header is screenshot from Deathloop
Embracing the Artificial
Reid McCarter

Deathloop does not pretend to take place in the real world. Its setting, the island of Blackreef, is a sea-swept pile of scrub-dusted, rain-darkened North Sea rock, flashing neon signs, twisting modernist buildings, and splashes of loudly coloured art noveau and psychedelic art, all carefully assembled for maximum impact. Its characters largely speak (and shout) in clipped, hammy phrasing stringing midnight movie “fuck”s and “shit”s throughout every sentence as if the cast isn’t really sure how to communicate itself to players. The design of the game, too, is fragmented. Protagonist Colt jerks through time like he’s going under and waking up from anaesthesia over and over again, groggily coming to on a beach or emerging through underground tunnels into a city whose walls and streets are overlaid with fourth wall-tapping invitations to shoot, stab, or sneak past enemies. A mission icon hovers like an inlaid diamond on the screen, omnipresent and accompanied here and there by boxes of text that pop up to inform players when they’ve triggered an objective update or discovered new information.   

Videogames are artificial structures. They’re illusions conjured up by lines of code, the guts that power their virtual worlds consisting not of tiny people waiting to spring forth and play act but carefully crafted math problems whose solutions are meant to pull off the magic trick of creation—the conjuring up of pretend realities we can more or less allow ourselves to believe represent something akin to reality.

Deathloop is no exception to this. But it is striking in how little it seems to care about disguising its foundational artificiality with the usual big-budget tricks of prestige TV-aping or even just a traditional, linearly unfolding narrative structure. Instead, it’s blatantly a videogame. A very well-designed videogame in a lot of basic, kind of technical senses, but one whose attempt to provide the player with expressional freedom ends up constantly reminding them that the digital people and places they’re interacting with are fundamentally inhuman.

At the core of Deathloop is the conceit that Colt, and the player herself, are trapped in the purgatory of an island where the end of a day (or death) resets the clock back to the same morning. The only way to break out of this limbo, we soon learn, is killing the group of demented, Silicon Valley-esque leaders of Blackreef’s science fictional tech program. This is done by manipulating their routines so they're rounded up into a convenient arrangement of murder-locations.

This kind of set-up could have unfolded in any number of ways but in Deathloop the staccato rhythms of multiple deaths and rebirths are presented piecemeal. In an effort to encourage the kind of loosened straitjacket “player freedom” of a toybox whose items don’t mind being retrieved in random order, Colt can chase after any objective at any time, though all need to be completed before the story comes to an end. He can use a block of segmented “morning” time to kill a target and ransack their personal quarters or spend that time skulking around mysterious structures, probing them for (always directly valuable) information about Blackreef and its inhabitants. He can use an afternoon period to do the same.

Basically: each loop is a level, the videogame terminology more fitting than the initially obfuscating set-up, which suggests players will organically explore specific regions of Blackreef during the passing of a constantly repeating day. It’s so granular that, once the player understands the game’s structure, she realizes that the goal of Deathloop is to repeatedly extract information and resources from sixteen discrete mission areas—variations of the same four locations at four different times of day.

The creation of a more dynamic sort of Rube Goldberg death-machine suggested by the game’s premise—manipulating these levels so each target can be killed in a single loop of the repeating day—ends up being accomplished in a far stricter way than even the recent Hitman games, let alone the more chaotic possibilities offered by something like Metal Gear Solid V. Upon entering a level, the player picks up notes or overhears conversations that are automatically logged as items to complete in a larger spreadsheet tracking her progress toward setting up the final assassination-filled day. She moves constantly toward objective markers, the only real choice consisting of the path (and level of loud violence) used in getting toward the X marking her destination. Playing Deathloop, once the bones of its structure become more apparent than its thinly-constructed edifice, is ultimately about dealing with a checklist. For all its early attempts to hide this from the player, the game is a series of open world-style tasks to complete that, in turn, open up more tasks to complete until the final mission unlocks.

This is the “immersive sim” genre as it almost always is—a design philosophy meant to allow for unprecedented player freedom that usually ends up feeling, ironically, more like poking at a dollhouse from many different angles than experiencing a virtual reality. The “immersion” means you can throw things that in other games might not be throwable; the “immersion” means you can break an enemy’s neck to get past them or hack an automated turret to offload the task. Each of these kinds of actions are meant to offer further possibilities than the interactions allowed by, say, a shooter—typically: crouch, run, shoot, toss grenades, etc.—and their level structure is meant to offer the same by enlarging the digital setting from confined spaces which respond only to the sort of inputs described above to larger, more reactive spaces.  

But by increasing the number of possibilities, the inevitable restrictions that will arise in any videogame (because, after all, videogames are synthetic, programmed structures, not reality itself) end up as even harsher reminders of an “immersive” simulation’s restrictions. The usual tricks to combat this reminder of artificiality are the ones common to all narrative art: engaging character writing and performance; a continually unfolding narrative—any of a wide array of techniques meant to either disguise or make the medium’s artificiality besides the point. (Think of the sense of presence created by, for instance, sound and lighting design in a claustrophobic horror game where the player can only walk, crouch, or press a general "interact" key as she proceeds through a series of confined spaces.)

Deathloop largely rejects these concepts, favouring an impression of flexible player expression over anything else. Its characters react to their world with campy, ironic detachment and its story is told in fits and starts, without much of any real dramatic arc. (Its ending arrives abruptly, eagerly providing a twist that hits with a feather’s impact.) None of this means that Deathloop isn’t enjoyable as a videogame. It often is, especially when approached with the same half-engaged mentality as taking over a fort or solving an environmental puzzle in a Ubisoft open world game. But it does mean that there’s a weird lack of humanity to the proceedings, even as the game tries to make the player care about its cast of self-aware assholes and a story related through characters who themselves seem to exist outside of the reality they’re meant to inhabit. This lack of emotional depth leaves the game feeling as if it were created by a robot, a program meant to provide an artificial intelligence’s understanding of “fun” without the messy, human touches that make art linger in our minds long after we’ve experienced it.

Videogame players and critics love to reference a game’s “loop”—the main actions the player takes in a game, over and over. What does “the loop” look like? Is “the loop” satisfying? Will I get bored with “the loop” before the story ends? This sort of approach belies an appreciation of games as toys to play with or systems to poke at rather than as creations to approach in their totality, and as holistic work whose every aspect functions together to create what a game truly is. It separates out various aspects of a piece in order to evaluate them on their strength as components and, typically, prioritizes the basic enjoyment of a limited aspect of a game’s design over the creation’s broader effect. Deathloop is, fittingly, obsessed with “the loop” over all else, too. And it’s because of this that its ultimate impression is of something cold and distant, made by checking boxes off on a list containing the elements necessary to create a videogames’ unreal reality. Without bringing each of these elements together into a greater whole—without taking the longer view to see the forest and not just each of the trees that make it—it reveals itself as a series of tasks, dreamed up by a machine, or a smattering of loops to endlessly cycle through, their resolution leading nowhere but back into themselves.

To this: Kill the loop. Let it unspool into something less easily defined. Something that only a human could create.


Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.