We're no strangers to the concept of the sympathetic villain in video games. Mass Effect's Illusive Man was a cold, calculating bastard who would stop at nothing to put humanity on top of the galactic food chain. But, despite that, I wouldn't consider him evil. He took no pleasure in the awful acts that his Cerberus organisation had to enact – he believed that he had no choice, that fate had forced his hand.
Likewise, if we look over to Rocksteady's Arkham games, and the wider Batman mythos at large, we find a multitude of villains who aren't that way just for the sake of it – like Mr Freeze, who just wants to save his dying wife. These characters remain villains though, because while they believe their actions to be following the only path left open to them, the heroes of the stories ultimately show that there is a better way. Remedy's new Quantum Break has once again highlighted that the antagonist of any given piece of fiction need not be A Bad Guy, because, basically, I agree with its villain, Paul Serene. Ergo, I'd have rather played as the villain in Quantum Break.
Okay, here's your spoiler warning. If you've not played Quantum Break, and don't want its plot ruined, click away now.
The story opens with Paul Serene and the player-controlled "hero" character, Jack Joyce, performing a time-travel experiment that literally blows up in their faces, causing a fracture in time that will ultimately lead to the end of time. Think of it like a crack on a windshield, growing in size until the whole thing shatters; or, as Jack's brother Will so fantastically puts it: "If time is an egg, then that egg is fucking broken. The time egg is fucked." Almost immediately after the explosion, the private security troops of a company called Monarch Solutions raid the facility. Jack escapes with his brother, while Paul proceeds into the time machine, and into the future.
It turns out the future isn't all it's cracked up to be, what with time itself having broken down. After being hunted down by a mysterious woman and other horrors at the end of time, Paul escapes to the past, 17 years before his experiment with Jack, and begins trying to prevent the fracture from ever happening. Part of this involves founding Monarch Solutions (which explains how they were there, so fast, after the accident). And it's here where things get interesting, as Paul runs into something known as the predestination paradox.
The predestination paradox is a causal loop, that is to say, a series of events that lead to their own beginning. Confused? Don't worry, paradoxes are meant to mess with your mind, and are by their very nature paradoxical. But what this all means, basically, is that any attempt to go back in time and prevent an event from happening will either fail, or inadvertently lead to said event happening in the first place. Paul tries to stop a man committing suicide, someone he and Jack saw when they were younger; but his presence there startles the man, causing him to fall from a building and to his death. He couldn't stop it happening, because his future self had already failed to prevent it. I know, my brain is screaming too. In summary: you can't change the past, at least not following the rules laid down in Quantum Break.
Paul eventually comes to accept that he is bound by the laws of predestination and that he can't stop the fracture in time from occurring, whereupon he comes up with the frankly astounding idea to circumnavigate the problem altogether. He can't stop the end of time, but he can survive it and then restart time afterwards. It's fucking brilliant and he'd have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for that meddling idiot Jack Joyce.
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Now, I like Jack as a character, but he doesn't exactly put a lot of thought into his plan of action, his own attempts to rectify the damage done. He witnesses (what appears to be) the death of his brother at the hands of Paul, and sets off on a revenge-driven murder spree that would make even Uncharted's Nathan Drake blush. Jack risks everything, and eventually destroys Serene's Lifeboat Protocol, the project set up to protect people from the breaking down of time. He does so despite everyone else in the story, including his own brother, who turns out not to be dead and who invented the game's means of time travel, insisting he cannot ultimately succeed, and that time will undo itself, no matter what.
Will helps Jack with the plan to stop the fracture, but does so not knowing that Paul has already seen the end of time, which proves that their plan will fail before it has even begun. Still with me? Good, good. Will doesn't know that the plan is doomed to fail, but Jack does, yet he ploughs ahead with it anyway, ignoring all the evidence that the end of time can't be stopped. He represents the very worst excesses of stereotypical heroes: the idea that a can-do attitude and a blissful ignorance of the facts can lead you to victory. The worst thing is that many people will come away from Quantum Break thinking the fool gets away with it, but he doesn't.
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By Quantum Break's conclusion, all Jack has done is delay the end of time; Paul saw it happen and it is still going to happen. Throughout the game, we're told that Paul didn't expect the fracture to happen so soon, that they'd have years before they reached the end of time. It's an inevitability, but all Jack's actions have guaranteed is that there's no life-preserving Lifeboat Protocol to shelter in, deep underground, when everything up top goes to shit.
Even with the player making the most ruthless decisions at the game's "Junction" points, in which we control Paul to determine his own course of action "against" Jack, he never shows malice or evil. He regrets the price that must be paid to save the human race, but make no mistake: he respects that it needs to be paid. He's the one person in the story who's trying to do the right thing. He's the one person who's fully aware of what's about to go down. He's the real hero, whose attempts to preserve the human race are ruined by a gun-toting dude driven by vengeance. I'd rather have played as him, as the "villain", than a guy cathartically carving up the place with nary a thought for the consequences.
Quantum Break is out now for Xbox One and PC. Visit the game's website for more information.
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