Quantum Break: The Illusion of Time and Knowledge of Self
I first heard of Remedy Entertainment's Quantum Break in 2013, at E3. I had already played this company’s previous masterpiece Max Payne and was thoroughly invested in the mechanics they had developed to alter time and space in the games and stories they design.
Now that I own an Xbox Series X and Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate, I thought it to be a perfect chance to try out Quantum Break. Despite its short duration, spanning approximately 10 hours of playable acts, Remedy Entertainment’s recent installment engages deep spiritual motifs situated within a sci-fi tale that pays homage to cultural epics such as Terminator and Lost that explore the malleability of time and its effects on the human psyche.
Playing as the protagonist Jack Joyce, you begin your journey travelling to Monarch Solutions, a state-of-the-art science research facility run by Jack’s own brother, William, and their mutual friend Paul Serene. William had apparently broken away from Paul over a dispute regarding their work at Monarch, and so Paul had procured Jack’s help in whatever project he was working on.
It becomes immediately clear that Paul had developed a time machine that he wished to use with Jack’s help. As William returns to try and stop Paul, the latter enters the machine just as it breaks down. The Joyce brothers find themselves fugitives running away from Monarch security guards. However, they are not the only ones struggling to survive in this chaos. Time itself has entered a gradual crescendo of stutters, eventually leading to an inevitable halt and end to life as we know it.
Jack’s struggle is made more complex, early on in the game, when he and William see Paul return, this time much older. Apparently, the founder of Monarch had returned from the future, using a similar time machine. However, this time he appears not as a friend of the Joyce brothers, rather their sworn enemy and the antagonist in this futuristic myth.
Jack’s entire journey throughout the game is very straightforward. He must bring life and normalcy back to time, and reverse Paul Serene’s anything but ‘serene’ alteration of our time and space. However, this by itself is not what makes Quantum Break interesting as a story. Rather, it is the designers’ decision to interweave within the five playable acts of this game another five acts of live-action filmed chapters that connect and transition the gamer from one act to another. The actors who appear in these live-action chapters are also those whose virtual apparitions animate the game itself.
Before delving into the mystical significance of time that Quantum Break explores so beautifully, I would like to linger for a few moments on the importance of this cooperative dance between CGI and film that brings this video game to life. Taking into consideration the mixed feedback this decision had received from many gamers, who believed that it would have been a much better choice to simply add more playable content to the game, I think Remedy has made a great artistic statement here.
I often think and wonder about the unique ability of video games to tell stories and weave myths, in comparison, for example, to film and theater. At the most basic level, our ability as gamers to witness the choices we make in each of the five acts of Quantum Break unfold in real human embodiments on film heightens the sense of involvement and our emotional investment in this story. Especially since different choices could yield altogether different filmed sequences. We feel as though we are no longer an audience observing an unfolding narrative, we are make-belief directors who decide the direction of this unfolding.
This vicarious sensation is heightened when we consider the central theme of Quantum Break and our spiritual focus here, time. The Andalusian mystic Ibn al-‘Arabi tells us that time is an illusion, necessarily resulting from the infinite manifestations of God permeating a finite container, the cosmos. Since it is impossible for what is infinite to be fully contained within the finite, the only solution is for the infinite to enter in sequence, one batch at a time, only to leave suddenly, leaving its place for what follows in space.
We human beings are ourselves underdoing this illusion, Ibn al-‘Arabi tells us. Our essences, known as immutable entities, manifest in endless forms throughout this procession of time. We only know ourselves as much as we are living in presence with our countless forms that continuously and incessantly unfold from within our immutable entity and appear in our physical body, self, behaviors, actions and emotional states.
What Quantum Break, as well as Terminator, present us with is an all-too-important philosophical question: what would/could we change about ourselves in the past if we perceived the results of our actions in the future? In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, John Connor and Kate Brewster try to stop, with the help of the T101 played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Artificial Intelligence network Skynet from launching nuclear missiles all over the world and ushering the apocalypse.
However, at the end of the film, John and Kate reach a powerful realization: “I should have realized our destiny was never to stop Judgment Day; it was merely to survive it. Together. The Terminator knew. He tried to tell us, but I didn't want to hear it. Maybe the future has been written. I don't know.” At the beginning of the movie, John Connor seemed convinced that “the future has not been written. There is no fate written for us save what we make ourselves.” However, at the end, the future brought nothing but humility to accept the inevitable, along with the perseverance to make do with the hand we have been dealt by destiny.
Both Jack Joyce and John Connor teach us that we are not responsible for results in our lives, only our attempts and efforts. We may conclude here with a story often mentioned by my spiritual guide, Mawlana Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, of his spiritual guide Mawlana Shaykh Abdullah Fa’iz al-Daghestani who advised his disciples: “If I ask you to empty the ocean in a bucket, do not ask how. Just do it!”
Quantum Break is a reflective mirror of Shaykh al-Daghestani’s instruction: let us empty the ocean of our moments in the bucket of our souls and efforts. There will only remain in the end what has always been, the ocean and its endless waves.