header is screenshot from Deathloop
A Self-Effacing System
Hirun Cryer

Deathloop stars Colt Vahn and Julianna Blake, two rival assassins gunning each other down only to wake up and do it all over again the next day for eternity. Elsewhere in their murderous playground though, there are others who are present for the pursuit of eternal life rather than violence as a competitive sport. While this may seem like a more enlightened pursuit than endless killing, the destruction of self that these characters must face hints at a darker side to immortality.

Colt and Julianna retain their memories in between each loop, but the same can’t be said for the other souls inhabiting Deathloop’s island. Blackreef's rocky cliffs, grandiose '60s-inspired buildings, and whirring laboratories are home to a countless number of footsoldiers dubbed ‘Eternalists.’ They’ve all united on Blackreef from different walks of life: some are incarcerated prisoners whom no one will miss, some are rich hedonists with more money than sense, and some are just everyday citizens who you’d pass on the street without a second thought.

Their goal is the same regardless: eternal life through the time loop. Deathloop’s power-drunk time overlords are the eight Visionaries, and it’s these commanders that the Eternalists are effectively in indentured servitude to, tasked with protecting the Visionaries in order to preserve their immortality. According to a note you stumble upon in an Eternalist’s hideout, they’re present to extend the time loop forever, securing the promise of eternal life that lured them to Blackreef island in the first place.

It’s through this narrative device that Deathloop studies the loss of self in a time loop. When Eternalists are brought to Blackreef island, they’re stripped of all belongings and possessions, and given a mask to hide their identity and guide them to a new, endless life. This masking method is meant to guarantee equality amongst Blackreef’s Eternalists, ostensibly putting them on the same level playing field and erasing any past misdeeds. It’s also a convenient trick from the Visionaries of removing any sense of self from the masses propped up as human meat shields between the vengeful Colt and the all-powerful Visionaries.

By removing this sense of self-identification, the Visionaries vindictively wear down the self-awareness of the Eternalists over time. In the absence of anything that makes them unique, it’s not hard to imagine the Eternalists slowly losing their sense of self, especially when the Blackreef operation to extend the same period of time indefinitely has been going on for well over 17 years. The Eternalists aren’t sharing in the same immortality that the Visionaries are—they’re being used as a faceless wall against threats like Colt. 

Then again, this is just taking the Visionaries at face value. Not all Visionaries are on an equal footing, as the ruling clan have their own self-imposed hierarchy, which Colt discovers through gleefully perusing internal messages sent through archaic computers. Igor is clutching at an attempt to prove his intellectual superiority, for example, whereas the suave, silver-tongued Frank is hellbent on simply having a good time at basically any cost. There's a sense that these characters are hanging on to any personality trait, even if it's negative, in order not to become blank slates.

Things get a little more interesting with Aleksis. The chaotic partygoer hosts an ‘end of the world’ bash every night in his cliffside fortress, surrounded by dozens of lookalikes in admittedly adorable wolf masks who drink themselves stupid, only to repeat the entire thing exactly 24 hours later (minus the headsplitting hangover). Aleksis plays the role of Visionary dunce extremely well, outright harassing esteemed intellectual Wenjie with shitposts via Blackreef’s computers and having all his comrades dress up in identical wolf-themed attire and let rip with a howl every now and then.

He’s also the loneliest person on Blackreef. Aleksis’ attempt to surround himself with friends is rendered null and void when they’re all faceless thanks to the identical wolf masks (an idea which painfully originated from Aleksis), and he can’t display his superiority for fear of the barrel of Colt’s gun breathing down his neck. There’s a little irony in Aleksis losing his sense of personal identity by filling his party with mirror images of himself, and so instead, the functioning alcoholic desperately clings to his past persona through the one thing he’s somehow transported to Blackreef island: chocolate beer.

If the player chooses to turn off the valve for said chocolate beer, Aleksis completely loses it, lashing out at his fellow partygoers and taking matters into his own hands, storming the basement to fix the valve. It’s a humorous little scene in the moment, with Aleksis completely flipping out over something that probably tastes like it’s been poured from an old shoe, but it can also crucially be read as someone stripped of all their means of self-identification, losing the one thing that they clung to from the outside world. Aleksis is being utterly consumed by a self-effacing system that will destroy his individuality whether he becomes a narcissist or not.

Developer Arkane actually studied similar themes of self-identification in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. Near the climax of Billie Lurk’s revenge mission against the godly Outsider himself, she encounters a cult called the Eyeless, dedicated to the study and knowledge of the otherworldly Void that the god inhabits. The Eyeless are a hierarchical organisation, with high-ranking members permitted to come in contact with the Void, and even reside there, fully abandoning their presence in the real world.

The higher one rises in the Eyeless, and the deeper they understand and come in contact with the Void itself, the more they lose their grip on reality. Those fully assimilated with the Void actually take on another form called the Envisioned—hulking, gargantuan stone-like beings who fully reside within the Void, untethered from reality. While Deathloop’s Visionaries aren’t undergoing physical transformations, there’s undoubtedly parallels in how they’re all slowly losing themselves through exposure to otherwordly forces. Just like Aleksis, there’s a little irony, too, in deepening one's understanding of another realm only to lose footing in reality to the point of abandoning your physical body. Deathloop’s Visionaries might rise above everyone else on Blackreef through a hierarchical class structure where the Eternalists are enlisted as the ‘muscle,’ but the leaders are sadly the most detached from material reality. 

This all feeds back into an overarching sense of tragedy in Deathloop. The Visionary’s obsessions with the time loop go hand in hand with the erasure of their identities, as figureheads like Aleksis cling on for dear life to things they can identify with as they drown in a sea of faceless Eternalists. The tragedy is really brought full circle by the Eternalists though, as a fleshy wall devoid of any identity that protects their Visionary masters, blissfully unaware of the time loop they’re trapped in. This is Colt and Julianna’s story, but Deathloop is a tragedy for everyone else involved.


Hirun Cryer is a freelance writer and reporter around the games industry, and you can find him over on Twitter at @HirunCryer