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A restorative reading of Deathloop

This is a restorative reading of the game Deathloop

This is a restorative reading of the game Deathloop by Arkane Studio, edited by Bethesda Softworks, neither of which am I involved with, in any way.. This text is not intended as a review, a comparison, or a critique of the game, but rather as an invitation to ponder what the game does right. What insight can it bring to its medium, or even to the Human Condition at large. As such, this text might glance over flaws, only to focus on why it is interesting to play. I am reading this game from a privileged position, and as such, might glance over some themes that would feel central or essential to others. I am also reading this game from my own experience, not having played every game you might have, which might lead me to credit the game with inventions not entirely its own. For both, I apologize to you dear reader.

This reading of Deathloop contains almost no spoilers for the game, and slight spoilers for the Dishonored series.

Deathloop is absolutely breathtaking in its understanding of itself. To some extent, I would argue that it’s a game that only could have been made by Arkane studio, in Lyon, and only been made in the timeframe in which it was born.

You see, making Deathloop requires a very profound understanding of the many pleasures of playing and making “immersive sims” in general and the Dishonored series in particular. While Prey has an open-world metroidvania-esque structure, Dishonored 1+DLC, 2 and Death of the Outsider are made of discrete levels, each with its own identity. I use the term identity in much the sense that late 2000s game theorists used it, when people argued over “is the city of Grand Theft Auto the main protagonist”. Scenaristic, narrative and systemic identities.

PLAYSTYLES

There are many unique playstyle archetypes in “immersive sims” (why I hate this term is a topic for another article). With Dishonored (probably stemming from their experience making Arx Fatalis) Arkane recognized two broad categories : destructive and non destructive. People who play and avoid disturbing the world, and people who play to break it. Those were later mapped, in the second installment of the Dishonored series, on a two dimensional possibility space : visible or unseen and killer or sparer. The system sees you, counts your kills, the number of times you were detected, and renders a verdict at the end of the game.

While your playstyle being “observed” by the system, only to deliver a sucker punch at the end of Dishonored 1, was supposed to be an unexpected twist, its all-seeing eye is now expected. And the consequence of being aware of these narrative consequences, is that it tends to make players take their role playing very seriously, and consider their actions more carefully. If one kills an NPC during a non-lethal playthrough in a Dishonored game, they would, more often than not, restart their current level, much like an achievement seeker or speedrunner would.

Being watched (and judged) on your actions, leads you to examine them or be, at least, somewhat cognisant of their repercussions. It also encourages you to replay the game to try a more murderous route, although we’ve known for years now that a vast majority of players take a moral to mildly-moral route in their first playthrough of most games with narrative agency.

This, I feel (but have no insight into the matter) led to the decision in Death of the Outsider to forgo the judgemental system entirely and, to some extent, let the remnants of the lived experiences of the previous two games cue you in as to what’s expected of you. Yes, there might be consequences, but it’s up to you to ponder what they might be. The self-awareness lingers, even when you’re not being watched anymore.

IN THE LOOP

In Deathloop, the infinite smartness of the time loop narrative is that the repeated murdering of bystanders is of no consequence. Since they will always wake up the next day and be resurrected, and since (mild spoiler alert) the game ends when you indeed break the loop, there is no part of the play experience in which you will be able to perform any consequential violence. In fact, it is made abundantly clear in the way secondary characters behave, that this repeating time loop is a perfect excuse for everyone on the island of Blackreef to engage in self or mutually destructive behaviors. This is the antidote to self awareness and a palate cleanser of Akrane’s history : “go be a dick dear child o’ mine, there be no consequence on these black reefs”. To some extent, one could argue, this is the least violent shooter in video game History because nobody dies in the course of an entire playthrough.

And, while you are indeed the party pooper who intends to end it all, the very pleasurable process of ruining the party for everyone is itself your party. Like a mean internet troll, you’re having your grenade-lobbing fun at the expense of everyone else’s eternity of drunken drug-infused bacchanale.

But it would be incredibly easy to take Deathloop’s framework and use its currency, Residuum, as the limiting factor to “lock-in” assassinations allowing you to chain them together. Or make the matter a time-sensitive affair. But, Deathloop is way smarter than this. The trick, you see, is not only to get us closer to Colt, our player character, but to make Colt narratively closer to us. El classico technique to get a character closer to us, ignorant fool that we are at the beginning of the game, is to make our protagonist amnesiac: we don’t know anything about the game, and so do they. Here, Colt has another characteristic: he’s drunk. This is the perfect excuse for us to miss and fumble even though we are supposed to play this rugged killer hunk of a man.

IT'S ALL SO META

And the same goes for our general sense of progress. As we get better at the game, Colt remembers more, and gets better. The whole story of Deathloop is the meta structure of a video game made explicit : die and retry. Dishonored level design is famed for its moment of discovery and the incredible sense of power given by the sheer knowledge of a level’s layout. One of the great pleasures of exploration in these games is that it is done not for its own sake, but as a means of gaining much needed intelligence. One goes in the Castle by the front gate, explores the kitchen, and finds a secret exit hidden among the reeds that they might one day exploit. Over time, knowledge and power accumulates and familiarity becomes your most powerful weapon. This, while central, is absolutely a-diegetic in Dishonored. But it is at the heart of what makes Deathloop incredibly cohesive.

All these narrative elements are key to how the game sets itself up, and allow players to go about and experience the joyful chaos that “immersive sims” can deliver, defusing the guilt of their lack of precision. Even your character is not a master spy anymore, he's a rugged drunken muscle-man, so have at it! The catch is that combat difficulty is handled well enough in Deathloop, to give ample incentive to still avoid large crowds and find pleasure in varying one’s playstyle, whereas in other games, the same players might have kept a singular approach. Getting rid of the central position of the perfectionist, careful and thoughtful playstyle without being rid of it entirely is a hard needle to thread, especially when you yourself, have in the past been so good and so forward thinking in its implementation that a lot of players expect more of the same from you. And yet here again, Deathloop delivers.

Infiltration games’ central keyword is fragility. You always feel on the verge of everything tumbling down on you, walking on a wire, observing and in tension. The defeat condition is the release of that built-up tension. As from a jenga tower, you took out one too many, you got greedy, and the plan fell apart. The rhythm goes up tenfold, you run and fumble and blink at random avoiding bullets, while the alarm blares and guards yell. You dodge and in your desperate scramble, find a ledge, hide in the closet and breathe a sigh of relief as you wait for the world to go back in order, fall silent again. While this moment of pure anarchic exaltation is thrilling, most games in the genre have a very hard time balancing the “all out violence” playstyle. Guns blazing you rampage through most of the game, acquiring powers that make you even more of a killing machine, but the rhythm feels off. It’s easier to rhythmically compose a linear shooter than an open world, making most non-infiltration playthroughs in Dishonored feel a bit stale in comparison to the compositional masterclass that ghost playthroughs provide.

I almost feel (but again, I have no insight in Arkane’s design decisions) that Prey was an answer to this conundrum. Making the enemies stronger and scarier made them very central to the plot, and the scenario of running away from scary bad guys and hiding in vents almost writes itself as an Alien-inspired ship exploration.

THE PLEASURE OF MAKING IT ALL HAPPEN

But understanding the pleasure of playing the game is only part of the equation. Another one, maybe as important for the amount of time one puts in the creation of a game, is the pleasure of making it. And the pleasure of making an immersive sim is to observe players have fun in your playground and recognize, encourage their effort. Arkane wields this expertly. It almost feels like the judgemental system, watching you play and weighing the morality of your actions, was born in such a moment: watching someone over their shoulder murder some guard and laughing “haha you didn’t have to kill that poor guard he wasn’t even in the way”. The debate that follows such an interjection could be the basis for a moral-arbiter system.

In most shooters, there is tremendous incentive to consider your enemies as systemic pawns: just click and this obstacle disappears. Does it matter that the obstacle is expertly designed and animated in its gorgeous uniform? Nope. Games even have a tendency to accentuate this distance by having enemies bark aggressively at you, giving you just another excuse to kill them in self defense.

And here, no matter what you do, time loops, which is even more of an excuse to see NPCs as puppets, which Arkane leans on heavily with clownesque death animations, exaggerated ragdoll, disappearing corpses so you don’t have to drag bodies around, and even the infamous overpowered truck-to-the-face kick which launches enemies into space. These are testaments to how much people working on the game are having fun designing it. While the incredible escape-game like weave of the storyline threads places and spaces together like no other game has before, one can almost hear the rest of the team giggling in the background as the lay out NPCs, items, traps and interactions.

Machines that will make enemies slip on round candies on the floor in comically exaggerated choreography probably took months of work. But they did it anyway. Convoluted solutions to assassinations, ridiculously useless snippets of conversation, sub-sub-subplots, all not in service of the player base at large, but in hope that an absurdly small number of players might one day have a laugh at the right line in the right context... And it works, it all works! Not in the same way a series like The Witcher implements it, where every small lost thing seems to benefit the overall air of gravitas, where everything feels made just for you to find. But as a world alive and anarchic, in which everything matters so little that you start to wonder if the island of Blackreef cares if you’re here or not... Which is immensely freeing. Things do not feel like they are made for you, or around your presence, you’re just part of the party, and so are the devs.

This allows them to design really hard puzzles for you to solve, or not solve at your leisure. While in most games, having even side puzzles that half of a percent of your player base will solve, for ridiculously low rewards, is a waste. But Deathloop don’t care, Deathloop is here to have a party. You’re invited, but if you’d rather not attend the serious stuff and hang by the buffet, you’re welcome to do it. Little is done to nudge you along the main story, save introductory dialogues, and I spent a lot of time in limbo, in between story beats, having the time of my life kicking people into orbit, without the ever stressful lies of “hurry up hero, time is running out, the baddies are getting stronger by the minute”.

GET SMART

My sister, a psychologist, once told me that psychology is not supposed to “fix” you, but rather to make you more intelligent about yourself. This, in turn, helps you grow as a human being. I think it is a true testament to the maturity of Arkane as a studio to see how much they have grown collectively by looking at their own games and understanding what these games are, what they do, what they mean.

It is very likely not an accident that the studio has one of the most diverse lead-team I have seen in my 20 years in and around the industry. Game design is the art of expression through doing. To communicate interesting ideas through doing, you need to have, yourself, done and experienced many diverse things. Many diverse humans have experienced more, and therefore can produce many diverse points of view on a given problem in need of fixing. Truthfully, a keen eye can very much see, playing most AAAs, if many varied voices were expressed and heard during its development. And Deathloop feels like it was indeed made by a choir.

So in all those ways, Deathloop incrementally brings things to the History of game making that weren’t there before. Chief among which, a never-before-seen attention to the intermingling of theme, system design and storytelling that sensibly pushes the genre forward. This game needed to be made before another Dishonored or Prey, and this possibility space needed to be explored to gain a wider understanding of the myriad possibilities still dormant in Arkane’s unique style of game making. As humans, I feel we can all be glad that a game can be so festive in motion and in play, for the feelings one experiences playing Deathloop cannot be had reading a book, watching a play or a movie. The thrills of the ups and “damns”, the chase and the kicks, the hits and the mist of ever-repeating drunken haze on the shore, make every story lived in Deathloop shine with the unique expressivity of games, and pushes our artform forward.

But can we please find a better name for this genre?

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