Review: ‘Deathloop’ Is a Unique Reflection on Time and History

By Gabriel Solis

Sunrise. I wake up, groaning and sprawled out on a barren beach, empty bottles at my feet, and a spinning feeling reminiscent of the worst hangovers of my life; the sort where you loudly wonder to yourself, “Am I dying?” Soon enough I find myself stumbling through a dark hallway, gun in hand, and a familiar voice loudly reassures me that yes, not only am I going to die but that they are going to kill me, and with a tremendous sense of pleasure. The hallway comes to an end, and I’m greeted by the world I was promised; a world that is in the midst of ceaseless celebration and yet also cruelly structured around my imminent death. It doesn’t take long for me to walk down the wrong alley, where I arrogantly stumble into a hail of gunfire and a crowd gleefully cursing my name. And just before I collapse under the bullets, I hear a voice echoing on a loudspeaker: “I would like to personally welcome you to the first day of your new forever.

So goes my 17th hour playing Deathloop, the much-anticipated stealth shooter released this week for PS5 and PC. I’ve lived this “first day'' at least a hundred times, and while I’ve become far more powerful than my first few hungover days at the shore, I remain ever susceptible to the tiny mistakes and bursts of impatience that send me hurtling back to the beginning. As is already apparent from the advertising campaign and the new (exuberant) reviews, Deathloop is a game about a time loop, with gameplay elements reminiscent of roguelikes that often force players to start their journeys all over again, albeit with a few extra powers. While early reviews have rightly celebrated the game for making the process of dying strangely pleasurable, it is Deathloop’s profound meditation on time that has kept me the most engaged. Unlike any other game I’ve played, Deathloop offers players an opportunity to rethink the present—not as a moment in a series of linear events but rather as a juncture in time that is as bound to the troubles of the past as it is to the fleeting possibility of a redemptive, and even emancipatory, future. Deathloop seems to suggest that even in the most impossible of situations, there is always an opening for a radical rupture, an unprecedented break from the status quo or the material conditions that up until then felt permanent.

Of course, on the surface Deathloop is a trigger-happy game about, you guessed it, a death loop! As the main character, Colt Vahn, you find yourself struck by amnesia and trapped on the gloomy island of Blackreef, which, due to mysterious circumstances, is spinning in a seemingly eternal time loop. To complicate things further, you quickly realize that the island is guarded by a fanatic yet fun-loving cult of Eternalists, who are tasked with defending the status quo and killing you for your efforts at trying to break the loop—an act of “betrayal” of which you initially know nothing at all. Your first taste of death comes, however, from Julianna Blake, a woman who will continue to hunt you throughout the game and with whom you seem to have some serious baggage. And for those interested in ruining someone else’s day, you even have the option of invading other players’ games as Julianna and forcing them back to the ever-gray shores of Blackreef in a challenging multiplayer mode.

Yet playing as Colt, you will likely spend your first few hours figuring out a way to make death come just a little bit slower than the last time. Moving through the incredibly hostile island, you’ll be forced to toy with the game’s masterfully crafted concoction of quiet sneaking and explosive bursts of violence; a dynamic that rewards as much as it punishes and frustrates. After a few painful circuits on the island, Colt will be fully committed to the task of ending the loop; a job that at first feels utterly impossible. Indeed, the only way to bring the time loop to an end is to kill eight powerful Visionaries—important personages upon whom the time loop mysteriously depends—in one single day. These targets are scattered around four districts and are accessible to the player at different times of day. In order to devise a plan to efficiently eliminate all of these targets, you will have to investigate each of the Visionaries, determine their weaknesses, and try to construct a plan to seamlessly kill each of them by nightfall.

After the first few hours, the game becomes increasingly concerned with time management and research. Locked in a bunker underneath the island, Colt’s chambers offer respite from the endless avalanche of violence aboveground, as well as a base for investigating a means of escaping the island for a supposedly “normal” timeline. To a large extent, Colt becomes something of a historian of the present, digging through the detritus of the loop’s past for clues as to how to break it, and why it’s happening in the first place. By studying the history of the loop, which is also its present, Colt encounters clues that trouble him: hints that suggest his own complicity in what’s happening as well as a loop that goes much deeper than one might expect.

Yet Deathloop’s attention to uncovering the history of the loop and the implications of a nonlinear timeline pushed me to think less about similar video games and more about similar philosophical texts. In particular, I found myself reaching for Walter Benjamin’s 1940 Theses on the Concept of History, a short work that is also profoundly concerned with the possibility of a radical rupture from a seemingly ceaseless onslaught of tragedy and violence. Written in the author’s eighth year of exile from Germany, and nine months prior to his suicide after learning of his imminent deportation by Spanish police back to Nazi-allied Vichy France, Benjamin’s Theses were conceived in a moment when death seemed increasingly imminent for the author. While the text offers a critique of then-prevalent historical methods, it is also deeply concerned with Benjamin’s notion of “messianic time.” Influenced both by the author’s radical Marxist commitments and his ongoing correspondence on Jewish mysticism with Gershom Scholem, a leading scholar on Kabbalah and Jewish esotericism, Benjamin’s text proposes a vision of time where the past is entangled with the present, and always subject to radical openings capable of redeeming the tragedy of history. Rejecting the “homogenous empty time” of capitalism, where the social relations of commodity production have rendered calendar days into meaningless equivalents, Benjamin holds out hope for rare moments capable of “exploding the continuum of history” and ushering in a truly redemptive future.

In my play-through of Deathloop, Colt’s pursuit of a seemingly impossible exit from a torturous time loop seemed to pair with Benjamin’s yearning for a revolutionary rupture from fascism’s (and capitalism’s) deadly grip on the continent. Like the “Angel of History'' invoked in Benjamin’s ninth thesis, who sees time not as a “chain of events” but rather as “one single catastrophe,” Colt’s investigations on Blackreef force the player to rethink easy distinctions between the tragedies of the past and the urgency of the present. Colt’s only means of liberating himself from the loop is to sit with the past and try to “piece together” what has been smashed in the repetitive atrocities of the loop.