Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Deathloop deconstruction / design thoughts

SPOILER WARNING: this post spoils levels, main quests, and gameplay systems in Deathloop

I guess this post is my contribution to Deathloop discourse. This is similar to my tactics games writeup and Enderal (huge Skyrim mod) writeup where I spoil some interesting game designer / systems design things. I don't discuss much of the game narrative. I assume general game design knowledge but minimal Deathloop-specific knowledge. Perfect for pretending to have played Deathloop if you find yourself talking to a game dev. Not that you should ever talk to a game dev.

Just to warn you, this post is 5700+ words with 3 sections:
  • General systems overview
  • More specific gameplay stuff -- stealth and level design notes, combat notes, invasion implementation
  • Critical path / progression overview with "beat sheet" tables


Pillar 1: Dishonored-style assassination single player FPS RPG; sneak in with magic powers, then kill someone / fight your way out / run away
  • 8 bosses to assassinate (but actually 7), each with unique 30 minute lair / encounter
    • only 2 require some stealth (more on stealth later)
  • use magic powers and feel like a hot dad ninja
    • design constraint -- powers must be useful for both PvE and PvP (e.g. no mind control)
    • only 5 powers (+1 PvP only power)... streamlined from Dishonored arsenal
    • only equip 2 at a time per mission, can't change during mission
  • power list
    • Shift (short range teleport, "Blink" from Dishonored)
    • Nexus (chaining, kill one enemy = kill others nearby, "Domino" from Dishonored 2) but feels less useful than in Dishonored because stealth de-emphasis
    • Karnesis (knockback / stun, later upgraded into BioShocky cyclone juggling trap... NOT telekinesis, only works on NPCs / PvP)
    • Havoc (temporary shield / damage buff), very useful for people who keep dying (i.e. me) or PvP buff but conceptually rather boring
    • Aether (cloak + invisible to laser sensors, attacks cancel it, can be upgraded to only consume mana while moving)... feels D-tier since stealth is so de-emphasized
    • Masquerade (PvP invader only, swap character models with an NPC)
  • Shift and Nexus are the most interesting, and the game knows this, you get these first
  • you have enough base mana for ~3 Shifts / ~15 seconds of something else; mana always regens to 100%, it's quite generous

Pillar 2: Outer Wilds time loop information game puzzle;
memorize shortcuts, use passwords from previous loops
  • each day loop has 4 time slots (morning, noon, afternoon, evening) to visit a level
    • unlike Majora's Mask and Outer Wilds, time does not progress while in world; time is turn-based
    • some Prey Mooncrash players disliked its continuous timer, discouraging leisurely exploration; turn-based format solves this anxiety?
    • QoL: you can press a button to "wait" until a future time phase if you want
  • 4 large nonlinear free roam levels (each with 1-2 boss lair areas) that change for each time of day
    • different enemy placement, details, env storytelling; core layout always stays the same
    • some side areas (especially boss lairs) are only open at 1 of the 4 times
    • areas get snowy later in day, but no systemic effect (e.g. no foggy blizzard LoS blocking, no Kojima-y footstep trail or breath vapor stealth etc)
      • nice storytelling via enemy placement -- guards patrol much less and gravitate to glowing fire barrels, some shiver (especially the naked guy hidden in every level)
  • goal is a golden loop: kill all 7 bosses in a single day loop
    • which missions / levels should you choose and when? etc.
    • unlike Outer Wilds, golden loop here is heavily hard-gated by quest progression, not a "true" information game, compromise with AAA market?

Pillar 3: Dark Souls roguelike; if you die, you lose everything you didn't bank and have to corpse run; there's invasion PvP where people fuck with you
  • if enabled, other human players can "invade" your game (more on this later)
  • if you die, you corpse run
  • dying 3 times in a single time of day = semi-permadeath, lose unbanked items and powerups and restart loop back to morning
  • you can bank weapons, powerups, and spells ("Infuse") across loops by spending souls time-money ("Residium") before you enter a mission
    • get time-money by killing bosses, random collectibles, or recycling bad loot
    • time-money doesn't persist across loops; spend it or lose it (+ if you survive the entire loop, you get one last banking opportunity at the end of the night)
    • time-money feels scarce for like the first 5-10 hours of a first playthrough; but by midgame you have plenty and can bank any item even if you never use it
  • it all acts like it's going to be tough but it's generous; as someone who can't tolerate the anxiety of Souls games, this felt gentle
  • but in terms of usability... you can't bank during a mission, so it forces you into 1-2 hour play sessions with no pause / load / save (it's multiplayer, remember)
    • if you don't have uninterrupted 1-2 hour time windows to play this game... sorry
    • if your game happens to crash, or you get a dreaded UI freeze... sorry
    • fix: let players soft-bank / soft-checkpoint some of their progress? but feels silly when half the problem is engine crashes, hard to disentangle whether this is also a player QoL design problem worth solving

    This is maybe Arkane Lyon's least stealthy game yet. Very streamlined, much faster, low stakes, and often just setting up the inevitable ensuing gunfight.
    • none of Dishonored's morality system and I think this is good, the "stealth puzzle = humane cage free assassination" philosophy has aged poorly imo
    • 69% less stealth... no "non-lethal" attacks or KO, no non-lethal puzzle solutions to kill bosses, no ghosting, no body dragging, no lockpicking
      • to LGS hardcore fans, maybe feels like the last bastion of smart AAA stealth finally surrendering, but personally I think I'm ok with this
    • higher elevation still gives huge stealth bonus like in Dishonored; if you're crouching on anything above NPC head height, you're basically invisible
      • the solution to most stealth encounters is "teleport on top of overhead light fixtures"
      • but realizing "that chandelier is actually a platform!!" still feels good
    • streamlined hacking = no contrived hacking minigame, just hold down F for ~7 seconds
    • guard placement
      • when unalerted, they follow hand placed patrols / schedules, always the same every loop
      • once alerted, they take cover and flank etc. but stay mostly leashed to their arena 
      • no lengthy observation and memorization of patrols; patrols are simpler, slower, shorter, more static, fantasy of guard coverage
      • these aren't Thiefy stealth patrol puzzles; guards often face inward or at walls, rarely patrol
    • typical guard placements:
      • when player has LoS, guards cluster for conversation, then disperse
      • lone NPC "sentry" uselessly looking out at skybox
      • lone NPC stands on tall tower in middle of arena, facing the center
      • lone NPC faces wall / machinery, with one lookout behind them facing the same direction
      • perimeter guard has 3 point patrol (at most) with long stops (~20 seconds?)
    • typical mob sizes:
      • 1-3 for small entry approach areas near your spawn room
      • 5-7 for typical free roam courtyard arenas (floor plane + mixed-height stuff in middle)
      • 6-12 for big central boss atrium arenas (dense multi-elevation, like a DM level)
    • maps segmented into areas / arenas
      • each area has 4+ entrances and exits, with elegant mix of primary + secondary circulation, everything flows really well
      • this chunking streamlines the stealth encounters: you rarely have to worry about the whole map, only current arena is salient / takes up all your mental RAM
      • kinda feels like a Counter-Strike map sometimes; "library plaza" or "transmission tower" or "cave club" or "trainyard" or "hangar yard" are distinct concepts / callouts
      • liminal in-between border areas are often safe; transitions, airlocks, bulkheads, foyers, gatehouses, stairwells, have no guards... recovery from stealth failure is easy-ish
    • "local alerts" = full combat alerts local only to that area / arena
      • when you tag an NPC, some tag icons have little radio waves; these are "scouts" who will hide behind cover and trigger local alert; kill them first or hack their radio
      • if area enters alert, reinforcements spawn (~4-6 more guards)
      • to end alarm, kill everyone; no alarm station mechanic (this is good)
      • boss zone alert = aggro boss, they'll use their powers and move around randomly (harder to stealth kill)
    • only 2 (of 7) boss encounters enforce some hard-fail stealth:
      • Fia boss zone alarm: triggers ~2 minute self-destruct countdown that *ends your entire loop* unless you defuse the reactor based on a clue in a random side room -- probably surprises most players, you get little warning this can happen
        • certainly surprised me, I didn't even understand there was a countdown / that it was a special alarm... until I saw the game over screen
        • your only indications of countdown: some monitors (easy to ignore as set dressing) and some loudspeaker voice over (easy to ignore as alarm feel)
        • this one needed some more iterations I think
      • (I never actually encountered this myself because I'm a pro gamer but --) Aleksis boss zone alarm: (I think this is how this works:) if he's the only boss present and you didn't solve his reveal puzzle yet, then alert = he runs away and escapes, you have to loop to try again
        • whenever I alarmed the level, he stayed and fought; player QoL thing? again I've just heard that it's possible for Aleksis to escape
        • if this is a real feature, I guess it would feel really bad if his escape kept ruining the end of a golden loop run
    the weapon jamming stuff is to make Far Cry 2 nerds happy but it never really comes up


    Fast paced modern shooter feel. Aim-down sights, cover boxes, short TTK, etc. Matthew Gallant has better combat design insights than me.

    Weapons are your typical shooter hierarchy -- pistols, SMGs, shotguns, rifles, sniper rifles. The gun feel is solid but nothing really different here. Loadout is 3 guns. (4th slot is always melee weapon)
    Some of the more unusual details:
    • The "legendary" unique guns are gorgeously designed and sculpted (like Destiny quality) and have fun special features --
      • "Constancy Automatic" is an uzi with two Pez-like feeds to reload while firing
      • "Strelak Verso" can switch between akimbo pistols and battle rifle mode
      • "Sepulchera Breteira" is the only sniper rifle with a scope (!!!)
      • "Heritage Gun" can switch between shotgun and rifle mode
    • There are also "epic" tier guns with special modifiers -- silenced SMG, stealth pistol with auto-tagging radar nails, a rifle with exploding bullets, a revolver with poison gas bullets, etc. rely on CS:GO-like gun skins to look special
    • You get a silent stealth glock-revolver "nailgun" early on. It has its own ammo type (nails) so you can keep an SMG full of ammo too. Really slow fire rate though, some players might decide it's not worth the special ammo pool and opt for a silenced SMG instead.
    • You can add 2-3 perks ("weapon trinkets") to guns, e.g. faster reload for a revolver, narrower spread for a shotgun
      • gun perks never affect the gun model or appearance, just affect stats
      • the usual gun upgrades (silencers, scopes) aren't available as swappable trinkets, baked into gun
    • There's a weapon jamming mechanic but it never really comes up after the first few hours, you find some never-jamming purple tier guns pretty soon
    wow why aren't these health pickups glowing and screaming??? wow

    The health design is interesting.
    • Limited regen (e.g. hide for 10 sec = recover fraction of lost health)
      • you can upgrade the regen fraction or regen delay, but imo a waste of upgrade slots
      • I'd prefer full regen with less max health, or Halo-style shield meter. This fighting game health mechanic is too fussy and unreliable for a busy shooter.
    • No health potion inventory, big change from Dishonored / Prey. No hoarding / shopping trips. Good potion budgeting meta requires too many RPG systems, so this simpler thing is better I think.
    • So to survive fights for the first half of the game, you have to trust the level designers to leave enough health consumables around, Doom / Quake style. And they usually do! Like 2-4 piles per arena.
    • ... but health pickups aren't big glowing breadcrumb items (unlike shooters today). They're small little bottles that blend-in with junk prop set dressing from a distance. (see screenshot above). So you have to memorize / guess where to scavenge --
      • diegetic-based placement: kitchens, cafes, bars, breakrooms, lounges, sometimes bathrooms
      • encounter-based placement: sitting on a cover box in middle of arena
    • enemies respawn sometimes, so there are also big infinite health chargers too as a safety, but impractical to use during a fight (leaves you vulnerable, like a Half-Life charger)
    • anyway I found this to be surprisingly subtle, midpoint between immersive sim and shooter
    There are equipable player perks ("player trinkets"). You have 4 slots.
    • Trinkets have 3 tiers; gray (trash), green (ok), purple (best).
    • Like the other perks, the game doesn't tell you specific numbers or stats.
    • Some perks are fun (grenades heal, double jump, glass cannon)
    • Some perks are situational (poison gas heals, can hack mines) depending on map / loadout
    • Some are S-tier (+50% max health, melee kills heal you) and basically break the game, useful if you're bad at combat like me
    • Some feel like F-tier ("damage slows down enemy health regen") but maybe that's ok

    Max ammo capacity feels unusually low for a shooter; it's common to run out of ammo during a fight. I think the intention is to make you scrounge around for ammo during a fight and/or swap weapons more often.

    This ties into a common complaint: the melee weapon machete is very powerful, like a 1-3 hit kill (maybe 10-15 hits against a boss?) where the main drawback is you're still vulnerable during the 2 second execution animation. But for a medium mob (4-6 enemies) in a cover-y arena you can just run in and safely slice up everyone.
    • ... but you can only safely do this if you have 50% or more health already. You're trading health for ammo / convenience.
    • ... and I think this balance tuning is intentional. Imagine running out of ammo for all your guns, and all you have is a silly little knife. It would feel terrible. Instead, with an OP melee weapon, you feel like "no ammo, no problem"
    • there's some nice tuning where if you run toward an NPC with the machete, seemed more likely their gun will jam / reloading, and NPC will panic
    • In late game, you can find a "melee kills heal you ~15%" perk. Combined with the shield power, it is free license to machete through any PvE battle in the game.
    There's also some secret dynamic difficulty magic going on, but I couldn't really figure it out. The game says killing a boss increases the difficulty ("loop stress") per loop, so at 0 bosses dead the game is easy but at 4 bosses dead it's supposed to be harder. Anecdotally it seemed like:
    • mobs will use grenades more
    • mobs have more health / deal more damage
    • mobs are bigger / reinforcement waves are bigger?
    • mobs more likely to flank? maybe?
    • mobs flank turrets / use grenades on turrets
    • Juliana is stronger? uses "Havoc" shield power?
    • the only effect the game UI tells you straight-up: better loot drops
    One last combat note: Sniper-type enemies felt rare, which is surprising for a squaddie ninja shooter. The usual design move here is to make players stealth around to clear the lone unprotected snipers isolated on towers, and/or ninja their way to snipers while juggling an aggro'd mob. But here the main sniper enemy is your nemesis Juliana.


    The most risky part of the core design. Imagine a stealth game where a rando player can drop in and fuck up your stealth and alert the entire level. It's a big reason why they had to go hard on high-chaos direction, and why stealth had to get streamlined so much -- if you try to ghost this game, you're going to hate it and feel it's unfair when GokuInMyMouth420 destroys your precious stealth immersion. 

    Wisely, the game doesn't really explain invasion conditions, and the uncertainty is a lot more interesting (until it isn't). But from what I can tell, here's how it works:
    • You can limit invaders to single player bot AI, friends only, or public multiplayer
      • the bot AI is, unfortunately, pretty clumsy and tends to get stuck on map geometry, really straining the navmesh and parkour anims
      • it's pretty easy to run up and machete them, or just put mines near a door and wait
      • but imo this ease is intentional, because if you actually wanted the invasions to feel challenging and scary, then you wouldn't activate single player bot AI mode
    • Invaders only appear on maps with bosses, and usually early in the map run, in the middle of the free roam area. Bot invaders often don't interrupt a boss fight...
      • ... except the "Egor" boss fight, which takes place in a free roam area and gets much more interesting with an invasion.
    • When invaded, you get a new objective: before you can exit the map, you must hack a control point in the middle of the map. Easier with hacking perks.
    • Odds are generally stacked in defender's favor, invader's there more to fuck with them
      • defender has 3 lives, invader only has 1
      • invader has much more limited loadout selection unless they level up a lot
    • Killing an invader refills your lives and grenades (I think?) so defender's run isn't ruined
    • Killing an invader is like killing a boss; they drop a lot of upgrades and time money.
    • After you finish the core game, the game pushes PvP as a perpetual end game, but the appeal doesn't quite make sense to me --
      • matchmaking will only take longer as CCU count falls
      • unlocking stuff as an invader feels like it takes a long time
      • I played it a few times but ultimately lost interest with how long it'd take, sorry devs


    Ok now that we've covered the core game stuff, let's talk about all the complicated schedule design.

    I've broken down the major beats of the critical path into "beat sheet" tables. Hopefully it's self-explanatory. Remember the time rules:
    • Each loop has 4 times of day: morning, noon, afternoon, evening
    • You can visit one district per time of day
    • There are four districts: Updaam (dense castle town), Complex (research lab complex), Fristad Rock (craggy Dear Esther-y coastline), and Karl's Bay (old port / docks). Different places unlock based on the time of day.

    The tutorial happens across 3 in-game loops. During this time, mission selection is restricted and progression is heavily scripted / controlled.

    morning 0TutorialBeachbasic tutorial, die in cutscene, learn about Town
    morning 1Towngo to apartment, learn about the Complex
    noon 1Complexgo to control center, learn about security protocol
    afternoon 1Coastgo to security office, learn about safe in apartment
    evening 1Towngo to apartment but too late, safe empty; fight Juliana
    morning 2Towngo to apartment, open safe, learn: must kill 8 bosses
    afternoon 2Complexfight boss #1 Wenjie, unlock loadout and banking
    • Very meticulously and carefully designed. It sets up the premise, walks you through most free roam areas, and guides you through the time logic. You visit the same location (the apartment in town) at three different times so you can see how it changes.
    • Schedule conveniently keeps you clear of most bosses (compare vs. Early Game schedule)
    • The Security Office step is kinda extraneous (and the Security Office location isn't important in future runs) but I think it's there to waste time + force you to visit town in evening mode

    EARLY GAME, unlock powers and guns, fight bosses one-on-one

    Once you finish the tutorial, the game opens up and you can freely choose where to visit and when.

    The UI foregrounds the boss fights to you above all, with the pink boss portrait icons.

    In the table below, the "..." rows below are the downplayed options, where their usefulness only becomes clear later, if ever.

    morningPortfight boss #2 Harriet (easy), get chaining power
    morningCoastfight boss #3 Frank (hard), get smg, start quest
    morningComplexstart questline (power station)
    morningTown... (later do quest here)
    noonTownfight boss #4 Charlie (easy), get teleport, start questline
    noonCoastfight boss #5 Fia (hard), get shield power
    noonComplex... get unique pistol-smg
    noonPort... (disabled)
    afternoonComplexre-fight boss #1 Wenjie (easy)
    afternoonTown... get unique sniper rifle
    afternoonCoast... (later do quest here)
    afternoonPort... (later do quest here)
    eveningComplexfight boss #6 Egor (easy), get cloak power, start questline
    eveningTownfight boss #7 Aleksis (hard), get knockback power
    eveningPort... get unique shotgun-rifle
    eveningCoast... (disabled)
    • Lots of trailheads in the morning and noon, which makes sense.
    • Other than the afternoon, each time slot offers an easier boss and a harder boss.
      • Some boss encounters are technically optional (e.g. Frank) but in a practical sense, you'll still probably have to fight them to complete a different quest / trailhead to their quest.
    • The other time slots offer low stakes chill-out free roam exploring times to get a unique gun. Or at worst, they are leftover consequences of the design and they had to fudge some random content for it. 
      • The totally blocked-out slots (noon Port, evening Coast) feel like design gap kludges, like "we ran out of time and cut these areas so uhhh don't go there." There's no in-game explanation why these places are disabled at these times?
    • Very unusual narrative design: first you fight a boss AND THEN you do their quest to learn more about them.
      • Opposite flow of Dishonored, where you spend an hour in the lair + doing their quest before you climactically murder them.
      • But that means in Deathloop, you often murder a boss without having an idea why you're doing it or what they're about.
      • For some characters, this narrative flow works really well. For most others, it's confusing and a bit disappointing.
      • I can see a case for unfolding a character arc across multiple runs, e.g. when you kill a boss a 3rd time, you realize something new about them. This happens with Juliana and a bit with the Wenjie / Charlie / Fia, but no one else really.
    • My main pacing nitpick here is that Egor is one of the easier bosses and quests, yet you only encounter him later.
      • First, you might die a lot before evening (especially vs. Fia's tricky self-destruct encounter)
      • Second, when evening rolls around you have to choose between Egor or Aleksis. So far, Egor is a random guy you know nothing about. Meanwhile, Aleksis is an entertaining character with a big complicated party setpiece that invokes past Arkane games and the game marketing. So who's the player gonna pick first, I wonder?
      • Maybe this is intentional? But for me, it felt confusing. As I killed Egor, I was just thinking "oh, that's it?"

    warning: Outer Wilds spoilers!
    don't read too closely
    Deathloop tries to do its own version of the Outer Wilds "Rumor Map" quest tracker UI, but organized into more linear per-questline threads instead of a free form mind map. I admire the intent but as a player it didn't quite work for me. 
    • it made me appreciate the Outer Wilds rumor map a lot's image-based with minimal text, yet it is still pretty functional
    • usability-wise, I ended up wishing Deathloop just went with an old fashioned sidebar with bullet points
      • scrolling around and zooming in to read little node texts didn't work well, it's better not to zoom... but if you don't zoom, it never feels like a mind map
      • even in an old fashioned quest UI, this would still be way too much text, you need to cut like 50-75% of this, yes even the fun flavor sentences, sorry
    • as an information game fan, it made the linear thread structure too obvious, and the shape of the mystery felt a lot less interesting
      • I think Deathloop would've felt +30% more genius if they faked the UI for this node structure so that it seemed like intersecting clusters of clues, rather than 8 parallel quest lines; you don't even have to change the actual quests, just change how they're presented!
        • that probably tested poorly but I DON'T CARE

    MID GAME: simple quests that use only 2 day loops and 2-3 locations.

    The Egor sabotage questline is the simplest one, and weirdly, one of the last quests you might start. Perhaps as a result, Egor is one of the least interesting and less developed characters in the game unfortunately. The other game characters don't give a shit about him, and it seems like the player doesn't either. Kind of sad.

    evening 1Complexfight Egor, discover he's investigating data
    morning 2Complexsabotage data array so Egor never sees data
    evening 2TownEgor goes to Aleksis' party

    The Frank fireworks questline works OK, but unfortunately his character didn't really make sense to me. He's a bisexual crime lord Buddy Holly-like radio host, and by the way his secret weakness is his love of fireworks?.... wait, what? It just felt like too much stuff going on, no clear psychology or arc. I feel like Arkane had something else planned for his encounter (he operates a club, yet we don't get to hangout in it!) but then had to cut it.

    morning 1Coastfight Frank, discover he orders fireworks from shop
    noon 1Towngo to shop, find it burned down already
    morning 2Towngo to shop, stop it from burning down
    noon 2Towngo to unburned shop, get fireworks password
    afternoon 2Portunlock fireworks container, sabotage fireworks
    evening 2Townfireworks automatically kill Frank

    The Charlie + Fia romance questline is probably the best developed storyline. The literally brain-damaged game dev nerd and the fashionable mean girl artist are two humorous caricatures, but by the end of this quest chain, you find out they're a super fucked-up couple who ruin each others lives. One of the darker stories in this game, and one of the times where the kill-first-and-learn-about-them-later narrative design works very well.

    noon 1Townfight Charlie, discover romantic photo
    afternoon 1Coastfind romantic hideout but it's locked
    noon 2Coastfight Fia, get hideout password
    afternoon 3Coastcan now fight both Charlie and Fia at same time (but if you already killed one, then the other won't be here)

    LATE GAME: the most complex quests that involve 3+ days and all 4 locations.

    My first instinct was to think, well, these "most complicated quests" aren't actually very complicated? But maybe anything more complicated would've been way too much stuff. 2 simple quests in parallel feels like 1 complicated quest. So I think they got this balance right, even if I whine about it.

    The Wenjie party questline works well conceptually because it combines the first boss with the last boss. It's also interesting how it branches out from another questline, and encourages more Charlie / Wenjie / Aleksis runs in a fairly organic way. 

    The weakest part of the quest is when it makes you to go to the port to open Charlie's safe, hidden inexplicably in a trivia game show room at the port. Feels like a random excuse to make you visit this somewhat neglected level.

    Once you complete the quest to upload a fake voice sample to transmit a fake message to Wenjie, you never have to do it again. It feels like a cop-out a little. I assumed it was going to make me use the Transmission Tower at the afternoon-coast to make me do this for every golden loop run, and it felt like a weird loose end when it didn't. (I never found out what the Transmission Tower was for.)

    noon 1Townfight Charlie, discover romantic photo
    afternoon 1Coastfind romantic hideout, get Charlie's safe code
    evening 1Portopen Charlie's safe to get Wenjie's password
    afternoon 2Complexunlock Wenjie's bedroom, read diary
    noon 3Townto trick Wenjie, Charlie's AI needs voice sample
    evening 3Towngo to Aleksis' party, find Library note
    noon 4Townbring Library voice sample to Charlie's AI
    evening 4TownWenjie goes to Aleksis' party

    The Power Station questline involves redirecting power in the morning to unlock bunkers later in the day. If you don't unlock all the bunkers all at once in a single loop, then you have to keep going back in future loops to do the power station process over and over. So many hard gates and buttons and back and forth, and the power station feels tedious on a third visit. There's 4 different audio passwords you have to learn?

    The pacing is confusing. On one hand, it feels like a flexible side quest you're supposed to fit around your other tasks. But if you do it gradually, it's tedious and locks up your morning.

    So then it feels like you're supposed to do it all at once. But if you complete it before your golden loop, then the game kinda tut-tuts you. "This is for the ending! Too early, dummy!" 

    morning 1Complexgo to power station, can only power 1 bunker
    afternoon 1Towngo to archives + rocket hangar; but need 3 passwords
    morning 2Complexgo to power station, power other 3 bunkers
    noon 2Town / Coastget password 1 from a bunker (you choose which)
    afternoon 2Coast / Town / Portget password 2 from a bunker (you choose which)
    evening 2Port / Townget password 3 from a bunker (you choose which)
    evening 3Towncan ride rocket to end the game (only if 7 bosses dead)

    (Why is a secret 20 year old military rocket plane locked-down unless you kill 7 people? Because video games!)

    (I'm assuming Arkane tested the Good Design -- let players fly the rocket prematurely without killing 7 bosses, confront Juliana, only to fail and loop again -- and opted for this hacky clarity rather than systemic consistency. Still... SOMEONE CALL THE IMMERSIVE SIM POLICE)


    Once you've completed all the quests, the game finally enables the golden loop, and even spells out all the required steps in your quest log UI menu. 

    Which felt like a shame to me. Deathloop couldn't trust the player as much as Outer Wilds. Ultimately you're a baby who couldn't schedule your own life by yourself after all.

    I know it's easy for armchair indies like me to complain about pulling punches. I imagine Arkane debated this a lot, and over the years, had to bow to AAA approachability and clarity. Which is understandable, but still, it's a bit of a shame. 

    morning 1Portkill Harriet, sabotage Frank's fireworks
    noon 1Complextrick Egor into going to Aleksis' party
    afternoon 1Coastkill Charlie + Fia
    evening 1TownFrank dies, kill Wenjie + Egor + Aleksis, ride rocket

    But the bigger problem: as a result of other design decisions, the drama of the golden loop isn't really there. 

    Deathloop's turn-based time makes it much more approachable, but relies on the threat of dying 3 times, rather than time itself. By the end of the game, that threat has disappeared and your build is fun and OP.

    So then the golden loop schedule ends up feeling too simple and doable. When I realized what it would be, I thought, "ok, sounds very reasonable." And it was.

    (Comparatively, when you realize the Outer Wilds' golden loop schedule, you think "oh my god how the hell am I going to do all that", even though it's actually not that bad on a second try. But the initial shock is crucial.)

    The Harriet boss (and her entire character, really) sadly stays the same. The game says you must kill her first, like this, always -- and if she always dies so early, that means her concept doesn't get to interact with anyone else. Not that her concept makes much sense; why does this apocalyptic suicide cult leader like poison gas specifically? Why doesn't her backstory (survived a near-death plane crash) affect anything other than her arena theming? Like the Frank character, she feels like she's made of loose ends. I thought we were going to have to use one of her planes to do something, or pipe her poison gas into someone else's lair, but no, she's pretty one note unfortunately.

    The noon and afternoon steps also feel a bit empty and flat to me. It would've felt satisfying (but maybe too cumbersome upon repetition) to make the Wenjie steps more manual instead of automatic: e.g. at noon in the Complex, break into her lab annex and hack her computer system -- then at afternoon in the Coast, send her the fake message from the transmission tower.

    Other stuff I thought the golden loop was going to involve / would've been cool to do:
    • Per-level timed objectives that don't kill you, but make a golden loop impossible if you're too slow. Thus necessitating some genuine "labbing" (speedrun research) to find faster shortcuts and sequence breaks.
    • More than one possible golden loop solution, like an easy one and a hard one.
      • e.g. trick all 7 bosses into attending the party, and you have to fight all of them at once, but you can basically only do this if you max out a combat build
    • Visit a boss encounter to perform a task but DON'T kill the boss or else it's ruined
    • Offer a secret way to travel between two districts within the same time slot (ClassPass run hints at this type of multi-district interaction)
    • Exploit invasion system
      • trick Juliana into invading, to trigger a specific effect in that district
      • or, find a way for you to invade an AI Juliana
    • Looping past the game ending (false ending) to create a mega loop made of multiple loops
    The ending(s) are... abrupt. In particular there's a weirdly "happy" ending that makes no sense for the characters. But oh well, endings are hard.


    Deathloop is a big beautiful complicated good game that's smartly made, but overall, it's maybe just a bit too safe to be as stunningly brilliant as a Dark Souls or Outer Wilds.
    • synthesizes a lot of game design trends together from the past decade, they clearly did a lot of homework, and it feels very smart
    • some of the best rocks in AAA, those fuckin rock sculpts man
    • I didn't even talk about the environmental storytelling, the env-storytelling-mass equivalent of three BioShocks, or like two Witnesses, condensed into a single game world. Like the layout tells the story, it's really impressive. Some of the Lost vibes are fun too.
    • despite all these strengths, it falls short of being a brilliant important game to me; I understand why it held back and don't blame anyone for it, but I still wish it took more risks
      • information games trust the player to piece it together; Deathloop documents and connects everything together for you
      • building the golden loop doesn't involve lateral thinking or approaching something in a new way, it's just a matter of doing enough quests to unlock the right doors
      • time loop games make time your greatest enemy; meanwhile Deathloop makes you duel a random PvP player sometimes -- and these days maybe you'll be dueling no one
      • the PvP multiplayer feels like a funny compromise -- a cool Dark Soulsy design risk reskinned to feel like a progression-focused "live" game to make money men happy
    While I think it's just a bit short of brilliant, I still really enjoyed my time with it and look forward to the next Arkane Lyon game and/or Deathloop DLC and/or blockchain battle royale.