Cam Rogers: writing Quantum Break
interview by Steve Proposch
“Interactive fiction is the next stage in how people tell stories,” says Cam Rogers, and he would know. For the last four years the Melbourne-born writer has been residing in Helsinki in Finland writing for Quantum Break. And that is, actually, a pretty big deal.
Quantum Break is a third-person shooter that makes heavy use of time travel and time manipulation. It is a Remedy Entertainment (Max Payne, Alan Wake) and Microsoft co-production, and proudly touted as the most expensive entertainment project in Finnish history. “It’s tied to a four-episode high quality television show that adapts in accordance to how the game is played,” explains Rogers. “Each player gets their own ‘director’s cut’ of the show based on how they play through the game, basically.”
Cam was recruited by Remedy in mid-2012 on the strength of his novel, The Music of Razors, which had received some good press from people like Neil Gaiman, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis Award. “That provided a few opportunities which eventually led me to Remedy,” he says. “Part of my screening process was writing a script for an Alan Wake scenario, so I figured I was being brought in for Alan Wake 2. Instead, it was for this third-person action-adventure time travel multimedia hybrid thing they were calling Quantum, and would later be called Quantum Break. It was just a high-level design document at that point. Sam [Lake] brought me up to speed, and his pitch for QB got me thinking straight away. It was ambitious. I’d started working on it before I even left the interview.”
Soon after landing the job Cam was landing in Helsinki. “You can’t work on a AAA game and not be in the building,” he says, “so I was in Finland the entire time. It’s a complex undertaking. Roughly 80-100 people worked on Quantum Break in Helsinki. The writing team was myself, Mikko Rautalahti and Tyler Smith, overseen by Sam Lake who is Remedy’s creative director. On the US side I can only guess at the number of people Microsoft had involved.
“There’s a lot of meetings, a lot of interdepartmental updates and negotiation and troubleshooting,” says Cam. “The studio itself is a multi-storey building, housing different departments, and we’re in there every day nailing things down, building the world and characters, sorting the plot, getting the gameplay right, and making sure game and story aren’t getting in each other’s way. The writing team was with each other every day, and for the first year we worked off multiple whiteboards and sheets of smart film, getting the thing to work. Once we got to a point where we could actually start writing scripts – which I think was about 18 months in – it was more productive to not be in the building. When that finally kicked off I spent a lot of time at home or in a local café.”
Faced with working up a huge number of possible storylines, Rogers and the team employed a range of collaborative methods. “Branching narrative – the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ model of the kind you find in Telltale Games – can be complex, but we were dealing with something an order of magnitude greater,” Cam admits. “Aside from telling a story that incorporates both conscious player choice and allowance for the differences that certain gameplay actions will have on story causality going forward, we also had to deal with time travel; specifically, the occasional opportunity to go back to events already experienced.
“We also had to abide by a core rule: closed loops, which is to say that once an action is taken that waveform collapses and cannot be changed. That’s where it got tricky. For example, you might say: ‘I’m going to go back in time and rob that bank.’ To which I’d say: ‘No you won’t, because you didn’t.’ And I’d be right. We lived through the time period you refer to, you’re standing here right now sans a stolen fortune, so you demonstrably never robbed that bank, and no matter what actions you take to go back in time to make that happen, you’ll never do it … because it never happened. A lot of time travel stories play loose with this kind of thing, because it’s a massive plotting headache, but we stuck with it. In the writer’s room we’d often be flowing well, getting the plot nailed, but inevitably one of us would say ‘uh …’ or ‘wait …’ and the rest of us would swear, and then listen as that person explained why the last half hour of work either didn’t make sense because of causality, or if we kept the new work we’d need to unplug and rewire the previous two episodes of content in order for it to make causal sense. It sounds like a nightmare, and it kind of was, but sorting out the puzzle of it was some of the most fun I’ve had as a writer.”
Cam has also written a novel for the QB franchise, released this month, that is set in an alternate timeline and titled Quantum Break: Zero State. “Zero State covers the same time period and key events as the game, but the novel is shaped by different choices and causalities to those presented in the game – some of which predate the game’s time period,” says Cam. “The result is a Quantum Break story that is both familiar and different; a story that deals with its own issues while shedding more light on questions and mysteries from the game. The novel has its own tension, different action set pieces, and goes to places that differ from what’s in the game while still dealing with those core Quantum Break conflicts.
“Sam Lake gave me a lot of freedom with telling this story,” Cam continues. “And I’m grateful for that. You never know what you’ll get when you work with a new group of people, especially when such a big investment has been made in a property like this, but for me the whole experience was very positive. My contact on Microsoft’s end went over the manuscript to make sure it was consistent with the game, as did Sam. Micro-management never played into it, and the feedback was all solid and sensible.”
The video game industry turned over 46.5 billion U.S. dollars in 2014*. Games that have become notably MASSIVE recently have frequently done so through a much refined use of narrative, plot and character development, to a point beyond their primary purpose as tools for player motivation; beyond the next boss fight, to where players are as emotionally involved and affected by a masterwork of finely crafted gameplay as they might be by a work of art. It’s more than a game, and more than a movie. Thus, it’s more than both of those things put together. For the developers, that means exciting times ahead.
“It’s taken a few decades for the medium to get a handle on how it tells stories best,” says Rogers. “Games are different from movies, which are different from theatre productions, which are different from novels. Games needed time to find their own distinctive voice, and allowing the viewer to interact directly with the world of the story is a big, powerful part of that. It’s hard to not care about someone you’ve spent even a few minutes shaping, shepherding and safeguarding through a given storyline. I’ve been gaming most of my life and I’ve seen first hand how some games profoundly affect people, and change them. The Final Fantasy series reduces people to tears on a regular basis. Then there’s Mass Effect [Microsoft Studios, 2007] and The Last of Us [Naughty Dog, 2013].
“If you track where we’ve come from with distribution (bricks and mortar outlets, physical products, limited supply) to where we are now (fewer stores, the decline of physical media, instantaneous and on-demand supply), you can begin to imagine where we might go from here,” says Cam. “I think multi-platform releases are likely to become standard largely because the number of platforms will shrink, or because a single innovation will change the way we access content. One example could be the rise of a ‘Netflix For Games’, with the controller in your living room but the game being run on a state-of-the-art machine on the other side of the world. This means hardware shrinks to a single device and the question becomes which game service you use.”
Rogers will be kicking it at home for his own foreseeable future. “Now that I’m back in Australia I mainly work at the State Library of Victoria. It’s probably my favourite workspace anywhere in the world. I’m keen to get back overseas and collaborating again though, so I’m sorting through options. In the short term I’m happy to be back home, finishing my degree, guest lecturing at a couple of universities, working on my next novel and writing for The Walking Dead: No Man’s Land, a game for mobile platforms that’s doing very well for itself.
QUANTUM BREAK Developed by Remedy Entertainment. Published by Microsoft Studios For Microsoft Windows and Xbox One. Released April 2016. STARS: Shawn Ashmore (X-men), Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire), Lance Reddick (The Wire, John Wick), Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lost). Released April 2016 – quantumbreak.com
FURTHER RESOURCES: FIRST CHAPTER – http://www.tor.com/2016/03/07/excerpts-quantum-break-zero-state-cam-rogers/ | TRAILER #1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_Yo6OhEmjs | TRAILER #2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4or8YE-6P4