Back to Square One: Looping Games Succeed by Capitalising on the Absurdity of Video Game Death

…failure has been an integral element of game design almost since the medium’s inception, with the constant push and pull of challenge and defeat, and the promise of eventual success, being the core to what makes so many games — particularly action games- engaging. It’s easy to see how this central design philosophy flourished the golden age of arcades. Forcing punters to pay for more ‘lives’ and continue plugging away at games which were tailor made to be as hard, and thus as profitable, as possible was the goal. These days, however, such design can impede a game’s ability to maintain a believable story — you’re not expected to imagine that each time Sonic hits some spikes, he is actually killed, you just brush it off, pretend it didn’t happen, and try again. This wasn’t such an issue with breezy mascot platformers, but as video game narratives have become increasingly mature and ambitious over recent years, the illusion of a cohesive story and setting becomes increasingly fractured with repeated failure and frustration. Watching Joel having his jugular vein bitten out time and time again in a particularly hard segment of The Last of Us isn’t just exhausting, it’s not how the story of that game goes.

Well that wasn’t supposed to happen — Joel meeting an untimely demise in The Last of Us

It’s easy to be cynical about the fact that such a ubiquitous element of game design was borne from purely financial motives, and indeed, the gaming landscape has developed to support a varied plethora of experiences that completely forgo the very concepts of defeat and victory by focussing in on purely narrative experiences, like the genre-defining ‘Gone Home’, or by creating creative playboxes, like Mario Maker, Dreams or current juggernaut Roblox. However, a slew of games in the last decade have found substantial mainstream success by taking the complete opposite direction and leaning into the inherent absurdity of constant repetition and iteration that lies at the heart of so many action & adventure games. By incorporating cycles of death and rebirth into the narrative structure of the game itself, they are creating some wholly original experiences, and along the way finding great success in a medium that can often feel like it’s stagnating in prestige 3rd-person open-world reliability.

Next-gen roguelite action in Returnal

The surge in popularity of roguelike and roguelite games over the past decade has proven to be a fertile ground for exploring this combination of narrative and mechanical design. These games rely on repeated runs within randomised levels, and regular failure is expected, so turning death itself into a narrative component is a smart and natural evolution. One of the earliest examples of this trend is 2013’s Rogue Legacy, in which your quest is inherited by a randomly-generated heir upon your death, an idea which had also been explored in 2010’s iphone action-RPG Infinity Blade. More recently, in roguelite shooter and PS5 showpiece Returnal from arcade veterans Housemarque, you will actually encounter your own dead body from previous failed runs as you attempt to uncover the mysteries of the alien planet on which you have crash-landed. The influence of this approach can also be seen in games like FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls, where extreme challenge and frequent death and rebirth is both a key element of the game’s design, and is weaved into the game’s lore. Similar approaches would be found throughout FromSoftware’s recent output, including the tellingly-titled Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Choosing an heir in Rogue Legacy (taken from https://youtu.be/tkI3MK-4sFg)

One of the most widely lauded and discussed examples of resurrection as a mechanic is Hades by Supergiant Games. Seeing its full release in 2020, this fast-paced roguelite action game found meteoric success by structuring its gameplay around protagonist Zagreus’ repeated attempts to escape the titular underworld. Upon each death, he is borne along the river Styx and returned to where he started, where he is berated by his miserly father and consoled by friends and comrades. The game found such huge success in part from the enormous script, by which each escape attempt would be accompanied by a seemingly-endless supply of unique contextual dialogue delivered by a terrifically drawn cast of gods and monsters. The game is challenging, at times frustratingly so, but this constant feed of unique narrative content, which addresses your many deaths and the seemingly insurmountable journey ahead of you, meant that no attempts felt wasted, and each loop was engaging narratively as well as through gameplay.

Emerging from the Styx for another crack at the underworld in Hades

This embrace of gameplay loops is not, however, limited to action-heavy genres. Tequila Works’ 2017 murder mystery The Sexy Brutale is an (in my opinion criminally) overlooked puzzle game, set on the evening of a masquerade party in the titular casino, in which all the guests are murdered one-by-one. Lafcadio Boone, a mute preacher, must try and prevent these murders by getting to know the casino intimately, and take preventative measures to save the guests before their time comes. To aid him in this task, he is gifted a mysterious pocketwatch, which he can use to go back to the beginning of the evening at any point. The underlying cause of these deaths is far more interesting than the Christie-esque setting would have you think, and if you see the game to its end, unravels an intimate story of grief, guilt and forgiveness, which could only be told in such a specific and effective way within the games looping structure (Tequila Works apparently have a knack for subtly embedding these sorts of themes into their games, as demonstrated in the also-overlooked Rime, released in the same year).

A clockwork murder mystery with hidden depth in The Sexy Brutale

One of the smartest and most original implementations of looping gameplay is 2019’s much-loved space archaeology & survival gem Outer Wilds. The game kicks off with the simplest of prompts on a black screen — ‘wake up’. You then inhabit the role of a nameless alien who must traverse the solar system to uncover the mysteries of a long-dead precursor race. While this all sounds like fairly standard sci-fi video game fare, that changes when you experience your first death. Perhaps you misjudge your ship’s trajectory and slam into a nearby planet too fast. Maybe you fall through a black hole and slowly and helplessly suffocate in the empty reaches of the solar system. Or maybe you’re careful — you travel between planets, being careful to avoid bombardment by space debris or becoming crushed against the roof of a cave as it slowly fills with sand. But then you look to the horizon and notice the Sun is looking larger and redder than it did before. You gaze on as it collapses, then explodes, killing you in an instant, regardless of how careful you’ve been. Then the prompt returns — “Wake up”. Your astronaut awakens with full knowledge of previous events, but sent back to before that maiden voyage.

Time to traverse the stars once more in Outer Wilds.

By the end of the game, this simple phrase will be accompanied by feelings of frustration, curiosity, existential fear and eventually, zen-like acceptance, as the next cycle continues and the solar system lies ready to be explored before you, just as before. Without wanting to give much more away, this repeating cycle of exploration and inescapable death marries the compelling gameplay loop with a grand sci-fi narrative, connecting your explorer with the fate of the universe itself. This is Outer Wilds’ masterstroke, and is pulled of so deftly and subtly that the game has more than earned its many plaudits.

Outer Wilds’ unique structure makes it a wholly unique gem

While games like Returnal, The Sexy Brutale, Hades and Outer Wilds are built on ideas of re-treading the same path repeatedly, either through time loops or other narrative shenanigans, some of the smartest implementations of looping worlds are done through space rather than through time. When the ground-breaking Portal launched in 2007, one of the first thing each player would do without fail upon understanding how the portal gun worked would be to create one portal in the ceiling and another in the floor, then fall through infinitely until the level became a blur at terminal velocity. While this idea could easily have stood as a distracting gimmick, the game then uses your ability to loop both yourself and the objects around you through space, repeatedly re-entering the same rooms from different perspectives.

Fun with infinite loops in Portal (taken from https://youtu.be/rVJHQ7SkgwI)

Looping through space as a gameplay mechanic can feel a more abstract and difficult-to-grasp concept than the well-worn tropes of time travel, but was elegantly and thoroughly employed in 2019’s Manifold Garden, created by William Chyr. Like Portal, Manifold Garden is a first-person puzzle game, in which you must traverse surreal floating constructions by unlocking doors and manipulating gravity. The game’s ingenious twist becomes apparent when you first step off the edge, hear the wind rush past you as you fall, and land exactly where you started. The floating islands and buildings that make up each level repeat and loop infinitely and in every dimension, and solving many of the puzzles will require you to deliberately fall through this purgatorial landscape to reach otherwise inaccessible areas of the level. The game succeeds in making this quirk of the world quickly start to click with the player, and rather than leaving you overwhelmed at trying to solve spatial puzzles in a physically impossible areas, the looping nature of the game becomes an instinctive puzzle-solving tool. The fastidiously-designed endless architecture of the world remains breath-taking to the game’s end, but never translates into making the player feel powerless or incapable of success.

Intricate and infinite architecture in Manifold Garden

Most games require repetition and iteration. For many years, this failure was inescapably accompanied by frustration, as each death would mean one of Mario’s lives was lost, or wasted money at the arcade. Many recent games have, however, recognised that this repetition can be not just a feature, but rather at the core of the design and narrative of the game, providing unique experiences that can only be experienced in this medium. And while these experiences have been novel, the sheer variety of games which have embraced this philosophy shows that they are more than just gimmicks. Studios are still coming up with fresh and innovative ways to embrace these ideas (see Arkane’s upcoming time-loop assassination shooter Deathloop for example). I for one, look forward to where this approach to game design could take its next exciting turn, because while failure has been…