Why Time Loops Are the New Zombies


Hi! My name’s Michael, and today I want to talk to you about time loops. You know, like the thing Groundhog Day was made of, or one third of all Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, just like zombies were a decade or so back, and I think that means something. Specifically, that the next ten years are going to be an awesome time for media.

My reasoning is a little complicated, but it has to do with time loops, the Flynn Effect, the nostalgia cycle, our postmodern era and the connections between them. If you give me some time to explain, I think you’ll have some fun and learn a lot. But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s start over.

Hi! My name’s still Michael, and today I want to talk to you about time loops. You know, like the thing Groundhog’s Day was made of, or one third of all Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, and I can prove it. Between 1980 and 2009, Wikipedia lists 18 film releases about time loops. Between 2010 and now? 36.

That’s twice as many tipe loop movies in a third of the time. I’m talking about movies and series like Palm Springs, ARQ, Happy Death Day, Primer, Looper, The Endless, Russian Doll, Source Code, Predestination, Edge of Tomorrow…the list goes on.

Deathloop E3 2019 Reveal Screenshots

And the same is true in gaming, with time loop-based games like 12 Minutes, Deathloop, Quantum League, Outer Wilds, Minit, Quantum Break and others on the rise. It’s obviously a good time for time loop-based storytelling, but why? Well, before I explain why I think this is important, I’ll let Danny Rubin, co-screenwriter of Groundhog Day, do it for me. He says:

“When I first came up with the idea it was just a structural trick, offering lots of fun scene opportunities. But I didn’t actually write the screenplay until a couple of years later when I was thinking about immortality and how a person’s life might change if they lived long enough. Realizing that a movie about forever would be cumbersome I turned to the time-loop idea: I could have a character experience eternity as an endlessly repeated day. Now the story was no longer just a structural trick, but it was about a long human life.”

So even the Godfather of Time Loops thinks there’s more here than meets the eye. Trends in storytelling can tell us a lot about ourselves, our shared values, and our place in the world. Mr. Rubin put it this way:

“Clearly the global pandemic has forced most of us into a much more restricted daily life. That puts focus on the routines and even the thought patters that we repeat. I think the political impulses that we are seeing emerge around the globe are also bringing to mind the loops of history.”

There are a lot of reasons time loop stories could be said to resonate with modern audiences. But what does their overall hotness right now say about our unique place in all of pop cultural history? What can we learn about ourselves, our storytelling tradition, and what comes next? Is it mere coincidence, or a manifestation of the Flynn Effect combined with the natural selection of memetic story chunks and our post-modern obsession with an accelerating cycle of nostalgia?

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I think it’s the third one with all the technical-sounding jargon in it! But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s start over. Again.

Hi! My name’s Miguel, and today I want to talk to you about time loops. You know, those things where you keep repeating yourself but slight changes creep in. Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, despite how fundamentally confusing a time loop story is bound to be.

Modern audiences aren’t really fazed by them, and that’s because of a phenomenon sometimes called The Flynn Effect, named after James Flynn, who was one statistician who helped describe how IQ levels rose steadily throughout the 20th century. Folks are generally better at processing complex information than their grandparents were, which is why videos of old people using cutting-edge technology will always be inherently hilarious.

But more importantly, it’s why movie and game trailers have become infinitely more complex, and less spoon-fed, as time’s worn on. For example, take the OG teaser trailer for 1989’s Batman. We literally get told who our main character is, he introduces himself, and we then see him in a Batman outfit doing Batman things so we understand this is the story of some kind of — if I’m following this right — bat man. Now compare that to the 2020 teaser trailer for the latest Batman movie, The Batman.

That’s it. A symbol you can barely make out and some Hans Zimmer-esque strings. Because we get it by this point. We know the symbol, we know the Batman, we’re good to go. Even the older movies and shows featured in this video spent far more time explaining how time loops work than the more recent examples of the genre. That’s because humans have the wonderful ability to pass knowledge down through the generations. Our knowledge base is cumulative, which is why I didn’t need to invent a computer and microphone in order to make this video.

In fact, that’s an important note about the Flynn Effect, and IQ in general: ancient humans weren’t dumb, they were simply working with less information. We’ve benefitted from all those that came before us, and all the great games and movies they invented and stories they told, which is why time loop stories no longer seem particularly confusing to a savvy gamer or modern filmgoer. As Balthazar Auger, Lead Game Designer and Game Director of Quantum League, told me:

“We felt that the concept of time loops in film was entering the mainstream after starting to gain traction in the late 90’s and early 2000’s within indie or sci-fi niche productions; it wasn’t a concept that you would need to explain from scratch when talking to someone else about your game, which made it much easier to pitch to others.”

So it’s no wonder that the Flynn Effect has led to an even-faster nichification of especially memetic story chunks like time loops. But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s start over.

Hola! Me llamo Miguel, y esta dia I wanna habla to you about time loops. Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, and modern audiences take their complexities in stride thanks to the Flynn Effect. Another way we see this accumulation of working human knowledge impact our lives is called “nichification,” and I consider nichification just a fancy word for describing the process of natural selection as it impacts brands and ideas. What the hell am I talking about?

Well, in case you’re rusty, natural selection is the process that propels evolution, and it basically states that if something is adept at surviving and making more of itself, there will tend to be a lot more of those types of things in the future. If laser-eyes lead to survival and mating possibilities, then eventually there will be a lot of animals with laser-eyes running around, and that’ll be pretty neat. But laser-eyes aren’t the ONLY way to survive and thrive, so we’ll also see other types of animals. Basically, any animal that’s found a “niche” in which it can dominate gets to stick around and make more of itself.

Screens – Quantum League

This leads, over time, to a natural “complexifying” of life on earth. Until we started killing them all, it was a basic rule of life on this planet that there would be more species around the further forward in time you went, meteor strikes aside.

We see the same process affect brands, products, and ideas. For example, the average grocery store in 2021 carries 40,000 more items than it did in 1990. And in case you’re wondering, no, we didn’t invent 40,000 new essential things in the last 30 years. We just took every single idea — let’s say “milk” — and diversified the types available. For example, now we have orange creamsicle-flavored non-dairy oat milk. Is the world better off? Not for me to say. But the point is: ideas, products, stories, animals…they all naturally tend to grow, diversify, and fill every available space.

Nintendo Direct February 2021 Screens – Outer Wilds

When this natural uptick in diversity impacts ideas, including story ideas, we often call those “memes,” and there’s probably no further proof required of the concept of mutation and duplication than that. The way memes develop and proliferate online, changing all the while to make themselves even more likely to duplicate, is a perfect analogy for real-life natural selection. But what does this all have to do with time loops in movies and games?

I would argue that the incredibly rich, dense soup of story ideas that we’ve all been fed our entire lives has led to a wider array of niche storytelling than has ever existed before. There are simply more movies, games and shows, about a wider variety of topics, than has ever been. Take the incredibly imaginative game Outer Wilds. Here’s a quote from Alex Beachum, the game’s Creative Director:

“The time loop in Outer Wilds is pretty deeply integrated into the story, to the extent that two of the game’s four major mysteries are devoted to the origin of the time loop and its purpose. The time loop also supports the overarching theme of exploration for curiosity’s sake alone by making the player’s own knowledge the only form of progression that persists between loops.”

This slow accumulation of additive knowledge speaks to one of the core purposes of storytelling. Humans (and whatever the protagonist from Outer Wilds is) often tell stories — be it through a video game, film script, or comic book — to make sense of an unknowable universe. As Alex would put it:

“In a time loop, it’s actually possible to try out every possible version of events until you find the best course of action. In a world that feels like it’s becoming ever more complicated and inscrutable, it kind of makes sense that we would fantasize about having the power to sift through the infinite sea of information and possibilities.”

Stories put things in a sensible order, within a focused scope. Whether they try to reflect or define reality, stories ultimately serve to tell us what we “should” think and feel about their subject. They help define what’s “normal” and what’s “wild.” They take for granted the things we take for granted, even though those same things might look alien to a viewer fifty years in the future. So what is our collective subconscious trying to tell us with all the loopage? What is the underlying “thing” about time loops that appeals to us right now that we might be taking for granted?

One MIGHT point out that time loops literalize nichification, creating parables about literal pockets universes of looped time as a way to reflect and comment on the bubble-like niches in society and feeling of being perched on a massive amount of previously accumulated knowledge that are the hallmarks of our age. So in a way, time loop stories are seeking to describe the environment that produced them, which itself is a loop!

I might point that out. I just did. Which reminds me, we haven’t even talked about the nostalgia cycle yet! But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s start over.

Hola! Me llamo Miguelito, y ahorita I want to talk to you just a little bit about time loops. Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, and modern audiences take their complexities in stride thanks to the Flynn Effect. Similar effects have left the storytelling landscape deeper and more fractured than ever. Yet, above the fray, storytellers of every stripe and background are settling on the very unique structure of looped time to convey their message. So it must be asked: why so time loop, Batman?

Part of it has to do with nostalgia, and the way we engage with nostalgia. It may surprise you to find out, nostalgia isn’t SOLELY used to sell tickets to see aging rockers or relaunch a show that doesn’t deserve it. In fact, nostalgia is an incredibly useful device in the human behavioral kit. That little joyful tickle in your memberberries when you feel nostalgic? That’s actually your brain releasing dopamine as a reward for you for engaging in the act of remembering. Dopamine is the body’s way of incentivizing behaviors, and there’s a very good reason natural selection has left us with warm fuzzy feelings surrounding the revisiting of precious — and old — memories.

Screens – Minit

As Kitty, Dom, Yukio and Jan, the team behind time loop game Minit put it:

“There’s something to be said about having a loop that is enjoyable and different, yet familiar at the same time. There’s something about routine that just works well with the human mind…I think that sentiment has probably been around ever since humans invented agriculture…it’s a great vessel for artists to put their own world view and thoughts into.”

Humans are naturally lazy beings, and without that dopamine incentive, it’s unlikely we would find ourselves reminiscing so frequently. And reminiscing — literally practicing encoding long-term memories in your brain — helps you get good at remembering. Because remembering, according to neuroscience, is a physical act of storytelling. You don’t call memories up like files from a hard drive, so much as you recite the story of your memory to yourself once again, enshrining and encoding that memory as important to you, your survival, or your happiness.

In other words, nostalgia is the brain’s way of tricking you into exercising your ability to remember. And THAT, in turn, gives you access to all of that accumulated human knowledge we were talking about. After all, you can’t access useful knowledge unless you remember it, right? That’s why very positive memories, very formative memories, and very negative memories tend to persist; our brain has tagged them as crucial info. In the first case, crucial to our happiness, in the second, crucial to self-understanding, and in the last, crucial to survival.

Another important note about the nature of nostalgia and modern technology’s effect on it: it’s getting faster. You’ve probably heard this observation or joke before, but it’s absolutely true. There was a notable nostalgia for the fashion and culture of the 1950’s America in 1980, a similar obsession with 60’s culture by 1985, nostalgia for the 80’s itself was big by ’95, and by 2005 we were already lovin’ the 90’s.

Case-in-point: when I was a tween, the big movie franchises I was excited for were The Matrix, Dune, and Mortal Kombat. Now that I’m 35, they are The Matrix 4, Dune, and Mortal Kombat. The issue with constant revamps, remakes, reboots and other forms of media archival is that we’ll eventually run out of it. You can’t be nostalgic for the future yet, or we’d all be dressing like dessicated polar bears. All you can do is dig into the past, then the more recent past, then eventually reach a point where the act of remembering is done in the present tense and encompasses ALL TIME.

Screens – Quantum Break (Gameplay)

Here’s Balthazar of Quantum League again:

“During development, I’m sure that everyone felt that events around the world during the last decade were accelerating at a speed that meant that one would need multiple timelines to truly grasp or try to fix them, which is why I think the general public responded well to games in which they could freely go back to the start and start over with more knowledge than before, and gain full mastery of a complex, evolving situation.”

So time loop stories, in a way, fulfill the dream of being able to live within a reality of our choosing…to reach back in time and set things right, take bits of the past we like and recombine them until the present is as we want it. When you apply that same concept to creating art or telling a story, we call this state of being Postmodernism.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s start over.

Hi, Michael, time loops. They’re everywhere, you get ‘em because you’re so smart, which is because you were steeped in information and culture from the time you were born. You also remember a lot of crucial information because your brain encourages you to practice remembering. Yet, time loops in our stories are themselves a reflection of the accelerating nostalgia cycle, and in some ways represent the fact that our survival need to remember things has lost meaning in the modern, connected world.

Whew! That’s a lot, I know. But it can really all be summed up in two syllables: po-mo. Postmodernism.

If you’re unfamiliar, Postmodernism is a term used in art to describe the current era, although at this point the current era has stretched on so long that it’s not clear if we’ll ever leave it. That’s because the postmodern era can be loosely defined as one in which artists, having reached a deep level of cultural fluency, go back in time and start to find themselves influenced by…well, WHATEVER THEY WANT. Whatever speaks to them. They don’t like easy definitions, and they’re free to explore the multitude of art styles humans have pioneered and mix and match them in any fashion they desire.

So the transition from Modernism to Po-Mo is more of a Super-Saiyan singularity moment, a point at which maximum acceleration has been reached and the current reality must give way to a whole new paradigm. We aren’t going from classicist to neoclassicist to cubist anymore, we’re doing whatever the heck we want.

12 Minutes – First Screenshots

To quote Luis Antonio, Director of time loop game 12 Minutes:

“The ease of access to tools, as well as tutorials and learning material, allows everyone to have a go at designing games, increasing the variety we see and making it more likely to have similar games being made.”

And in my mind, that’s exactly the kind of singularity point we’re about to reach with the storytelling that makes up the fabric of film and gaming. And I can’t wait. As I said in my first loop, I’m not here to predict what kinds of bold new visions will expand our understanding of what story and entertainment can be, but I do think a big shift is coming, and coming soon. After all, we can only stay put for so long. Eventually…you’ve got to break the loop and come home to the present.

Here’s Luis again:

“In our daily lives, we are slaves to our thoughts. Not only are unable to step-out from our stream of thinking for more than a few seconds (and some people don’t even realize they can do so), but those thoughts, 99% of the time are stuck on the past (what we did, what we should have done) and on the future (what we want to do, what we should do). We end up not realizing that all we have, the only ‘thing’ that actually exists and matters is the present moment.”

“By giving you an experience where the past and the future are the same, maybe you will end up realizing that truth.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…let’s go round one last time.

Hi. I’m Michael, and today I want to talk to you about time loops. They only gave me two minutes, though, so we’d better get started.

Time loops are everywhere in gaming and entertainment these days, which is notable considering the extreme nichification of storytelling over the last fifty years. I also think it’s reflective of our current relationship with remembering and with story: If nostalgia and natural selection encourage us to cram ourselves and our stories with ever more information, and multiply our niches until we’ve told every kind of story we can in every possible fashion, it’s reasonable to assume that we’re currently on the verge of a tectonic shift in storytelling modes.

We don’t know what that future will look like yet, but the accelerating nature of our postmodern world demands more creativity than ever before, and time loop stories are one way of exploring that idea. It often feels like we’ve heard every story there is, so, finally, we start to tell the story about living the same story over and over, because in a way, that’s our modern storytelling tradition — to cover every exit, to iterate on every angle because we can. Didn’t like Thor? Try Iron Man. Too mainstream? Give Brightburn a shot. Hate superhero culture entirely? The Boys might be more your speed. Find The Boys too vulgar? Invincible tackles the same concept in a slightly less grungy way.

Our whole lives, we’ve been ingesting time loops, and it’s finally gotten to the point that we’re telling ourselves THAT story: the story of being trapped in a story-loop that feels like it will never end, surrounded by pocket universes that do nothing but iterate on themselves with minor variation. But it will end, inevitably. And what waits to fill the space beyond the threshold, if history is any guide, could be entirely new structures and forms. New media. Radically new ideas. The same way that we reached an inflection point in technology and called it The Industrial Revolution, I think we’re currently accelerating toward a similar point in story.

So that’s cool! And that’s really all I have to say about it. I hope it made life just a little bit more interesting. Now that we’ve learned our lesson, the time loop is broken and I can make it home in time for Christmas or whatever.

What do you think? Am I completely insane, or is this a thing? What’s your favorite time loop movie or game? Let’s keep the conversation going down in the comments!

Michael Swaim is Manager of Video Programming for IGN. Follow them on Twitter at @SWAIM_CORP.





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