A Glitch In Time

Trapped on a frozen island and hunted by hundreds of mask-wearing madmen, Colt Vahn’s life has become a living nightmare. And, this nightmare never ends. Every 24 hours, the cycle repeats and Colt’s battle begins again. There’s only one way out of this time loop: Colt must assassinate eight of the world’s most powerful individuals … and he has to do it before this island drives him insane.

Living On Borrowed Time

It’s morning on Blackreef Island, and Colt has just emerged from the underground tunnels that wind their way across this desolate landmass. Colt just woke up, but he’s already ready to collapse. His legs feel heavy; his arms are dead weights. A hangover from the night before is beginning to ease, but Colt’s real troubles have only begun. So, Colt fights through the pain – pushes against entropy – and presses deeper into the island. He knows he’s marching toward his own death, but he has no other choice. If Colt wants to get off this blasted rock, he must orchestrate a seemingly impossible series of assassinations in less than 24 hours.

The first name on Colt’s list is Frank Spicer – a security specialist and wannabe rockstar. Frank is currently holed up inside a makeshift casino that he’s nicknamed The Rambling Rock Club. Finding Frank’s club is easy; getting inside is the hard part. As Colt looks down on The Rambling Rock Club from a nearby ridge, he sees several guards patrolling the outer perimeter of the complex. A handful of stationary turrets scan the terrain, ready to spit lead at any unauthorized personnel who wander near Frank’s funhouse.

Colt sets his sights on the front door of the building and prepares his Shift Slab, a piece of physics-breaking tech that allows him to teleport across short distances. Colt “shifts” past a turret and up behind a patrolling guard. Then, in one smooth motion, Colt takes a machete to the guard’s back. The sentry crumples to the ground before dissolving into a barely visible form of energy that glistens like water in the sunlight. Colt doesn’t know why the dead transmute like this, but one thing is certain: Reality on Blackreef is broken.

The coast to The Rambling Rock Club is now clear, so Colt sneaks up to the front door. He’s free to enter, but there’s a catch. Frank is an incredibly paranoid individual, so anyone who enters his club must wear a Slab-inhibiting wristband, which means Colt won’t be teleporting his way through Frank’s club. Colt straps on the wristband and withdraws a silenced pistol then fires a test shot. It looks like the wristband doesn’t affect Colt’s ability to use firearms, which is bad news for Frank.

Colt kicks open The Rambling Rock Club’s front door and takes down two guards before they even realize what happened. Unfortunately, one of them shouts for help before he dies and the room soon fills with goons from the upper floor. Those first two guards were free; Colt is going to have to work for the rest, so he switches over to a shotgun and plows his way through the crowd. Colt is making good progress, but he’s slowly being overwhelmed. Without the use of his Slab powers, Colt can’t make a quick escape, and one of Frank’s goons catches him off guard. Colt feels the bullets tear through his chest and he knows it’s over. Seconds later, his vision fades to black. Colt is familiar with this feeling: This is death.

A moment passes. Then Colt wakes up on a black sandy beach – a hangover screaming in his head. It’s morning again on Blackreef Island. Colt pushes through the pain to stand. Frank got the better of him that time, but this ordeal isn’t over. If Colt wants to cross Frank off his list, he’ll need to learn a few new tricks, and he’ll need to study all of the ins and outs of this island.

Could Deathloop come to Xbox consoles?

Right now, Deathloop is slated to hit the PS5 and PC, but Microsoft is currently in the process of acquiring Bethesda Softworks, which owns Arkane. This has led many to speculate that Deathloop will eventually make its way over to the Xbox Series X/S. An official Bethesda spokesperson said, “The acquisition hasn’t affected day-to-day development of Deathloop, which we’re developing exclusively for PlayStation 5 on console and also PC.” But that doesn’t mean that the title couldn’t migrate to Microsoft’s consoles at a later day. Hopefully we’ll hear more about that possibility after the PS5 release.

Starting A New Loop

From a young age, game director Dinga Bakaba was tinkering with game design. Bakaba’s father, Sidiki Bakaba, is a well-know actor and filmmaker from West Africa’s Ivory Coast, so even when Bakaba was still in diapers he was instilled with an appreciation for arts and entertainment as well as the power that stories have on people.

“I’ve spent a lot of time inside imaginary walls,” Bakaba says. “I spent my whole childhood being told stories before bedtime. My father would improvise one story per day … And sometimes it would be interactive, ‘But daddy, what if he didn’t get the teddy bear?’ You know, I would ask a question, and he would still improvise something. I don’t know where he found the inspiration because it is very hard. Then, when I was older and discovered tabletop RPGs, I immediately wanted to be a dungeon master. I didn’t even want to play the games. I wanted to make people play the games.”

As Bakaba grew, he began to modify popular board games like Space Crusade and make his own Magic: The Gathering cards. That modding hobby eventually turned into a career creating new games, and for nearly a decade Bakaba has worked at Arkane Studios, helping shape the Dishonored series almost the entire time. Dishonored is a critical darling, and he had a blast working on such a unique property. But after nearly 10 years exploring the Empire of the Isles, Bakaba and the rest of Arkane felt that it was time for something new.

“One thing that came up early was that this time we wanted to do something very focused,” Bakaba says. “With Dishonored, there is this whole empire with a lot of different cultures and characters and political factions. We wanted something a bit more focused, a bit John Carpenter if that makes sense. We wanted to make something like The Thing – to explore one station somewhere in the Great North where there is a group of scientists and one event that’s happening to them. We wanted to work on a story that doesn’t care about the rest of the world.”

Inspired by The Thing and other films like Escape From New York and The Running Man, Arkane began to dream up an isolated science-fiction narrative about a man being hunted by everyone on an island. Around the same time, several of Arkane’s artists found another source of inspiration: the real-life Faroe Islands. This North Atlantic archipelago is located about halfway between Norway and Iceland, and its subpolar oceanic climate offers a harsh and striking backdrop. Inspired by the Faroe Islands, Arkane created Blackreef, a foreboding isle full of black-sand beaches, jagged cliffs, and frosted waters so close to the edge of ice that their waves look like Slurpees.

The final element of Arkane’s new world clicked into place when Bakaba and the team settled on the game’s unusual campaign structure. Arkane is known for creating rich systemic games where players solve puzzles and are free to approach combat challenges in a number of unique ways. However, in a single playthrough, people rarely get to see how deep these systems run or how many branching paths snake through the world. Bakaba thought that if the studio created a reason for players to replay sections of its game over and over again, then players would have a deeper appreciation for Arkane’s sandboxes. That’s when the team hit on the idea of a time loop. All of the characters in Deathloop would be trapped in a repeating cycle of death that forces them to relive the same day over and over again. Better still, this nightmare would be a hell of their own making.

Writing on the wall

As Colt explores Blackreef Island, he’ll notice a series of messages written across the environment. These messages appear in big, bold text, and sometimes vibrate in place, almost as if some invisible hand is trying to communicate with Colt. These messages often offer helpful tips or highlight areas that Colt should explore further. Arkane wouldn’t go into detail about these strange texts or who’s behind them, but the studio says that Colt is the only person who can see them and that they may play an important role in helping him break the loop.

Dancing With Death

It’s morning on Blackreef Island, and Colt has just emerged from the underground tunnels that wind their way across this desolate landmass. His hangover from the night before is beginning to ease, but his real troubles have only begun. If Colt wants to escape this timeloop, Frank Spicer needs to die. But this wannabe rockstar is currently holed up inside a makeshift casino in a section of the island called Fristad Rock.

Finding Frank’s club is easy; getting inside is the hard part. Fristad Rock is Blackreef’s port, and it’s teeming with security. Fortunately, Colt has done this before, so he knows it’s practically suicide to run through the front door guns blazing. Instead, he skirts the edge of the compound looking for an alternative route. It’s time to put his Slab powers to good use.

In addition to the teleporting Shift power, Colt also has Slab powers that make him temporarily invisible or allow him to assume the appearance of someone else, both of which come in handy while sneaking around the environment. Additionally, each Slab has four potential upgrades, two of which can be equipped at any given time. These Slab upgrades even stack on top of each other, meaning there are a lot of potential ways to mix and match abilities. For example, Shift can be modified so that when it’s activated Colt hovers in mid-air, giving him extra time to pick a destination, or a chance to rain fire from the sky. Another Shift upgrade allows Colt to swap places with a character. Naturally, anyone who swaps places with Colt is left disoriented for a few seconds, and if Colt times his Shift properly, he can teleport his target directly off the side of a cliff.

Using Shift, Colt makes his way around the side of Frank’s club and discovers an air duct, providing access inside without the need for any Slab dampeners. Colt’s Slab power could come in handy in the club, but without one of Frank’s wristbands, the club’s internal doors won’t open for Colt, restricting his movements. It seems like a worthwhile trade-off this time, and Colt navigates his way through Frank’s labyrinthine club, eventually making his way up to the second floor.

This area of the club is highly guarded, but Colt has one more Slab power to test out: Nexus. This unique ability links the fates of characters together, so if one character takes damage everyone else linked through Nexus suffers the same amount of damage. Alternatively, if one linked character is launched into the air, the rest of the gang follows suit. Nexus can be upgraded so the attacks home in on their targets, or Colt can lob a grenade-like blast that automatically links characters within a certain radius. Using Nexus, Colt connects four of the club’s guards. One headshot later, the area is secured. Frank better watch out, he’s about to get Slabbed in the face.

Reprise your role

Dying just before you kill your target can be incredibly frustrating, especially since Deathloop doesn’t allow players to save whenever they want. Arkane is aware of this potential pain point, which is why the studio has implemented a Reprise system. Whenever Colt dies, a reprise kicks in and rewinds the clock to several seconds before Colt’s death, giving players a chance to retake that sequence and avoid resetting the loop. Colt starts each day with two reprises, but he can replenish his stock by hunting down and killing Julianna each day.

The Island At The Center Of Reality

Blackreef Island has a curious history. For centuries, it was a source of legends and taboo. Similar to the Bermuda Triangle, it formed a legacy as a place where things worked a little differently. Those who knew of Blackreef would tell stories about castaways who washed ashore, then had strange encounters with themselves. In the ’40s, the government set up a few military bunkers on the island hoping to study its strange phenomenon, but when the military pulled out, the island sat deserted for years. It wasn’t until the ’60s that someone finally cracked open the island’s secrets.

Egor Serling is an arrogant pseudoscientist obsessed with strange phenomena and urban legends. After this brilliant crackpot learned about Blackreef, he convinced a wealthy benefactor to bankroll a series of experiments on the island. While tinkering with the island’s strange physics, Serling made a few startling discoveries. “It starts with small things, but the very first thing that they were able to do was to make those little Trinkets, which defy reality,” Bakaba says. “Some of these make you jump higher or make your weapons suddenly shoot gas instead of bullets and stuff like that.”

As Serling’s crew continues to manufacture new Trinkets, they eventually craft objects of even greater power, which they nickname Slabs. While Trinkets augment the abilities of a person or item, Slabs allow people to harness the wild energies of the island. However, Serling’s biggest discovery comes when he realizes that he can break time itself. Serling and his companions invent a way to form a time loop, which leads them to theorize that anyone on the island can relive the same day over and over again, effectively attaining eternal life.

“That was immediately when they said, ‘Hey, wait a minute! So, we can just not die? This is even better than we thought,’” Bakaba says. “So they started the AEON program. This is like an ark that will preserve the brightest minds in the world – the most wealthy people in the world … They’re thinking, ‘We can really go to the bottom of the reality of the world because we have all the time in the world to study this anomaly and study metaphysics, so whenever we want to come out of this thing – if that’s possible – we will come out as gods.’”

Unfortunately, the time loop doesn’t function as expected. This is where Colt’s story picks up. Deathloop opens just after the AEON scientists have flipped the switch and created the time loop. Colt wakes up on a black-sand beach with no memory of his life up to that point and a terrible hangover from some forgotten wild party the night before. Everyone on the island thinks that this is the first day of the time-loop experiment, but Colt knows that the AEON program has been running for some time. The entire island is trapped in a repeating cycle, and Colt is one of the only people who can retain his memories from one loop to the next.

Before long, Colt learns that in order to break the loop he’ll need to assassinate the eight founders of the AEON program – known as the Visionaries – all within a single loop. Twenty-four hours and a list of eight names. This isn’t going to be easy, but Colt has all the time in the world.

Why Deathloop isn’t a roguelike

Deathloop has a unique campaign structure. Whenever Colt dies or reaches the end of the day without killing all eight visionaries, the game resets, and players start the day over again. At some point, Colt will learn how to retain some of the weapons and abilities he discovers, so he can access them again at the beginning of each loop. However, early on, Colt will start each day from square one, and only the knowledge he gains during each loop – such as security codes and enemy schedules – will help him progress deeper into the narrative.

On one level, Deathloop sounds a bit like a roguelike, but Arkane doesn’t think that comparison is fair. For starters, there is no randomness to the design of Blackreef Island. Every inch of Deathloop’s playspace has been designed by hand to entice players to explore its multiple paths.

The entire island is divided into four districts. Likewise, each day has been divided into four different timeframes, and Colt can only explore one area of the island per time of day. The eight visionaries are scattered across these four areas, but some are only accessible at certain times. The levels themselves change throughout the course of the day, so a route that is blocked in the morning or afternoon might open up at night. Fortunately, players can explore each zone as long as they want, but once they leave the level, the clock moves forward to the next time of day.

“At the beginning of the game there are a couple of hours of more-or-less directed playthrough,” says game director Dinga Bakaba. “It’s basically Colt trying to understand why he’s on the island and who he is. Then we give the player a couple of mission leads, and players are free to explore those leads as they see fit … and those leads will open up new leads and new mission objectives on other parts of the island.”

The ultimate puzzle in Deathloop is to sort out the perfect path through the day and determine which areas to visit at which time in order to assassinate all eight targets. To accomplish that, Colt might have to engineer scenarios that encourage some targets to travel to other parts of the island, and he might have to set up deathtraps for targets that can wipe out his marks during times that his attention is needed elsewhere. Arkane says that there is only one ultimate solution for how to assassinate all eight Visionaries in a single day, but each player’s path to that solution could look wildly different.

Living With Borrowed Time

It’s morning on Blackreef Island, and Colt is working his way through the underground tunnels that wind their way across this desolate landmass. His hangover from the night before is beginning to ease, but his real troubles have only just begun. If Colt wants to escape this time loop, Frank Spicer needs to die … again.

Fortunately, Colt has done this before. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of the island, Colt knows that there are five possible entrances into The Rambling Rock Club. This time, Colt takes the low road, entering the club through the underground tunnels he’s been using as a shortcut between locations. Throughout his journey, Colt has also learned how to exploit a loophole in the repeating cycle, which allows him to assess the gear and Slab abilities that he acquired during previous loops. Colt is currently equipped with Trinkets that allow him to double jump and regenerate health more quickly. He also has enough weapons and Slab powers to take down a small army, which is good because Frank’s club is a fortress.

Since Colt isn’t wearing a Slab inhibitor wristband, the doors within the facility won’t open automatically for him, but Colt knows how to deal with that. He takes out a hacking tool and reprograms the door. Seconds later, it gently slides open. On the other side of the door is a motion-sensing turret. Colt hacks that, too, and the turret turns on a couple of patrolling guards. One more enemy stands between him and his destination, so Colt takes out a grenade and flips through its alternate settings, turning it into a trip mine. He then uses a nearby jukebox to create a distraction. When the guard comes to investigate, the unsuspecting fool walks right into Colt’s trap.

Frank is located safely behind bulletproof glass inside a recording booth at the center of his club. On another part of the island, during a previous loop, Colt discovered the security codes to Frank’s estate, so he could travel to the junction box outside and use those codes to shut down the entire complex, which would unlock the recording booth’s doors. But Colt doesn’t want to make the trip outside. Instead, Colt sneaks around behind the booth and finds a maintenance panel. Hacking that panel also unlocks the doors to Frank’s studio. Now, nothing is standing between Colt and his target.

At this point, Colt could rush into the studio and activate his Havoc Slab, which gives him steel skin, turning him into a human wrecking ball. Or he could set up another trip mine, so the next time Frank sets foot outside his recording studio, he ends up a stain on the wall. In the end, Colt decides to go with an old favorite and uses Nexus to link Frank’s fate to his bodyguards’, then Colt lets loose with a rapid-fire shotgun.

The battle is over in a matter of seconds. As Colt surveys the wreckage, he notices that Frank dropped a weapon called Constancy Automatic. All eight Visionaries have their own unique weapon or Slab power, which Colt can use after he takes them off the board. Frank’s unique weapon is an SMG that houses two magazines-worth of ammunition, which means Colt can fire the weapon while reloading, creating a nonstop stream of destruction. Colt takes the gun. It could come in very handy. After all, he still has seven names to cross off his list, and he’s burning daylight.

History Repeats Itself

Sébastien Mitton has worked at Arkane Studios for more than 17 years. In that span he’s seen the company go through more than one hard time. Before Bethesda purchased the developer in 2010, Arkane struggled to keep the lights on as it bounced from one canceled project to the next. In the mid-2000s, the studio prototyped a Half-Life spinoff that explored the headcrab-filled mining town of Ravenholm. Not long after that project was canned, the team worked on an Area 51-inspired collaboration with Steven Spielberg called LMNO that also never saw the light of day.

“We started as a tiny studio, just eight of us,” says Mitton, who is now Arkane’s art director. “We were all friends. It wasn’t just professional. We really lived in the studio. We worked for hours on projects trying to save the studio, and it’s true that every time a project failed, there was this emotional side of ‘No! No! It’s not possible. This project needs to happen. It’s so cool and we gave so much of ourselves to it.’ But that’s okay because every time we would get better.”

At Arkane, there is a real sense that good ideas are never wasted, and one project’s failure is fuel for the next dream. The perfect example of this is a game called The Crossing, which Arkane was developing in the late-2000s before it was canceled. The Crossing was planned as a first-person shooter that would fuse a traditional single-player experience with multiplayer mayhem. Arkane’s vision was to craft a narrative-driven single-player campaign, but at any point in the story, the usual A.I. opponents could be replaced by other players invading the game. The concept was incredibly novel, especially for the time, but Arkane never found a publisher who was willing to take the idea to the finish line.

With Deathloop, Arkane was inspired by its work on The Crossing and wanted to attempt something similar. As Colt hunts down the eight visionaries on Blackreef Island, he will also be hunted by another capable assassin named Julianna. This experienced femme fatale is unlike any other character in the game. Like Colt, Julianna also knows she is in a time loop. And unlike the rest of the grunts populating Blackreef Island, she can be controlled by other players who choose to invade your game and hunt down your version of Colt. Players can turn off this feature and play against a computer-controlled Julianna if they wish, but players who allow other players to invade their game could have some interesting experiences.

“We really have this mode in here for the weird player interactions that could happen,” Bakaba says. “Julianna’s not directly incentivized by the systems to win over Colt, so there is definitely a way to play Julianna that is not about winning, but is more about role-playing. Why not roleplay and get into someone’s campaign and stalk them, then appear and give them a jump scare … Or you could be an almost friendly Julianna. You could imagine that players could also help each other, so suddenly it becomes a weird emergent co-op experience.”

However players roleplay Julianna is up to them, but they will have to play through a bit of Colt’s campaign before they unlock her mode. Arkane says Julianna doesn’t have a traditional narrative campaign, but she will have a progression system, and playing as her unlocks various cosmetics that can be applied to both Julianna and Colt. “It’s a very free multiplayer experience,” Bakaba says. “We really want this mode to be fun and more of a water cooler and anecdote generator than a hardcore competitive mode.”

Infinite Lives

Over the last four years, Arkane has painstakingly created a brand-new world. But that’s something the studio is eminently good at. With Dishonored, Arkane built a grim urban fantasy full of political intrigue and supernatural artifacts. The team has taken those sensibilities and its passion for systemic game design and crafted a vibrant new universe that combines ’60s retro-futurism with superhuman combat. However, Arkane didn’t create this new world without a lot of hard work. To shape Deathloop, Arkane has had to focus on a lot of small details – even as tiny as the buttons on a character’s shirt.

“The characters are the starting point,” Mitton says. “My grandparents and my great uncle, who’s almost 100, used to be tailors. From a very young age, I could hear the scissors, and I could see all the clothes being cut and stitched together … I have this passion for clothing because the characters of this world create this world. I try to think about, ‘If I lived here, how would I interact with the world? The whole team really thinks like that.’”

Arkane put a lot of thought into every inch of Blackreef Island and all the characters who inhabit it. During their research, Arkane’s writers studied the theory behind time loops and created a detailed fictional history for Blackreef. A few designers on the team have degrees in architecture, which has allowed the studio to create buildings that are both believable and exciting to explore. Arkane’s artists even researched how paint flecks on worn metal while inventing an entire line of fictional military equipment.

“It’s important not to discover a generic universe because we live through generic things every day,” Mitton says. “We want to have people dream and travel. That’s my main line as a creator. When we drop players into a new place, we want them to be in travel mode. And if what they see looks like what we know in our daily life, then why travel? Why didn’t we just stay home? We absolutely want to ensure that everything we discover is not common. It’s a fight to steer away from what’s generic.”

Even as Arkane is locked in a creative battle to put the finishing touches on its game, its main character remains locked in a battle of his own. Near the end of our time with Arkane, we return to our demo one last time. It’s still morning on Blackreef Island, and Colt has just emerged from the underground tunnels that wind their way across this desolate landmass. A hangover from the night before is just beginning to ease, but Colt’s real troubles have only just begun.

This article originally appeared in Issue 334 of Game Informer.

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