video games

An Influx of Time-Loop Video Games Highlight Gaming’s Inescapable Meta Loop

Photo: Bethesda Softworks

It’s another beautiful morning on the Isle of Blackreef. With a gasp, I get my bearings, quickly realizing this is the same beach and yellow sun that I always wake up to. I trudge up the sand and find everything as I’ve found it countless times before: my gun, a hacking device, and an evidence board filled with enough pins, notes, and photos to rival Charlie’s much-memed “crazy wall” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

This is how every day starts in Deathloop. It’s a so-called “immersive sim,” a video-game genre notable for the freedom it gives players to approach situations however they please. Usually this involves barreling into a room guns blazing or, if you’re the cautious type, taking a stealthier approach. Occasionally, as in the Deus Ex series, it means talking yourself into and out of trouble. Befitting its name, Deathloop is also a time-loop video game à la Groundhog Day. It’s up to you, playing as assassin Colt Vahn, to find a way out of the temporal puzzle, albeit with an itchier trigger finger than the ivory-tickling Bill Murray.

In a way, Deathloop is a remarkable game — sharply written, brilliantly voice acted, propulsively actioned, set on a chilly, windswept island enlivened with a dollop of ’60s-era psychedelia. In another way, the game is utterly humdrum. During September alone, three further video games were released featuring time-loop conceits: an expansion for Outer Wilds, a melancholic space explorer that sees the universe reset every 22 minutes; Kraken Academy, a high-school pixel-art adventure; Lemnis Gate, a brain-frazzling online shooter. That’s not all, though. A few months earlier, The Forgotten City arrived, a murder mystery set in ancient Rome; in August, Twelve Minutes invited players to break its own loop that hinged on a chilling home invasion.

How, then, to explain this sudden deluge of déjà vu–inducing video games? Both Deathloop and Twelve Minutes, the two most popular titles that employ this device, offer an answer. In each game, death is unavoidable for the protagonist (heck, it’s in Deathloop’s very name), and what death means in a video game is very different than in a movie or book. In those mediums, the demise of a key character is a narrative tool to wield sparingly; a shocking, thrilling, or even celebratory moment that we remember is full of emotional anguish. But in video games, death can mean little more than the player has made an error. It’s a metaphor for fucking up in a medium reliant on win-fail states.

But there’s nothing about win-fail states actually inherent to video games. Rather, they’re better thought of as an ongoing legacy from when games were experienced not on the home console but in sweaty arcades during the 1970s and ’80s — mostly by teenagers whose pockets were filled with quarters. In an effort to wring as much money as possible from their captive audience, the designers of classic titles like Space Invaders would make their games so challenging that when failure inevitably and swiftly arrived, in went another token. It was, and remains, a taut, perfect loop in itself — capitalism and virtual entertainment seamlessly entwined.

Deathloop and Twelve Minutes confront the artifice of video games head-on through their looping narratives, and by doing so, attempt to transcend it. At various points, the protagonist conveys their growing frustrations, intended to reflect how the player is feeling. In Twelve Minutes, a puzzle game at its core, this is eerily accurate. As another plan to break the cycle goes awry, the player’s avatar, voiced by James McAvoy, is catapulted back to the start, banging their fist in frustration on the plush carpet of the apartment setting. Luis Antonio, the game’s director, has said the game’s spiraling structure is a way of resolving an inherent dissonance of video games. “They’re all loops,” he told Input Mag. “The protagonist just doesn’t realize it.”

(It’s worth noting there’s a closely related looping lineage in video games that stems from 1980’s Rogue, the progenitor of the “rogue-like” genre. Recent hits include Hades and Returnal, both of which tell overarching stories through cycles of procedurally generated levels. Deathloop and Twelve Minutes evoke the rogue genre without following this defining structure.)

While games self-consciously lean into artifice as a way of moving beyond it, movies, like Doug Liman’s sci-fi romp Edge of Tomorrow, revel in their temporal contrivances — ruptures in cinema’s mostly linear projection of time. There’s also another difference. As Miles Surrey wrote in The Ringer, when movie characters are trapped in a repetitious cycle, often the only way to break them is by looking within themselves. Video games, in the broadest possible terms, aren’t great at exploring such shifting interiorities. The way we, as players, ultimately break their loops, is by interfacing with the virtual world in front of us — pushing buttons and seeing what sticks.

Deathloop is truly a delightful puzzle box in this regard, filled with all manner of gorgeous tactile interactions. However, its bread and butter is typical video-game fare — slicing and dicing through enemies. Dressed in sparkly party wear, the militant cult known as the Eternalists straddles a bizarre line between Jeff Bezos’s immortality fantasies and the hedonistic U.K. ravers of the early 1990s (the loop is an excuse to party ad infinitum). You’re also tasked with luring each of the game’s major foes (known as Visionaries) to a particular spot on Blackreef. Only by killing them all at once can you break the loop. This makes Deathloop an exercise in efficiency, and perhaps a light commentary on the way an optimizing ideology has squirreled its way into every aspect of our lives. At one point, the game’s primary antagonist Julianna goads Colt: “Is this gonna be a productive day or not?” I ask myself the same question each day.

Outer Wilds, whose one and only expansion has just been released, is a rare time-loop video game that feels truly out of this world, pushing the device well beyond its arcade origins. Its miniature universe is populated by a handful of planets, each with their own characteristics (one has an ocean surface of unstoppable, swirling cyclones). Without fail, the solar system resets every 22 minutes, its slow implosion engulfing the player wherever they are at that moment. What’s brilliant is that this loop simply feels part of the unknowable strangeness of time at a cosmic level. It is deeply, existentially terrifying, just as any time loop would be.

Deathloop charts a different path. It’s content with being a video game as video game, one, ultimately, of insularity and self-reference. You shoot the baddie, their head goes pop, and then you die, only now the game makes a joke about it as you jack back in. This structure leaves little room for the player to feel adrift, as if the game is too concerned with us having a good time to really commit to its disorientating premise. Despite hinting at something more profound, the loop, like arcade titles of previous decades, is actually banal — simply how the game functions, and how we end up staying hooked. In this way, Deathloop ends up feeling like video-game comfort food —brilliantly executed, sure, but you already know exactly how it tastes.

An Influx of Time-Loop Games Highlight Gaming’s Meta Loop