It’s another early morning on the Isle of Blackreef. After peeling yourself off Deathloop’s starter beach, you quickly realize the entire island is trapped in a Groundhog Day-style time loop. With only a single day split up into four segments, and four areas of the island to explore, doing so is no easy task. A mesmerizing mix of bleak, isolated landscapes and vivid midcentury modernism, with Deathloop, Arkane’s art team has created something uniquely vibrant.
One of the first locations you’ll visit is the hideout of the game’s principal villain, Julianna Blake—one of eight Visionaries you must assassinate in order to break the time-loop cycle. The hideout is a modernist mansion that clings to one of the island’s many rugged cliffsides. One section of the building juts out over the ocean, held up by four huge columns reminiscent of those found within the Johnson Wax Headquarters building in Racine, Wisconsin, designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Deathloop is filled with these kinds of architectural allusions.
“Frank Lloyd Wright created these beautiful interiors, office spaces that were so unique,” says Sébastien Mitton, art director and cocreative director on Deathloop. “The panels on the ceiling looked like the sky. This inspired us, because we’re really careful when lighting our games, and so those kinds of high spaces are really important.” As with most of Arkane’s games, in Deathloop you’ll spend a considerable amount of time skulking about the rooftops admiring the scenery before dipping into a building to rummage through the world more closely.
The Art of a Villain’s Lair
The interior of Julianna’s lair is just as extravagant as the outside. There are lavish green carpets, egg chairs, hypnotic wallpaper patterns, and plush conversation pits, all lit from above by immense circular light fixtures. Deathloop’s aesthetic is infused with these kinds of 1960s influences, from modernist architecture to classic James Bond films. Mitton says that the art team looked to things like the photos from the book “Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains” for inspiration.
“There are interiors in there that we don’t really have in Europe. For example, the fire pits in the living room where you go down a level,” Mitton explains. “Of course, we also have to be careful not to follow clichés. We like to remake it in our own way, so it’s not just a caricature. Otherwise you end up with an Austin Powers movie where everything is amplified and grotesque.”
As well as the striking influence of graphic designer Saul Bass on Deathloop’s cutscenes and in-game posters, the team also looked to the hand-painted illustrations of Robert McGinnis, who worked on many of the James Bond film posters in the ’60s. “When we were working on Deathloop’s script, and we had all this paranormal phenomena, we settled on the ’60s setting for two reasons,” explains Mitton. “There’s the mysterious aspect with James Bond, [the 60s’ TV show ] The Avengers, and all the gadgets and colorful characters.”
The Lure of the ’60s
The design of the 1960s provides a sense of nostalgia and is continually referenced by today’s media, from TV shows like Madmen and Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit to recent sci-fi films like The Shape of Water. In Deathloop, this familiar setting helps reflect the larger theme of a time loop—of time somehow being out of joint. We also return to the ’60s again and again because it’s comfortable as well as close.
“The other aspect was the light-heartedness of people living in the ’60s,” Mitton says. “I was born in ’74, and so these TV shows were on in my childhood. They’re my memories, so I feel I can translate them accurately, whereas I might not be able to with the 1910s. I feel like I can touch the ’60s … It’s also a time when things were less rigid. Women were becoming more important, more prominent, and that really nourishes the narrative and visuals. It’s really an opening of thought and possibilities. It also joined up with our script, with this idea of an eternal party that goes wrong.”
“Tarantino is another influence,” Mitton continues. “He covered the ’60s, and he has these incredibly colorful, impactful characters. The aesthetic is so simple, and we remember all these scenes and characters. Other films can be a little more muddy. Since Deathloop is all about remembering, I thought it was a good support. To progress through the story, you have to remember and you have to bring your memories from one loop into the next. So having that simplicity was important. We didn’t want a complicated game, visually-speaking, with too much going on.”
Islands of Isolation
Deathloop’s island is a strange mix of modernist architecture, Scottish stone castles—which will seem familiar to visitors of Dunwell from Arkane’s previous game Dishonored—and an austere, treeless landscape. On top of the Faroe Islands, which Arkane has mentioned in previews, Mitton tells me that they wanted to capture the isolated landscapes of Northern Scotland (as shown in this short film of Scottish trials cyclist legend Danny MacAskill). “At the same, time we were looking at other places with cold environments. Mostly around the two poles,” Mitton explains. “Obviously I can’t just buy airline tickets, so I would go on Google Earth and use the Street View to walk around.”
Several places stood out to Mitton, such as the Falkland Islands near Argentina. “The structure of the mountains there are striking. It’s very desolate, treeless, and not particularly inviting. There were also places in the north of Russia—petrol extraction stations that are extremely desolate and need an entire week to travel there. There are even some towns built in the ’60s there. They almost look like something from Half-Life 2. In them you have all these shops and casinos, because when you go there, it’s for an entire year, and planes and boats aren’t just coming and going.”
Arkane was keen to capture this idea of an extremely isolated but relatively built-up settlement. As well as having its share of villainous lairs, concrete bunkers, and secret laboratories, Blackreef has its own funfair complex, a rooftop bar, and even a plush, renovated castle that comes with a dance floor and comedy club. It’s also crawling with the hedonistic Eternalists, characters keen to make the most of the recurring time loop by throwing an everlasting, hallucinogen-fueled party.
“It’s like in the movie The Thing: Events take place far away from the rest of the world, and you’re only focused on what’s going on there,” Mitton says. “We wanted to set things in a place where no one would want to go on vacation, and then build our science fiction and narrative on top of that.”
The Color of Architecture
In terms of architecture, Deathloop builds off what Arkane began with Dishonored. “Our goal with Dunwall was to make it very cold and dark,” Mitton says. “With Deathloop, we wanted to contrast that with the ’60s and with color. Color started going on the walls, the interiors, the island’s NPCs. It kind of shows their internal lives; they want to live an eternal life and have this eternal party.
“Every day is going to be a party, you can kill people or die, and it doesn’t matter. Everything is very lighthearted, and we wanted that to be obvious. So we painted entire buildings, a bit like some of the pubs you see in England, which can be quite graphic. There’s also the film High Plains Drifter, with Clint Eastwood. There’s a scene where he comes to protect a village, and everything in the village is painted red, right in the middle of the desert. It’s really beautiful, and we thought, well let’s keep going on like that!”
Deathloop does a fantastic job of adding splashes of ’60s kitsch and psychedelia to the island’s largely monochrome architecture and craggy cliffsides. It’s a dramatic contrast, with flashy arcade machines and multicolored candy dispensers brightening the interiors of cold and gray stone buildings.
“We also looked at catalogs for ready-made houses in the US, and they had all these weird shapes from the ’60s,” Mitton says. “You also had plastic, so we could build all these kinds of waves, contrasting with what we did in Dishonored where everything was very square and solid. Deathloop is a lot more fluid, with all the lights and carpets.”
The Bermuda Triangle Meets Chernobyl
The team was also interested in giving the Isle of Blackreef a sense of authentic history. On top of an alternate sci-fi ’60s, they added military structures from the ’30s and ’40s. “We have this fake timeline on the island to try and give it more of a soul. Imagine something like the Bermuda Triangle meets Chernobyl. Something happened in the past, and everything suddenly stopped. And then at the beginning of the ’60s, the Visionaries turn up and start looking around all these older structures, and then they figure out how to make this time loop.”
“We looked at what NASA did with its astronauts,” Mitton continues. “They went around the world to extreme locations to simulate landing on the moon. When we look at the photos, you can really see the contrast between the environment and the people there with all their equipment and machinery. It really looks like science fiction, and it has a very ’60s grain to it.”
“Another great reference we used, because it had elements of the ’60s, was the TV series Lost,” Mitton says. “It’s on an island, there’s a bunker that’s like a time capsule, and there’s a lot of ambiguity with the narrative—are they dreaming, dead, stuck in time? So we made our own time capsule. What if in the ’60s they had solved the Bermuda Triangle? What would happen then?”
Deathloop isn’t the only game this year toying with the concept of time loops (Returnal, 12 Minutes, and soon an expansion to 2019’s Outer Wilds, to name just a few). It’s also not the first time we’ve seen a return to the 1960s (Control, Disco Elysium, Wolfenstein). There’s a sense of comfort and control that comes with looking back to previous eras and repeating their styles, fashions, and philosophies. But importantly, Deathloop is just as interested in ideas of freedom and the future—of breaking the loop and striking out into new, unpredictable frontiers. Amnesiac protagonist be damned, this isn’t an art style you’ll forget quickly.
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