Deathloop is a game about, well, death loops.
The next release from Dishonored developer Arkane Studios, Deathloop puts you in the role of a man named Colt who wakes up in a strange-yet-stylish 1960s-inspired place called Blackreef. Like the studio’s past work, the game is a first-person action / adventure where players can use different weapons and supernatural skills in order to tackle problems — which usually involve murder — in different ways. But there’s a twist when Colt discovers he’s stuck in a time loop. As soon as he dies, he goes right back to the start of the same day. In order to break that cycle, he’s told, Colt must kill eight characters called “visionaries” before the day is over.
It’s an interesting premise, but also one that raises a few questions. Namely: how do the loops actually work in practice?
Dinga Bakaba, the game director on Deathloop, provided some insight during a recent hands-off demo. The main thing, it seems, is that this is a game all about player freedom. Early on, players will be guided through the world and story — there are even on-screen prompts representing Colt’s memories, which serve as a tutorial of sorts — but eventually, things open up. Players will explore four different districts, and there are also different time periods that change what’s going on; one area might be very different in the morning versus the evening, for instance.
“You’re very free with your progression.”
“Now you have this moment where you can choose between the four districts,” Bakaba says of when the game opens up. “And then you go into a district, you do something and you get out, and then time moves to the next period. At this moment, so that you’re not lost, you end this opening section with a pair of leads, like an investigation. All of these leads have steps; it could be something like go to Aleksis’ space and go through her stuff to know more about Egor, or something like that. Those are your goals. That’s how you progress. You can also do those steps in the order that you want.”
He adds that “You’re very free with your progression. It’s not a game where a day is something that you do from beginning to end, and when you die, you have to restart the whole game over and over. That’s definitely not the case here. It’s about what you are doing in the world that keeps resetting itself.”
This also means that Deathloop has a unique approach to time. Once you’re in a district, there’s no time limit. You can spend as much or as little time there as you need inside of it. But as soon as you exit to go somewhere else, time will move forward. Here’s how Bakaba explains it:
When you start the day, you start the day in the morning, and you can choose where you want to go. When you’re inside the district, you can take however long you want, and it’s when you exit that we move from the morning period to the noon period. And same thing, you can choose where you go. Basically time advances each time you exit one area. If you die and you’re out of rewinds, you’ll go back to the beginning of the day. And you can choose to skip a time period to go directly where you need to be, or where you want to explore.
This might make Deathloop sound a bit like a roguelike, a genre most recently popularized by games like Hades and Returnal where players explore procedurally generated worlds but have to restart once they die. (Bakaba notes that “Returnal is a really great game, I’m having a blast with it.”) Arkane even has some experience with the genre through Mooncrash, a roguelike expansion for Prey. But Bakaba believes that there are some fundamental differences that make Deathloop different from more traditional roguelikes.
“It’s not about difficulty. It’s about having this feeling of mastery.”
“My belief as a designer is that it’s not [a roguelike],” he explains. “There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, I think a good roguelike is about overcoming challenge, it’s going through these areas that are familiar but not the same. So you go through the first biome, and then you get to the next biome that’s even more difficult, and then you get to the ending and you’re super happy because that was super, super hard to get there, and you had to be both very skilled and lucky to get there. Which feels really nice, and lends itself to replaying. Spelunky is probably my favorite roguelike.
“But here with Deathloop it’s a bit different because getting to the end of the day isn’t an objective at all. It’s not even a milestone for the player. So there is no increasing difficulty, and there is no repetition. It’s weird to say that about a time loop, but there’s no forced repetition in the sense that if you don’t want to do the morning section, you can just jump to the night. It’s your choice. You’re really free to use the space and use the time to your liking... You get to this point where you’re basically a superhero in this world. At this point it’s not about difficulty. It’s about having this feeling of mastery, which for us is very important in this time loop fiction.”
It all sounds very cool, but it’ll be some time before we get to experience those loops (and deaths) for ourselves. Deathloop is slated to launch on September 14th on PC and the PS5.