No one could have planned this, but time-loops and roguelikes became an important source of therapy for many of us in a post-pandemic world.
Ironically enough, 2020-2021 has seen more games centered around repetition than ever before. The increasingly popular genre of Roguelike games have permeated the gaming market while other titles have been exploring the narrative premise of time loops.
Why so many? Why now?
I think there are functional reasons for this genre becoming the Zeitgeist of the gaming industry, such as adapting to increasing development costs. However, the coincidence of a worldwide pandemic that forced many to stay home and live increasingly repetitive lives has created some unintended draw to these games that suddenly became much more relevant.
Time-loops and Roguelikes share many similarities and are often confused with one another. While both revolve around repetition, there are important distinctions to point out:
Roguelikes: A genre of video game in which the player must return to the beginning of the game upon every death.
(Examples: Rogue Legacy, Spelunky, Hades, Dead Cells)
Time-loops: Games that focus narratively on a story in which time repeats itself. Typically, a character is reliving the same day or time period over and over.
(Examples: Returnal, Deathloop, 12 Minutes)
While these two genres may intersect, they are not mutually exclusive. Deathloop for example, has some elements of a Roguelike: you start the same day over on a beach and lose any weapons or abilities that you didn’t use the in-game currency (Residium) to ‘save’. However, Deathloop is not a Roguelike because every playthrough is different and progression is through the narrative not gameplay. Every time Colt restarts his day, you have new information and goals, so you are rarely replaying the same section or attempting the same challenge.
Returnal on the other hand, checks boxes for both time-loops and roguelikes. The game follows an astronaut who is stuck on a hostile planet. Every time she dies, which is often, she finds herself back at her crash site. This game is also a roguelike in that in order to progress through the game, players must progress through the same randomly generated regions of this planet in order.
Despite seeming overly repetitive, we see that there are plenty of unique ways developers can put a twist on these two genres to get very different feeling games--like Returnal and Deathloop this year for example. There are plenty of gameplay and narrative threads to use and make these games feel fresh.
It makes sense for publishers to push their creativity in this way-- it can potentially save them money. Developing video games is getting more expensive than ever, and adaptation is necessary.
Games that feature repetition can be a great way to cut costs. Time-loops and roguelikes often only need one small environment to make a full game. Compared to something expansive like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Skyrim, that is a substantial amount of time and money saved on asset creation. You don’t need to make as many models or environments. Instead, you can focus on gameplay and story.
In theory, you can create a game in less time and with a smaller team.
However, the challenge then becomes finding a creative way to build an addictive gameplay loop that makes the repetition worth coming back to again and again.
It’s fair to say that a lot of us feel stuck nowadays. As social-distancing, shelter-in-place and work-from-home has become normal rhetoric around the world, there seems to be less opportunity for self-betterment and progression. It’s coincidental that Time-Loops and Roguelikes, both genres of games that resist a player's self-betterment and progression, are so popular.
The reason for this could be their cathartic value. When we face our fears and anxieties through others, it often helps us better deal with the negative emotions associated with them. The effect is similar to watching horror movies. When we watch a horror movie, we are often witnessing our deepest fears realized in a fictional character. However, as an omniscient viewer to the horrors of the film's victims, we remain unscathed and can feel the delight of seeing the figurative light of day on the other side of the film. Seeing the end of fictional fear helps us better see our own emotions as temporary, and that there is a sunnier side to our anxieties.
With time-loops and roguelikes, we are faced with the feelings of being stuck in a fictional environment. By facing these feelings and very real frustrations playing a difficult game, it can help us deal with similar anxieties associated with a post-pandemic world. The feeling of being sent back to the lowest level of Hades for example, can feel oddly similar to waking up to face another mundane day. But, like in Hades, the key to progress is to simply keep moving.
I turned to Hades early on in the pandemic. I was classified as an essential worker, so my everyday routine was both highly stressful and highly repetitive and incredibly boring. Hades felt conspicuously similar to my new COVID-19 lifestyle.
In trying to help Zagreus get through the stressful levels of Hell I would constantly find myself hitting a wall, feeling like any further progress was futile. And yet, I just kept playing. After a few tries, I would always get a little bit farther.
This is where the real magic lies in Time-Loop and Roguelike game strategy--you must keep trying.
Few people become skilled at these games quickly. It takes a lot of repetition, and often a lot of dying, to improve and progress. That’s why in many of these games, a player death count is readily displayed like a badge of honor. (“only” took me 50 tries to escape Hell in Hades!).
Because you, the player, are gaining skill through practice and through small upgrades gained throughout the game, a game like Hades turns a player into a master. Those early sections and bosses that are so intimidating at first, become a breeze. That feeling of accomplishment and release of the stress involved from overcoming those “impossible” challenges are the cathartic moments I needed to help feel more hopeful about the real world.
With how popular games like Hades, Deathloop, Returnal and 12 Minutes have become, I don’t think I am alone.
Even more than the gameplay loop, many of the narratives in these games reinforce positive messages regarding anxiety.
Without getting into spoilers, the top time-loop and roguelike video games to come out in the last few years have endings that across the board emphasize themes like:
These are many coping mechanisms for anxiety that are recommended by health professionals.
These games also give you the player and the characters plenty of good reasons to return to their initial cause of suffering. After escaping Hell as Zagreus, and breaking the time loop as Colt in Deathloop, I immediately found myself jumping back in for more. Because, many of these games do an excellent job at empowering players who stick around for the long haul.
Because most of these modern time-loop and roguelikes are heavily focused on story, the motivation in your own journey through these difficult games accentuates the character you empathize with. This makes the euphoric release from being able to tear apart the world that beat you down for hours upon hours twice as sweet.
Compared to other art forms, video games are very much still finding their stride. Developers are discovering new ways to create and tell stories with the unique features available to them. And, they are learning to adapt to the challenges like labor cost and development time.
These intricacies sometimes lead to trends, like we see with so many Time-loop and Roguelike games in 2021. Almost as an act of fate, this zeitgeist in gaming happened to show how useful video games can be during a world-changing pandemic.
The better we understand how games are evolving and how we relate to them emotionally, the more effective they will be in helping us face the constantly shifting world around us.