Games appear to have cottoned on to a neat little trick: they can extend their replayability by crafting a compelling narrative reason for why the game repeats itself. The mere fact of having a reason for the repetition not only makes playing through the same game multiple times more engaging, but in good hands the technique can be expanded upon to play with the audience’s expectations of what’s going to happen, making second and third playthroughs a veritable delight.

When I saw it done in Undertale, I marvelled at how clever it was. Meta-commentary that didn’t make me cringe? That takes some doing. When I saw in done in Enter the Gungeon, I immediately fell in love with the game – getting back up even as the guards at the entrance gleefully expect you to break, attaining mastery through repetition until you finally beat the dungeon. I found myself compelled in a way that the similarly designed Binding of Isaac hadn’t quite managed in the years before Enter the Gungeon’s release.

When I saw it done in Reigns, a neat little game published recently by Devolver Digital in which the player rules a kingdom through a series of binary decisions while trying to balance the church, the people, the army and the treasury (and dying a lot whenever one of them gets too weak or too powerful) I found myself having to tip my hat to a concept that was undeniably fascinating – an intriguing spin on the “ironic punishment” half of a Faustian bargain that…hang on a minute: there seem to be an awful lot of these games now.

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Yes indeed; it was while playing Reigns that it abruptly struck me how many of these “never-ending cycle” games there seemed to suddenly be, especially since the three examples I’ve given only came out in the last couple of years. Let me be perfectly clear: all three are good games, and all three use the never-ending loop conceit to great effect through self-reference, clever twists and manipulating expectations. I don’t lament the fact that these three games all use this same concept. But as with everything that’s fine right now, I instinctually dread the day when the people making these cyclical games start missing the point.

Creating a game around the idea of an endless loop isn’t just an interesting experimental idea – it’s incredibly practical if you can’t afford to make something the length of a Final Fantasy or a Grand Theft Auto, but want to offer players an experience that they’ll sink as much time into. There’s plenty of reasons to make a never-ending cycle game other than having a clever idea about how to do it, and it’s this fact that gives me cause for concern. Probability (not to mention history) dictates that if someone can adopt a concept out of pure cynicism then eventually someone will, and it’s that day that I’m dreading. That day which is so bleakly inevitable it’s as if I’ve lived through it a hundred times before – because the sad reality is, I have.

Games featuring eternal cycles aren’t a new concept as it is. Even just going by the games I’ve played, the practice can be traced back as far as Dark Souls. As far as I could work out, Dark Souls was set in a universe where the real ‘point’ of that world had already come to pass, and the player is some sort of cosmic clean-up detail charged with sweeping the last few pieces from the board so that the decaying world could finally die and be reborn. And reborn it was; immediately following the credits, without going to a menu and without any input from the player – perhaps suggesting that forces beyond the player’s own will controlled the repetition of events. I didn’t care much for the game, but this idea of what the events of the game meant would, with time, come to fascinate me…so if you’re planning on telling me I’m wrong about what the ending of Dark Souls meant, do bear in mind that you’ll be destroying the one thing that I actually liked about the game.

On the subject of implicit endings, I got a very similar vibe from the ending of Journey. The player character’s ultimate goal in Journey is to reach a mountain seen frequently in the distance, and when they reach this goal a star emerges from the mountain and shoots back past all the areas the player had been through to get to the mountain, landing right back where they started. This star, presumably, spawns another player character in readiness for the next journey along the same path. An eternal pilgrimage taking place for reasons we don’t understand. Judging by the bits of lore we’re shown about the civilisation that existed before the events if the game, and its subsequent downfall, I personally think it exists as some form of penance for this race. I could be wrong, of course…but if you’re going to tell me I’m wrong about the lore of Journey, you’ll be destroying the one thing I actually liked about Dark Souls. So there.

Having suffered through the first game, I can't help but feel Anor Londo deserved what Aldrich did to it.

Having suffered through the first game, I can’t help but feel Anor Londo deserved what Aldrich did to it.

It might have crossed your mind that all the games I’ve mentioned have done a fairly decent job incorporating this Mobius strip structure – or at the very least have done it in a way that provokes interesting thought. So all the examples so far have been good. Games have a very good track record with this concept. Maybe there’s no problem. Maybe I’m jumping at shadows by worrying that someone’s going to come along and fuck it up.

Then again, maybe not. As with episodic games before it, I think it’s entirely possible that the day where we see this meta-commentary on the replayable nature of video games used insincerely out of cynicism may already be upon us…although in this case, it’s almost impossible to tell.

It might seem like I’m taking a cheap shot by calling No Man’s Sky repetitive, but the game seems to be aware of this repetition to some extent and tries to justify it by dressing it up as some sort of profound statement about how the player is trapped in some infernal cycle on the whim of higher beings with grand and unfathomable motivations. I can barely be sure of this, however, as the main evidence for this theory is written in utter wank:

Utter wank

The only thing I can derive from this pretentious nonsense with any degree of certainty is that the whole “imitation of life” spiel seems to be some attempt at being meta. Why is the game doing that? Haven’t the foggiest. What’s it got to do with the rest of the game? Fucked if I know. My best guess – and I can honestly only guess – is that it’s an attempt to explain away the repetition as some sort of torturous script enforced by unseen puppet masters who totally aren’t the developers as a tiny part of machinations we are too small to understand. We’re being manipulated, you see. You’re not reaching the centre of one galaxy only to be sent to another and do the same shit over and over again because that’s all the game has – you’re doing it because it’s commentary! Don’t you understand? Don’t you see how deep this game is? Don’t you get it?

No Man’s Sky might stand as the proof I need that my concerns are a genuine issue. I just wish it didn’t have to murder so much innocent prose in order to do it.

I won’t deny; we got lucky this time. What No Man’s Sky did with this idea is such incomprehensible gibberish that we can’t even be sure what concept it’s an utter mangling of. There’s hope that the ‘never-ending’ cycle concept in video games might still technically be unblemished. But that may simply represent an excuse to ignore the fact that this is almost definitely going to happen again, just as it’s happened with DLC, episodic games, Silent Hill, the Arkham games, Castlevania, superhero movies, people pointing out in Batman stories that the villains all keep coming back so Arkham must be a pretty ineffectual solution which was a cute observation back in the 90’s but now is just overbearingly dull and makes me want to scream at the writers that it’s not fucking clever anymore…the list goes on.

I'm reusing the same picture from earlier because it's thematic. Do you see how clever I'm being? It's commentary. Please think I'm smart.

I’m reusing the same picture from earlier because it’s thematic. Do you see how clever I’m being? It’s commentary. Please think I’m smart.

Whenever something becomes popular, sooner or later a bunch of people jump on the bandwagon, miss the point and wind up tarnishing the very idea of what they’re trying to capitalise on, to the point that when something genuinely good comes along nobody’s willing to give it a chance. That could be never-ending cycles in games in a few years. As I’ve said before, it’s not like there’s not plenty of incentive to milk the hell out of the idea.

Maybe it is a bit soon for me to be crying foul. Maybe these aren’t the examples I should be pointing at to demonstrate that there’s a problem. But just do me a favour: brace yourselves. Brace yourselves for the eventuality that you are going to get really fucking bored of these games referencing the fact that they can be a loop. Brace yourselves for the possibility that the ‘Groundhog Day sim’ takes off and becomes ubiquitous. Brace yourself, because this narrative trick is just too attractive for a tonne of game devs and writers not to eventually jump on it. It’s almost certainly inevitable, and if you think it isn’t – if you think I’m wrong – then not only are you denying the evidence of history…but you’re also destroying the one thing I actually liked about Dark Souls.

…fuck, I got so close to the end without mentioning Groundhog Day.

God damn it.

About The Author

Contributor

Found in a heavily sealed crate salvaged from a wrecked freighter somewhere in the pacific ocean, Josh was brought to Indie Haven where he now writes features that combine his love of video games with his fascination with the workings of the human mind. Holding that video games, much like any art form, are a form of rorschach test that can often provide interesting insights into onesself, he enjoys writing about the ways in which games interact with his own psychological quirks, especially when it takes him down bizarre and esoteric rabbit holes. He's also a regular on the Indie Haven podcast, where his patented Deep Thoughts take the cast to places no mortal mind should ever venture.

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  • Foxwarrior

    Well, Diablo did it a long time before Dark Souls, and didn’t bother giving it a justification at all.

    In endless cycles that have plot, where you’re supposedly playing the same character as you were the first time around, I often wish that you’d get story options that imply your character remembers all this and can choose to do things differently. Stop being surprised by the twists and go after the person who will betray you before they do it this time.