The cult cinema that inspired Bethesda’s ‘Deathloop’

From blockbuster staples like Bond to cult TV and niche spy films, Deathloop is a masterclass in visual cool

Bethesda‘s upcoming shooter Deathloop is one of the most anticipated games of 2021. Developed by Dishonored‘s Arkane Studios, it’s set to cast players as Colt, an amnesiac assassin who wakes up on the strange Blackreef Island, charged with killing eight “Visionaries” in order to escape.

The problem is, Blackreef Island only exists in a timeloop. If Colt dies in the course of his escape mission, the day resets. If he fails to kill all eight in one cycle, it resets. If time runs out… it resets. His only hope for release from this lethal Groundhog Day is to break the chain, but the closest thing he has to an ally is Julianna – a voice in his ear who’s also out to kill him.

Initially revealed at E3 2019 – in the Before Times, prior to COVID trapping us all in our own time loop of lockdown drudgery – Deathloop immediately impressed with its stylish presentation and clear cinematic influences. Some were obvious, with a heavy dose of Bond writ large over Blackreef Island’s mid-20th century architecture, but there were hints of other works at play, from hints of ’70s Blaxploitation to spy-fi adventure flicks, and even the sort of environmental design choices players will recognise from Arkane’s own earlier efforts.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Bethesda Softworks

However, in seeing more of the game in an exclusive hands-off demo recently, guided by director Dinga Bakaba and art director Sébastien Mitton, it became clear just how much cult cinema has inspired the look and feel of Deathloop – and some of the influences aren’t what you’d expect.

“There are a lot of references from TV shows,” says Mitton. “For example The Avengers, for the kind of crazy side but also the focus on investigations.”

Calm down, Marvel fans – this isn’t Earth’s Mightiest Heroes that Mitton’s referring to, although some of the super powers Colt unlocks over the course of his infinite shootout, such as the telekinetic ‘Karnesis’, might earn him a spot on the roster. Instead, he’s referring to the British spy series of the same name, which first aired in 1961.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Bethesda Softworks

Although the cast rotated over the course of its six seasons, the most famous pairing in The Avengers was John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee), a dapper secret agent rarely seen without a sharp suit, bowler hat, and trademark sword-concealing umbrella, and Emma Peel (Diana Rigg), a fashionable, confident, martial arts expert and scientific genius. The series was the peak of 1960s style, both in its outfits – a blend of Saville Row and Mod cool – and in the cases they investigated, which often took them through the heart of high society.

This echoes in the strange, bohemian society players encounter on Blackreef Island. The Visionaries, described by Bakaba as “science villains”, use the timeloop to live out a perpetual party, one taking place in retro-stylish apartments and hotels, resplendent with high-backed furniture and shag carpeting. The use of colour also captures the psychedelic vibe of ’60s pop culture, making Deathloop really pop. The relationship between Colt and Julianna also feels like an inversion of Steed and Peel, with a frisson of flirtation alongside murderous intentions.

Turning to the obvious, and the impact of Bond on the game’s blend of ’60s and ’70s visuals, Mitton says 007 is “a reference that we all have, I think, but in this case really made sense. We looked at Bond for the science villain [aspect] and the investigation [side], again.”

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Bethesda Softworks

It’s clear that it’s the Bond films that have played the biggest part in Deathloop‘s development are those of the late Sean Connery and early Roger Moore era, when the series was veering into Bond tackling outlandish villains with secret bases in volcanoes or on the moon. While these have been fodder for a variety of parodies, here they’re taken seriously.

Arkane has been relatively cagey on just what Blackreef’s “science villains” have been up to, other than the time loop they created somehow tying in with a mad desire to live forever. It’s safe to say that things get weird on the island in other ways though, from elaborate facilities spread out over the game’s four main locations to the unsettling grunt enemies the Visionaries send against Colt, who straddle the line between faceless automatons and club-goers at a swinging masquerade party.

Even Colt’s powers come from mysterious “slabs”, unique to the island and seemingly gained by killing each of the eight science villains, but of otherwise unknown origin. In a neat application of the time loop mechanic, repeatedly killing the same boss in subsequent loops will increase the potency of their respective slab, boosting Colt’s proficiency with that particular power.

The investigation aspect of Bond and The Avengers is key, too. Bakaba is keen to emphasise that despite its mechanic of time repeating, Deathloop is not a roguelike. Colt must uncover secrets as he makes his way across Blackreef, using that knowledge on later loops. An example shown was discovering the code to a locked door, information Colt retained after dying and restarting the cycle, but it goes deeper than just puzzle solving. Achieving that ultimate goal of killing all eight Visionaries in one loop requires learning their movements and whereabouts, then manipulating them into syncing up so you can take them out in what Arkane calls the “Golden Loop” – a perfect cycle where everything finally goes in Colt’s favour.

One movie that served as direct inspiration for Deathloop‘s aesthetic may be less well known nowadays – Point Blank, directed by John Boorman. “It’s from 1967, starring Lee Marvin, who was really a strong actor [whose character] is looking for revenge,” says Mitton.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Bethesda Softworks

Unlike the strange, colourful locales of Blackreef, Point Blank is “set in LA, but what’s interesting is that John Boorman, in the movie, he painted atmospheres that would work with the characters’ clothing,” Mitton explains. “There was a lot of grain, and the film grain was really interesting. It’s an old movie but it helped all the artists project themselves into what we were going to do after pre-production.”

The final influence on Deathloop is more contemporary and likely far more familiar to modern players – the collective works of auteur filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

“All of [our other influences] used to be very smooth,” says Mitton; “so we mixed it with Tarantino to make it our own little recipe.”

It’s a fitting last ingredient, especially given Tarantino’s works are themselves influenced by the same era of cinema as Deathloop, creating an equally appropriate feedback loop of design and inspiration. That Tarantino touch, who himself channelled the likes of Coffy and Shaft, lends Deathloop a sharper edge than the likes of Bond, The Avengers, and Point Blank alone might have, taking it into the realms of chic ’70s exploitation cinema.

We’re not expecting to have a hands-on preview of the game for a while still, but however it ends up playing, one thing’s for sure – there’s nothing else this year that’s going to look quite as effortlessly cool as Deathloop.

Deathloop is slated for release on PlayStation 5 and PC on 14 September 2021.

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