There’s a type of person that many of us, particularly those of us who have worked in the arrested development limbo of the creative industries, know well. They’re usually on the older side, often well into their fifties and sixties, but they tend to dress and act like they never left their early twenties. They’re hip, way hipper than you. They show up to work dressed in the latest streetwear freshly copped from StockX, designer frames, and limited edition sneakers. We’ve all suffered the cognitive dissonance of seeing someone who’s undeniably “over the hill” of their life’s journey nevertheless presenting as fresh-faced and young; single and ready to party all night. In truth, trying desperately hard to fit into a group that no longer includes them, to remain unstuck from the interminable forward progress of time.
Deathloop’s main character Colt Vahn is unquestionably this type of person. Putting his literal participation in a project meant to freeze time and escape death aside, he honestly just looks extremely the part. He’s got the undoubtedly overpriced, “iconic” bomber jacket, and a constant string of self-aware quips bordering on the level of dad jokes. He flirts with children and parties way too hard, waking up every morning of the titular loop sprawled on a beach surrounded by discarded booze bottles. His over-the-top act is a transparent defense against his own deep sense of awkwardness and desire to belong. Don’t take him seriously, his jokey demeanor seems to beg, don’t stare. He’s just a chill guy, he isn’t at all a walking personification of the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme.
Meanwhile, Deathloop is what happens when this type of personality gets injected into a AAA videogame. It wears its ironic retro aesthetics proudly, pastiching it up with the best of them. It over-executes on its premise and has the feel of a well-paid professional design team getting assigned to recreate the margin doodles of a middle schooler. Everything is drenched in bright, pleasing colors and studded with excessive detail. It evokes less a specific place or sensibility than a showcase of competence and high-level polish. It’s self-aware and rightly proud of itself. It’s trying, clearly, to be a good videogame despite not being sure if videogames are all that great, actually.
This works splendidly for me, an aging and oft-conflicted gamer myself; someone increasingly in danger of becoming the old man caught in young men’s clothes. I feel a familiar sense of denial between my own approach to gaming and the detached, hipster tone which Deathloop affects. It’s the same one I’ve affected countless times when explaining my passtime to my uninitiated peers. “Games? Oh, they’re just a silly hobby. Something I get up to when my partner is busy.” I tend to write games off as my own personal version of the giant block of cheese George Costansa eats alone in his underwear.
It’s safer to talk about the way the updated haptic feedback feels on the PS5 controller when I pull the trigger on the in-game machine gun. Safer to discuss the ways in which gaming satisfies my middle-aged nerd urges, rather than try to defend or map out the medium to a thoroughly uninterested audience, situating myself unmistakably and pathetically as a gamer. Best not to speak too much for a scene which itself becomes more and more unfamiliar to me. Like Colt, it feels safer to maintain ironic distance, to keep my cringey old personality from toxifying my social media and real life presences alike. Better to hang back, keeping tabs on an ever-shifting zeitgeist, feeling ever the outsider.
On Blackreef, Deathloop’s arctic setting, Colt’s outsider status is weaponized. As Colt, we crash parties where people are earnestly enjoying themselves. We kick open doors or we methodically headshot every last denizen from afar. We throw their drinks against the wall, knock people off balconies, toss grenades onto crowded dance floors. We stalk from room to room, spoiling everything; the ultimate uninvited guest. Colt’s destructive whirlwind interrupts the youthful revelry from which he has been preemptively rejected.
Colt’s nemesis, Julianna, may pay plenty of lip-service to the hedonistic debauchery of Blackreef’s inhabitants during her radio missives, but the evidence doesn’t always bear this out. Here, someone attempts to fix their boat, here someone adds their artwork to a mural. There are plenty of creative acts to be found across Blackreef, but within Colt’s personal orbit there can only be destruction. Colt is here to crush dreams and destroy futures. You’ll kill every last reveler if it means satisfying the game’s entirely nebulous and lackluster win-state (manifesting in a nebulous and lackluster conclusion).
It’s not like you can even really help it. Your kicks are far too powerful. Your big hands far too good at snapping their little necks like twigs. These victims are described in the game as “murderous little children.” What does that make you, if not the homicidal daddy, stepping on their sandcastles, stomping their fragile creations back into dust?
Things change, though, when Julianna invades my session, especially when she’s being piloted by another player. Player-controlled Julianna tends to be an opponent who speaks the language of outsider violence just as well as you do. Unlike Colt, however, Julianna is not an outsider, and can instead turn the whole system against you. “Hey everyone,” she seems to intone, “get a load of this old man. He’s trying to crash our party! He’s gonna call the cops and file a noise complaint!”
It’s during my clashes with Julianna that I feel the most like an outsider, hiding in the shadows from the accusatory stares and pointed fingers. The klaxons and ringing alarms all flashing signifiers that I do not belong here. But then something strange happens. I start to revel in my notoriety, my self-enforced sense of exile. There’s a true sense of release in not having to pretend anymore, in being allowed to finally live my truth as the odd, murderous old man. While the invading Julianna wires traps and dashes madly around the map, trying vainly to ferret me out, I simply find a good vantage point, trigger my maxed-out invisibility power and wait.
The invader thinks I’ll play brash, just like them. They assume I’m young too, impatient to take action, to blunder blindly ahead, all raw nerves and reaction times. They hadn’t anticipated going up against a tired old opponent who refuses to climb any stairs. I’ve lived my life. I’ve already both created and destroyed. I can wait here all day. I can sit here invisible, loading bullets into my gun, until the brash young Julianna appears and fatally stumbles across my crosshairs.
Deathloop’s tone lines up perfectly with this approach. It’s a game which seems to share in my sense of world-weariness and cynicism. It doesn't truly ever seem to fit comfortably within its status as a videogame. For all its high polish and pristine veneer, its world feels unseriously constructed. A rambling story, cavalierly told, placeholder and scaffolding for the real immersive action it prides itself on. Narratively, it’s a dart board of tropes: let’s give this group some kind of boilerplate, Bond villain-esque organizational structure with vague, unimportant goals. Everyone gets their archetypical, tried and true roles and personalities. You never get close enough to see the seams anyway, so why hide the bric-a-brac construction? It’s all perfectly serviceable when viewed from the distance of a rifle scope, after all.
Colt constantly grumbles and puts words to this sense of ennui. “Bet there’s a servant’s entrance round back,” he correctly surmises as the player approaches the miniboss Aleksis’ mansion party. In pointing to the artificial framework of the game, Deathloop’s developers seem to admit their own weariness as much as they anticipate their audience’s. We’ve all been here before. We all basically know what to expect. We know it doesn’t matter who the villains or the heroes are, that we’ll do what we want to do, regardless. It sympathizes with our disdain for the medium as an art form at the same time as it celebrates the high-end robustness of its systems. It lets us talk about the game in the way games are meant to be discussed! Gunfeel! Powers! Exciting pathways and inventive solutions to tricky spatial puzzles. 10/10!
Deathloop knows we’re too cool to get invested in who Colt is, or what the loop signifies. It lets us stay detached, aloof, uninterested. It understands that the age of the audience and our sense of cynicism toward the medium aren’t truly what matter, since games will always remain unstuck from time, trapped in a sphere of youthful compulsion and cutting edge tech-obsession. No matter how committed or die-hard we start off, we all eventually age out. We all eventually find it too hard to justify the dissonance of squeezing that trigger, of knocking over that big pile of blocks, again and again. No one wants to be the old loser in a crowd of the young and carefree. No one wants to stand face to face with the harsh contradictions of their violent hobby. So Deathloop, graciously, allows us to drop into the party for just a moment. Knowing we don’t actually belong, not worrying if there’s a place for us here. Not worrying whether tomorrow will bring us the future, or just the same day all over again.
Yussef Cole, one of Bullet Points’ editors, is a writer and motion graphic designer. His writing on games stems from an appreciation of the medium tied with a desire to tear it all down so that something better might be built. Find him on Twitter @youmeyou.