How Deathloop Is Trying to Be Too Many Games at Once - VRGyani News and Media

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Monday, September 13, 2021

How Deathloop Is Trying to Be Too Many Games at Once

One of my favorite Eric André Show bits involves Eric André telling hapless guest Brenda Song that she just tweeted out something packed with profane, designedly controversial, obviously inaccurate statements, and then asks her, "Why are you trying to be all things to all people?"

Deathloop, a new Arkane/Bethesda video game about a time loop that involves a lot of death, is also about a lot of other things. And it communicates all of these things in a lot of different ways, ostensibly trying to please a lot of different people. When it locks into one calcified idea, it starts to cook. But I couldn't help think that the game, in its mechanics, styles, and aesthetics has too many active burners to make any one meal stick, either as a nutritional meal or junk food. Probably because it's trying to be both at once.

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At its absolute core, Deathloop is a first-person shooter where unreliable protagonist Colt must kill specific people in order to stop a time loop, which resets every day, and escape the vicious island he's stuck on. Hitman meets Majora's Mask in a first-person perspective? Sure! But Deathloop is not content with this focus, instead spreading its wings from the jump, and smacking too many sides of the cliff on the way down.

There's an admirable in media res approach to the game's narrative introduction, a bluntly effective way to orient the player into the fuzzy, surreally distorted memories of Colt. Unfortunately, this fuzziness extends to its interface introductions, too. For a game all about the unending circularity of time, it splinters and chops every chance it can, not just with the level-by-level approach to its gameplay and storytelling, but to its menus and adjustments it keeps asking you to engage with. The in media res intro, already a storytelling device meant to imply interruption, is interrupted by a strange organizational method of the game's various facets. You're meant to keep track of various targets to kill, various power-ups called "trinkets" to add, various times of day and locations to move through, various "leads" to track (the verbiage here meant to suggest the trappings of detective fiction, I suppose, without engaging with the genre on a deeper level) to move the story forward, various sub-sets of different types of leads... It's exhausting, and it's presented so overwhelmingly and abruptly, and it never quite coalesces to a wholly clean technique of information gathering. It's like the single-player mode of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War tried to smudge its mission-by-mission device with various detritus from various RPGs. It's weird!

Once you find yourself in a level — which, as clearly as I can state it, is marked by exploring a section of an island during a section of the day based on one of these leads, as denoted by objective markers on your HUD (unless you want to do some free exploring in order to, nope, I'm getting unclear again) — you will find the game encourages you to try playing in different styles. You can stealth around and sneak behind enemies to kill them silently with a machete or nail gun. You can rush in guns a-blazing, risking reinforcements coming in strong. You can use your aptly-named "hackamajig" to manipulate pieces of tech to do your bidding. All the while, you're encouraged to have a welcome relationship with failure, with death, with learning paths and clues and looping around back again to do it right the next time (there are micro-loops constructed within the level triggered by death, alongside the macro-loop of "one day" constructed within the game triggered by the game "progressing").

When I could get in the zone of flipping between these three modes of gameplay to solve my missions, I started to have fun with Deathloop. But it still never quite felt like a singular statement, a fully-rendered idea. I've played satisfying games involving stealth, raucous gunplay, and sci-fi technology. The thing is that in that list, I'm thinking of one game per idea. Because Deathloop tries to give you the freedom to tip your toes in all of these ideas, its gameplay surrounding each feels shallow. Stealth kills feel imbalanced and the character's "noticing you" meters feel inconsistent; gunplay feels rote and unfinessed, at times even unfair to the player; the technological hacking is simplified to the point of self-parody, streamlining some things but self-sabotaging others. Deathloop's gameplay wants to be a sandbox of freedom and a feat of structure. It's confusing!

Aesthetically and tonally, the game also suffers from meandering imagination without intention. Deathloop's vibes and looks are sorta rooted in a swingin' '60s, Saul Bass meets exploitation cinema kind of zone. Retro-futurism pervades the game's architecture, color scheme, and fonts. It's a fun choice, and perhaps even a thematically appropriate choice; the game pits the philosophy of "breaking out of a time loop and making your own destiny" against the philosophy of "staying in a time loop for its comforting, hedonistic pleasures," and a retro-futurism style stuck in a time period of change versus tradition seems to speak to that battle. But Deathloop doesn't have the desire to engage with the ramifications of its aesthetics, either by leaning into their storytelling purpose (like Control does with brutalist aesthetics) or their pleasurable purposes (like The House of the Dead: Overkill does with grindhouse aesthetics). Instead, they're just kinda there, a quick and shallow coat of paint... that's also mixed in with the game's swear-word-laden, take-nothing-seriously, edgelord tone... that's also mixed in with its earnest musings on the nature of time and control and corporations and technology. None of these disparate ideas — visually, tonally, or thematically — seem concerned with talking to one another. They're just kinda all there, representing the tempting folly of picking up another toy before you understand how the first one works.

I don't think, ultimately, that Deathloop is a bad game. But I do think it's a shallow one — and more worrisome, it's a shallow one that isn't trying to be shallow, that's instead conflating its various, contradictory elements for prestige and complexity (while also trying to "come off" dirty and simple). There is fun to be had in this loop of death. But all the fun comes when you feel like you can put your head down, even for one moment, and play one goal, one idea, one game.

Then the other ones rush in and scream at you and you get more than a little tired. Like, say, Brenda Song overwhelmed on the set of The Eric André Show.

Deathloop comes out on PlayStation 5 and PC on September 14, 2021.

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