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Chris Avellone sheds light on Into The Breach's time-travel mysteries

The million timeline question

If there's one thing that grips me more about Into The Breach than the razor-sharp tactics of its death-chess scenarios, it's trying to wrap my flabby brain about the dark possibilities and implications of its terse but tantalising plot. I've already espoused one possible and particularly fatalistic reading of what's going on - the idea that every time your team of time-travelling Mechs wins, loses or otherwise begins a new campaign, they spawn a new timeline full of human suffering - but without definitive answers from the game itself, that's little more than a guilt-stricken guess.

Time to go the source, then, that being Into The Breach writer - and writer, designer or both on a long list of revered games including Planescape: Torment, Fallout: New Vegas, KOTOR 2, Pillars of Eternity, Prey and ITB predecessor FTL - Chris Avellone. Though Into The Breach very much considers brevity to be a virtue when it comes to dialogue, its short lines drip with implication about the rules of time travel, parallel realities and the motivations and peccadilloes of its pilots. It was pretty clear to me that there was a vast spider-web of careful fiction behind the minimalist facade, and Avellone's expansive answers about where and when the Mechs come from and exactly what happens when they breach only confirm that.

But, for every question they answer, they open up a dozen more. As is only right.

Note - for the first portion of this interview, Chris Avellone presents his answers as reported speech from the Mech pilots themselves - "because I’m an unreliable narrator, I thought I’d complicate the issue of Into the Breach’s background by presenting several unreliable narrators", as he puts it. The pilots have their own readings on the game's multiple timelines, and as such there is no definitive answer. Again, as is only right.


RPS: The biggie first. Does ITB have multiple timelines because a new timeline is created every time the mechs go back in time, or because a (presumably infinite) number of other timelines already exist and they are trying to save humanity in as many of them as possible? Or something else entirely?

Chris Avellone: The pilots have different theories. Isaac Jones’s belief (who’s the pre-imminent Breach researcher in the game – and I’ll paraphrase his answer so his neural lag s-s-stuttering isn’t p-p-present) is at some point in the “future” or “a future”, the first Breach caused an explosion of tachyons that went both forward and backward in time.

Isaac does not know when or why this breach occurred, but believes it was on purpose and was likely a laboratory test. He claims that if there weren’t multiple timelines before, that tachyon explosion (the “Big Breach Bang” as his colleagues would tease him about… but they’re all dead now) caused a fragmentation of timelines – into how many, he doesn’t know, nor would he be able to track the divergences since that would require knowing the details of the explosion, the tachyon output, and many other factors that are almost impossible to plot out.

Now the problem is, if this theory is true, every time a breach occurs, multiple timelines are created. If a timeline is lost, then other timelines are created… but if a timeline is saved and the pilots travel onwards, then that means the surviving pilots can go to other timelines, and if enough successes occur, eventually, all new timelines could be saved from the Vek based on law of averages.

Isaac believes (er, h-h-hopes) it is “unlikely” that localized breaches cause new timelines, but even he can’t be sure. He thinks it’s unwise to test the theory.

Archimedes has a different theory and believes multiple timelines exist, and it would be “unlikely” that the tachyon emissions could explain the wide variance in timeline possibilities (such as his own, where Pinnacle is much, much different and much more advanced than any of the other timelines he’s seen).

Archimedes also inadvertently mentions a space station during his barks, but he has never encountered one except in his Origin Timeline that he knows of.

Ralph Karlson has a different theory – because he’s not a scientist, he’s a soldier. He believes the breach technology was invented and used out of desperation to save a single timeline, and the consequences of what would happen were unknown. He believes the best way to stop the Vek is to find a way to return to the original timeline, destroy the Vek at the source, then destroy the breach technology from ever being made.

Ralph has also mentioned that he’s seen “earlier” Mechs far more primitive than the ones in the game, and he has made a casual mention that the Mech technology is currently advanced because he suspects the schematics have been continually sent back in time, modified, iterated on, and improved to reach the level of Mech technology that are in the game. (This is technically reinforced in the gameplay loop, all the way to the Secret Squad unlock, so it’s likely obvious to any Pilot that’s fought through enough timelines to unlock a new squad.)

That said, this isn’t always clear to everyone on the Islands he travels to. If he happened to mention this to the right people they could potentially trace the “commented” fields in various schematics to get a sense for how far back some of the Mechs go (although unlikely all the way to the source). That said, he hasn’t mentioned it because he tries to be close-lipped when entering any new timeline because he doesn’t trust anyone he meets, especially CEO Kern, any version of Renfield, and a few encounters with Abe (in different plastic surgery and identities) and one timeline’s particularly psychotic Isaac Jones.

It is possible Harold Schmidt may have already discovered this as well, but then again, the eccentric mechanic is not always aware of what’s important and what’s not when he shares information on the Mechs – he’s more interested in their current iterations, not how they got that way – sometimes he even forgets there’s a war going on.

Chris Avellone could not be reached for comment, but his answer would be, “whatever causes the most drama but still gives the heroes a chance to win across every timeline, no matter the odds.”


RPS: How does the Reset Turn option function, which entails jumping back just a few minutes, affect the timelines?

Avellone: Isaac Jones believes Resets are a “hop” in the same timeline – but even he can’t be sure they aren’t causing some sort of damage or splitting the timeline.

He hopes they aren’t, or else each one puts more and more timelines at risk. He thinks it’s a very dangerous use of the breach technology, though, and if it wasn’t for the war against the Vek, unauthorized breaches should be prohibited (much like teleporting biological matter was prohibited before the war by the Corporate Accords).

Chris Avellone believes Reset Turns should not damage the player’s play experience or make them feel more terrible than they may already feel from having to Reset a crappy turn in the first place.

RPS: Why are the Mech pilots putting themselves through the hell of doing this again and again and again, as opposed to feeling that their task is complete after saving one timeline?

All the pilots have different reasons as to why – so I’ll list them.

Bethany Jones (Isaac’s sister) has the best answer – she believes other timelines always existed and need their help. It’s their duty to keep fighting and save as many people as possible. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself knowing other timelines were being destroyed by the Vek.

Lily, Camila, Chen, and Isaac (reluctantly, because he’s not a fighter) would agree with this.

Archimedes wants to get home. But all these humans need saving, no matter where they are. It’s in his circuits. Silly humans. No wonder the robots should be in charge.

Silica and Prospero have a duty they were programmed to do – and want to do, even if in Prospero’s case, it’s not his primary function. He just wants to go back to his garden on Archive and help things grow, but as long as there’s more battles to be fought, they will keep fighting.

Gana wants the war to end, everywhere it takes place, so he can go back to his real job and finally enjoy his work again.

Henry would probably like to stay so he can revel in the glory, but secretly, he would feel bad if he knew people were suffering, and also, like Abe, he’d admit that how the hell else are they getting off the end island, since “extraction” is impossible. Henry, unlike Abe, blames CEO Kern for never caring to prioritize an extraction.

Abe would likely say because there’s no way off the damn island at the end except to breach out. But the fact he keeps checking on the status of his family secretly on every timeline is probably a motivator, probably based on something in his original timeline (he has a chance of referring to this in his comments in the final mission).

Ralph does it because he can’t imagine doing anything else but keep fighting – even though he’s lost again, again, and again, he refuses to give up. He has to believe there’s a way to cut off the head of the snake but whatever his solution is, it’s possible that it’s something that the kind-hearted pilots wouldn’t be in favor of – so he doesn’t say anything. His solution is on a need-to-know basis.

Chris Avellone believes for every timeline that you save, and every pilot you save, allows for +1 more timeline to be saved from the Vek (so if you fail, no matter how many pilots, you lose ground. If one is saved, you keep the scales level, but if two or three pilots are saved, that means there’s a chance you can save more additional timelines). There has to be hope.

RPS: Just how far in the future do the pilots come from? And how did the Vek invasion play out in their own past?

The pilots never seem to come from any Origin Timeline that’s roughly more than 2 weeks older than the reset date, but this has never been reliably tracked.

There are some pilots that genuinely can’t confirm their origin point, and ones that won’t.

The only one who is suspected to have lied when questioned about his Origin Timeline “end date” is Ralph Karlson.

Abe is almost 99% sure to have been lying about both his identity and any details about his origin timeline, although he either gives no answer or a complete well-thought-out lie that never registers on any existing lie detector in any timeline due to his R.S.T. implants.

RPS: Can you give me a sense of just how much more of this stuff, and things like the personas and relationships between the pilots, you fleshed out compared to the brevity of the in-game storytelling? For instance, there's this idea that Bethany and Isaac are technically brother and sister but never lived in the same timeline - did you ever run with the consequences of this, whether they met, how it affected them?

Avellone: It is a challenge - so sometimes the elements were fleshed out beforehand, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes the “tone” for each character that was chosen when work began ended up rewriting the original premise (Prospero) or enforced an original direction (Dewey).

In short, I always like to know the following before writing each character:

1. Their power/trait – whenever possible, you want to write a character so their power is explained and reinforced by their background, but their power can change a lot during gameplay balancing (ex: Issac Jones used to freeze water tiles he was standing on vs. double Turn Reset – but the double Turn Reset power was critical for how he was finally written). Sometimes, due to balance reasons, the powers get shifted around (Prospero shifted late, otherwise I would have changed his character, because his speech doesn’t emphasize flying). Other times, their power stayed constant, so I’d write the background around that (Camila’s ability to evade webs and fly blind I chalked up to her R.S.T. training in her original timeline – but her power determined her background, not vice versa).

2. The intention of the character. Justin and Matthew had some original thoughts with Dewey, Zenith, the Pinnacle bots, etc. (and more), and I liked them and wanted to make sure they came out.I did rein Dewey in a little from his original direction b/c I was worried he’d sound too nonchalant about protecting his museum pieces from the world-consuming Vek, and it wasn’t a good tone to set for the first Island you hit (I wouldn’t have cared he was island three or four, because the tone’s already set by that point with other CEOs). Also, Dewey is important because he helps solidify (for players) where they are compared to “Old Earth”.

3. Other times, it’s just an original direction (Kern, Gana’s insanity, Archimedes).

Bethany and Isaac are a good example – Justin mentioned late in development (or I forgot he mentioned it, which is more likely) that that was the original direction behind the two characters but he wasn’t attached to it.

I couldn’t let go of it, however (I do want to carry out a premise whenever I can, especially since Justin and Matthew built the world – so you want to do what you can to carry out the direction). However, the fact they were brother and sister caused a mental roadblock for me because of the systems: The issue when you have characters with such close ties is that it’s unusual if they can’t banter back and forth (same with romances, same with long-standing squad buddies, friendships, rivalries, or nemesis characters), and we didn’t have support for that – nor did I think it was a good idea to champion late in development.

I have spoilers for the secret pilots and how they were designed, which I’m happy to elaborate on, as that was a completely different process – and the first time I’ve ever faced that challenge that I can recall.

RPS: a related question from Ekkie Ekk on Twitter: "Where do the mechs and time travelers come from? Although we see parts, cores, and pilots in every timeline, we never see a mech."

When a breach occurs, the Mech cannot travel with the pilot (think of each Mech having a Time Pod as an escape mechanism), but the schematics for Mechs and the pilot themselves can travel through the breach.

Justin mentioned that the ostensible goal in each timeline is to take all the schematics of weapons and Mechs and try to get the islands to build as many Mechs and weapons as possible (although each timeline is more or less successful with some weapons, so you don’t get everything – nor could they make everything in the time provided), and sometimes, a timeline has brand-new tech that’s never been seen before.

RPS: Who's your favourite pilot, and why?

I like them all for different reasons otherwise I wouldn’t write them – so I’ll list the pilots and reason for each:

Bethany Bethany because she has the biggest heart (she’s a genuinely good person who cares about others).
archimedes Archimedes because he’s kind of an aristocratic asshole without meaning to be – he’s just matter of fact about his superiority.
Abe Abe Isamu because he’s a ruthless pragmatist – he’s not bragging when he says his lines, he genuinely believes in his own capabilities.
harold I liked Harold, too, because his work ethic is something that I can sympathize with. Including the Pushing.
Henry and Lily were the most fun to write.
Gana I like Gana because I like how he talks to his components.
KERN Even though she’s not a pilot, I also liked writing Kern (CEO of the desert island) because she was so harsh – and when you get her grudging respect, you feel like you’ve really earned it.


Chris also shared this 'additional lore' not covered by the questions, which I pass on as it opens up some delightful new things to think about, particularly the issue of just whose planet is Earth anyway?

"No one calls a Vek an alien. Ralph and the robots have definitely never called them aliens.

Archimedes’ theory on the reasons behind the robotic uprising is never proven true or false – he claims the robot rebellion/crisis on Pinnacle Island is caused by a clash in directives, in which case, the directives for what they’ve been asked to do needs to be systemically analyzed (it hasn’t been, in any timeline – yet).

Harold’s in-game question as to why the Vek attack the buildings is never answered – he does notice they don’t seem to be attacking the structures to eat the citizens."


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Into the Breach

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.