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Using time loop logic to shape Deathloop's narrative
Time loops are so strong they can shape entire game narratives.
March 28, 2022
10 Min Read
Deathloop's swinging '70s time loop vibe is bracketed by a story that, for better or worse, sees protagonist Colt battle his way to the center of an unparalleled scientific phenomenon that's locked the island of Blackreef in an endlessly repeating day. In telling a tale about this kind of permanent loop, who knows about the loop—and what they know about it—shapes not only the themes of the story, but how the player will process them.
That's one big takeaway from the talk Arkane Lyon lead narrative designer Pawel Kroenke gave at the 2022 Game Developers Conference. In an hour-long session, Kroenke broke down the different tools Arkane used to ferry players from the beginning of a looping narrative to the end, spelling out the practical motivations of different narrative devices.
When all of the narrative pieces of your puzzle have to live simultaneously in the same four levels players will repeat over and over, it's important to make sure they make sense. Kroenke broke down how that process looked for Arkane, to better help other developers hoping to build their own sensational, temporally mis-aligned loops.
Who knows that you're looping?
A key dramatic element of any time loop story, from Groundhog Day to Palm Springs to Deathloop is the question of who knows they're in a time loop?
In Groundhog Day, only Bill Murray's sarcastic journalist knows he's living the same day over and over again. Hulu dramedy Palm Springs expands the number of time loopers to include Andy Samberg and Cristin Miloti's characters, and Tom Cruise action vehicle Edge of Tomorrow has only one character experiencing the loop, but lets other characters know it's taking place.
The premise of Deathloop is that EVERYONE on Blackreef knows that a time loop is happening, but only a few people know how many times it's run its course. The Visionaries (Deathloop's "bosses" who must die to break the loop) who run the island designed the loop, the Eternalists (the ordinary goons brought in as props for the Visionaries' never-ending party) blindly live in it, and with only two other major exceptions, player character Colt and frenemy Julianna remember each passing of the loop.
That was a very deliberate decision by Arkane. In order for Deathloop to resonate, Kroenke said that players needed to feel at all times like they were living the time loop, otherwise the game wouldn't feel special. The team's operating theme was this: "Trapped inside a time loop, a capable fighter looks for a way out."
To commit to that theme, Kroenke and his colleagues pushed to make sure the player's understanding of the loop aligned with Colt's. But since Colt isn't a newcomer to the island, he had to start the game with loop-induced amnesia to both make him a meaningful character in the world, but also one who could learn alongside the player.
"We wanted players to formulate a plan, and then execute that plan based on what knowledge they have," Kroenke explained. "The hero can't know more than the player."
Who knows what about the time loop is also very important to how players search out and acquire information. User research confirmed that whenever players encountered any character who remembers they're in a time loop, they start looking for a pattern that might explain the loop's origins and rules.
Arkane chose to keep those origins a secret, and in turn, Kroenke and company strove to make sure every instance of an NPC remembering the different loops was a reveal. Only two other characters (a computer named 2-Bit and an Eternalist named Rexly) know that the loop has gone hundreds of times, and each reveal is meant to convey key information to help the player's journey.
"Memory can be a treasure and a curse"
One of Deathloop's intentionally engineered themes is the notion that memory is a blessing and a tragedy all at once. Remembering how many times the loop has repeated is torture for Rexly. Knowing what occurs in the loop is a boon for Colt. Julianna wants Colt to remember so she has a friend on the island, but letting him remember too much would lead to the loop's demise.
This contradiction helps spell out the bigger picture about why Colt needs to break the loop. He and Julianna are able to grow as people, learn lessons, and correct their behavior. The Visionaries have explicitly chosen to reject this necessary human experience. They're larger-than-life villains who each totally embody a major character flaw, one borne out each day and emphasized by the repeating loop.
This was a deliberate decision by Arkane, but only one that came after iteration. There wasn't quite a grand plan in place to pontificate on different kinds of toxic personalities, it was ultimately a balance between likeability and detestability. "Big personalities create interest," Kroenke noted, and even though each players' first encounter with a visionary is quick and deadly, repeated exposure to them through the time loop gives them a chance to learn more just by pushing ahead.
So the Visionaries know how the loop works and are under the impression they're about to launch it, but the Eternalists have even less of a clue that they're looping through time. Here, Kroenke called out the Eternalists' visual design and behavior. Most of them wear masks and are living out various hedonistic fantasies when they're not hunting Colt.
Rexly embodies neither characteristic. She's holed up in a house, waiting for someone who break her out of this repeating hell. Players aren't guaranteed to find her—tracking her down is part of a side quest—but Arkane's goal was that players who found her would understand that the Eternalists are victims as much as they are participants.
These are some of the ways that Arkane leveraged theme to build anchor points in the game's plot. This theming focus went right up to the finale, where Kroenke said the team had to figure out what players would need to do to finally break the loop.
The path to escape runs right through a bullet. In the last moments of Deathloop's story, Julianna challenges Colt to an old-fashioned duel, complete with antique pistols (directly ripped from the Dishonored series, implying a temporal connection). The only way past Julianna is to shoot her one last time.
This was apparently controversial inside the team. As players learn during the course of the game, Julianna is Colt's daughter. Through wibbly wobbly timey-wimey nonsense, it's revealed he'd been stuck in the loop before she arrived on the island, and it's staged as a major revelation that helps inform why Julianna wants Colt to remember.
This plot point was controversial at the game's release, partly because the pair have a very flirty vibe for most of the game (Colt deadpans "we definitely dated" somewhere in the tutorial.) In the Q&A, we asked Kroenke about the motivation to hide this relationship.
He explained that the pair being a father-daughter duo was a core idea dating back to the early days of Deathloop's development, and in building the narrative, the team was conscious of how players would look for any "patterns" in their relationship.
"This was a thing we had to make sure was revealed fairly late in the game. This whole red herring with them being flirty was to prevent players from guessing that they're related."
He added that there "weren't many things," the team could do to conceal that fact, so the team chose the (slightly gross) fake out that they were romantic peers.
Anchoring story points around theme is all well and good, but as always, there were practical problems to patch-up in development. Kroenke also broke down how narrative tools like radio conversations and the floating text also came to life.
Radios, floating messages, and just plain talking to yourself
Deathloop is a game that's light on cutscenes. There are only a few moments in this immersive sim where control is taken away from the player to advance the narrative. In between those spaces, there's a whole lot of narrative to deliver to get the whole tale of Blackreef across.
Some tools will be familiar to developers who've worked on narrative titles. There are text logs and audio logs. There are computers filled with chat rooms where the Visionaries react to player actions throughout the day. But Kroenke took extra time to spell out how three specific features came to life: Radio conversations, the eerie floating messages, and Colt's "hammer lines."
At the start of each level, Colt has a chance to chat with Julianna over the radio for about 20-25 seconds. These are unskippable narrative vehicles that are almost literally shoved in the player's face (Colt holds the radio up to his mouth and emotes dramatically in these sequences).
Unlike other games, these conversations couldn't take place while out in the level, where combat might occur. Why? That would mean developing a dynamic read swap audio system, and that's expensive. These conversations became a key place for Colt and Julianna to reflect on the game's narrative. They were built on chit-chats that involved more style over substance, saw Colt and Julianna swapping quickly from friendly to antagonistic and back again, and helped remind players what Colt knew/what they should know about the overall plot.
To make sure these had plot relevance, the narrative team listed all meaningful actions in the game (killing visionaries, completing sidequests, acquiring key clues) and engineered dialogue around them. They became helpful "information choke points" about what the player needs to know before the game ends. Many can only happen after Colt learns Julianna is his daughter, and ultimately, Arkane needed about 70-75 of these conversations to tell Deathloop's story.
Those 70 conversations couldn't contain any repetition either—unless Colt and Julianna actively acknowledged it.
Next, Kroenke discussed the floating messages. These are a much more abstract narrative tool that are grounded in-game by the time loop. For wibbly wobbley timey-wimey reasons, Colt is visited by the passing thoughts of other Colts—versions of himself from earlier (or later?) in the loop.
These messages are only visible by Colt, though Julianna knows he can see them. They help express that notion of memory—specifically Colt's being jogged by a version of himself that had been through the space before. Initially, they weren't a reactive system. If a player accomplished a goal or triggered something in a level, the messages wouldn't react until they entered another level within the same day.
That grew "weird" as development progressed, according to user research data. Playtesters also were annoyed when the messages obscured the scenery, or weren't useful. The team did want some of these messages to just be for flavor, but there was still a right tone to strike in implementing them.
Part of striking that tone involved dividing the messages into four moods: floating messages could be motivated, filled with mayhem, drowning in defeat, or voraciously villainous. Each type of message would also have a subtly different type of animation and font when they appeared.
The subtle visual differences really hammered home the sense of style on these pop-ups, and their improved reactivity became important for the back-end of Deathloop, where players would spend over thirty minutes in each level.
Lastly, there were the "hammer lines." They're lines spoken by Colt, to himself. Developers and critics often comment how awkward they feel in other video games.
The Arkane team knew this, and wanted to initially avoid them at all costs. But more user research found that players enjoyed them and found them useful. They played nicely into Colt's chatterbox sensibilities. The fast-talking, panicky protagonist felt like someone who would be commenting on every little situation.
"Even if you think something's overused and doesn't work well...if it aligns with your character, it can work," Kroenke admitted.
Kroenke's talk did a great job highlighting how genre and video game conventions can become practical points for narrative development. It's also a solid example of how user research can help game narrative teams. Sometimes you need feedback on your story, sometimes you need feedback on the pieces you use to tell the story itself.
Update: A previous version of this story misspelled Colt's name. Sorry Colt.
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About the Author(s)
Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com
Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.
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