How it Feels to be Something On

My experience with anxiety is often a great apprehension, fear, stress, over things I’ve done before and will continue doing. I might even really enjoy the activity, like recording a podcast, but the night before I’ll be in survival mode. Tense and in knots, a part-rational part-irrational fear that this time I will screw up beyond belief, that somehow everything will go wrong, that I don’t even deserve the position or my friends. Fear of failure. At this point I know, like statistically, coldy, my feelings are unfounded. I have metacognition to know it’s just an anxiety attack. It still happens—though the intensity may much less than the first time—it still happens. While immersed in whatever activity my anxiety will finally dissipate, driven back without anything to hang on to.

I got sucked into Loop for deftly establishing that relationship. It’s not trying to represent anxiety or anything (my games do that, shameless plug), but a juxtaposition of horror and comedy instills a coping range of anxiety. In Loop the actor is an agent, their corps undefined, sent to investigate a haunted house. They’re told if they drain out the cellar, no more hauntings. Residents of this mansion are crudely drawn, goofy, nonthreatening, oddly comforting. Of hauntings they seem unconcerned, focused on sedentary tasks. Being haunted is an inconvenience, people still have to live.

This house is clearly divided between its inhabited portions and its haunted portions. Likely before exploring at large, the player will encounter an unfinished map, accented with a question mark and a skull with crossbones. Effective foreshadowing, despite how easygoing everything else is, this house hides unreconciled danger. Dark parts of the mansion are seeped in textured blues and purples, boiling into blacks, linework being slightly warped, lending an unreality to its existence. Muted reverb sucks the life out of these environments, harsh transitions make every step anticipatory. Everything is wrong but only slightly so.

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Yet actual play is an absurd point and click puzzle sequence. A stringed example: a fortune teller gives the player a quarter to be used on an arcade game. Winning the arcade game, a character reaches out of the screen and gives the agent a key. This key is used to unlock the hands of a grandfather clock. By turning the hands to a certain time, it simply becomes dinner time, and a pastry is received for going to dinner, which finally allows our agent to go upstairs. I think that’s the ideal for lock-and-key puzzle games; warp the context of normal things, destabilize our relationship to the logical and rational, make a system of relations uninhibited by naturalism.

I exist in a place of fears unfounded. It is tense navigating the halls, wondering what is wrong, if any of it is safe. Then I reach a setpiece, insert my quarter, and chipper music plays. At every turn, Loop’s careful horror atmosphere breaks into a harmless joke or cutesy happening. Minigames are often derided, but they’re effective in adding a dimension of play, in communicating this is a space where people do things. When catching pancakes or participating in a quiz show I wonder why I was afraid at all.

Visions of shades trapped in rooms filled with clocks, strange ornaments, switches that hint at some grand mechanism; signifiers of wrongness are still present alongside every silly release. And they gnawed at me even as I became more sure that there was nothing to fear. Once the cellar is drained Loop doesn’t end. With no goal left, all that’s left is exploring this basement. With rooms warped in a more impossible way, it’s hard to tell exactly what size it is and how the agent moves through it. At first panicked glance it appears as cramped as an air vent, but look closely and the rooms are larger than the ones before. Dark jazz, backed by spaced out synths and industrial sounds, ultimately instills a feeling of terrifying consequence. Each mechanical screech leaves me feeling this place should not exist and I should not be here.

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Having a screenshot of that map from earlier and realizing it was of this cellar, I zoomed to the question mark and out as fast as possible. I still didn’t know whether or not I needed to go to the skull but I wasn’t ready to find out. The mark led to… a hat. This hat finishes an optional puzzle that allows a barbershop quartet to perform “As Time Goes By,” which you may recognize from Casablanca. Well, or probably not, as they sing specifically verses omitted from that version.

This day and age we’re living in

Gives cause for apprehension

With speed and new invention

And things like fourth dimension.

Yet we get a trifle weary

With Mr. Einstein’s theory.

So we must get down to earth at times

Relax relieve the tension

And no matter what the progress

Or what may yet be proved

The simple facts of life are such

They cannot be removed.

As an aside, Casablanca also contains the unresolved and unrequited. It is a film concerned with how people are living and where they are going, but not much with how they got there. Conviction being a matter of breathing, a factual conflict, described a few times as destiny. There’s sensibility then that a more popular version of “As Time Goes By” is recited, not just because it’s contemporary, but because Casablanca doesn’t fester in any anxiety of why, it’s the drama of a need for when. “As Time Goes By” digs in—well through heteronormativity—that there is a consistency to things, there is a consistency to things, because that’s how we survive.

An ode then: to grappling with complexities of modern life, omitting much of the song’s confident phrasing, looped again and again, forming a haunting refrain. At first I underestimated what context this song was chosen for, assuming it was just picked for the goofy barbershop quartet to have a song and proceed like other Loop setpieces. Though I was impressed as it followed me out, echoing with the reverb of the house’s haunted portion. A signifier to times lost, times past, as I made one final trek into the skull marked territory in the basement. Once our actor goes down the stairs “As Time Goes By” cuts for good.

I should’ve expected Loop’s final reveal to be a non-sequitur. A caricature of a mad scientist asks the agent of he’s satisfied with their discovery, and as punishment, tests his invention on him. The scientist’s crystal breaks, there’s a flash of light, and the agent is back in their CO’s office. Yeah, I figured out why it’s called Loop. Identical scenes seem to play out the second time, but when it’s time to be greeted at the door, the guy who does so—known as the director from a single narrative detail—tells the agent that he knows. “I know what you did,” slowly scrolls across. He has to mean traveling back in time, discovering something they weren’t supposed to. Thinking of this moment’s relation to similar scenes from Undertale’s antagonist, I wonder if it’s hinting at something more, or implying something I’ve done outside the game.

Chipper music that played the first time is distorted, unraveled, and then replaced with a slow moving piano track. There are no puzzles to solve, residents from the prior loop are now gone. Now, there are no silly releases. Every fear stands alone. All there is; the agent drains that cellar and confronts their scientist, again. It’s totally futile and the player knows it this time, but there’s no other options, the structure wills nothing else but a repeat. His machine is activated, sending the agent back in time, again.

This time there’s no opening speech, there no one at the door, there are no people at all. A vision flashes of three switches needed to the cellar and our agent treks to the mansion. No one greets them. The rooms, the walls, the ceiling, they are shaking, vibrating, struggling against their form. A visible timer ticks down. Screens flicker, rapidly losing and gaining form. Attempts to interface with the game are arbitrarily delayed; some movements happen instantly and others full seconds. Transitions stutter, covered in static, sound effects now chirp and pop. This game is collapsing, the reality is unmaking. These effects are also similar to Flowey’s interference with the player in Undertale, an undermining of the game’s formal structure, a ruining of the magic circle to communicate a fragility—in this case a mortal anxiety.

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Black smoke, billowing, making a loose silhouette of a person. These shades dot about, clutching extremities, laying in various positions. They are distressed and empty. Are they shadows of the agent? They feel like shades of myself. Numbers, hurriedly drawn over walls, floors, any surface, count meaninglessly. Pictures of clocks signal a desperation. I come to believe this loop wasn’t just one or two times, but an unfathomable amount. Time being stuck in the same period is effectively time stopped. Drawn numbers may signal what time it was, at least, what time it was when the agent was able to remember. My fears, my anxieties about this place, they came about two-fold.

Time-loop structures appear striking to me because of game criticism I’ve read:

To me, [Groundhog Day] implies that people change only after failing at the same thing over and over, and that the only way to escape a pattern that you’re stuck in is to make the best of life while you’re stuck in it. A variety of games have picked up the groundhog day structure and used it for reasons of their own. In movies, the pattern feels unusual, but in games it’s more familiar. Players repeat sections of a game all the time, failing and repeating until they get it right. – Line Hollis, “Failure in Loops”

The whole piece (from the first issue of the Arcade Review) is one of my favorites, resonates with my experiences being stuck in destructive cycles of depression. It also demonstrated to me how videogames can reflect a person’s inner-self. Games are art, they are culture, that communicates and reflects. I honestly didn’t really get that before. A frame that was really personal, really raw, let me understand that I can and have explored coping mechanisms and similar things through videogames.

Loop has a pure, hard time-loop though, one where the main character appears to learn only imperfectly, damned to repeat the same bit of time over and over. A thing about anxieties is that they worm their way through something my brain is convinced is inconvertible. I worry about potentials, and well, the thing about potentials is that they absolutely can come true. If the progression of Loop is a metaphor for what it’s like to assuage anxiety, slowly losing out on flashes of brightness that keep it at bay, its end segment contains an ultimate fallout. When my worst fears materialize somehow, confirming that my rational self is as terrible as my irrational. There was never anxiety, only a justified painful living.

Trying to remember where this house’s switches laid, then scurrying through a superdense maze, under time limit and duress, did by itself trigger deep, gutwrenching anxiety. I didn’t really have time to process aesthetic shifts in that frenzy. They just fueled that sick feeling of panic I already knew a bit too well. I finished, expecting to loop again, but it was the real end this time. An end not to the narrative, just to the game. A reach across the aisle from the dev, a metatextual message at the kind of experience that was just delivered.

Please do not be afraid… Your time is running out but… Your life is not over yet

Please do not give up…. Even if your memories tell you different… I know deep inside you are a good person!

Please do not be afraid… Can you do that for me?

Of course, none of the game made any sense, in a manner of speaking, of course it didn’t. None of Loop’s fiction can resolve and that’s okay, that’s purposeful, because the entire point is how I felt playing it. Though there was a plot to follow, it was all affectual, haunting and manipulative to invoke a springboard of fear and relief. I do now understand just why those lyrics were picked for the quartet to sing. And no matter what the progress, or what may yet be proved, the simple facts of life are such, they cannot be removed.

I’ll admit I teared up transcribing the above message, though simple it is. I may feel like I’m stuck in a loop and don’t deserve to come out. Even if my memories tell me different, deep inside, I need to know I’m worthwhile. It’s a fearful time we’re living in, but those fundamental facts, the sanctity of human life, that can’t be removed.

That can’t be removed.

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you can play loop here, though i suppose i spoiled all of it

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