Loops, I did it again – why 2021 was the year of the time loop story

Returnal, Deathloop and others used repetition to reveal the tensions in how we play games

Is it strange that so many time loop games came out this year? Or is it strange that there aren’t that many every year? After all, most traditional video games are time loops – cycles of fail, learn, repeat, where the parts of the machine move the same way each time, until we understand the patterns and find ways to overcome them.

Indeed, while today’s time loop games may remind first and foremost of Groundhog Day, what is Groundhog Day if not a video game in film form? Fail, learn, repeat. Subsequent time loop films like Edge of Tomorrow and Boss Level have made this even clearer, recreating the feel of mastering action sequences in a game. If the likes of Returnal – or Deathloop, in a way – follow their cue by giving the revolving structure a narrative frame, then, they’re really completing a circle themselves, closing the loop back to where it began.

Not only that, but time loop games this year – not only Returnal and Deathloop, but also smaller releases like The Forgotten City and Twelve Minutes – haven’t been merely treading water with the concept, they’ve dived deep into its repercussions. Where other games before have explored the mechanics of accumulated knowledge and repetition, they’ve also leaned into the emotional impact of the scenario, the psychology, and the ethics. In 2021, time loop games got cerebral.

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More than anything, it seems this year’s crop have grasped the ambiguity of this bizarre situation. On one hand, within a time loop, unfathomable forces strip us of control over our lives, and isolate us from other people. On the other hand, the time loop is a kind of power fantasy, in which we get to manipulate reality, embark on journeys of self-improvement and act without fear of lasting consequences. And because repetition is so central to the experience of games, working through these contradictions raises questions about how and why we play.

Deathloop: foxes
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

Returnal is a deliciously intricate example that embraces the paradoxes of non-linear time. In Housemarque’s third-person sci-fi shooter, main character Selene must survive on an alien planet full of echoes of her life on Earth, past versions of herself she doesn’t remember, references to Greek mythology, and the ruins of an ancient civilisation. Even the game’s final ending doesn’t exactly clear things up.

Unsurprisingly, numerous theories now circulate about what it all means, because of course, the temptation with stories like these is to try and make them make sense, to put the pieces together like a jigsaw. But in this case, focusing too much on the logical explanation may in some ways be beside the point. However we interpret Returnal, there are common motifs and themes, all circling back to the protagonist’s sense of loss, guilt and self-loathing.

Whether Atropos is a real planet, some kind of personal purgatory, or a figment of Selene’s imagination, it manifests her repressed demons, forcing her to recall terrible traumas, shattered ambitions and cycles of abuse. There’s no escaping these memories, which endure like deep abyssal scars, returning again and again to cause further pain. And no rational ‘solution’ either, only some form of acceptance.

With these ideas, along with a foreboding setting, murderous androids and tentacled monsters, Returnal coaxes out the horror of the time loop scenario. At its heart is the existential terror of facing ‘eternity’, cemented by a cruel mid-game twist. It leaves us to deal with a reality in which nothing we achieve can matter, we have no meaningful agency to direct our own lives, and we’ll always be in the same place doing the same things, a thousand, a million years from now.

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Returnal
Returnal. Credit: Housemarque

Against this dark background, the actual experience of playing Returnal may seem incompatible. What does a slick action game with roguelike reward structures and daily challenges have to do with guilt and loss? Even once we’ve exhausted the meaningful objectives, we may want to return to Atropos for the sheer thrill of it, which feels at odds with the horror. Yet perhaps that only makes it more interesting.

Playing Returnal is itself a kind of paradox, but one that feels relatably human. With the random uncompromising challenges thrown up by its roguelike design, Atropos is a kind of self-punishment, where alien creatures inflict pain on us again and again. Yet at the same time, that’s precisely what makes us feel alive. Similarly for Selene, it’s a living hell but also the only way she can stand to go on at all, even at some level a kind of comfort. Returnal brings a contrast to the surface, in which we want to finish the game and escape the horror, but also deep down accepted from the start that final escape was impossible.

Deathloop approaches this conundrum from the opposite direction. In tone, it could hardly be more different from Returnal. It places the thrill of the hunt front and centre, with groovy colours and a chatty protagonist, Colt, ushering us to go about our business with a sense of mischief. It’s a proponent of the philosophy that there’s no morality to worry about in the loop, since any victims of violence will be back tomorrow, none the wiser. Unusually for a time loop story, in fact, everyone knows they’re reliving the same day, and many indulge their most reckless impulses.

Deathloop: Cole and the Blackreef map
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

Arkane’s tried and tested ‘immersive sim’ format thus becomes a kind of playground. Whereas in games like Dishonored, the world evaluates and judges our use of special powers, Deathloop encourages slapstick carnage, like shifting from playing Batman to the Joker. Nonlethal stealth is still an option, but the pliant stupidity of your drunken enemies tempts you to toy with them, and even if they catch you off guard, you’ll soon circle back to redress the balance.

Deathloop isn’t simply a celebration of the hedonistic potential of the loop, however. You are, after all, trying to break it, by killing all of Black Reef Isle’s eight ‘Visionaries’ in a single day. But with that there’s something of a contradiction running through the game – escaping the loop will liberate you, but how could you be any freer than you are within it, playing with the world as your whims dictate?

This point is clarified by the presence of your nemesis, Julianna, who tries to thwart your attempts to end the loop by hunting you down. Julianna has not only made her peace with the never-ending day, but actively enjoys it. And if we’re enjoying playing the game, likely even more so as our powers and knowledge evolve over time, doesn’t that suggest she’s got it right? Shouldn’t we stop trying to achieve anything and indulge ourselves?

One answer can be found in Deathloop’s multiplayer functionality, where we can choose to play as Julianna in a kind of invasion mode, with the sole purpose of repeatedly assassinating Colt. There are specific objectives you can aim for here, like killing him with a particular weapon, which cause Julianna to level up, but no ultimate victory. This is a mode for committed griefers, who’ll play a game forever as long as there’s someone else to bother. Yet as fun as that might be, it’s a one-dimensional existence.

Deathloop. Image credit: Arkane Studios
Deathloop. Image credit: Arkane Studios

Many of us would rather be a Colt than a Julianna, and when it comes to making the game’s final decision, go through with breaking the loop. If so, there’s still that tension between our enjoyment and our desire to escape. Deathloop’s narrative implies that all this video game stuff – sneaking, hunting, shooting – gets old eventually, and draws us back to the mundane reality outside. For Arkane, who specifically make games about creatively sneaking and killing, it’s a brave piece of self-reflection.

Returnal and Deathloop both end with an unsettled antagonism. One presents us with the horror of the eternity that’s somehow also the only place that feels like home. The other provides a hedonistic fantasy that we nevertheless want to break. Whether the loop ends or not, there’s nothing neat about the implications, and aren’t those the best kinds of stories?

There’s plenty more texture in time loops, too, as Twelve Minutes and The Forgotten City have shown. With its tight loop – a matter of minutes, unsurprisingly – Twelve Minutes focuses on the psychological pressures of repetition and the claustrophobia of being stuck in a strictly confined time and place. It hurries you to experiment with objects and people in rash ways that lead to sickening results, and confounds our expectations for a point and click puzzle adventure, that there should be a perfect resolution.

Forgotten City
The Forgotten City. Credit: Modern Storyteller

The Forgotten City also wants us to consider our scruples. Just because everything resets, it asks, does that mean our actions don’t matter? If we cause injury or death, is that still morally wrong if it’s scrubbed from history? As we investigate its lost Roman settlement, we need to manipulate people to progress, and weigh up our sins against the greater good. Yet there’s also an underlying point in the game about the loop of history itself, in which humanity repeats mistakes precisely by following ideals of worthwhile sacrifice.

In The Forgotten City, you can fix everything in the end, but at what cost? And do we learn from it? It highlights how we’re so often focused in games on reaching our ends, we don’t stop to consider the means. In Twelve Minutes, conversely, life is irreparably broken, and the only way to move on is to stop trying to make everything right. The problem here is that we accept its premise – that we treat the lives of its characters like a point and click adventure, where everything and everyone is a resource to be used. Again, these games come from different directions to reveal a similar tension.

So yes, it’s been an excellent year for video game time loops. They’ve shown us the pleasure, the horror, the frustration and the moral quandaries of a complex and flexible plot device. Have they covered all the potential is has to offer? Who knows? But if games like these continue to find such fascinating angles in the concept, let’s go round again.

We named Deathloop and Returnal as some of the best games of 2021 – check it out to see where they rank, and which other games made the cut. 

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