DEATHLOOP is the latest in Arkane’s catalog of Thief-inspired systems-as-narrative games. As a fan of this genre I deeply enjoyed DEATHLOOP, particularly the way it makes my style of play much lower-stress than in other immersive sims. I am the type who wants to stealth perfectly and maintain a moral high ground, and DEATHLOOP gives me a novel way to relax a bit and enjoy the game. But after many hours of play my feelings shifted, and now that I’ve finished the game I’m not sure exactly where I stand. DEATHLOOP is masterfully crafted, a beautiful, witty, and tight game, but it also tugs on some little thread in my brain that unravels that warm blanket of production value and leaves me a little cold.
I find myself more interested in DEATHLOOP’s structure than its content. Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message” is pretty well known, but DEATHLOOP reminded me of another passage from Understanding Media:
“For the ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.”
DEATHLOOP is certainly a cornucopia of “content.” Its levels are massive, the upgrades are legion, the story is complex, and nearly ever NPC that you crouch-walk passed is in the middle of some asinine—but lengthy—conversation. There are secrets, holy shit are there secrets, an unbelievable treasure trove of optional safes to unlock or messages to read or computers to hack or weirdos to discover. In the classic Arkane style, DEATHLOOP plans for and populates level paths for both the run-and-gunner and the stealthy ghost ninja. And because the whole game is built around a loop, depth of content is a necessity: you will play through these areas over and over, thread your way through the same hills and buildings, and shoot the same loser in the head over and over and over again. Having lots to do in very high fidelity is, I think, DEATHLOOP’s primary defense against boredom in a game that shares the same premise as Groundhog Day.
But I can’t help but wonder if all of that—all of it—is an example of McLuhan’s juicy piece of meat, there first and foremost to distract me from what is actually going on. Because it seems to me that what is actually going on in DEATHLOOP is that the protagonist and his enemies, and all of the people who populate the island of Blackreef, are in hell. They live the same day over and over, stuck in an infinite purgatory from which they cannot escape, and worst of all, most of them don’t even know it. These people were promised a no-consequences paradise where any transgression would simply reset the next morning, but instead the citizens of Blackreef are cursed to repeat themselves over and over and over again, into infinity. The only thing possibly worse than this fate is being the only Cassandra in the place to be able to see it, to maintain a memory across every loop and yet be unable to defy it, which is exactly the state that the protagonist Colt finds himself.
Stephen King wrote a short story called That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is In French, about a woman who repeats the same nightmare over and over, remembering a little more about what’s going to happen each time, until it finally becomes clear—not to put too fine a point on it—that there’s No Exit. But in King’s story, the victim slowly realizes the true state of her predicament, while the assholes on Blackreef remain blissfully unaware.
And yet, and yet, the structure of DEATHLOOP is the structure of many video games. You play for a while, and if you die, the world is reset and you start over. The enemies are back in their places, the items need to be collected again, you’ve been returned to the last checkpoint. It’s as if your previous run never happened, you get a free do-over. It doesn’t feel cruel to reset a world populated by generic military men or crawling mushroom creatures. But as the DEATHLOOP enemies start talking about their friends, their fears, their hopes and dreams, when they start ribbing with their cohorts, even as the game goes out of its way to explain how despicable they are, I started to feel bad for them. Am I supposed to get some enjoyment out of the cruelty of their situation? DEATHLOOP’s design is to contextualize one of the core structural patterns of video games, and in doing so it suggests that it is monstrous. It’s hard to think of an analog in other media. It’s as if we discovered that verse-chorus-verse is, in fact, a form of subjugation.
The medium is the message. The content is a diversion. The focus in DEATHLOOP is right there in the title. I suspect that DEATHLOOP contextualizes the die-restart-die loop in order to explain it. Everything in this game, from the art to the sound design to the writing to the characters has been crafted to be high fidelity and believable, and this clunky old game design structure that we’re all used to (but, I can imagine a designer shouting in a pitch meeting, “makes no logical sense!”) has been pulled kicking and screaming along with it. But the effect, at least for me, is to highlight the cruelty inherent in the structure. Is that the message? That all video games are, upon closer inspection, like ant farms that we enjoy shaking?
To its credit, DEATHLOOP sets its protagonist up on a quest to break the loop, to exit hell, and to save Blackreef from eternity, even if it means dying for real. And it is constantly asking the player to be skeptical, to wonder if Colt’s motivations (which are pretty thin—some voices talk to him via big floating text boxes) are correct or not, primarily by creating a combination friend and antagonist in Julianna. Their banter is the best part of the game, in part because she’s obviously not crazy, and though she refuses to explain herself, she thinks Colt is wrong. Like many games in this genre, the end presents a choice between going through with the destruction of the loop (which means that everybody dies, but no longer has to repeat), or choosing to stay in purgatory with Julianna (maybe hell isn’t other people after all).
But, as I carefully avoid spoiling what actually happens at the end of DEATHLOOP, I found the result of both choices deeply unsatisfying. For a game built on mystery upon mystery, the conclusions available are surprisingly terse. Are we to allow the content to distract our mind’s personal pit bull or are we ready to reject the structure entirely, even at the cost of our own lives? DEATHLOOP doesn’t seem ready to contemplate either scenario.
At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray escapes purgatory by growing into a better human being. But at the end of DEATHLOOP, it’s hard to say if anything has been accomplished. The characters seem to be right back where they started.