The search for the perfect kind of narrative for games has long been an ambition for Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment.
Since it was founded in 1995, the developer has only released a small number of franchises, testing out different types of story structure along the way.
From the movie-like three act structure of Max Payne to the more TV-like episodic format of Alan Wake, the studio has experimented with various techniques to successfully tell a story that immerses players for ten hours plus.
Speaking with Develop, Remedy’s head of franchise development Oskari Hakkinen says developers can learn a lot from television, perhaps even moreso than the typical three act framework of films. He recalls the studio’s creative director Sam Lake banging his head over trying to perfect game narrative beyond Max Payne’s movie format, before taking inspiration from TV shows like Lost.
“It was during that time that the big series started to come out with HBO and whatnot, Lost for instance was one where people were buying the boxsets, and then watching the episodes at their own pace. Some are binging through it, some are watching one a day, some are watching one every other day or once a week, but all at their own pace,” he explains.
“The great thing about it was each episode had its own three act structure and ended on a cliffhanger, which kind of prodded you on to see what happened next. Sam got the idea from that, that this would be a fantastic fit for a video game, especially a video game that has very strong narrative, because we're telling the story over ten plus hours.
"With Alan Wake, having a very high completion rate was partly to do with the structure we built. What we read on our forums and from media and fans was that some people played through the whole experience from start to finish - the bingers - but some people, folks that didn't have the time to do that, they'd play one episode. It was a perfect cut off point, and they'd know that the next chunk would take an hour to an hour and a half.”
A unique combination
Remedy’s upcoming Xbox One exclusive Quantum Break, which tells the story of a time travel experiment gone wrong and gifts the title’s three main characters with abilities to manipulate time, is taking cues from the lessons learned in Max Payne and Alan Wake, and taking it to another level. Each segment of gameplay will be split into episodes, and once each is completed, players will unlock an episode of live action TV which is included on the disc already.
Rather than the transmedia approach used by the likes of Trion Worlds with Defiance, where players can impact the story through their actions, but must wait for the TV series to air at specific timeslots during the year, the full TV content will be opened up instantly much like on-demand television through services such as Netflix, ready for the player to tuck into whenever they want.
“We're building these experiences together from the ground up,” says Hakkinen.
“The game and the show are designed to be built as one experience, to be experienced as one package. So you play an episode of the game, then you can unlock an episode of the show, play another episode of the game, and unlock another episode of the show, and so on.
“Without telling too much, you'll be looking at two different sides of the coin from a story perspective. In the game you'll be following the story of one theme, in the show you'll be following the story of another theme. These are meshing together to form the whole experience.”
He adds: “Obviously we are not naive to the fact that some people may not necessarily want to watch some linear media when they slot out their gaming time. So once it is unlocked, it's unlocked for you to jump in or experience whenever you then so choose. So it could be you catch up on it through your tablet device or your mobile device on the bus to work, and then you get home and you're ready for the next experience.”
Given the studio’s ambitions to effectively combine two different mediums, it is perhaps understandable why they have chosen to work with Microsoft, which has championed the Xbox One as an all-in-one entertainment box.
If successful, Quantum Break could become Microsoft’s poster child for this meshing together of entertainment forms, and Remedy already has a much larger story mapped out should the new IP take off, with the first release effectively ‘season one’, with potential for multiple series.
A quantum leap forward
Turning the game into an episodic and potential multi-season structure however means the pressure is on for Remedy to make an engaging experience and strong narrative. But rather than perceiving it as a challenge, Hakkinen says the developer is treating the task as a huge opportunity to be a pioneer of new entertainment in building a game specifically designed for Microsoft’s new gen hardware.
He says the studio’s own new technology, combined with the power of the Xbox One means the developer is able to create ‘digital doubles’ of the actors from Quantum Break’s live action TV show.
“When I say we can tell better stories with the new hardware it means better facial animation, better, more realistic characters. In fact we're actually using digital doubles,” he says.
“That's the future of what we have right now. The characters look exactly like the actor. Every performance and every nuance is now captured from motion capture and translated on screen directly. So we're really capturing everything in the facial movements.”
The notion of ‘digital doubles’, even on new gen hardware, is an ambitious statement to make. Hakkinen is confident however that the studio has been able to jump right across the uncanny valley and ensure characters look lifelike and won’t cause a sense of unease amongst players.
“We were worried, until we saw the results that the technology is doing,” he states.
“We've been working towards this for a very long time. We've been building different types of techniques and technologies. Now that we have the power to actually achieve that, what we've always dreamed of, it almost feels like we jumped straight over the uncanny valley.
“Whereas we were on the edge before we went into there, with the next generation project for Quantum Break we kind of missed all of that, and we're talking about now digital doubles.
“There are of course elements there that need fine tuning. One of the downsides if you like of everything being so accurate is that sometimes, a flaw, a natural flaw, can seem like a mistake. So if someone has, for instance, a weird walk, it's his exact walk, but in the game because it's not perfect, and none of us are perfect, it might look like it's not correct.
“So then sometimes we may need to readjust their walk cycle or we may need to adapt to certain things so people don't look at it like it's an actual mistake.”
The sense of realism doesn’t just stop at the characters and the live action TV, Hakkinen says Remedy has almost painstakingly recreated as realistic settings and sounds as possible to keep players engrossed in the gameplay.
He likens the effort as similar to that of Alan Wake, in which the developer took over 60,000 photos across the Pacific North West to ensure the surroundings were as realistic as possible. The studio also recorded the ambient sounds of the forest, and even made sure the constellation of stars were accurate to that part of the region.
“We go for an immense amount of detail and we look at those little, intricate things that we can bring into the game to make you feel like you are in that experience,” he says.
“With Quantum Break we're obviously doing a hell of a lot of research yet again and at the same time we are pushing the characters forward to now fit into that world even better, make these realistic environments and worlds that give you that sense of place.”
Remedy’s ambitions and hopes are high, but Remedy’s core focus on telling stories in games means the studio at least has the know how to take a stab at tying together the TV and games mediums in to one package.
Hakkinen remarks: “We know that our experience is going to be very revolutionary and just looking at what we have right now, we can see that we're going to set a bar."