Video Games

The Best Time-Loop Story Out There Is on the PS5

Deathloop makes repetition feel like anything but.

In a 3D animated style, a man with a gun in each hand falls backward. A fist and raised boot can be seen from the player's perspective.
Arkane Studios

On paper, Deathloop sounds like another entry in the seemingly endless parade of games, movies, and TV shows about time loops—a period of time that repeats again and again and again, until our hero can figure out how to reset the flow of time and move forward once again. Much has been written about the ubiquity of these stories: There’s Russian Doll, Happy Death Day, Palm Springs, and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, to name only a few recent, well-known examples. A glut of time loop games from over the last half decade include titles as diverse asThe Sexy Brutale, Outer Wilds, Minit, Elsinore, and Gnosia, among those most acclaimed. This year in particular is stacked with games in which players must return to the same time and place ad infinitum, from Returnal to 12 Minutes and The Forgotten City.

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Time loops stories are clearly in vogue right now, but they aren’t new. The trope itself goes back to 1965 with the Japanese serialized novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and it became an American staple following 1993’s Groundhog Day. Since then, the idea has reappeared with increasing frequency all over media, most memorably to gamers in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask in 2000, in which you relive the same apocalyptic three-day cycle in an attempt to stop the moon from smashing into the world.

It makes sense why we like watching or playing a character traveling through the same day, hour, or even minute over and over; it is a powerful metaphor for exploring regret, missed connections, post-traumatic stress, arrested development, the endless mundanity of life, yadda yadda yadda. The time loop is both a classic trope and one that feels decidedly of our mid-to-post-pandemic moment, what with all of us spending so much time locked inside, experiencing the same anxious tedium day in and day out.

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But as the time loop has evolved from a narrative trope into a bonafide genre in its own right, it’s starting to feel like we might be stuck in a time loop ourselves, consuming the same story over and over again. Maybe there are so many of them not because of their inherent poetic resonance, but simply because they’re familiar, comfortable, and saleable. In our current year, “It’s Groundhog Day but with X this time!” often sounds more like a threat than a genuine creative brief.

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[Read: Palm Springs’ Theoretical Physicist on the Science Behind the Movie’s Twists]

And yet, I still love these kinds of stories—but even I am starting to feel a little looped out with the sheer number of them. But Deathloop, which launched on PlayStation 5 and PC on September 14th, shows there’s still some temporal juice left in the time loop.  Deathloop is a masterful fusion of looping narrative and gameplay elements delivered with a level of swing, verve, and boldness rarely seen in the aesthetically conservative world of big budget video games.

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Deathloop’s individual pieces are not all that unique. The game is rooted in developer Arkane Studios’ last decade of narrative-driven action titles, especially in Dishonored, its sequel, and Prey. These are immersive first-person action/adventure games, which give players all sorts of fun movement abilities and combat powers, then let players solve problems in their own way, either through stealth, brute force, or other forms of trickery. Deathloop retains many of these same, engrossing hallmarks, emphasizing that open-ended approach to problem solving—but, crucially, within a far less linear, almost experimental structure.

Each day, our protagonist, Colt, a worn-out, wise-cracking amnesiac, wakes up on a beach on his time loop island with a mission to break the loop. After a set of tutorial missions, Colt is given free rein to explore the four regions of the island: a city, a carnival, the coastline, and a scientific installation, all designed around a fluorescent, extremely groovy 1960s retro-futurist aesthetic. After four time periods (​​morning, noon, afternoon, and evening), the same day abruptly starts anew, and you once again awake on the beach. Over time, you find ways to bring things over from loop-to-loop, amassing an arsenal of weapons, and a sense of progression. More important than the guns, though, is the information you acquire: Each time you head out on a mission, you gather new clues and data points, which can be used in future loops to learn more about the origins of the island, to more efficiently kill your nemeses, or to get new gear or powers. All of this with the goal to achieve a final perfect loop by killing off a cadre of narratively important island residents and end the cycle forever.

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One example of how this all comes together: In trying to take out one of those targets, the maniacal graphic designer and artist Fia Zborowska, I descended into her bunker and was quickly spotted by her henchmen, causing Fia to explode the bunker’s nuclear reactor, killing everyone on the island, resetting the loop, losing significant progress. It happened multiple times, but each time I went down there, I gained a sliver of knowledge  to use on my next run, and each time, I made it a little bit further into the bunker using the information I learned the last go around. Eventually, after about a half-dozen tries I found a chart in a workshop and figured out how to disable her reactor, allowing me to take out Fia without risking a meltdown. It’s an incredibly satisfying, well, loop.

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The best time loop games, like 2019’s Outer Wilds, use these kinds of iterative experiences to create a sense of awe as you come to understand the clockwork mechanics of their virtual universes. But what sets Deathloop apart from others of its ilk is also how unashamedly gamey it is. The game is predicated on  running, jumping, shooting, and teleporting, but these traditional video game actions never feel disconnected from its more probing narrative premise.

One reason this experience feels so elegant is because a time loop is a macro-expression of one of the base units of gaming: the gameplay loop. A gameplay loop is the basic set of actions performed in a game, with minor variation, which structures the experience of playing. Mario runs to the right, jumps on turtles, until he dies, and starts all over. Pac-Man collects pellets while being chased by/chasing after ghosts, until you get all the pellets and do it again, slightly faster this time. All video games already operate on a kind of loop, and games whose stories center a time loop just make that connection explicit: It’s the deep structure of video games, narrativized.

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If the time loop genre continues to thrive as a genre in games past this current moment, I think it will be for this meta-reason. Playing games, like the experience of being stuck in a time loop, are things we do over and over again with minimal variation. We play them for a sense of achievement, for a good story, or for a hit of dopamine. But when you break it down into its base parts, we’re really just looking at the same screen, pushing the same buttons in slightly different variations, over and over again. Deathloop, like all time loop games, is a metaphor for itself—and an exceptionally entertaining metaphor at that.

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