We only had a brief time to chat, so we jump around quite a bit between Max Payne, Alan Wake, and Quantum Break, but I’m happy that I finally got a chance to ask Lake what’s up with all the rhyming names, as well as how he felt about Rockstar’s go at developing a Max Payne game.
PC Gamer: Max Payne is a take on noir—film and comics—and Alan Wake sort of sends up Stephen King-style horror. Do you feel Quantum Break follows in those footsteps in any way? Is it a take on a certain type of sci-fi genre fiction?
Sam Lake: Certainly it is a time travel story, and as such there’s been all kinds of time travel cultural inspirations in there, starting from things like Back to the Future and Terminator, even. More recently, one of the inspirations early on in the project was the movie Inception—things that kind of have a present day setting but then again, bring in this fictional science on top of it with a certain theme. And I kind of feel that with time we have a similar thing going on here.
But, you know, from a different perspective it is also a superhero origin story, and with that in my mind we are kind of going, as an inspiration, to classic superhero things, like Spider-Man’s origin stories. And then, from yet another perspective, TV series these days—storytelling in TV is just phenomenal. And drawing inspiration from the perspective of pacing, and how the characters are mapped out, and the story arcs. That’s been an inspiration. It’s also interesting from the perspective of using different mediums as part of the experience. I feel that games, in my mind, fit really really well, into something that you can pull from many different mediums and use them as storytelling devices inside a game. So, in Max Payne it was a graphic novel, in Alan Wake it was a novel, and now we have a live-action show—kind of a TV show—going on in there.
I wanted to ask about what was behind the decision to do a live-action show, too. Did you have filmmaking or TV aspirations before?
Yeah, I mean, I did study screenwriting for TV and movies. That is my background, from the perspective of what I studied. Obviously, back when I was studying you couldn’t really study anything related to videogames. These days you can. So I do have that kind of a background, and TV, to me, is really fascinating. There are so many really exceptional TV shows coming out all the time. It is a great source of inspiration. And in some ways, we have been taking baby steps into this direction.
In Alan Wake, we have live-action content in the in-game TVs, and we did the prequel episode series, Bright Falls, as part of Alan Wake’s marketing campaign. And in American Nightmare we actually tried out live-action even in some of the cutscenes. And it’s just like, “Well, there’s something here, we want to explore this further,” and even before the actual idea of Quantum Break came about I was thinking that whatever we would do next should have a live action component, and in a way, it was obvious that we would use TV show kind of pacing in the experience, so that it’s divided into episodes.
The exact role of it evolved on the way, but the idea of using live-action was there from the beginning.
The idea very, very early on was: in between episodes, let’s have a live action kind of mini-episode. And that was the idea we pitched to Microsoft and they got really excited, because Xbox One wasn’t even out yet, but they were thinking that, “Well, it should be an entertainment device,” and they were looking at live action. They got excited, and they actually came back to us and said, “We like this, you guys should even be more ambitious with it. Do something bigger with this.” And we were happy to hear that and run with that. So it was there from the very beginning. The exact role of it evolved on the way, but the idea of using live action was there from the beginning.
You mentioned Microsoft, and I want to talk about some of the technology there. The Universal Windows Platform has gotten some praise and quite a bit of criticism in the industry. How have you felt about working with that platform for Quantum Break, making an Xbox One and PC game?
Well, I mean, Remedy does have a strong heritage on the PC, with Max Payne, and we do have a lot of fans who are very PC focused. We were hoping we could do a PC version of Quantum Break for a long time. It was a discussion, an ongoing discussion with Microsoft. Obviously, they own Quantum Break, and as the publisher, being exclusively on their platforms—it’s ultimately their decision. But we were kind of hoping and discussing the potential PC version, and—really really happy that it happened, so that we have a PC version as well. So, from our perspective it’s been positive.
Having followed Remedy since Max Payne, it’s easy to see that you love to reference yourselves in your own games, and reference your other games. It can’t be a coincidence that Alan Wake rhymes with Quantum Break rhymes with Sam Lake, right? Can you talk about how that started, why you like those sort of in-jokes?
A lot of it is a joke, and I kind of feel that to me, telling stories in games and creating immersive, believable worlds, there is room for all kinds of different things in there. And that to me is the richness for telling stories with games, that there can be optional content, exploration content, and different tones as well without breaking the overall style and theme. You can still enter all kinds of things in there. And in a way, also use them as commentary and echos and twisted mirrors to the primary story.
So the humor aspect is part of it, but the other side of it is I’m a big fan of postmodern literature. And the cool thing about that is that self-referential material, and different layers in that, and kind of a ‘game’ we play on the story side as well is a big part. That excites me. That’s an interesting thing. To me it feels—obviously games are about, you know, playing games, so it somehow feels very natural and fits very well in a game. That’s kind of the starting point of it. But it’s also just having fun with it. In a way, kind of having this multiverse aspect to it. If we look at Alan Wake, very definitely we do have echoes of their version of Max Payne in there, through Alan Wake’s writing. It is self-referential, but then again it does add a dimension that you understand, and it adds to the character of Alan Wake in an understandable way. Yeah, it is something that I love, and to me it’s important that we have these aspects.
You ran into a bit of a problem with that when people interpreted your reference to Alan Wake in Quantum Break as a teaser for a sequel.
Well, yeah, but you know, [there’s] something there: I mean, no news about any sequels, but then again, we have talked about it openly from the perspective that, we are looking for ways of doing Alan Wake. When that happens and if that happens is still up in the air, but it would be great and we would love it. How I see it, it was kind of obvious that we wanted to do this fan service and have something Alan Wake related in there, once again from kind of a multiverse perspective…
It’s kind of a snapshot of our thinking regarding the theme that if we were to do an Alan Wake sequel right now.
I can openly and fairly say that the material you see in there, it’s kind of a snapshot of our thinking regarding the theme that if we were to do an Alan Wake sequel right now, then these elements would certainly have a role in that. Because it’s an evolving thing, but we were thinking of an Alan Wake sequel right after Alan Wake, which we know didn’t happen, and certain aspects looked quite different from what kind of a sequel we would do now, if we were to do a sequel now. We are exploring many different things, Alan Wake among them, all the time. It was kind of a fun thing to do, to create this small piece in Quantum Break that kind of shows you how we see Alan Wake’s continuation right at this moment.
What did you think of Rockstar’s version of Max Payne, with Max Payne 3? Given the opportunity would you want to do more Max Payne?
Yeah, you know, we had sold the IP to Rockstar after Max Payne 1, and part of the deal was to make Max Payne 2 for them. So, from the creative perspective, it was really, really nice to know Max Payne 2 is probably the last Max Payne we were going to make. There was plenty of time to say goodbye, in a way, which was nice.
I don’t pretend there wouldn’t ever have been moment when I would have gone, ‘Oh, that’s an idea that would work with Max Payne.’
For Max Payne 3, they actually did contact us late in the project and wanted us to come in and consult, which was really, really nice of them. We got to play the game and give feedback, which was awesome. Personally, I was happy that it felt like a Rockstar game, that they had taken it and done their own version of it. Thinking about it, and kind of being nervous about it beforehand, to me maybe it would have been more weird if they had tried to imitate what our Max Payne had been. But they brought in new elements and totally created something that to me felt very much like a Rockstar game. Yes, it did have touching points to the original Max Payne and the sequel, so I thought it was cool. And actually Dan Houser did contact me even afterwards for creating the prequel comic book, I gave him some story pointers about Max Payne’s childhood that was part of the comic, and did some writing for that as well.
But yeah, as for more Max Payne from us, you know, we are a creative bunch and all kinds of ideas flow throughout. I don’t pretend there hasn’t ever been a moment when I would have said, “Oh, that’s an idea that would work with Max Payne,” you know, if we were to do more Max Payne at some point. But nothing like this with Rockstar has ever even been discussed, so I think that it’s very unlikely that we would do more Max Payne, but never say never.