DEATHLOOP and Endings
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering DEATHLOOP (Bethesda, 2001), the time-loop-driven first-person shooter. This essay will cover content from the entire plot of DEATHLOOP. Players who have not completed this game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
DEATHLOOP, the latest release from Arkane Studios and Bethesda, is not the first time loop game this year, nor will it be the last. “Groundhog Day”-style time loops have become an increasingly popular narrative device in games in recent years, thanks in part to their simplicity and efficiency. “A repeating loop makes for a longer experience with fewer assets,” says Escapist reporter Andrei Pechalin, and “[they] also come closer…to solving the perennial problem of ludonarrative dissonance.“1 While returning to life after death is a familiar gameplay mechanic, it rarely makes sense within a given video game story. This creates a disconnect between story and gameplay known as “ludonarrative dissonance.” Time loops offer a ready-made explanation for these frequent revivals, thus removing one source of dissonance. These loops come with the additional benefit of a built-in goal for the protagonist: breaking the loop. This is where DEATHLOOP comes in.
In its simplest form, DEATHLOOP is a game about breaking a time loop. Players control Colt, an amnesiac who wakes up hungover on an island stuck in a one-day cycle. In a nod to John Carpenter’s They Live,2 Colt has the unique ability to see hidden writing everywhere he looks. That writing contains information he needs to break the loop, which is his singular goal for the entirety of the game. He’s not interested in learning who he is, where he is, or why he’s there unless those facts help him escape the loop. Although his laser-like focus is admirable (as well as a reference to another Carpenter classic, Escape from New York),3 his detachment is tough to believe, considering how little he knows about himself or his past. These blanks in his past cause him real problems, like when he fails to recognize that the woman hunting him is his daughter. But Colt isn’t the only one who suffers because of his lack of curiosity. The story suffers, too—especially the ending.
What Makes a Good Ending?
To qualify as a ‘good’ ending—which is different from a happy ending—a story’s conclusion must accomplish several things at once. First and foremost, it must resolve the central conflict: the clash of ideals between the protagonist and antagonist. But in resolving that conflict, it must also show how that conflict has changed the characters and their world. Author James Frey elaborates on this concept, saying: “Resolving conflict is often necessary to prove the premise and also to give the reader the feeling that the whole story has been told.“4 In other words, the resolution should leave the audience with a sense of both completeness and understanding. They should have an idea of the story’s theme—the central question below the surface of the plot—and they should know what that theme means for the characters and the setting. If they don’t, it means the ending was missing one or more critical elements meant to tie up the story.
Thanks to their interactive nature, video games have the unique ability to let players choose how a story should end. Like many of Arkane’s previous releases, DEATHLOOP is a game with multiple endings. Each begins with a climactic confrontation with Julianna, who gives Colt a choice: either shoot her and break the loop, or spare her and preserve it. This choice leads to three potential outcomes: one where Colt breaks the loop, one where Colt preserves the loop, and one where Colt puts off the decision for another day. In the third scenario, the game continues with a new day, but the first and second scenarios are definitive endings. What they aren’t is long endings; the two have a combined runtime of fewer than ten minutes, which doesn’t leave much room for closure. This is where DEATHLOOPS’s endings struggle.
DEATHLOOP tells a story that raises a lot of questions. Some are about the world itself, like how the loop functions and what will happen if it stops; others are about the characters, like what the loop means to them and how their lives will change if it breaks. Although these questions vary in their importance, their answers all have some degree of meaning for the story. Every story has questions like these; it’s the job of the writers to choose which ones to answer. “Only in melodrama, of course, will all these questions be answered fully,” writes James Frey, “but even in a good drama, some of them should be answered fully and the rest should be answered at least in part. A good climax leaves the reader feeling that the story is finished.“5 In other words, writers don’t have to answer every question their story raises, but they do have to answer enough to satisfy the audience’s curiosity.
Although DEATHLOOP’s two endings are diametrically opposed—breaking the loop versus preserving the loop—neither answers essential questions about the characters and their world. If Colt chooses to break the loop, honoring his original goal, he wakes up beneath an unfamiliar sky to find his daughter, Julianna, pointing a gun at his face. It’s a tense moment, but it’s also a quick one: within seconds, she chooses not to shoot him and walks away, leaving Colt alone in the sand. After that, the credits roll, and the story comes to a half-hearted conclusion. There’s no consideration for what Colt will do next, nor Julianna, nor any other island residents. There’s also no explanation for what breaking the loop means for the world at large. Since Colt doesn’t ask himself any of these questions along the way, the onus is on the ending to cover all of them. Sadly, the only question the ending covers is the one with the most obvious answer: how will Julianna feel when Colt breaks the loop? Bad, as it turns out: bad, sad, and mad. All legitimate feelings, but none of them transformative. They don’t represent any change for Julianna, Colt, or anyone else in the story. They also don’t say what the point of the journey was or how its conclusion will impact the world. There’s no sense of completeness or understanding. In the end, the only thing that’s transformed is the sky; everything else is still a question mark, just like it was at the start.
DEATHLOOP’s second ending has slightly more to say than its first, but it has its own problems that the first doesn’t. In the second ending, Colt chooses to preserve the loop and wakes up to repeat the day as Julianna’s ally. They exchange in some brief banter, testing the limits of their new father-daughter relationship, and then the credits roll, and the story ends again. This ending is slightly more satisfying than the first, as it shows how Colt’s relationship with his daughter has transformed because of his choices, but it raises further questions about what the future holds. Since it’s still possible for Colt to break the loop later down the line, his one-time concession to preserve it isn’t so much a choice as it is a punt. He’s still not asking questions about the nature of the loop itself, or the other people who have chosen to live in it, so there’s no reason to believe he’s committed to preserving the status quo for long. Luckily, thanks to the loop, he’s got time on his side. He can change his mind at any point, and he already knows what it takes to break the cycle. This limits the effectiveness of Colt’s character growth, as the audience has no way of knowing where it will take him. His future is precisely as uncertain as it was at the start, which means his story is still incomplete.
Ultimately, both endings have their strengths, but neither leaves the player with the sense that they’ve completed a meaningful story. There are too many questions left unanswered, both for the characters and their world, and the narrative feels incomplete. Even as a hook for potential downloadable content, these endings are unsatisfying, because they don’t give the player anything to anticipate. Either they’re going into a world they know nothing about, or they’re getting more of the same. There’s no good outcome, because there was no ‘good’ ending: only incomplete ones.
DEATHLOOP’s intriguing premise, rich setting, and colorful characters are all designed to raise questions in the minds of the audience. Unfortunately, an incurious protagonist ensures most of these questions go unspoken until the ending, and neither ending has satisfying answers. Writers who want to create open endings that satisfy audiences can look to DEATHLOOP as an example of what happens when key questions go unanswered, and how a lack of closure can drag a whole story down.
1 Pechalin, Andrei. “Time Loop Games Have a Repetition Problem (Hear Us Out on This).” Escapist Magazine, August 25th, 2021.
2-3 Egan, Toussaint. “Arkane Studios’ Sébastien Mitton explains the 13 movies that inspired Deathloop.” Polygon, September 30th, 2021.
4-5 Frey, James N.. How to Write a Damn Good Novel . St. Martin’s Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: BabyZone. “DEATHLOOP – ALL ENDINGS (Good Ending, Bad Ending and Secret Ending) PS5“. YouTube, 2021.
** Additional Reference Footage: Dan Allen Gaming. “DEATHLOOP – All Animated Cinematics in 4K.” YouTube, 2021.