There’s a lot of talk about time loops these days, as if they represent some kind of future of storytelling, which is interesting specifically because of how limited a narrative format they are.
The time loop lays bare the idea of a fiction as ‘things happening in a world’, but to certain characters, as well as the audience, by placing these characters within a repeating set of ‘things that have happened’. Giving these characters some form of control over this set, the loop then continues until they can work out what they need to do in order to exit the loop.
‘Time as puzzle box’ is an ancient form of fiction, but the time loop has a specific lineage owed to the early and mid 20th genre stories, which boomed in print and broadcasting, and never seemed to stop as regards to their indominable presence in contemporary fiction. Stripped of their specific pulp contexts in countries’ global anxieties however, via generational influence, they have become, like the time loop, the noir detective or the concept of virtual reality, building block formats for escapist premises.
Interestingly, because of the nature of the medium, narrative videogames often technically act as time loops too, sets of actions that lead to either your death/immobilisation, or some win condition, being repeated. Super Mario Bros. is as so, you either get to the flag each time, or die trying, but nothing about the internal structure of its levels escapes a predictable, measured set of events, aside from Mario.
Even if there is a broader, more consequential or procedurally generated structure to them, as in a major sandbox game, games will still return to pockets where they put you in the position of somebody who can retry certain actions until they find the right combination, in order to not lose, and progress with the story. However, it is not usually explicit that the player’s character, or others in the game, are aware of this occurring, and in that way these time loops are not part of the text of the world, but instead mechanical.
Some narrative games actively resist this with the player character existing in a reality that functions like our own in terms of experiencing consequence, finding ways of making the experience non-repeating in terms of what the player character does. This is rare however, since Time, and how much of it you are able to ring out of a player’s pocket in the form of cash, was built into video games from the beginning, and it is considerably easier, and less cost prohibitive as a developer, to create a loop that is played over and over, rather than single linear experiences long enough for people to consider paying for.
A narrative time loop in a videogame therefore points to the logical limits of the medium as it has evolved to this point, and then makes them part of certain character’s knowledge, such that it is not just a condition of the game that you try again, but also of the ‘game world’.
Time is looping, noticeably, as compared to all those other times that time loops.
While this may seem like actively resisting or pointing to the ‘video game as an extraction of time from the player’ model as broken, like Brechtian theatre but for games, it often indicates mainly just more of the same, but with time loops now.
The Sexy Brutale (2017) represents the supposed indie heritage for the current lineage of games wanting to cash in on the concept of a time loop mystery.
However, I think it’s missed out on that for all the puzzle-box inventiveness, the quality of this story format’s fiction relies on understanding the opportunity a time loop gives you to explore consequence and change as themes.
Especially in The Outer Wilds (2019) this is I think misrecognised, or underdiscussed. As a game which expands out from a twee, delightful space mission into a time loop on the scale of a star system, a fractured alien society and the terrifying consequences of gravity, it’s brilliantly intricate. But, the loop is there specifically because of a now unavoidable mass extinction event, which means that the limits of your control over time have to be considered carefully for what they are. This becomes more and more personally consequential as you realise what cannot be done, and thus what can’t change of what you’ve witnessed. It essentially takes the moon crash ending of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000) and supposes what would happen if there was no way to stop it from occurring?
In other media, the modern Doctor Who, for a show about time, space travel, and regenerating, goes to the time loop surprisingly few times. At least twice though, in the episodes ‘Father’s Day’ and ‘Heaven Sent’, it provides incredibly emotional loop stories about the determination of characters to overcome the barriers of their loved one’s deaths, and the ethics of their choices as time reacts to them.
Groundhog Day, now synonymous with the concept, succeeds not only as a comedy, but on a story level, because it makes the person who the time loop is for an asshole, who develops as we watch him struggle, and then finally is freed once he processes that other people have amazing, richly interesting lives too.
You can’t come out of a loop the same way you went in.
But doing that well requires something that video game design culture, specifically most European and American games, which forwarded only certain design heritages in interactive fiction, have fucked up for a long time. Precisely because we’ve prioritised long, looping, generally misogynistic play experiences, galaxy brain men who make games admit repeatedly that they do not understand story or modern approaches to it, and that when they try to, it’s for weird reasons.
While cautiously optimistic about Deathloop, because of Arkane’s record, Returnal from Housemarque came to us as what if a woman was a bit fucked up… – “Then we thought OK, maybe an unconventional, maybe female protagonist carrying some kind of trauma.” Harry Kreuger – Director of Returnal
Annapurna’s next attempt at that time loop magic, 12 Minutes, comes to us from a wife guy making a game for his wife, about a guy who drugs his wife, who is his sister… – “And I often tried to get her to play stuff like Portal, I remember we spent one hour playing and she was running against the wall and looking at the ceiling because she cannot figure out the first person controls and, and I was like, okay, there’s this, there’s these people who want to try these experiences.” Luis Antonio – Director of 12 Minutes.
By no means are these two games that are considered failed releases, because you get the audience you cater to, but there’s a real question in my mind as to, “well why the hell are you using a time loop?” when you’re just going to do the classic misogynist trope of seeing a woman’s trauma as something to spice up your big brain narrative.
How long is it until we get the game that explores a loop where you make sure that the sale of the unworn baby shoes never happens?
Not every play can be a Brechtian play, especially not if they’re written by people who don’t get it but enjoy the bit where you make the audience feel uncomfortable, because if they were we’d just stop watching plays.