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Most video games penalize failure. Enter the time loop.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

What if you found yourself caught in a loop, forced to repeat the same experience over and over? It’s a premise routinely explored in media: think “Groundhog Day,” “Palm Springs” and Netflix’s “Russian Doll.” Now, video games are catching up, with a swath of games released in 2021 exploring the concept of time loops.

Time loop games have existed from gaming’s earliest days. In fact, as some critics have pointed out, many games function as time loops — even if the characters in-game don’t know it. The iconic World 1-1 of “Super Mario Bros.” doesn’t ever change. Every time you fail, the level resets to the exact way it was at the start. Recent hits like “Hades” have also made repeated runs through the game’s world into a core mechanic. But several games released this year, including “Deathloop,” “The Forgotten City” and “Loop Hero,” have displayed a particular fondness for the traditional time loop premise, wherein knowledge gained during the loop helps players master their surroundings and break the cycle.

Another one of those games is “12 Minutes,” an interactive, Hitchcockian thriller that follows a husband’s effort to escape a time loop to avoid the inevitable death of his wife. Succeeding and saving her means being smart with the limited set of tools and choices given to you as well as using information gained in the current cycle to better inform your actions in the next. Doing this results in the exploration of avenues unfathomable to you early on in the game, further letting you peel back the various narrative layers until you reach a point where the final cycle plays out almost without friction.

For “12 Minutes” writer and director Luis Antonio, harnessing this slow buildup of knowledge was key to making his take on the time loop work.

“Games already have this inherent concept. You’re repeating the same levels over and over again. But most games penalize you for failing and force you to do the same thing again. There’s no awareness of the repetition,” said Antonio. “So I was like, ‘What if there is this awareness? What if a game is built around knowing what you’re going to do? Is there something interesting about it?’ ”

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One might assume that limiting a game’s events to one space and having everything repeat would make the development process easier. But actually, getting all these elements to work in tandem can prove as taxing to make as games not set in a time loop — if not more. Time loop games are systems-driven, and making them means ironing out and perfecting interlocking mechanics differently than a Call of Duty or Uncharted game developer might.

“The design became a breadcrumb process,” Antonio said. “Every loop you learn two or three things, and then next you expand on those, and it opens a bit more. You can keep the play space in your head, which was a big goal.”

Another goal was to not require a note system. “It was about trying to find a balance of what you can hold in your head and plan around,” Antonio said. “I’m not giving you any specific objectives, but it’s complex enough that you cannot tell where the walls are. Yet it’s still closed and predictable enough that you can rely on some elements.”

Having previously worked for AAA studios like Ubisoft and Rockstar before working closely with game design auteur Jonathan Blow on “The Witness,” Antonio was more than familiar with working on a grand scope. But in the case of “12 Minutes,” Antonio narrowed the setting to a single apartment. This choice allowed players to learn the space without getting overwhelmed. Nailing this balance was a tough process.

“It was too complicated,” Antonio reveals, referring to an earlier version of “12 Minutes.” “Understanding the consequences of your actions wasn’t clear enough for the player. So I kept reducing. Instead of being in a city where you go to work and make your boss be late for work so you can access his computer files and cause a traffic accident … I ended up putting you into this apartment space.”

This approach also meant Antonio could keep the number of outcomes and interactions between the handful of characters somewhat manageable — for both himself and the player.

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Having an established base of knowledge backed up by a consistent ruleset is also key to successfully navigating time loops in another 2021 release, “Lemnis Gate.” A turn-based, multiplayer shooter set in the far-future where multiple realities are competing to be the last one standing, it focuses on letting players outmaneuver present and past versions of their opponents as both sides attempt to either defend or protect an objective within a time loop.

The entire battle plays out repeatedly across the same 25-second temporal bubble, with two players taking turns to compete to be the winner as new actions and counters are added into the mix. Say you just took out an enemy unit threatening your objective; that might not matter if the opposing player then uses another unit during their next turn to destroy your original one. Whichever player has set up their units and strategies the best during the final round comes out on top. In this instance, knowing what’s about to happen in the loop creates almost a competitive domino effect.

“It really came from the desire to bring something fresh to the table,” explains “Lemnis Gate” game director James Anderson. The game, he said, creates “something new and exciting yet still familiar, where your mental skill is as important as your physical skill.” The game doesn’t just force players to consider their objectives and positioning, but their use of time, too.

The standard game mode, Seek and Destroy, works by having one side trying to defend five “resistors” located across the map while the other one assaults. The ultimate goal is to trip up the other team’s efforts using one of seven superpowered operatives each turn. Specific character’s defense abilities, such as Toxin’s time-slowing Ripple or Deathblow’s Proximity Mine, might not have caused an issue early on. However, if set down late enough in the loop, your objective-winning unit’s efforts could soon be in vain.

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Time spent watching your adversary make their move is also never time wasted, as you can then use this knowledge of what you’ve just witnessed to try to account for what could come next. “Lemnis Gate” aims to reward players who constantly pay attention to this chess-like shooter setup, where the actions that occur during the first round of a 25-second time loop can have drastic effects in the final one.

Anderson hopes this ambitious formula will have players thinking in four, rather than three, dimensions. “Fundamentally, a time loop gives you knowledge of what will happen in the future. Essentially the gift of knowledge,” he said. Players always know where and when every enemy, every bullet or every grenade will be. “The challenge for the player is how they use this information about the future, deciding how and when they’ll use their operatives to alter the timeline to their advantage.”

Over the past two years, the concept of living out the same cycle has become painfully familiar. Games too have become playgrounds for repetition, expanding and building on that core idea. Both “12 Minutes” and “Lemnis Gate,” despite representing vastly different genres, are about the importance of learning from your mistakes — and carrying those learnings forward.

“Indiana Jones never gets crushed. He always manages to dodge, and that’s why it feels good,” Antonio said. “He almost gets crushed, but gets away. I realized that because [in games] you’re always dying and then repeating, suddenly getting crushed isn’t an issue. Let’s make getting crushed fun.”

Aaron Potter is a UK-based writer and lifetime TimeSplitters fanatic. He has also written for Kotaku and Den of Geek. He can be found on Twitter at @ItsMeAaronP.

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