Repetition, with a Difference: On “Deathloop”




NOTE: This review contains spoilers for Deathloop, Outer Wilds, and Returnal.

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THE RUSSIAN LITERARY CRITIC Viktor Shklovsky held that one function of great works is to “lay bare the device.” We normally think of literature, so this influential argument goes, as being determined by its content — that is, by particular characters, the settings they inhabit, and the actions they perform. But what literary works are really made up of is a complex arrangement of formal “devices” — things like repetition, point-of-view narration, or nonlinear chronology in a story — that are pure conventions of literary structure bearing no relation to reality. (“In art,” Shklovsky wrote, “blood is not bloody […] it just rhymes with ‘flood.’” [1]) Laying bare such devices thus means using them without any story motivation whatsoever — say, ending a novel mid-sentence just because you can, rather than because the narrator’s quill has run dry or because the protagonist has just been assassinated — thereby highlighting the autonomous forms that actually determine literary composition and jolting the reader into a newfound attention to what is truly artistic about art. This kind of technical attention has come to be known as formalism.

One wonders what Shklovsky would have said about video games. For although most games today have stories, they are unlike other art forms, and especially unlike literature, in that formalism is our default mode of attention. In describing a particular game, one is usually more likely to start with specific formal features — such as genre (shooter or action-adventure), perspective (third or first person), and gameplay mechanics (crafting, cover-based shooting, RPG character progression) — than with the tale it tells or the kind of world it represents. Moreover, in video games the essential priority of these formal components over narrative or representational logic requires no heightened aesthetic consciousness to be laid bare. It may have been revolutionary for Shklovsky to suggest that a shipwreck is just a trick for extending a story, but any novice gamer could tell you that Kratos loses his powers at the beginning of every God of War game because otherwise there’d be no skill trees to grind through. A fundamental disjunction between story and the moment-to-moment mechanics of gameplay has been baked into the medium since the first time Mario plummeted to his death and then instantly reappeared on the screen. But rather than being productive of thought, this disjunction has become wholly naturalized: it’s something we just tend to accept about games. Indeed, somewhat paradoxically, in video games authentically motivating the device on the story level — for Shklovsky, the opposite of laying it bare — is both rarer and arguably more effective at getting us to think critically about video game form.

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Arkane Studios’s Deathloop joins a slate of recent games (including Hades, Returnal, and Outer Wilds) that seek to motivate one of the most basic formal elements of the medium: the act of dying and then starting over. Each is a variation on the “roguelike,” a genre in which dying once sends you all the way back to the beginning of the game. Death in the roguelike is thus scarier (and often far more frustrating) than normal — it is “permadeath,” a curious term that should immediately alert us to another gaming paradox, namely that death, the very paradigm of permanence and utter singularity in real life, becomes in games the very paradigm of impermanence and repetition. Death in video games is not only a repeated event in itself but also a spur to gameplay repetition in general. For even permadeath, of course, is not the end, but rather the occasion for one more run: most video games, roguelike or not, contain deathloops, repetitive structures of play in which one attempts the same deadly challenges over and over. [2]

Deathloop — like Hades, Returnal, and Outer Wilds — doubles down on this fundamental link between death and repetition by integrating it fully into its story. In each of these games, all of the player’s dying and restarting actually happens within the game’s fiction. This has a few interesting consequences. For one, it means that although here death is more permanent than usual on a gameplay level (as is true for any roguelike), it’s actually less permanent on a story level, since in order to justify the gameplay structure of death and repetition — usually an autonomous formal element that the story never acknowledges — the protagonist must literally be unkillable. Motivated permadeath implies eternal life: Zagreus, the hero of Hades and son of the titular deity, is a demigod whose failed attempts to escape the underworld always send him back to his father’s palace without a scratch, while Deathloop, Returnal, and Outer Wilds all ensure their protagonists’ immortality by binding them to a plot device that has become strangely ubiquitous in recent years: the mysterious infinite time loop.

In Deathloop, you play as Colt Vahn, former head of security on Blackreef Island, who is promptly stabbed to death in the game’s opening before awakening on a wintry beach. As you begin exploring Blackreef, you quickly learn (or, if like me your first impulse is to run into the freezing water and perish, you immediately learn) that due to a localized temporal “anomaly” whose explanation the game mostly hand waves away, every death sends Colt back to the same beach to restart the same day. A group of enterprising “Visionaries” — seven wealthy egomaniacs of various stripes, plus your rival and daily murderer Julianna — have harnessed the anomaly to create an eternal paradise of hedonism, scientific research, and installation art, and your goal is to assassinate all eight of them in order to break the loop. The catch is that the end of the day also resets the loop, and the Visionaries’ daily schedules are such that you don’t have enough time to hunt them down individually, so the bulk of the game consists of exploring the game’s four detailed environments at different hours in search of ways to nudge the day’s clockwork system — a little fireworks sabotage here, a doctored party invitation there — into a more favorable alignment for that one perfect killing spree.

All of this plays to Arkane’s strengths. Since 2012’s Dishonored, the studio has specialized in stylish, wildly inventive first-person exploration games whose 3D worlds contain an often mind-boggling degree of interactive complexity. Arkane’s masterpiece, Prey (whose superb roguelike add-on Mooncrash seems to have laid much of the conceptual groundwork for Deathloop), looks at first glance like a regular sci-fi shooter, but it’s actually something closer to a full-blown physics and space-station systems simulation. You can shoot aliens with a shotgun, sure, but at nearly any given moment you can also exit an airlock and fly into space, manipulate the station’s oxygen controls, grow a plant in the greenhouse, climb literally anywhere on improvised platforms made from plaster bubbles shot out of a cannon, transform into a cup and roll around on the floor, and zap any desk, cabinet, or xenomorph into cubes of pure matter that can then be fed into a machine to make, say, a Nerf gun that you might use to shoot a computer touchscreen through a broken window in order to read the security guard’s emails from outside his locked booth. Arkane’s worlds often feel inexhaustible. In one standout mission from the mystical assassin-sim Dishonored 2, there are, by my count, over 30 unique ways to kill the primary target, none of them scripted. [3] (My favorite, from my own playthrough, involved possessing his mind to lead him into the private elevator of his ducal suite, then accessing the elevator’s maintenance hatch and shooting the cable. [4])

Deathloop, for what it’s worth, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors in this respect. It’s surprisingly handholdy in guiding you to break the loop (likely a play for a wider audience that’s nevertheless disappointing) and, compared to Dishonored, surprisingly restrictive in its actual assassinations. Your suite of supernatural powers is greatly reduced, there are fewer options for creative kills using the environment and physics, and the game also makes the regrettable choice (if I may be so crude) of rendering headshots mostly ineffective against Visionaries, which largely removes one of the great pleasures of the assassin-sim genre: the clean, efficient kill from a distance. But Deathloop still offers the same fun of murderous experimentation within a highly responsive world. At one point, I spent over an hour trying to eliminate a target and her entire retinue of guards using nothing but a magic spell that links the fates of everyone nearby and a single well-timed kick off a ledge. These are games that demand to be replayed again and again, if only to test out all the crazy shit you can do.

Indeed, repetition is central to the Arkane formula, even before factoring in the roguelike elements of Deathloop. The assassination-based mission structure, which the game shares with the Dishonored series, is especially conducive to compulsive replays. I imagine much could be written about why the act of assassination in particular has inspired some of the most exhilaratingly open-ended gameplay of the 21st century, from 2001’s Grand Theft Auto III to the recent Hitman games. Perhaps it has something to do with the way assassination implies a world. Whereas most action games need only simulate acts of violence, assassination games are obliged to simulate an entire interactive reality that both precedes and exceeds them — not just the combat arena but the streets and rooftops beyond it; not just the killing shot but the whole process of planning and infiltration that enables it — such that creative thinking and sheer spatial imagination are just as important as quick-twitch shooting skills. Kill this guy however you want: assassination in video games is a utopia of player freedom — even of creative expression — and for this reason it tends to reflect the medium’s essential conjoining of death and repetition in reverse. A successful hit leads not to progress but to a compulsive reset. I’ve killed those two scientists in Hitman’s Sapienza level more times than I can count; likewise for that one Russian commander early in Metal Gear Solid V. Despite its shortcomings as an actual assassination sim relative to Dishonored, Deathloop is uniquely reflexive about this. Its time-loop structure invests not only the player’s deaths but also their repeat hit jobs with an unusual narrative reality, prompting us to ask what would happen if Snake, Corvo, or Agent 47 actually remembered murdering the same person 20 times.

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Here, however, we arrive at another paradox of video game narrative: repetition and stories don’t mix. As Roland Barthes observes, “It may be that men ceaselessly reinject into narrative what they have known, what they have experienced; but if they do […] it is in a form which has vanquished repetition,” which he earlier calls “the first form given to man.” [5] In other words, although life is full of repetition, narratives are generally hostile to it. (Indeed, the reason why readers and literary critics tend to make much of repetition in stories is that in the broadest view it represents highly deviant behavior. [6]) This poses a problem for many games with serious narrative ambitions. The fact that most games are built around repeating the same core actions dozens if not hundreds of times flagrantly violates the laws of narrative economy. Moreover, this can become especially problematic in action games that are obliged to repeat violent acts in particular. [7] The game-design sin commonly known as ludonarrative dissonance — a jarring conflict between the logics of story and gameplay — often boils down to a simple problem of repetition, of taking an event that is itself narratively licit (such as a deadly gunfight) and repeating it too many times. To cite a popular comparison, whereas Raiders of the Lost Ark contains five action sequences, all highly varied, Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog’s winning homage to Indiana Jones, contains at least 30 shootouts, easily leading to a total body count in the hundreds. Even before considering the extradiegetic mechanics of death and respawning, video games thus often require a certain dissociation on the player’s part to appreciate narratively. One must effectively bracket the vast majority of gameplay as a kind of nonevent meant to fill time between actual story beats, rather than imagining it as something genuinely experienced by the characters. Otherwise you end up with the disturbing sense that your favorite wisecracking treasure hunter is actually a homicidal maniac.

By assimilating gameplay repetition into its story, Deathloop hints at resolving this dissonance between game form and narrative form, just as it hints at resolving the mimetic distortions normally produced by the act of dying and restarting. The results, however, are mixed. Arkane, for one, has never been very good at storytelling. The Dishonored games’ plodding cutscenes actively mar the experience of playing them, and Prey spoils the promise of its brilliant opening with one of the worst endings I’ve ever seen in a game. Deathloop fares better on a moment-to-moment basis, largely on the strength of its two leads, Colt and Julianna (terrifically voiced by Jason E. Kelley and Ozioma Akagha), who exchange smart, charming banter at the start of each run. But the larger swings don’t land. The game makes some interesting suggestions about the nature of the time loop and its psychological impact — at one point Julianna states that Colt has been reliving this day for 139 years, and it’s later implied that he actually escaped the loop once before only to return willingly (a fine commentary on the allure of one more run) — but these mostly remain empty gestures. Even after gaining an awareness of the loop and the ability to retain memories at the start of the game, all that repeated killing and dying seems to have little effect on Colt; and as for the Visionaries and their henchmen, their incapacity to remember past loops means that their own cycles of repetition are narratively inert. In the end, Deathloop thematizes the intrinsic repetition of its ludic form and pretty much leaves it at that. It motivates the device but doesn’t justify it.

In this respect, it falls short of Returnal (the best of the recent action roguelikes by a wide margin) and Outer Wilds (one of the best recent games, period). Returnal brilliantly weaponizes its own ludonarrative disjunctions, using relentless arcade-style gunfights across an alien planet to circle obliquely around a brutally terrestrial trauma: in this Lovecraftian cosmos the most eldritch sight is that of a car lying at the bottom of a lake, its headlights shining spectrally in the murky water. Outer Wilds, meanwhile, builds its story and unique space-exploration gameplay systems around a mysterious time loop, only to reveal that loop to be merely an anomalous hiccup occurring in the final instant before a cosmic extinction that we can neither avoid nor defer. In both games, the device of the time loop thus derives its narrative power from its essential connection to a permadeath truly worthy of the name. These are time loop games in which the loop itself is a misdirection. By contrast, Deathloop embraces the loop even as the story revolves around breaking it: the “good” ending sees you and Julianna choosing to remain together on Blackreef to hunt the Visionaries ad infinitum, exactly like two friends chatting it up during regular Warzone sessions. It constructs an elaborate mystery around its core device but ultimately makes that device the mere occasion for a game.

Yet if Deathloop’s story ends up feeling disappointingly meta, perhaps the fault really lies with time loops themselves. Over 20 years ago, Janet Murray noted that Groundhog Day, arguably the originator of the device, “is as much like a videogame as a linear film can be.” [8] Deathloop’s wholehearted embrace of this trope might thus be seen as a closing of a loop in its own right: if it’s ultimately a video game about video games, this is partly because it motivates its ludic form by reappropriating a plot device that was already fundamentally gamelike. It’s like if a novelist motivated the Gothic tropes in their own story by making their protagonist obsessed with Gothic novels. The tropes become narratively grounded, yes, but only in a way that highlights their pure conventionality, their status as free-floating elements of form. This is why, for all its cleverness and style, Deathloop rings a little hollow, its arguments — dare I say it — a little circular. It lays bare game form precisely by trying to motivate it, and thereby simply repeats what most games already do.

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Nathan Wainstein is a lecturer in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.

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[1] Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose, trans. Benjamin Sher (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990), 159.

[2] Keith Stuart makes a similar point in his review of Deathloop for The Guardian, noting, “Every action shooter is a loop of death shared between the designer and the player, and Arkane definitely wants to talk about what that means while you blast its world to pieces.”

[3] One YouTube video even claims a hundred possible assassination methods. Although this figure seems inflated to me — considering how many of Cosmic Contrarian’s kills use the same tools — the video still gives a good idea of the number and variety of murder techniques at the player’s disposal.

[4] The viability of this convoluted murder strategy is emblematic of the sheer dynamism and existential world-consistency that distinguishes Arkane’s assassination games from the Hitman series, the other big name in the genre. Whereas Hitman is full of elaborate and often amusing ways to dispatch your targets, they are usually scripted to some extent — a matter of following a rigidly programmed series of steps in order to achieve a predesigned result. In Dishonored, by contrast, basically nothing is scripted. The mind-control-elevator kill works because all elevators in Dishonored 2 have maintenance hatches and cables that can be destroyed; because all enemies, from the lowliest guard to the Grand Duke of Karnaca, can be mind-controlled.

[5] Roland Barthes, “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives,” trans. Stephen Heath, in A Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 294–295.

[6] Steven Poole’s comparison of the fourth section of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 — composed largely of detailed descriptions of 112 murdered women — to an “RPG grind” nicely underscores this fact. With the exception of something like Homeric epic (whose oral structure necessitates a degree of repetition wholly alien to written narrative), only the far extreme of literary experimentation allows a legitimately gamelike repetitiveness. And even then some might argue that “The Part About the Crimes” barely counts as narrative in the usual literary sense. See Poole’s essay “The Grind” in Trigger Happy 2.0: The Art and Politics of Videogames (Kindle, 2013).

[7] A lot has been written about the unresolved contradiction between narrative logic and game logic that afflicts many action games. Two good starting points are Tom Bissell’s essay on Spec Ops: The Line and Matthew Seiji Burns’s short reflection on “dumbness” in games (cited in Bissell’s piece).

[8] Janet H. Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 36.

 

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