Quantum Break is a video game, it’s also a TV show, in fact it’s both, right at the same time.
If that sounds confusing then don’t panic, it was to us, and it was to its lead actor Shawn Ashmore, until of course he sat down with the video game’s developers Remedy and suddenly the penny dropped.
Ashmore, a long-time gamer will be recognisable from playing the frosty superhero Iceman in the X-Men series of films, he was also in Sky’s The Following.
In and around both of those projects however he’s spent the last two years playing Jack Joyce, a video game character who finds himself endowed with superpowers that give him control over time and an impending apocalypse to stop in the form.
While Ashmore has indeed been donning the motion capture suit he’s also be hitting the set as well because you see Quantum Break isn’t just any video game, it’s something else.
The game’s developers Remedy have always been known for creating games that put the story before anything else, and Quantum Break is the next logical step in that mission: Telling a story with not one, but two mediums.
The result of this merging is an experience that sees you playing as Jack within the video game, and then at the end of each ‘Act’ you watch a short 20min live action show which then tells the story from an entirely different perspective.
Naturally that’s not the only twist, because in Quantum Break you’re making decisions, big ones, that ultimately affect the outcome of both the video game and the live actions shows that you’re watching.
So imagine you’re sitting down with Netflix and suddenly your favourite TV show asks you to make a character’s moral decision for them? It changes everything doesn’t it.
We had a chance to sit down with Ashmore and talk to him about this bold new project which is for him, as much as it is for us, a giant leap of faith.
So how long have you been into video games?
Since I was a kid, my first system was an Intellivision and then you know Nintendo, then Sega Genesis, Xbox, N64 like all of those things, so I’ve been into games as long as I can remember. I will say that the last five years I haven’t really been playing as much as I had because, you know, life gets in the way of gaming sometimes.
We’re starting to see video game audiences massively broaden beyond what I think many people perceive as the classic stereotype of a ‘gamer’. Why do you think that is?
I think the interactive nature of video games is interesting, the level of fantasy and escapism can go up because not only do you watch the superhero you are the superhero. It’s a great escape, it’s great fun and that’s what entertainment and art are, it’s just a way to escape and feel something. I also think to that the technology is getting to such a place where the immersion is so much higher, it’s no longer about 8-bit graphics and thinking of this as kind of a cool novelty. Now it’s like I’m looking at a human being that I understand and as a result the depth of emotion you can get from a video game story matches that which you can get from a film.
I personally don’t think however that games will ever get to a photo real place, there is a level of disconnect and fantasy that you want. So I think that it might actually be strange and not as fun if it was photo real, if that makes sense?
Definitely, there’s that line isn’t there, that you never want to cross.
Exactly, you want the fantasy, you want the escape and you want it to feel real but you never want to be confused by that I don’t think.
We’ve seen motion capture in video games before but this is something else, how did it work?
So being a part of stuff like the X-Men are effects-heavy films but that stuff is all shot practically on set and then the actor disappears and the movie comes out and you’re like ‘Wow I don’t know what they did in the last year but like now I’m Iceman and I’m shooting things and I’m flying around and all that stuff.’ Whereas working on the video game we did a full motion-capture performance so what that really is (and I’m sure most people have seen it) but you wear these skintight spandex suits with all these markers and you’re basically acting in what’s called the ‘Volume’ which is this big sterile white warehouse and there’s nothing there. Like if there’s a table in the scene then there’s a table there but there are no built walls and there’s tape on the ground to mark out where the boundaries are.
It sounds an awful lot like old drama class acting from school?
It is! It feels like high-school drama, you have like a box and there’s your prop. So there’s something really lo-fi about that even though you’re working with pretty much the most up-to-date technology. It’s this weird juxtaposition between like old-school drama class and cutting edge technology.
What’s great about it from an acting perspective though is that it’s really free because you’re creating everything. You’re given artwork so you know what the space is going to look like that’s all pre-designed but obviously we can’t see it so here’s what it’s going to look like, here’s a visual reference and here’s the size of the room to gauge how loud you need to speak.
You mentioned with X-Men that you’d do the scene and then a year later you would finally get to see the finished product. Did working on something like this make you feel more connected to the role then?
This actually felt even more distant because we’ve worked on this for two years, which is longer than I’ve worked on any film. From the beginning to the end I actually spent a tonne of time without seeing the final product. I remember I visited Remedy in Helsinki this Summer and I was like ‘AWESOME, game comes out in April so you must be able to show me some stuff!?’ and they were like ‘You have NO idea how much of this gets done within the last couple of weeks.’ So I sort of felt like in this little bubble where I was acting and I knew what it was going to be but I couldn’t see it, so at least when you’re on set you can see the lighting, at least you can see the design so I did really feel like I was disconnected. Not from a character perspective or a performance perspective but just in terms of the scope and scale of the game – so what it’s going to feel like, what it’s going to look like. I didn’t know that until I sat down and played the game for the first time.
In many ways this sounds more challenging a role then than say acting in a traditional TV/Film, you’re taking a big leap of faith?
It is and it was scary, and that was part of the reason that I wanted to do it. I trusted Remedy and I trusted Xbox in their pitch and what they wanted to do with Quantum Break but the practicality of being there and doing it was kind of scary, I’d never done motion capture. The other thing too is the performance in a video game is very different to a performance in live action so when you’re traversing an area and the player gets lost he has to talk to himself out loud which is not a natural thing to do, it’s exposition to help guide the player and I was like, this feels false. My film brain is telling me that no-one would say this out loud, it’s going to ready as phoney and it’s bizarre.
When did the penny drop for you getting on board?
It was actually really early on. I just got a random call from my agent saying that Xbox has this new IP called Quantum Break and Remedy is developing it and they were like they just want to sit down and talk to you. So I talked to a team at Xbox and I got the really broad strokes: Time travel, here’s the technology we’re using and then I went over to talk to Sam Lake [A legendary video game writer] and one of the writers and one of the directors and that’s when we really dug in. We talked about Jack Joyce for like two days and they had all these ideas but what really brought me in was that they wanted my ideas They weren’t just hiring me to say the lines they were hiring me to bring what I have to offer whether that’s my performing experience or just my general life experience.
This is a very bold and risky project what did Remedy do to convince you that the idea of mixing video game with live action was something that could really work?
To be honest I didn’t know when I signed up, I probably thought like a lot of gamers think this is going to be challenging, and my first question was: ‘Do I want to put down my controller for 20 minutes to watch an episode?’ And I think that’s a very valid question. What convinced me was the story. If I’m involved in a story I want to know more I want to engage and the show is told from a different perspective as the game. That in itself is a smart way to do it because now you’re giving depth to the other side. Paul Serene who is the bad guy in Quantum Break started as Jack’s best friend so we have this depth between these two characters, it’s not just the enemy that you’re trying to defeat it’s this man who you once loved. So it wasn’t just a case of going from Jack Joyce in a video game to Jack Joyce in a live action episode, I didn’t know why anyone would want to do that, but when you’re telling things from a totally different perspective you can then use the best parts of the television medium to tell the story. For example you can’t have two people talking in a video game and make it as interesting, it’s about pushing the story forward.
So rather than two separate things they’re complimentary?
Absolutely. As seamlessly as possible, and that’s how I felt when I played it through the first time. I’ll be honest I didn’t know what to expect. I’d shot the TV stuff and seen that, I’d read the scripts, I’d done the game bits but I didn’t know how they were going to interact. I didn’t know if they were going to be jarring but after about the first three minutes of the first episode I was in. I feel honestly as the show and the game goes forward they get more engaging and now you’re falling in love with some of these characters that are on the opposite sides of each other. You get this added depth because now you’re facing off against this characters that you understand more and that you care about more. I had mixed emotions about going into certain battles because I was like, ‘I like that character!’.
The game takes it even further though doesn’t it because you’re controlling how live action people are going to react as well through the choices you make. Can you see this interactive form of telling a story going any further?
Depending on what people’s experiences with this I see no reason why we shouldn’t keep continuing to experiment and push this medium. I think it’s a great way to tell a story. I mean I don’t know how people will feel about it or how it’s all going to shake out but it’s something that me as a consumer would like to see, so I can only really speak for me. So from my perspective, yeah, I think it’s interesting and I think that there’s something here that can really be taken advantage of.
Can you ever see this control over a plot fully spilling over into TV, so for example you download an episode and it has multiple outcomes?
I think that’ll be the difference between television and games, because there is something great about being passive, about just allowing a storyteller to tell you their story. That has worked for a long time and I think there’s a reason because you give yourself over to a storyteller, so I think that will always exist because it works incredibly well. I don’t necessarily think that TV will make that shift.
The last five to ten years have been incredibly transformative for the entertainment industry with the growth of on-demand, Netflix and binge-watching culture but what’s the one thing that has stood out for you?
I think the biggest thing is what people are calling the ‘Golden Age of Television’ which is that in the past TV used to simply be what you would do if you couldn’t go watch a film. A-list people were doing films and then television was cool, there were good jobs but it wasn’t as prestigious I guess and now some of the best entertainment as far as I’m concerned is on television.
There are obviously still great films coming out but the stuff that I talk about, the stuff that I really covet and get excited about our my shows. I think gaming has that same potential, the passion in gamers I think far exceeds even film buffs? And I think it’s because of that interactivity that they provide and I really understand that. If a game speaks to you, if I watch a game trailer or there’s a new concept and I’m like I need that. It’s that connection that can also mean that games can disappoint much more, because you’re so involved and so engaged…
It’s very much a case of you having responsibility over that character isn’t it? It’s your responsibility to see that your character makes the right choices, whereas with a TV show you’re simply sitting back and watching the choices being made?
It’s already set isn’t it. They’re going to die, they’re going to live, they’re going to fall in love they’re going to break up and you have no ability to change that, and again there’s an absolute place for that. That’s what we’re used to in entertainment but again in a video game in these open sandbox games where you can level characters up or you can make your own villain. I’m thinking things like Fable, so the actions that you choose dictate who you become and how other people react to you.
When I first thought that I thought, ‘Oh I can become the bad guy, so when I interact with people they become scared of me.’ Of course you’re then messing yourself up because your decisions then go on to have wider consequences – characters now won’t talk or help you because you scare them too much. I thought that was a fascinating concept.