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Deathloop's directors on Bond, Blackreef and breaking loops

The game's directors discuss their inspirations and ponder whether living in a time loop would be worth it.

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Bethesda

Arkane Studios released Deathloop on Sept. 14 to near-universal acclaim. My colleague Daniel Van Boom declared it the best reason to fork out for a PlayStation 5 (if you're lucky to get your mitts on one), while CNET sister site GameSpot gave it a rare 10/10. I played through the game for a CNET preview, and it's since taken up residence in my mind, replaying over and over a month after finishing the game.

In short: This game rules.

Before Deathloop, Arkane was best known for Dishonoured, a series of action-adventure games set in a plague-infested industrial world with heavy Victorian influences. The magic of Arkane games lies in their style. Dishonored's Dunwall was a rich world that was given an edge by its industrial Victorian inspirations. Deathloop's inspiration is different, but its world is similarly irresistible. 

"We left the Victorian era [with Dishonored] and the '60s came to us from the moment we decided we wanted to go through this eternal party," the art director, Sébastien Mitton, told me over Zoom. I recently got to speak to Mitton and director Dinga Bakaba about the game's aesthetics -- all about the loop -- and I tried to squeeze out a few hints about some side quests that I just couldn't figure out. They didn't budge much.   

Do I love Deathloop because it's by the same people who made the Dishonored games, which I count among my all-time favorites? Or do I love Deathloop because it's a stylish and innovative game that pulls you into a chokehold from the minute you wake up on that black sandy beach and doesn't let go even after the credits roll?

¿Por qué no los dos?

The island of Blackreef, where we lay our scene, is a rich tapestry of partying, booze, secrets and decay. Trash piles up in the streets as the eternal partygoers day-drink and collude in half-abandoned midcentury modern apartments and increasingly dilapidated funhouses. Among all the style and color is a darkness and edge that begs to be explored -- and it's so satisfying to peel back its layers and uncover secrets.

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Concept art from Arkane Studios showing off the vibrant midcentury modern style of the world. 

Arkane Studios/ Bethesda

While the aesthetics of Deathloop firmly place the game in the swinging '60s, Blackreef seems to exist outside of space and time itself. Amid the pops of color and Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired modernist structures are rows of buildings and warehouses that wouldn't look out of place in a remake of Oliver Twist. There's also that futuristic Core Stabilizer that looms over all the island, legs splayed out and projecting a glistening force-field around Blackreef.

I couldn't help drawing artistic comparisons between Deathloop and games like We Happy Few and Control. Fans of the MCU will also find stylish (and thematic) ties to Loki on Disney Plus.

"It's an homage to what we lived through when we were younger. We looked to TV and movies to find our inspiration, like the James Bond movies," art director Mitton said. "There's this whole side of mystery that we're going to be able to put in the game that's going to motivate the player, rather than a world that's simple and basic. There's this kind of light heartedness from the '60s that we thought really worked well with this eternal life."

On the surface, this vibrant party town feels worlds away from the Victorian-inspired world of Dishonored. Dunwall's streets are gray and rotten with plague and rats as you move through them like a ghost. Despite the obvious differences, I couldn't help but feel like Updaam's apartment blocks were taken straight from Dunwall -- they feel like the same city, experienced at different times.

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Arkane Studios/ Bethesda

What sets Deathloop apart, however, is the loop.

As Colt, you're stuck in a puzzle and the only way to solve it is to use the loop to visit different parts of Blackreef at different times of day. The mechanism of the loop allows you to witness Blackreef change from sunrise to sunset. 

You'll gain knowledge about how to best fight the Eternalists, but you'll also get a peek into the lives of the Eternalists living within the loop. They dance, they drink, they plan nefarious deeds that you watch play out to varying degrees of success. It feels like a living, breathing organism.

"Sure, there is Colt that wants to break the time loop, that's one thing. But there is also the entire story of this mini pocket universe," Bakaba told me.

"It was cool to imagine what would happen if Blackreef was the one thing that was saved, of all existence... they thought that their lives mattered the most. They need to be preserved and it's interesting for you to see those lives and what they become and what they do with their eternity, which is sometimes not as brilliant as they would think that they are."

The directors described Blackreef as "its own little archaeology walk." While you're planning out the hows and whens of seven people's murders, you're also playing detective and uncovering secrets hinted at with the environmental storytelling. These include the fate of some residents who decide to steal top-secret tech, or a gang of Eternalists messing with a game of "who can ingest the most amount of toxic gas without collapsing" -- one of my favorites.

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The world of Deathloop is full of lush pockets begging to be explored

Arkane Studios/ Bethesda

Time loops seem to be the anomaly du jour -- if you're a fan of anything time travel, 2021 is your year. Alongside Deathloop we have 12 Minutes, Returnal, Loop Hero and Hades. We've had movies like Palm Springs, Two Distant Strangers and shows like Loki. Not only are time loops a great tool for storytelling, events of the past year (or two... who keeps track of the years anymore?) have left us feeling like we're in our own time loop. Lockdowns take all the variety and spontaneity out of our lives while we eat, sleep, work, repeat. Are we seeing more time loops because they reflect how we're feeling, or is it a work of divine intervention? Perfect stories at the perfect time?

Work on Deathloop began just after Dishonored: The Death of the Outsider was released, way back in September 2017. "We had a whiteboard with four time periods for the districts and we didn't deviate from that. That's the one thing that came super early. We said okay, on paper it looks like it works. If it doesn't work, we don't have a game," Bakaba said.

"We didn't want the time loop to be an obstacle, we wanted it to be an opportunity to explore our gameplay and explore the environments and absorb the story."

The time loop, in addition to being a story device, is also about a deeper question. If you could capture the perfect day and live it out forever, would you? I asked the developers.

"I'd say break it. Whatever you're doing [in the time loop], it can't be something that lasts more than 24 hours. And I find that extremely sad. We've a finite life but that life at least goes on: You plant a seed, seed a tree and grow its fruits.

"You know, there are a number of things that require time and effort. In giving them themselves a never-ending life, they actually are very short on time. 24 hours is a very, very short time to build anything. For me and for everyone on the island I'd break."