What’s with all the time loops?
What’s with all the Time Loops?
What’s with all the time loops? Whether it’s Deathloop, 12 Minutes, The Forgotten City, Lemnis Gate or Hades the genre of entertainment revolving around loops or time loops is all the rage lately. This ‘recursive genre’ lends itself to the video game format because the point of contemporary video games is to endlessly repeat a sequence until you have completed it, no matter how many times you fail or ‘die’. This is one of the apparent appeals vaunted by the rather unpleasant and gatekeepy fan community of Dark Souls insisting that this repeated loop of ‘try, die, try again’ is the pathway to “git gud” as if they were the first people to understand that practice makes perfect. But it is interesting then that films like Groundhog Day, Palm Springs, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code, Tenet and even Doctor Strange have adopted this framework too over the years but less as a mechanical necessity but more as a way of exploring its psychological effects on the characters. What the genre almost always prompts at some point in the narrative is a descent into nihilism due to the character’s belief that their actions are meaningless resulting in either gross excess like over consumption of alcohol and drugs or a lack of respect for life itself resulting in either repeated suicide attempts or outright murder which is where a lot of these time loop mechanics in video games start. This is nothing new, however, with the idea of endless repetition going back even as far as Greek mythology.
At this point everyone knows about Sisyphus, right? The man cursed to roll a boulder up a mountain only to have it roll back down again and repeat the process for eternity? Or what about Prometheus? Who stole from the Gods and was cursed to have his liver pecked out by an eagle again and again, forever? The allegory that life repeats and recurs is pervasive throughout different cultures across the world because it is a great truth. Life is repetitive. And the more something repeats the more used to it you become and, ultimately, familiarity breeds contempt. It’s why most people hate their job (and are finally comfortable admitting that it seems, seen in the “nobody wants to work” rhetoric spouted by exploitative employers at the moment) given that most jobs require the repetition of the same task, day in, day out. But in the interim between Antiquity and today there have been some philosophical advances made around this topic that have helped us deal with this fact a lot better.
The most famous and often cited understanding of this existential repetition is Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal recurrence” or ‘Amor Fati’, the latin phrase meaning ‘Love of Fate’. As the name implies, Nietzsche’s theory states that over an infinite period of time everything will repeat. Infinitely. The solution to this rather bleak perspective on life is that through understanding and acknowledging this fact one might learn to love it. As opposed to resisting the possibility that we will never be free of the endless cycles that control our lives, we should lean into them and go with this ever turning wheels of fate. Or, as 20th century philosopher Albert Camus put it, “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”. A beautiful notion in theory but it was hard to see in practice until stories began to conceptualise this theory better.
All of the films and stories listed above follow a similar pattern that suggests the concept of Amor Fati is, probably, the best way to live. Groundhog Day being the first example that I remember, explores the idea recurrence through Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, a narcissist who is trapped in the town of Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day perpetually. At first he doesn’t understand it and tries to escape it, when he realises he cannot escape it he decides to have fun with it, as a life without consequences means you can do anything. This fun is short lived however and he ends up bored by the more hedonistic lifestyle his condition offers, robbing a money van in the same bored way someone orders their 4,000th coffee from the same barista everyday. When he realises there is truly no escape, the sweetest fruits turns to nought but ash in his mouth and he realises life is not worth living. Without consequence, without change, the freedoms he has are limited and he feels trapped. With this inescapable fact in mind he tries to kill himself, multiple times, but every time wakes up still trapped in the same cycle. There is truly no escape from this eternal recurrence. So instead Phil learns to live with his condition. He starts to find news ways to enjoy the recurrence, he learns piano, feeds the homeless man destined to die, makes the sale of an insurance salesman’s career and ultimately woos the woman he has come to love. He learns to love his fate. And in those scenes we see that he really does. He knows everyone in the town as well as himself, he is friends with them all, has fun playing with the local band, helps the people he can by catching kids falling from trees or the mayor from choking, he has found a purpose in his limited freedom and has come to love it. But then it does what every time loop story does and sort of ruins it. Phil is freed from the loop.
In every time loop movie or video game that I have seen, the story ends with the character either breaking the loop or freeing themselves from it. There is an argument to say that the ultimate goal of this eternal recurrence is to some spiritual end, that, by learning to truly love one’s fate, you reach a state of transcendence and thus become free from this loop and in some ways this might be the case. Leaning into the repetition and learning to love it does in some way ‘free’ you from seeing it this way but if you were to truly transcend this loop, what lies on the other side of our form of existence is unknowable. There is also the argument that the loops in our lives are of different scales, for instance every night and day cycle is basically the same to us but so is every life and death cycle but one has more of an impact than the other, but, equally, transcending these loops is impossible too. Being freed from the loop is not what Ovid, Nietzsche or Camus had in mind; the loop was point. Sisyphus will never stop rolling that boulder, Prometheus will forever have his liver pecked out, we will always wake up in the morning, until we don’t and whatever is beyond that repetition has no real bearing on our existence anyway. As such, the true story of amor fati would never reward a protagonist with freedom from the loop but instead show the character continuing the loop forever but them enjoying it, i.e. to ‘show Sisyphus happy’.
In most of these time loop stories, once the concept of the loop has been established the plot demands some sort of twist, whether it’s finding out someone else has the power, revealing their power to someone else or just realising how to escape the loop, but in video games its slightly different. The looping cycle of death and rebirth — or ‘respawning’ to use the correct Gamer argot — is built into the game already so a player begins with the understanding and acceptance of the loop mechanic but with the ultimate goal of being free from the loop as the impetus to keep playing. To ‘complete’ the game. The player even goes through all the stages Bill Murray does in Groundhog Day, you learn who all the Non Player Characters are, learn their stories and their movements, you learn the most efficient ways through the levels and even try to break the game and escape its boundaries. It’s fascinating to see how familiar people are with the concept of amor fati that the trend for explicitly making a game about the concept has only lately become a trend. But where video games differ, whether they are about this eternal recurrence or not, is that games are often replayed. Once the player has escaped the cycle they willingly re-enter it, Hades being a good example in that once you have escaped you still feel the need to go back and try, try again. Though these games, like the movies, offer an ‘out’ of the eternal recurrence, players will, voluntarily, return to it because, it seems, they love their fate.
What this trend in video games and popular culture at large might indicate though is less that media is coming to terms with its own repetitive nature but more that, socially, we are aware of the repetition in our own lives. This is a good thing because it can help with a myriad of social issues, asking us to challenge unhealthy factors we have become used to through repetition, in our relationships, jobs, free time, politics and what contributes to our mental health overall. But the problem is that the solution most of this media offers is that once we have understood this loop we can transcend it and that isn’t the answer. We cannot remove ourselves from the loop (at least not in this life) but we should, instead, act like a lot of these characters do and a lot of players do before ‘the end’: learn to love our fate. We shouldn’t be leaning into the eternal recurrence contingent on the fact we will eventually be ‘free’ of it i.e. we will eventually die, we should love the loop because the loop is worth loving. Not all the time of course, it can be frustrating, sad and painful but there is plenty of joy and wonder and fun in it too. And, ultimately, it is all we have. Just like when I play the same Hitman level for the 100th time and love every second, we should wake up knowing things might go wrong but the day was still worth it because we can always try again tomorrow. We must imagine ourselves — like Sisyphus — happy.
Which hopefully answers the question all these articles keep starting with, that ask