Reviews - Updated on March 30, 2022

Since the start of the pandemic, games and movies have seen more Groundhog Day-esque stories with a wide variety of combinations of characters, settings, and genres. In the next two months alone, as many as three entertainments about looped events will start – the thriller with a star cast 12 Minutes, the action in the style of spy films Deathloop and the fantastic shooter Lemnis Gate. The same thing happens in the cinema – over the past year, there have been about a dozen films about time loops, among which there are even comedies.

The games themselves are already like time loops – players repeat the same actions in the same scenery over and over again, until, for example, they defeat a difficult boss or solve a difficult puzzle. It is all the more interesting to understand why looped stories have become so popular.

Narrative metrology

Plus loops for games – the ability not to delve into a variety of endless levels, weapons and puzzles. Instead, developers focus on storytelling and revealing events and characters. And also – on the maximum freedom of action in the same scenery. In the case of Deathloop, this structure was perfect for pushing the boundaries of immersive sim.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

Arkane Studios chose a time loop for Deathloop, as it fits perfectly with the immersive sim concept.

Is there such a structure that would encourage people to get familiar with the locations so that by the end of the game they feel like experts, like on famous Counter-Strike maps? And is it possible to achieve this by telling an interesting story with character development?

The same quirks show up in time-loop movies, where a character can go from coward to professional soldier, as in Edge of Tomorrow, or from annoying narcissism to amazing sincerity, as in Groundhog Day.

That is, thanks to time loops, the very approach to the narrative changes – if you represent important plot points in the form of blocks with their description, then the structure of linear and even the most branched stories turns out to be completely horizontal, because the player visits each of the blocks only once per passage.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

The time loop is perfect for roguelikes, and Housemarque’s latest game, Returnal, took advantage of the narrative advantage of this setting: with each death, the player learns more about the main character and the world.

And time loops add verticality to this structure: with each cycle, we learn something new about each plot point, character, or event. Moreover, sometimes the knowledge that we gain helps us to play the game faster and more efficiently – it turns out to be a kind of narrative metroidvania in which backtracking exists right in time.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

For example, in Deathloop, the player will learn more and more about the bosses each time and at some point will receive enough data to have time to deal with everyone in one loop.

Strive for compactness

The loop allows you to fine-tune the feel of the game. The creators of Outer Wilds, for example, deliberately chose the cycle time so that death does not upset the user – each adventure lasts only 20-odd minutes, and during such a time it is difficult to move so far that the loss of progress causes irritation. And the developers of Minit wanted to cause tension, but not to rush the player too much, and in their case, the minute loop turned out to be the best option – with it, even passing simple levels became more interesting.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

Lemnis Gate combines turn-based strategy, shooter and time loop.

The creators of Lemnis Gate generally limited themselves to only 25 seconds. In a shooter game, players take turns planning their actions in one cycle, and this duration is long enough to complete the task, but at the same time be able to make mistakes. And in 12 Minutes, at any moment you can leave the apartment and restart the cycle: no one will punish the player.

The longer the cycle and the larger the location, the more difficult it is for the player to perceive and simply remember the consequences of their actions. This situation is noticeable, for example, in sokobans like Baba Is You, where there is even a special button to restart the level, since long sequences of moves are difficult to fit into memory. When the 12 Minutes designer discovered this, he cut both the loop time and the game space – the whole city was replaced by a small apartment.

In the issue of compactness, only the developers of Returnal made a mistake: on release, the game was often scolded for the fact that when you exit it, progress is not saved. One run lasts quite a long time, and it is very unpleasant to lose it.

Escape from reality

The success of time loops in games and movies came during a pandemic – as if people are trying to escape from an unpredictable world. And cycles, despite the dangers inside, are always predictable. This plays nicely with the movie “Day of the Trigger”, in which the main character is so used to dying that he has already learned to ignore the killers and eat breakfast while they try to kill him.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

The hero of Frank Grillo does not care about the fact that a helicopter flew into the apartment.

And perhaps the most attractive feature of time loops is the ability to correct the mistakes of the past. Restart is in all games, but it is projects with cycles that put it at the forefront. Take Into the Breach, for example, in which the player is forced to travel to the beginning of an alien invasion over and over again in order to stop it. According to game designer Justin Ma, some of the players even saw this as a social comment:

Someone wrote to me that Into the Breach’s worldview boils down to this: we have the ability and knowledge to save ourselves, to fix everything, but not enough time.

Live, die and again: why time loops are so popular

In Into the Breach, when moving to another timeline, you can take one of your fighters with you.

At the same time, the realization that all events will restart sooner or later encourages players to experiment and not worry about the damage they can cause. Groundhog Day: Like Father Like Son creator Raul Rubio calls it a meta-puzzle – in time loops, you just need to try new things and break the rules in order to move forward:

You can try to convince someone that you are stuck in a loop. You can be a selfish jerk. You can eat someone’s food while talking to him. This is a way to prove yourself, and your history is reset every time.

The authors of the original Groundhog Day believe that the pandemic reality resembles a time loop with its constant repetitions and lack of qualitative changes. Perhaps now such a comparison seems strange, but just a year and a half ago, people’s lives changed dramatically when they were locked in four walls. Screenwriter Danny Rubin compares each person with Phil Connors – now everyone has the opportunity to stop thinking only about themselves and pay attention to the feelings of others.

It is not clear how long the popularity of time loops will last – such a game structure is very convenient for studios of different sizes, and narrative layers have not yet had time to get bored, because they almost always work in a new way. Be that as it may, so far no other games can give a similar experience.

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