Alone Again Or: Deathloop Immerses You in the ’60s and ’70s, Again and Again and AgainGames Features Deathloop
If you didn’t already know Deathloop was made by the same studio as the Dishonored games you’d probably be able to guess pretty quickly. Like Dishonored, Deathloop is an immersive sim roughly in the mold first established over 20 years ago by Looking Glass Studios. It’s set in an alternate history, although one based on the 1960s, and not the Victorian era of Dishonored. Your character has a deep set of weapons and superpowered abilities that let you tackle any encounter in a variety of ways. All told, Deathloop has many of the hallmarks of Arkane Studios’ last original franchise, as well as its 2017 reboot of Prey: the way you move, the powers you gain, the contrast between stealth and combat, and the amount of blood when you kill enemies all look warmly familiar.
Based on a hands-off demo we recently witnessed, it also diverges greatly from Dishonored and Prey in one crucial way: it’s, uh, got a death loop. And not like most games, where once you die you just start over again, looping back into your last save point, or the start of whatever level or section you last unlocked. Deathloop is built around repetition—on reliving the same moments and experiences over and over, making incremental progress each time until you make the next major breakthrough. Arkane has mixed a bit of Groundhog Day into its Dishonored, a decision guaranteed to land the new game many comparisons to the currently trendy roguelike genre.
During the demo Deathloop’s game director Dinga Bakaba went to lengths to explain how that repetition relates to in-game progress. “The way we see those loops is that they are not a unit of progression,” he said. “The loop is the state of the world and the world loops, but the state of your progression is how you complete your goals.” Essentially, your progress is based on what you accomplish in each loop—the information you discover, the power-ups you acquire, and the familiarity you gain with the map as you explore it again and again. The goal is to kill eight targets in a single loop—the game calls them “Visionaries”—with Juliana Blake, a fearsome assassin who’s hunting you down and who can be controlled either by the game’s artificial intelligence or a fellow real-life player (and who also serves, for at least a time, as a voice in your ear, taunting you while also slyly, sarcastically encouraging you), as the eighth and final target. With each loop you’ll learn more about these visionaries and the different parts of Blackreef, the game’s island setting; as you learn where and how to pick them off, you’ll be able to start stringing those assassinations together in a single loop.
As you’d expect from an immersive sim, the process of hunting these targets down sounds very open-ended, with multiple different paths to success. “There are lots of things to do,” Bakaba explained. “There are several different leads. You don’t have to bang your head on something that somehow you’re blocked against, you can just go somewhere else—or some time else, I guess. You’re very free with your progression. It’s not a game where a day is something that you do from beginning to end, and when you die you have to restart the whole game over and over. It’s about what you’re doing in this world that keeps resetting itself.”
Blackreef is split into four districts, and there are four distinct times of day that you can choose from with every loop. Depending on what you’ll pick, you’ll see changes in enemy placement and behavior, and certain locations within the districts might not be open to you. It’s a smart way to get as much variation out of the map as possible.
One thing you’ll notice, no matter the time of day, is the strong ‘60s aesthetic that defines Blackreef’s design. Sebastian Mitton, the game’s art director, suggested a ‘60s and ‘70s-inspired setting because, as he explained, “it’s a period where people, in my mind, anyway, were happier. There was this notion of not being too worried about the future, even though we were in the Cold War. I thought that was very interesting, to create all these characters who were going to live forever, who were going to have a party forever, and be able to really go mad, and that reminded me of the ‘60s/’70s.”
Let’s not get bogged down in sociopolitics; if that era was more hedonistic and party-focused than today, it’s probably less because people were carefree and untroubled, and more because there was so much to worry about, beyond just the persistent threat of imminent nuclear devastation, that the natural reaction was to dive headfirst into whatever made you feel good in hopes of blotting out everything that didn’t. What’s important here is what this setting lets Arkane’s artists explore. Mitton continued to elaborate on how this swinging ‘60s influence was such a strong diversion from the Victorian Era of the Dishonored games, giving the artists at Arkane something new to sink their teeth into.
It’s not just the time period that stands out in Deahtloop. Like Dishonored’s Dunwall and Karnaca, Blackreef appears to be a highly stylized location with its own distinct identity. Mitton explained it as such: “If you take an island that’s isolated north of Scotland, which has an old fishing village, and you add to that metallic structures and bunkers like in Pripyat next to Chernobyl, and then it takes place during the ‘60s and people are going to have an eternal party, it creates a place that is completely unique.” Although there are echoes of 2018’s We Happy Few, what we’ve seen of Deathloop seems a little less cartoonish than the Swinging London vibe of that game, and a little more lived-in—maybe not a place that could actually exist in the real world, but more likely than the drug-fueled dystopia found in We Happy Few. (Both, of course, feel strongly inspired by The Village from the classic British TV show The Prisoner, which remains as relevant today as it did when it first aired over 50 years ago.)
Perhaps the most striking use of period signifiers can be found in the game’s music. During the demo the score was generally understated and hard to notice until a firefight broke out, at which point a slinky, Peter Gunn-sounding theme kicked in with propulsive energy. During one scene there was a loud, freaky jazz-psych jam that sounded pretty righteous, and like something that heads would’ve paid top dollar for at record stores like Twisted Village or Other Music until Sunbeam reissued it on 180 gram vinyl. We don’t necessarily devote much of our listening time to game soundtracks, but Deathloop’s is one that could easily take up space on our turntable.
Despite its flashy aesthetic and record collector-friendly music, the heart of Deathloop, like any videogame, will be how it plays. We haven’t experienced that yet ourselves—again, this demo was hand’s off, so we were merely watching footage of the game in action—but given Arkane’s sterling work on the Dishonored games, there’s more than enough reason to be optimistic about Deathloop. Even if the action is lacking, it’s still a world that will look and sound like few others in gaming. Also, who doesn’t get wrapped up in a good mystery, or hooked on a game that smartly teases out clearly defined goalposts between lots and lots of death? Bakaba calls Deathloop “an inverted murder puzzle,” and based on the demo that sounds about right.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.