Why ‘Deathloop’ is wrong: meaning and morality within a time loop

Bad day?

In cult sci-fi author Greg Egan’s Permutation City, there is a man who is obsessed with table legs. He’s been obsessed with sculpting them for nearly a hundred years, having instructed his digital consciousness to instil him with shifting, randomly selected passions that occupy his eternity. He’s one of two stowaways in a post-human, would-be paradise constructed by billionaires who want to revel in immortality, and he’s just fine where he is, thank you very much.

Colt from Deathloop could learn a lot from table leg man. He’s the protagonist in a game that portrays time-looped immortality as an aberration, but Deathloop never interrogates why.

Just like Permutation City, Deathloop’s loop exists as a playground for the elite. The loop’s founders, the Visionaries, are shallow, largely hedonistic monsters, each revelling in their own wretched cocktail of narcissism and power. Colt’s rival, and the only person besides him who retains their memories each day, is one of them: Julianna is just as bent on preserving the loop as Colt is on ending it, but her arguments for why never reach beyond “it’s a laugh, innit?”.

Deathloop is a fabulous game – a cunningly weaved tapestry of murder improv – but it’s also frustratingly reluctant to discuss the main conflict it’s supposed to be about. The closest Colt comes to justifying his recurring ultra-violent rampage is a moment where he tells Julianna that “living life without consequences is meaningless”, which you can either read as trite common sense or a grandiose metaphysical assertion that makes some pretty big assumptions about the nature of both consequence and meaning.

Deathloop: foxes
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios

I wish Julianna would clap back. What right does Colt have to decide whether her life is worth living? Is the sum total of agony Colt’s caused by the time he’s plunged his machete through some mook’s rib cage for the unfathomably numbered time meaningless, too? If I told you I was going to torture you for decades but don’t worry, I’ll delete your memories after, you’d run away from me screaming. Memory wipes don’t cause suffering to have never happened, they only clean up its consequences. It seems immoral to argue that forgotten suffering simply doesn’t matter – so common sense starts to show some cracks.

If you’re a hedonist, we’re done here. If that suffering is real, and really matters, then so does all the fun that Colt and Julianna could be having instead. That’s a cop-out, though, dealing only with a simplified form of hedonism that treats pleasurable mental states as inherently and endlessly worthwhile, while not particularly caring about how they came about. Colt’s not denying the possibility of experiencing pleasure within the loop (he seems to relish all the murder far too much for that), he’s denying that it’s enough.

That’s both fair and agreeable, but hold your time horses. Voluntary time loop life doesn’t have to be all drugs and decapitation – infinity has room for connection and self-improvement, too, and arguably allows those virtues to be carved along deeper furrows than outside of it. Julianna and Colt while away eternity with their knives at each other’s throats, but they could be doing almost anything else instead. The Visionaries are arseholes, but most of them at least ostensibly spend their time pursuing art and science rather than wild violence. Even the dude who runs murder LARP is expressing himself creatively, and surely deserves bonus points for using willing participants. The fact that he also got someone to cut out the bit of his brain responsible for empathy and plug it into a robot is beside the point.

Deathloop. Image credit: Arcane Studios
Deathloop. Image credit: Arcane Studios

For fans of human connection, it’s important to note that Colt isn’t alone. One of the few constants that table leg man allows his post-human brain to retain is an attachment to his fellow digital stowaway, Kate, with whom he says he’d happily exist alongside in their own private pocket universe. You don’t need a society, or even an external reality, to live a life involving meaningful consequences, because a relationship of any kind necessarily involves them. Colt’s very struggle against Julianna should be a reminder of that, seen as it’s continually renewed by her failure to persuade him to abandon it.

Now. There’s an elephant in the room, here, who goes by the name authenticity. You might find the approach Greg Egan’s table maker takes to life abrasive, and that pursuing passions you’ve artificially invoked would be every bit as meaningless as living your life in a world that resets. That’s not unreasonable, but it’s worth thinking about what makes pursuing passions that sprout from biology and random chance inherently more worthwhile. We can tell coherent and comforting stories about how following our interests has led to us being the people we are now, but they are ultimately just stories. Table leg man gives himself random passions, but he exerts more agency in choosing that fate than we ever will, adrift as we are on cosmic whim. Julianna chooses a world where she can essentially be a god, and anyone who shirks from that should consider just how much fun it might be.

Deathloop
Deathloop. Credit: Arkane Studios.

I’m not saying time loop life is for everyone, I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be condemned. The problem for anyone who wants to dismiss anything as meaningless is that it’s possible to look at any life, any purpose, any existence, and justifiably ask what the point of it is. Any answer about what makes something valuable will contain the brute assertion that it is valuable. Love is good because it’s fulfilling. Being fulfilled is good because it’s…good.

Maybe Deathloop’s particular loop is so densely clogged with arseholes as to render fulfilment impossible and escape the only tolerable option, but that doesn’t mean the entire concept’s a bust. Maybe what makes any life worth living always boils down to some interpretation of “it’s a laugh, innit”, and we shouldn’t forget that everyone has a different sense of humour. Maybe we could all learn something from table leg man.

Deathloop is out now, available on PC and PS5

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