Arkane Studios might have known success with Dishonored, but the studio always strived to produce genre-defining games since the days of Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, often falling just short of true greatness. Following the Dishonored franchise and the incredibly underrated Prey, they can now be considered as the foremost triple-A studio when it comes to immersive simulations.
With Deathloop, however, they seem poised to outdo themselves this September. The game, primarily in development at Arkane Lyon, features elements from Dishonored and Prey (mainly the supernatural powers, acquired here by collecting Slabs, artifacts of great power) and the canceled but extremely ambitious The Crossing, a game where campaign and multiplayer would have been tightly together.
The gist is that our protagonist Colt finds himself stranded on Blackreef, an island inspired by the Faroe, with a little problem: he's stuck in a time loop and everyone on the island wants to kill him. In order to break the cycle, he'll have to track down and assassinate all of the eight so-called visionaries who have established themselves on Blackreef in order to carry on their experiments forever and just have unending parties. However, this is theoretically impossible to accomplish before the time loop resets unless the player finds some loophole after gathering enough intel throughout Blackreef.
The big twist, inspired by The Crossing, is that there is an assassin called Julianna whose sole goal is to thwart Colt's attempts. While by default Julianna is played by the AI, another player can take control of her character when you're online, thus introducing even more unpredictability to the game.
Following a recent behind-closed-doors remote presentation, we had the chance to participate in a group Q&A with Game Director Dinga Bakaba where the developer dived deeply into the mechanics of Deathloop and the design goals Arkane had in mind during development. It is a long road, but an extremely interesting one, to be sure. Sit back and enjoy.
Can you give an explanation of how exactly time passes in Deathloop?
When you start the day, you start the day in the morning, and you can choose where you want to go when or for periods you choose, for instance, to go to the uptime district. When you're inside the district you can take however long time or short time you want, you can spend as much time as you want. It's when you exit that we move from morning to noon. You can choose where to go and when. Basically, time advances one period each time you exit one area. If you die and you're out of rewinds, you will get back to the beginning of the day. At any point, you can choose to skip one time period to go directly where you need to be or where you want to explore.
Can you speak to the design decisions made to make sure players feel each loop is productive in Deathloop, so they don't feel like wasting time in terms of progression?
The way we see those loops is that they are not a unit of progression. The loop is the state of the world and the world is like this, it's a world that loops. But the state of your progression is actually how you complete your goals. The opening hours are a bit directed, we basically make you travel from one area to the next, et cetera, and then it opens up. Now you have this moment where you can choose between the four districts, then you go into a district, you do something and you get out, time moves to the next period, et cetera. At this moment, so that you're not lost, you end the opening section with a number of leads, like an investigation, and all these leads have various steps. Those are your goals, that's how you progress and get to the end of the lead. You can also do any of those steps in the order that you want. Back to the question, we ensure that you can focus on what you really wanted to do in this loop. Let's say that I have to go to someone's place to learn about so and so is in the afternoon, well, when the loop starts, I can skip the morning and go directly to the afternoon, do what I have to do, don't care about the target and then just extract out of the area. Then time moves forward and I have progressed in the story.
If I was going after progression (interestingly, all the progression of the game is entirely optional) and I wanted to get a new power or I wanted to get that new weapon. So I'm going to do this puzzle, for instance, to get this new weapon, and I fail or I die, I can just jump back right at the beginning of this time period and try again. In general, that's for the intentional motivation that makes you enter districts. Then we made sure that the districts were rich enough, each time period has a lot of difference from the former and the next. There are a lot of things to do and some things will prompt you to go off track and have a look. I think that the setting, the player being able to set their own goals, is probably one of the ways that we keep those things from being frustrating. As I mentioned, if you're frustrated with something, you can just do something else. There are several different leads and you don't have to bang your head on something that somehow you're stuck against, you can just go somewhere else. You're very, very free with your progression, it's not a game where a day is something that you do from beginning to end and when you die, you have to restart the whole game over and over. That's definitely not the case here. It's about what you're doing in this world that keeps resetting itself.
Deathloop has several roguelike elements. Do you believe that this genre so explored recently has still a lot to offer, and how do you feel about Deathloop as a whole?
I do think there is a lot of interesting things to do with roguelikes. Returnal is a really great game, I'm having a blast with it. I think it's a genre that a lot of us at Arkane like a lot, you can tell by the one roguelike that Arkane did, which is Prey - Mooncrash from the Austin team. As it pertains to Deathloop, the approach was quite different. I will not enter some kind of debate about whether it is or not a roguelike because, in general, I've been convinced that it's communities who really decide what subgenre your game falls into. To be quite honest, immersive sims wouldn't exist if players didn't make it its own subgenre of action/adventure. But my belief as a designer is that it's not, there is a number of reasons for that.
First of all, I think a good roguelike is about overcoming challenges, it's going through these areas, people usually call them biomes, that are familiar but not the same. In a roguelike, you go through the first biome and then you get to the next biome that is even more difficult, and then you get to the next biome that is even more difficult. Then you get to the ending and you're super happy because it was super, super hard to get there and you had to be both very skilled and lucky to get there, which feels really nice. It lends itself a lot to replaying. Spelunky is probably my favorite roguelike as I can play it with friends, I love that game. But here with Deathloop, it's a bit different. Getting to the end of the day isn't an objective at all, it is not even a milestone for the player if you accomplished nothing during the day. There is no increasing difficulty and there is no repetition. It's weird to say that about a time loop, but there is no forced repetition in the sense that if you don't want to do the morning section, you can just jump to the afternoon or to the night, it's your choice, really, if you want to go to another area in the morning, you're really free to use the space and the time to your liking.
It's definitely not a commentary on difficulty. At the beginning of the game, you're quite fragile. you're just a guy with a gun, a crappy gun that jams. But there is the possibility to just rise in power and skill and knowledge and you get to this point where you're basically a superhero in this world. At this point it's not at all about difficulty, it's about doing what you want to do, choosing where you want to do next, get to the location, do the thing, go elsewhere, and having this feeling of mastery. That is for us extremely important in a time loop fiction, we looked at a lot of movies and read mangas and stuff on the topic. There is always this feeling that in the beginning, the protagonists don't have a clue about what's happening, but the more and more they loop, the more they master this situation, they use and abuse this situation. We really wanted to bring some of that experience to Deathloop. That's exactly why we allow you to skip directly to a time period, because in those movies you don't see the entire day over and over, it would be kind of boring, to be honest. I mean, it works well in some games, like Majora's Mask or The Outer Wilds, but for us, it was definitely not the intention.
A big element of the roguelike genre is also the randomness, the procedurally generated nature. For instance, in Returnal, they have this interesting fiction about why the world is different each time. But for us, the world is static. We wanted this experience of knowing where people are. There are some small random things, like people might wake up one morning and decide to take a shotgun instead of an SMG, but that guy that is near the phone booth in Updaam will always be a coward, he will always run behind cover whether they have a shotgun or they have an assault rifle, it's the same person. That was important as well for the feeling of mastering this time loop, knowing this little clockwork of a world so that now you can bring some input on it and try to change things, manipulate things. What happens if those two guys don't die? What happens if I take out the battery of this machine that this guy uses to do something in the next period, things like that? That kind of playfulness with the time loop was only possible with a world that is deterministic rather than static, deterministic meaning that the same inputs will always have the same effect. But indeed, we don't see Deathloop as a roguelike. It would be interesting to see how the roguelike fans feel about the common strains of DNA, but that's really a different approach and different goals to make a different game.
Are there interesting and missable substories or side missions occurring alongside the main story of Deathloop, like in Dishonored?
Oh, yes, I would say even more so than in Dishonored. The reason is that you are going to explore those environments a lot, you are going to explore them at four different times a day, for most of them. We wanted this world to feel alive, so there is a lot of small things to pick up on. Our team took a risky approach with the sid content, which was to make it extremely organic. That's why I don't talk about side missions, they just don't all start the same way. Sometimes you'll hear two guys talking about something. And you're like 'Oh, what if I went there?' And you do and there is something there after all. There are a lot of small things to pick up on everywhere. We try to not overload the players. It's always weird when you talk about Arkane games and the size of the cutting board. There was the Noclip documentary that came out recently, I'm on record saying that the cutting board for Dishonored 2 is as big as the actual game. Well, this is one example, the amount of side activities compared to what we ship is more than double. The creativity of this team is sometimes just staggering. But the cool thing is that it's all very, very different things. Sometimes it will be quite involved. For instance, Blackreef is supposed to be kind of a place where people wanted to come to have fun forever. People came here to have fun, so there are some games and some of those games you can actually play and try to get rewards out of them. Sometimes they are a bit creepy, sometimes they are just stupid, sometimes you can even alter those games. For the most part, it's completely optional. Sometimes it's just a narrative payoff of understanding that this thing happened here.
We love those moments, they make the world of Deathloop coherent, cohesive. Focusing on these four districts for this one day really allowed us to build all those little things and give them justice and sometimes give them a tail, or a consequence in the very short term. We had to control that of course, because we didn't want to be overwhelming. And also, we want to ship this game. But we think that we came to a good amount of granularity there. Then there's the fact that when you go to a Dishonored map, usually you just visit it once and then you go away, so you don't get to see what happens later during the day or what happened earlier. There was an opportunity here in Deathloop to explore the kinds of little stories that would happen over the course of one day. For example, the Central Plaza is a place where a concert is happening. At the beginning of the day, if you come in the morning, you see the trucks, you see people actually lining up for some other activity here, they don't really care about the concert, but you can see that the trucks are here with the sound system and stuff. If you come at noon, people are still bolting down the stage, everyone is talking about the concert. Then if you come back in the afternoon, the concert is happening. You have the crowd, you have the band, it's something that all the NPCs are focused on. You can just avoid them very easily. But you can also ruin the fun for everyone, there are a few ways to actually ruin the concert, should you want it. It's just playful, I'm not even sure It rewards you with something else than the satisfaction of ruining their day. And then if you come at night when the concert is over, you'll see that there was a fighting sequence in that area, you see all the trash everywhere. Because I mean, who cares? Why do you need to put things back in the truck when the day is going to reset. So people just left the area in chaos. And there are some traces that probably people have been even killing each other at the end of it, because it's Blackreef, and it's a crazy place. Anyhow, those little stories are almost everywhere. We have some of them in every environment. And they are just very fun for level designers, narrative designers, and level artists to explore.
The comedic dialogue in Deathloop is pretty hilarious. How much of this can we expect to see and can you speak to any writing influences/inspirations?
I'm really, really happy to hear that because I was a bit worried that we didn't touch on the humor as a strong foundational point for the game. Yes, you can expect a lot of that. There's a number of reasons, first, Colt is just wonderful. We really think it's a really charming protagonist. He has kind of this old school, badass vibe to him, but also not entirely because he's not afraid to be the butt of the joke, as you say in English. He uses self-deprecating humor to cope with the tragic nature of everything that is going on in the world for his shitty situation. I mean, you have to admit, an ever-repeating day, you wake up every day with a hangover. Everyone wants to kill you on sight, the only way to get out is impossible on paper. The odds are against him, but somehow I think he uses humor to power through that, kind of trying to appear effortless. Whereas Julianna has a very wide range of character. She can be friendly one minute and then super aggressive. The next super threatening, then again full of jokes. She's a very, very intense person. The thing is that those two characters clash in very interesting ways. The way we approached it is that those radio calls are a key part of the game. It's one of the main storytelling means. It's kind of inspired by games like Firewatch and the relationship with Delilah. It's a bit less ambiguous in Deathloop in the sense that she's clearly your enemy, she wants to stop you. But we try to have those interesting interactions. You never know how they will play out. But it often ends up as a contest of punch line, sometimes Colt comes out on top, sometimes it is Julianna, some of them are really, really hilarious. I just can't get enough of them even working on the game.
Oh, by the way, I'm hearing them a lot, but you won't, because all those conversations never repeat in Deathloop for the reason that both Colt and Julianna are aware of the time loop, so they never have the exact same things to say to each other. Those dialogues are of course reactive to what you do. Imagine you killed someone, she might comment on it and gives her perspective, or if you go out of a fight, she might mock you, and the conversation would go on from there. I'm extremely proud of what the narrative team has managed to instill in those characters and it goes beyond that because Blackreef is this island of some entitled young assholes. Brilliant people yes, but very selfish, very self-centered folks that went on the other side of the world to create this society where you never die, there is no consequence and this is an eternal party. As you can imagine, people came here to have fun, except that Colt is ruining that with his rebellion. You definitely have a lot of interesting dialogue everywhere in the world, all the visionaries are competing at being the best asshole in the world. One of them, for instance, he's a singer. His songs are hilarious. So yes, there is a lot of humor, which is actually not easy to make in a big game like this. But I think the team has done a wonderful job. As for inspirations, one thing I'll mention is, you know how all of the Tarantino movies have one scene that can be taken outside of the movie and it can live by itself because the dialogue is just great? That was an inspiration. I love our conversations, they're so well written and they are just their own rewards sometimes, even if they don't advance the plot necessarily. This is something I'm very passionate about, we're really happy about where we got, and we hope that you will love Colt and Julianna as much as we do.
Were there any challenges in designing Deathloop to be compatible for two players at once, while another player is controlling Julianna?
Taking a step back on our design philosophy at Arkane, we always try to make those areas very open ended, very sandbox, very organic. A level of Dishonored can be traversed in various ways. The story moves you in a certain vector through this level, but as we've seen with the videos that players sometimes post online, you can really traverse those spaces in various ways, because those environments are made by both level designers and level artists who often have architectural backgrounds. We make sure that those spaces make sense, that the navigation makes sense.
It's even more true in Deathloop than in Dishonored since those are spaces that we are going to visit several times, sometimes entering the district from a different point of entry, and doing different things. For example, one time you will be going to Aleksis's party, but some other time, you will actually be wandering about this strange bunker door that is closed, and you want to see what's behind it, so that's what you're after, you don't care about the entire Aleksis's area. The traversal in those districts, even in the same time period, is very freeform even when you're playing alone. Those spaces were just right for adding another player. Now, of course, there is some more technical stuff, like checking lines of sight, preventing choke points, but for us, it's things that are always important in the creation of a map. I would say it's an extension of our philosophy, then there is, you know, a ton of different things, but they are not directly linked to level design, like, you know, a lot of choices to make, when someone else can get the other side of the area doing some things and the system has to respond to that. The number of AI characters that can be in combat is doubled from something like Dishonored. For that, we can be grateful for the next-gen power of the PlayStation 5 because this would have been hard on the former generation.
How are you incentivizing players to play as Julianna in Deathloop if the story progression is tied to Colt?
It's important for us that the game experience is always coherent with the narrative. That's something important for immersive sims, so we didn't want Julianna's mode to be something completely separate. So the multiplayer is weaved into the campaign the story. And as much as Colt's goal is to break this perfect system, find the flaw and exploit it to break it the Deathloop. Juliana's goal on the contrary is to preserve it. She's someone who really believes in the ideals of the Aeon program that those people who came here to be mortal, to just let the rest of the world do their own stuff and be with the brightest and best minds and the most famous people. She joins for her own reasons but she really believes in the ideals. Maybe not everything, but she really believes in the fact that through this eternity she can grow, and she's actually having a lot of fun hunting for Colt. This seems to be a lot of fun for her. But she truly believes that this is harmless, this is fine, we are in this place where there is no consequence, we are having fun. What's in the outside world, I don't want to know and I never want to go back there. I'm good here, so don't ruin the fun for us Colt. Of course, playing as her we wanted to give a taste of that. That's why her mode is about invading Colt over and over having fun doing it in crazy, interesting ways. We didn't want to incentivize a mode that is just about going quickly in and killing each other. I mean, you can do that, of course. And you should if that's what's your style is.
But we wanted to incentivize creative play, we wanted this mode to be an anecdote generator. That's why the human factor is interesting and important. When you're playing as Julianna you can invade some random folk, or you can invade a friend from your friends list. In the beginning, as Julianna, you have a bunch of items like a couple of weapons, one power. But there are what we call feats, which are basically small achievements. These give you points, incentivize things like playing it slowly, doing damage over simply just killing Colt, which is interesting, so that you can do some harassing gameplay. You don't have to go after those points, but this is something that is rewarded. Creative kills, using combinations, using mines, using turrets, all those things are incentivized.
With those points, you unlock more gameplay tools for Julianna. Powers, trinkets, weapons, though you get them in a random fashion. We also distribute cosmetics for both Colt and Julianna, our artists have a lot of fun in designing them to be coherent with the respective characters. But overall, we wanted something where the real goal is social interaction, the stories we can create.
We have no clear victory condition for Julianna besides racking points, so why not help Colt? Why not give him a nice high-level weapon that they can then infuse? That's possible too. I hope that players will create some kind of etiquette for those encounters, that would be interesting to see.
Thank you for your time.