After almost two years of on-again, off-again lockdowns, time has lost all meaning to me. Working from home and not going to the gym or the pub with friends seriously twisted how I process the day: during lockdown I’d wake up, shower, sit at my desk and barely move until I’d finish work, and even then I couldn’t stop thinking about work until I was lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. Then I’d wake up the next day and start it all over.
It was like we were stuck in a time loop, where the same boring series of events happened every day. Despite this, I felt drawn to games where time kept repeating itself.
During lockdown, I played Deathloop, Hades, Outer Wilds and Twelve Minutes. The one thing these games all have in common is some kind of loop the main character is trying to escape. In that way, they match the real world, but instead of making me depressingly aware of my own loop, they made me feel free.
Admittedly, not everyone feels this way. Harry Shepherd from PC Gamer wrote that he struggles with “the pressure of being booted back where I was at the start of a run, no progress made. The thought reminds me of the relentless sameness of lockdown.”
But while the relentless sameness of these games reminds some people of our current grim situation, it gave me a way to reframe the monotony of life in a pandemic as something fun. Even now, as restrictions ease, the threat of another lockdown never feels too far away. Maybe that’s why I still feel pulled to time loop games: at least if life does suddenly become another loop, I’ll be ready.
In Deathloop, you play as Colt, an assassin who wakes up on an island where the same day repeats over and over. To break the loop, you have to kill the eight visionaries who are behind it in a single day, but first you’ll need to go through a few loops to learn their motives and movements.
Hades isn’t a time loop game exactly, but you do play the same sequence of events over and over in your quest to win. You play as Zagreus, prince of the underworld who’s desperate to escape to the surface. If any of the mystical enemies in the underworld kill you, you’re sent straight back to the House of Hades to start over.
In Outer Wilds, you’re the newest recruit of the Outer Wilds Ventures destined to explore the solar system. Twenty-two minutes later, the sun goes supanova and you wake up at the start of the game again. In each 22-minute loop, you piece together the mysteries of the solar system and try to stop the universe ending.
Twelve Minutes is a real-time puzzle game where a romantic evening turns into a nightmare when a detective breaks into your home and accuses your wife of murder. When you jump back to the start of the loop, you remember everything but your wife has forgotten it all, and you have to solve the puzzle to survive those 12 minutes.
In terms of genre and story, these games are all drastically different. But the one thing they have in common is a time loop you’re trying to solve. And instead of feeling burnt out by repeating the same thing over and over in games as well as in real life, playing these games gave me a better loop to focus on.
Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about how long it had been since I’d seen my friends or gone to a cafe — I was thinking about which planet to visit to find the next clue in Outer Wilds. Or how to get all of the visionaries together at a party in Deathloop. Time loop games reflect how life has been for the last few years, but they also let us make repetition fun. They’re like a giant wink to lockdown — especially Twelve Minutes, which all takes place in a cramped apartment. It’s like they’re saying, “Forget the real apartment you’re trapped in, come visit ours, where there’s no pandemic, just a mystery to solve!”
In a funny way, it’s similar to why people became obsessed with Animal Crossing at the start of lockdown. We found comfort in performing daily tasks and maintenance on our islands; we can also find comfort repeating tasks over and over in a game. At least in time loop games we know how to end the loop.