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31st October 2018
Behind The Shifters, Quantum Break's Creepiest Level
[Halloween 2018 / Spoilers!]

Happy Halloween! A few years ago, we posted our top five scares from Remedy's titles, an article just shy of Quantum Break's launch. As Quantum Break includes possibly one of the creepiest levels from any of their games, it felt appropriate to return to the 2016 adventure in a special Shifter-related piece and look at how everything came together to form one of the "nopiest" enemies and level.

[Naturally, as we're going to be delving deeper into a level near the end of the game, there's going to be a pretty huge spoiler warning on this article. Consider yourself warned! There might also be a Trypophobia warning with one of the concept artwork pieces.]

For most of the game, the biggest threat to Jack and the player is Monarch. Throughout the company's seventeen years, Serene has built up a hefty science organisation and with it a military one. How much of a hardline approach Monarch takes on the Riverport citizens depends on the junction moments, but with technology to move within a stutter and tough armour, they continually provide a challenge to the protagonist. In the final few levels, that battlefield begins to change. As Jack breaks into Monarch HQ, time is beginning to collapse, with deadly stutters and anomalies taking place all over the world. As time stops and starts repeatedly it awakens the Shifters who exist within Zero State.

Shifters are also referred to as "Chronon Disrupted Lifeforms" or "Chronon Disrupted Wave Function Subjects", and consists of a number of different versions of a person from different timelines existing within one point in time. They can only exist within a Zero State, with certain exceptions, and in their domain they can be extremely hostile to anything alien to them that moves. Outside entities that move move within Zero State causes them physical pain, whether that's Monarch soldiers with Chronon Dampeners or Jack himself.

While they are only mentioned for the majority of the game, and seen more closely in the final stages of the game, the first glimpse of a Shifter can actually be seen in the road just before entering the university. Just try turning your back on the guy by the lamp.

Early concepts for the Shifters focused on beings living outside time itself. Originally referred to within Remedy as "time monsters", the creatures were planned to be another kind of enemy that Jack battles in the game but were later changed to being an "environmental" challenge. As quick and ruthless beings, they would have the power to slaughter everything in their path, defeating a group of heavily armed Monarch troops with little difficulty. While their presence in the game was dialled back as development progressed, the lack of focus on these Zero State dwellers and their existence as something "other" makes them undeniably creepy.

Their physical presence went through several iterations throughout the game;s six years of development. Above are some early enemy artwork by Remedy's concept artist, Ville Assinen, showcasing the various manifestations of the enemies. Some experiments focused on the idea of the Shifters being distorted, silhouetted beings towering over theirs enemies, whereas others portrayed the enemies as being more animalistic. In both examples, inspiration was taken from rock formations which had been eroded by wind and sand over time, giving the sense of ancient beings worn from age. Fragments of their human selves would remain but those familiar features would also be disfigured; from their elongated, claw-like fingers to soulless, screaming faces, it's clear that whatever the Shifters are, they're not human anymore.

While they are a common sight in Monarch HQ, the first actual sighting of a Shifter moving within Zero State can be seen very early on in the game. As Jack and Will escape the university, the player can spot Hatch watching over the events as the brothers leave the elevators. If the player begins to leave and then turns around, Hatch will suddenly disappear from the location, an uneasy sight given that everyone is meant to be frozen.
While players aren't expected to make the Hatch connection straight away, it does indicate that something seemingly-unnatural is happening in connection with the Project Promenade experiment, and that Jack isn't alone in his abilities. As the concept of Shifters hadn't been explained before that point, the easter egg rewards gamers who replay the title.

Despite seeing the warnings and knowing the level of destruction Shifters can cause from Monarch's internal communications, it's only through seeing them move in person that the threat is truly realised. The first display of their power takes place as Jack is using a stutter-proof lift to reach the higher levels of the tower. Throughout the lift window, he can only watch the destruction as a Shifter easily defeats a Striker army. It's a chilling scene as it clearly shows the overwhelming power the creatures have, a scene that turns even more unsettling at the end as the Shifter in question heads in the same direction Jack is.
"You all know the drill, we have trained for this. DO NOT APPROACH SHIFTERS ALONE. Remember that they are not restricted by the physical space in the same way we are. Deploy dampeners and watch your backs. Work in teams, remember your tactics, MAINTAIN YOUR DISTANCE. Don't take any unnecessary chances." - Email, Shifter Alert [Ogawa]. 

Perhaps the most disturbing moment in Quantum Break is coming face to face with a Shifter. While exploring Monarch HQ during Zero State, Jack stumbles across a darkened corridor. He squeezes through the semi-opened door but only fully takes in the room once inside. It's a blood bath. Suspended in mid air are dead Monarch troops in various roles and armour; most are Strikers, the glowing trail of their broken Chronon Dampeners revealing a sudden death. At the end of the corridor is a silhouetted figure, while humanoid in shape, the image is constantly moving and distorted. As Jack takes a step closer to get a better look, it launches towards him, suddenly in front of him, catching Jack off guard and knocking him back. Normal time resumes as he hits the floor and the Shifter is gone.
"What the fuck. Was that Hatch?"

While there's several indications that something shady is happening with Hatch, it's hard to tell if Hatch is a "good" or "bad" guy. While his situation and actions are complicated, his brutal attack on the Monarch soldiers under his command and the attempted attack on Jack underlines that while he's dangerous as a friend, he's deadly as a villain.

Whether Shifters are friends or foe remains to be seen. Throughout the game, Hatch's actions were routinely questionable, and while he ultimately helped Jack recover the Countermeasure and restore time, he would also have no qualms killing directly or indirectly Riverport civilians and Monarch troops.

Serene's case is more clear cut, as the antagonist in the game. His choices and drive throughout the episodes are somewhat destructive but even so, as he begin to turn into a Shifter, his personality and behaviour suddenly changed, becoming more aggressive and desperate. Comparisons can be made between how the behaviour of a person changes as they change into a Shifter, and Ville's early concept artwork of a Shifter's appearance, as they both physically lose their identity and human traits.

Outside of Monarch, there are two people who have potentially turned or will turn into Shifters. The first is Jack who begins to experience effects of the Chronon Syndrome after restoring time. There's also Beth who was perceived to be shot but who had a much higher dose of Chronon Radiation before her death than Jack or Serene had. While considered as the "good guys" throughout the game, at the moment it's hard to tell how much of the humanity of a person remains once they have completely transformed and how much control their original selves truly has.

But there's also a sense that the Shifter can be compassionate. In the final episode, Jack discovers an "Untitled Note" left by Hatch (although the name is not directly given), seemingly left for Serene but fitting closer to Jack's situation:
There are other shifters. You. Your best friend who is now your mortal enemy. Dr Kim. Others, some of whom you know. It doesn't matter who, because they are gone, and when they emerge, if they ever emerge, they will not be who they were, just as I am not who I was before. I have done my part in helping you all achieve this state.

If time is an ocean with a frozen surface then the stutters and the End of Time are holes in that ice. Opportunities to come up for air.

I have a plan. It's already in motion. But it would be futile to try to explain it to you, like trying to explain three dimensions to someone who can only see one. But make no mistake; I do not look down on you. I strive for humility even as I shift this world from one state to another. I will make this possible. I stand in between. I don't see myself as a gate. I remain humble. I'm something smaller. A hatch."


The Control Series

The Crossfire Series

The Quantum Break Series

The Alan Wake Series

The Max Payne Series




Icons by the incredible, Evil-Owl-Loki.

Beyond the shadow you settle for, there is a miracle illuminated.