Time loop games are evolving, and challenging a fantasy of perfection

"Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today."

Deathloop may be the highest profile time loop game this year, but it’s far from the only one.

The time loop concept has been growing increasingly popular in games for a while now, from sci-fi adventures Into the Breach, Outer Wilds, and Returnal to bizarre thrillers like The Sexy Brutale. With these (and more), it’s tempting to conclude that time loop stories themselves have begun to endlessly repeat. Yet some of this year’s examples have helped refresh the format, by diving into its psychological and philosophical repercussions.

In a way, time loop fictions have always felt connected to real world anxieties and problems. In today’s societies, there’s a sense that we have too much to juggle and not enough time. Labor-leisure routines have been replaced by a constant pressure to prioritize work, family, fitness, learning and entertainment at once. And the morality around striving towards these impossible targets often seems opaque, burdening us individually to balance personal advancement against the social good.

Time loop fictions have always felt connected to real world anxieties and problems.

We might also feel like we’re in stasis, that nothing can really change, because economic and cultural systems are too large and interconnected for us to influence. Cultural theorist Fredric Jameson observed in the 1980s how time seemed to have become post-natural, measured only in news cycles or sports and fashion seasons, and today’s culture is obsessed with remakes and reboots. Those in power maintain the loop, most people don’t notice or care, and we stumble blindly towards disaster with no acceptable alternative on the horizon.

Stories like Groundhog Day feel relevant and appealing then partly because they simulate the frustration of being stuck, controlled by unknown rules, constantly failing to do what’s required. But also because they offer a fantasy where accumulated knowledge matters, mistakes are erased, and time never fully runs out, so the hero can practice routines until they really are perfect. The loop then breaks, the world moves into a new timeline and the hero is free.

We did.Columbia Pictures

The irony with a fantasy like this, however, is that it only takes us back to where we started. It suggests we can escape stasis by obeying God-given rules to find a perfect life balance. But surely the only way to really break the loop is to change the rules themselves. This is where some of this year’s time loop games feel different, confronting us with the impossibility of ‘solving’ the loop, or at least with the darker implications of ‘perfection.’

Modern Storyteller’s The Forgotten City is an open investigation game set in an isolated enclave in ancient Rome. You’ve been transported there from the present, and have to figure out the mystery of ‘the golden rule,’ which decrees that if any one person in the city commits a sin, all while die. Fortunately, should this happen — and it will — you can jump through a portal that resets the cycle to the moment of your arrival.

“I think at the beginning of the game, a lot of players resolve themselves to be morally upright citizens,” says Modern Storyteller founder, Nick Pearce, “and are surprised to find that their resolve crumbles quickly, once they’re in a position where they’re having to bend and break the rules to survive.” To progress, you sometimes have to trigger the apocalypse yourself, condemning everyone to death, at least for that cycle, so you have to weigh up that wrong, along with other loopholes in the rule, against potential greater gains. “It explores a range of complex philosophical questions,” says Pearce, “like: What is right and wrong? Is there a universal definition? Does the end justify the means? Is utopia possible?”

The Forgotten City still has elements of a Groundhog Day-style ‘consequence-free’ power fantasy, however. “You can foil assassination attempts, prevent tragic deaths, rig elections, and swindle con-men out of their ill-gotten gains by exploiting the time loop,” says Pearce, “and these are all inherently emotionally satisfying things to do.” You can even reduce the legwork of repeating good deeds, by designating previously achieved objectives to a non-player character at the start of each cycle, which makes the loop feel less like a curse.

There is a kind of ‘perfect’ ending possible ... but it leaves behind questions about what you’ve done to achieve your objective.

There is a kind of ‘perfect’ ending possible in The Forgotten City, but it leaves behind questions about what you’ve done to achieve your objective, and how easily you turned to sin in that ‘consequence-free’ environment. The game also uses its historical setting to make a point about a larger human cycle, in which rising civilizations repeat the same acts of violence and domination as those they replace. If we want to break this loop, it implies, we need to question it at source, questioning ourselves and the systems imposed upon us to their core.

These moral questions only get murkier in another recent time loop game, Twelve Minutes. In this point n click style thriller, the main character arrives home from work one evening, where his wife awaits with news that she’s pregnant. But the scene is interrupted as a mysterious cop enters the home, ties the couple up, accuses her of murder then strangles him to death. This is where the cycle restarts, as it does if you try to leave the apartment at any time.

Twelve Minutes is far more compact than most time loops stories. The apartment creates cramped, frustrating conditions to work in, and the cycle ends all too quickly as you’re trying to work out what’s going on. “I realized that if the loop is very short, it's really stressful, right?” says Twelve Minutes’ writer and director, Luis Antonio. “It's not like you can really enjoy Twelve Minutes. The claustrophobia of the space helps accentuate that aspect and make you really feel that you're stuck there.” The power fantasy aspect of time loop scenarios is thus stripped away. “If this is a power fantasy, it’s a pretty frustrating one,” says Antonio. “You can do certain things that might be pleasurable to you as a player, but I think in general, it’s almost the opposite.”

At the same time, the small space focuses the experience, so players should require minimal guidance, and can then take responsibility for their actions. As you figure out, for example, how to incapacitate and interrogate the cop, you may go down some violent roads, which Antonio wants us to consider. “Nowadays, there's this desensitized, or idealized violence in video games, and I want to take a step back from that,” he says. “The game is about cause and consequence. So be aware of the actions that you're taking.”

Twelve Minutes isn’t so much about finding practical solutions, but coming to terms with who you are, what you’re willing to do to return to your life and how that might contrast against the desires of others. “A lot of people try to create the perfect day only to realize that it doesn't actually fix the problem they want to solve,” says Antonio. “Twelve Minutes explores the concepts of being able to step out of our thoughts and live in the now, rather than constantly ruminating on the concepts of past and future.”

In different ways, Twelve Minutes and The Forgotten City examine the consequences of pursuing utopian dreams or perfect lives, reflecting the moral fallout or internal and external damage we have to live with. More than merely clever game structures, these time loops explore how we may have to stop trying to break our loops by following impossible demands, and instead interrogate our own desires or confront the cause of the loop itself.