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The science behind the time travel in Quantum Break

The science behind the time travel in Quantum Break


Knocked for a loop

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In the interest of determining whether Quantum Break is living up to its hype as smart science fiction — a real physicist consulted on the game! — we asked our science editor, Liz Lopatto, play the game and render a verdict.

Here’s the thing: Liz mostly does not play video games. Our reviewer for Quantum Break, Casey Newton, joined her in conversation to share her bewilderment, and also to show her how to use the Xbox controller, which has way too many buttons.

quantum break

Casey Newton: Liz, we recently played through Quantum Break, a new third-person shooter from Remedy Entertainment that takes periodic breaks to become a terrible television show. The whole story involves time travel, and the question of whether the past can be changed. My understanding is that so far, in the real world, no one has built a working time machine. But I also hear that physicists do take the question of time travel seriously, and Quantum Break consulted with one such scientist in developing its story. Did it all feel like hokum to you, or is there a germ of possibility in its story?

Liz Lopatto: Well, I mean, time travel happens. You and I are both traveling through time, currently! I will grant it’s at the not-very-exciting rate of one hour per hour, but still, walking isn’t the same as sitting still. Going forward in time is not a problem, and we know it’s possible to slow time down by accelerating your body very fast, which is why Scott Kelly aged 1/100th of a second less on the ISS than his brother did on Earth.

Time travel in the game obeys the rules of time travel as we understand it

But to your question — time travel backward is not well understood. I’m not even sure it’s possible. You’d need something really powerful, like the gravitational field of a black hole, to move backwards. In fact, the game does mention generating one, now that I’m thinking about it. Nice touch.

Quantum Break gameplay mostly treats time like it’s magic — I’m thinking of the "time shield" specifically. And there’s a move where you can freeze your enemies so you can shoot a clip of ammo into them all at once, and the "time blast" thingie. I think most people know that’s not real? But the actual time travel in the game does obey the rules of time travel as we understand it: you can’t go backwards in time to a time before a time machine has been built, for instance. And no one does.

A consequence of breaking time is that time itself will cease

Casey: Which is a shame, because there’s a very specific person from 2006 that I need to tell myself not to sleep with. Quantum Break is concerned with bigger problems, though. One of its more elaborate conceits is that time can be "broken" — how, exactly, it never really says — and that a consequence of breaking time is that time itself will cease. Does that seem to be theoretically possible? Can physics tell us anything about whether time will have an end — or whether it had a beginning, for that matter?

Liz: This is an extremely complicated question, it turns out! The Big Bang — the singularity that launched the Universe — is so dense that all known laws of physics would have broken, presumably including time. Stephen Hawking argues that time begins at the Big Bang, just because nothing that happens before it is observable. (There is a slight hiccup here about imaginary time, but we won’t worry about it.) Lee Smolin suggests time evolved over the course of existence. Of course some scientists, like Julian Barbour, think time doesn’t actually exist at all — so it never began and will never end.

As for time ending — well, if the theory that the Universe will collapse back into a singularity is right, that’d do it. If it’s not, if we just keep expanding forever, I suppose time goes on forever. (Remember: time and space are the same thing.) But I think the "break" in time the game posits is pretty much magic. (Physicists: please feel free to correct me on this!) It’s really interesting, though, narratively — Doctor Who has played with the ideas of "cracks" in time, and "broken" time, where all things exist simultaneously.

quantum break

Casey: If nothing else, it makes for a rich narrative. Time travel is endlessly fun to talk about, even if it famously trips novelists into knots — it seems like there’s basically no way to write a story involving time travel that doesn’t involve a bunch of deadpan nonsense. (Take a drink every time they say "chronon particles" in Quantum Break and you’ll be dead by the second act.) That said, do you have a favorite time travel story — either because it adheres more rigorously to the science than most, or because it ignores it spectacularly?

Take a drink every time they say 'chronon particles'

Liz: Haha the chronon particles. This is the magic I’m talking about! That is just magic.

Gosh. I love Slaughterhouse Five, obviously — it’s a really cool way of using time travel to represent PTSD. Philip K. Dick of course writes about time travel in several stories (Dr. Futurity, "Martian Time-Slip," "Paycheck," you could make an argument for Ubik as well). And it shows up in The Martian Chronicles as an illusion and a parable about nostalgia. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, makes the smartest move of all and just never explains how it happened. It’s a story, you can do that!

Time travel narratives, I think, are the modern version of classic stories that deal with prophecy. Take, for instance, Oedipus Rex: what sets the whole thing in motion is Oedipus’s father, hearing that his son will kill him and marry his mother, leaving his baby to die exposed in the wilderness. The baby, of course, is rescued, and Oedipus grows up never knowing his true identity — and then unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. Compare that to the plot of Looper, where an assassin time-travels back to basically kill a baby Hitler, which is what makes baby Hitler happen in the first place.

quantum break

Casey: I have to say, the culture has now given us so many narratives warning us against trying to kill Baby Hitler that I’m starting to suspect a plot. If you’re Baby Hitler, isn’t this exactly the narrative you would advance?

But your comments about time travel as a modern-day take on prophecy are well taken. Both feel like meditations on fate and free will. Without spoiling Quantum Break, I’ll say that I found myself unexpectedly moved by the conclusion — in which a character vows to try to change the past once again, even though it remains unclear whether such changes are even possible in the world of the game.

Speaking of time, we’re almost out. But I have to ask — as someone who doesn’t spend much time playing games where you run around shooting people with semi-automatic weapons, how did you enjoy murdering people?

Liz: Well, I kept the physics of time travel in mind. If the game’s type of time travel really exists, we must give up free will. That means it’s impossible, for instance, to change the future by going to the past — it creates a paradox. If going back in time can create paradoxes, then backward time travel doesn’t exist. So I was very, very sympathetic to our main villain, Paul Serene, throughout the game, and not just because he’s played by the handsome and charming Aidan Gillen. He’s right! If you saw time break down, it’s going to break down. You’d better get ready and find a place to hide.

As for the game itself, the last first-person shooter I played was Counterstrike, and that was a decade ago. I don’t like them! At times I was just like, well, okay, I’m gonna indiscriminately kill a few more dudes because I’d really like to see how this plays out. The cut scenes are great, a compelling TV show basically that you have to murder the hell out of a bunch of goons to get to. (Okay, I thought some of the plots were a little cheesy in the TV show, but most TV is cheesy.) I hate the controls, while we’re at it. If you’re a noob (HELLO I AM A NOOB), there’s not a lot of time to get used to operating both the camera and the hero’s movements.

Like Sleep No More if the main audience interaction was killing the performers

I liked that Jack Joyce was an idiot, though. His backstory is pretty thin so I have chosen to believe he’s basically a modern Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. He was working for Blackwater (or Academi or whatever they’re calling themselves these days) and lying about being at an ashram or whatever. Fine. But the shoot ‘em ups were less compelling to me than solving the puzzles the game leaves lying around, or the fun/difficult platformer parts. I also liked finding narrative objects around the game — it was a little like attending Sleep No More, except the main audience interaction was killing the performers. It was especially weird to murder a bunch of these goons when one of the goons gets a backstory and family. How many fictional children did I leave fatherless, motherless, or orphaned? Yeesh. I don’t know, Casey, you play more video games than I do — what did you make of it?

Casey: Quantum Break is actually right in my gaming wheelhouse: I love story-driven games that blend together combat, puzzle-solving, and platforming. And even if the time travel elements can feel a bit silly — you have to walk in a circle inside the time machine because why? — they did give me plenty to chew on in between murder sprees. When the credits stopped rolling, I found myself wishing very much that there will be a sequel. Time will tell.