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Soapbox: Timeloop Games Are Strangely Comforting In Times Like These

The Sexy Brutale© Tequila Works

Right at the end of last year, Natasha Lyonne — star of Groundhog Day-inspired TV show, Russian Doll which sees her character Nadia (a software developer, no less) stuck repeating the same night over and over again — shared a tweet that made everyone collectively start hyperventilating:

There’s nothing like the idea of having to repeat one of the worst years of the century (so far) to make you have to pour yourself a tall glass of vodka, eh? Let’s just hope that time is as linear as it’s always been, that nothing even more calamitous happens in the remaining months of 2021, and we’re not the subjects of some horrible cosmic joke, or maybe a bet between apathetic gods.

Few of us actually want to live through a timeloop, but we sure do love watching other people live through them. From Groundhog Day to Edge of Tomorrow, we just can’t get enough of the torture of repetition, as long as it’s not us subjected to it. The nature of a timeloop makes for a fantastic game, too, allowing us to watch everything that goes wrong, and do it better the next time. If you’ve ever had one of those moments where you wished for a save point in real life, you’ll understand why: the esprit d’escalier — that moment of realising what you could have said or done better when it’s far too late to do either — makes for a really compelling game mechanic.

the esprit d’escalier — that moment of realising what you could have said or done better when it’s far too late to do either — makes for a really compelling game mechanic.

It’s a great idea for game developers, too. Instead of creating a vast open world, full of secrets and encounters and ways that the world responds to the player’s actions, you can instead create a much smaller, much tighter world that runs on a timed loop, like a cuckoo clock. The world does whatever it’s always done, and it’s up to the player to poke at it to see what changes and what doesn’t. Unlike most games, where everything revolves around the protagonist, the point of a timeloop is that things are happening without you. It’s usually up to you to stop it, or at least to figure it out, but until then, you’re going to get booted back to Day Zero and asked to do it again, but better.

Nintendo consoles have long been a cosy home for timeloop games, from genre-defining Majora’s Mask to Minit and the underrated Sexy Brutale, with smaller games like Ghost Trick and the Zero Escape games on the DS and 3DS. Death has long been a hallmark of games, and a familiar failure state across the board, but where most games resurrect you because, uhhh… you’re the player and you can’t die, timeloops give you a solid narrative explanation: death is just another hurdle. Back you go.

Minit© Devolver Digital

If you’ve ever enjoyed a roguelike or a rogueliteHades, for example, or Dead Cells, or Spelunky, or Slay The Spire (side note: dang, it’s been a good few years for roguelikes) — then you’ll understand the power of repetition. Not the boring, menial task kind of repetition, but the feeling that you can do it this time, that you definitely just need One More Turn to get it right. It’s addictive. Literally. It’s basically gambling, with all the random number generation, or ‘RNG’, that gambling involves, but with the added twist that you can actually control whether you win or lose. It’s easy to blame losing on the RNG; it’s thrilling to assume that you won because of pure skill, too.

Timeloop games do away with that nail-biting, adrenaline-fuelled “One More Turn” feeling, enticing players instead with the narrative equivalent: just ‘One More Loop’ and maybe you can understand what’s going on.

Timeloop games, though, do away with that nail-biting, adrenaline-fuelled “One More Turn” feeling, enticing players instead with the narrative equivalent: just ‘One More Loop’ and maybe you can understand what’s going on. Where roguelikes and roguelites are randomised, relying on rolls of the dice to determine what happens next — even those with story, like Hades, will dole out the plot according to random decision-making — a timeloop game does so exactly at the speed it wants to. It’s the difference between one of those immersive theatre performances that take place in multiple rooms (so you can never see the whole story) and watching a stage play. Both have their purpose, and both are their own form of entertainment, but one is meticulously crafted to be seen in order.

Could it be that timeloop games are just a trend, like how everyone gets really into zombie games every few years, or how Dark Souls inspired a bunch of, er, Dark Souls-likes? Or is there something deeper that appeals to our psyche? I don’t know. I’m just someone who likes video games enough to make it my entire career. But I can speak from my experience. My love of timeloop games comes from the juxtaposition of complexity and simplicity that only timeloop games manage. They’re a lot like tangled headphones: terrifying, confusing, and hard to follow at first, but once you understand exactly what you’re looking at and you get it all ironed out (not literally, please don’t iron your headphones) then it seems so obvious, so simple! The trick is in the telling: by presenting events to the player out of order, you’ve taken a relatively straightforward story and made it interesting.

Great stories are about tension, and the tension in the timeloop is in the not knowing; it’s a puzzle that can only be solved by going through, not around. There’s often a time limit, too — sometimes a literal one, like in Majora’s Mask, Minit, and The Sexy Brutale, but sometimes that time limit is more of a suggestion, as with the Zero Escape games. But that time limit is ultimately meaningless if the time limit keeps resetting, right?

Majora's Mask© Nintendo

Well, sort of. That time limit feels like a small failure, just the same as it feels like a failure to die in any game, even when there’s generous checkpointing. It’s basically just a way to give the player a self-directed goal, and the cleverest trick that game design can pull is convincing a player that they thought of something themselves.

Narratively, though, there’s nothing quite like a timeloop. No other genre has so much delicious dramatic irony: all the things you know that the NPCs in the world don’t. In a time where we’re all stuck inside, living a horrible Groundhog existence where nothing ever changes and politicians keep saying the same things they said yesterday, it’s strange to find comfort in games — timeloop ones and otherwise — that do exactly the same thing. Perhaps it’s because the timeloop gives us more agency than the real world does, and the solution to everything is only ever a few flaps of a butterfly’s wing away. When we have no control, we tend to turn to games to make us feel like we do.

And now, to reveal my true purpose in writing this piece: GIVE ME OUTER WILDS ON THE SWITCH, COWARDS!!! Ahem. Please?

Feel free to let us know your favourite timeloops in games in the usual place, and we’ll see you next time! Yes, we’ll be republishing this piece on a daily basis for the foreseeable future just to mess with you…

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