The idea of time travel, and time loops specifically, have been a commonplace occurrence in media for well over 100 years. From novels about mad scientists and their time machines to waking up in the same bed every day in Punxsutawney, time loops are part of our cultural lexicon. But what does it take to create your own time looping world? Thankfully you don’t have to worry much about that while playing Deathloop, an intense and detailed time loop centered murder puzzle from Bethesda Softworks and Arkane studios, out now on Playstation 5. You do have to worry about being an assassin, though.
Bennett Smith, however, did worry about the theoretical creation of a time looping world. As Narrative Designer and Performance Director at Arkane who was responsible for the world building of Deathloop, Smith, a self described science nerd, brought the “Cannelloni method” into play. “Essentially, every time loop is another Cannelloni in the dish. So, they all like kind of exist parallel to one another.”
This can get a bit confusing, and it’s always best to start at the beginning... or the best approximation of the beginning if we’re in a time loop, so first things first- what’s the theoretical science behind time looping? In physics there is something called a Closed Timelike Curve, which is, in its most simple form, a line of time that closes and returns to the starting point - a time loop, if you will. This theory is supported by the idea of Loop Quantum Gravity, which theorizes that space and time are woven into a series of loops. Despite that, there aren’t actually a lot of hard and fast rules when it comes to portraying time loops on screen, which was part of what drew Smith to creating such a labyrinthine game, “you get to sort of establish those rules and figure out how they work in the world.”
Is time looping the same as time traveling? According to Smith, the answer is, well, yes and no. “I think when you say time travel, fictionally, just with sort of popular fiction… there is literally a device, a futuristic device, that manages you to transit through time. Although a time loop… marches in a single direction, you are transiting back in time. So technically, I guess you could say it’s time travel, because if it’s not time travel, you’re just on our plane.” To clarify, time loops are not time travel except when they are, which is always and also never.
So then, if there are no rules and we aren’t completely clear on time travel vs time looping, how do you design a game that can bring that world to life and still feel engaging? As it turns out, according to Smith, you do that by letting the narrative, rather than the science, drive the story “it’s important that we never wanted to bog down the player with a very complex theory that’s been boiled down by a narrative designer and then packaged so you can read it or understand it, because it’s ultimately not the reason you’re on the island. It’s not the point. And the story is actually more personal. It’s just that this time loop happens to be a great vehicle to tell it.”
The science of time loops, nebulous as it can sometimes be, is fascinating, but it’s the human aspect that really sets Deathloop apart - we’ve all had those moments where we thought of the right thing to say 20 minutes later, or wished we could go back and do just one thing differently. Maybe it’s just a fantasy that we would be smoother, cooler, more composed if we got a second chance, or maybe, as Smith says, it’s just that “humans are afflicted with this sort of regret syndrome...”