Deathloop: how Arkane used Frank Lloyd Wright, Tarantino and Twiggy to build a world

It takes special design to keep players exploring, and game developer Arkane, known for its refined aesthetic, has some unexpected sources

This year, there is one game world I have enjoyed exploring more than any other. We’re so spoiled for visually rich open environments these days, it takes something special to keep players immersed, to keep them wandering about looking at stuff, just for the sake of it. Deathloop is a shining example. Developer Arkane is known for its highly refined and individual approach to game art, thanks to the astonishing Dishonored titles, set in a steam-punk dystopia of rats, robotic guards and ornate classical architecture. This time around, the team created a strange Groundhog Day-like adventure set on an island populated by mad scientists and spoiled billionaires, all looking to gain immortality by living the same day over and over again, thanks to a localised space-time phenomenon.

The island of Blackreef, where the whole game takes place, provides a fascinating example of how Arkane works. At first, the team built a timeline to explain the variety of natural and human-made features in each region. The location itself is a remote, wintery outpost, heavily inspired by the Faroe Islands, with craggy cliffs and windswept grasslands. On top of this are the monolithic concrete buildings constructed by a group of military researchers who arrived in the 1930s to investigate the island’s weird phenomena. And then, decades later came Aeon, a cabal of rich tech bros, looking for a new playground. “It was kind of like if Elon Musk had said, ‘let’s go to the Bermuda Triangle and study it’!” explains art director Seb Mitton. “They came with all this money and realised they could create these strange events. They said ‘we’re going to start this loop and we’re going to live forever.’”

Pop! Pow! ... A scene from Deathloop.
Pop! Pow! ... a scene from Deathloop. Photograph: Bethesda Softworks

So in the island’s architecture, you see different layers co-existing: the island’s flora, the military buildings, with bunkers and towering antenna (inspired by abandoned sites in northern Europe, Japan and Russia, such as Chenobyl), and in addition, a hedonistic society, re-purposing and re-decorating everything they see. For this element, Mitton and his team were heavily inspired by the end of the 1960s. “It was all about freedom of mind,” he said. “If you think about hippies, people really wanted change at that time, people wanted to live differently, but you had the cold war as well; there was a lot of violence. We found inspiration in the era of the Vietnam war – that helped us build the Aeon programme: the visionaries and their guests – what are their goals in life? For some it’s drinking all day, it’s partying, for others it’s about killing people. But there are no consequences because there is no tomorrow, so, even though there’s a lot of violence, it’s very lighthearted.”

The 60s influence is clear in the game’s interiors – the buildings throughout are filled with brash, multicoloured furnishings, weird art and gigantic Saul Bass-style posters. However, Mitton’s team worked hard to avoid kitsch excesses – they didn’t want it to become Austin Powers: the game. “At the same time, we looked at contemporary materials and there were a lot of rugs, a lot of rounded plastics – it was very different to what we did in the Dishonored games, where it was a lot of straight lines. There’s a big contrast between the outside where everything is cold and hard, and the interiors, where everything is colourful. At Arkane, we love creating contrast because it plays with the player’s emotions. We also developed different layers depending on each of the visionaries’ background: some build laboratories, but Frank has a casino – for him it’s a party. So we took these different themes inspired by the 60s and we developed them differently to reflect the characters.”

Johnson Wax Building, Racine, Wisconsin, 1936 -1939, 1944. Corporate offices and research laboratory. Main office workspace.A1BR11 Johnson Wax Building, Racine, Wisconsin, 1936 -1939, 1944. Corporate offices and research laboratory. Main office workspace.
Johnson Wax Building, Racine, Wisconsin, 1936 -1939, 1944, corporate offices and research laboratory, main office workspace; designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photograph: Arcaid Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Another big influence on the interior architecture was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose approach suited the experience Arkane wanted to provide. As he explains, “He made these huge offices and in our game that’s very useful – we couldn’t make very small interiors because we want a lot of mobility. Also, he was one of the first architects to work with diffused light – so you’d look up and think you were seeing the ceiling but actually it was the light behind it. It was such a different approach to office design. For the parties, we looked at how he lit interiors to make inside light look like outside light, we looked at all his work with lines and wooden curves. As soon as you go in Joanna’s house at the very beginning of the game, you see the 1960s has taken hold: these big rooms, huge lamps, feature fireplaces – that’s 60s interior design.”

Mitton reels off the cinematic influences on the look of the game. It feels like Kubrick is in there, as well as Roger Vadim, but he also cites Jacques Tati’s futuristic classic Playtime, and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Importantly though, the townscapes in Deathloop are designed to be play spaces, to encourage joyful exploration. Here, the team was inspired by Italian towns such as Positano, which tumble down steep cliffs towards the sea and look climbable. “You see it on Google Earth or Street View – and you think ‘I could jump from this roof to that one, that would be great’. We call our districts mini open worlds because they’re not linear, you can go everywhere, there are very few buildings closed off – some that are closed during the day might be open in the evening. We play a lot with physics and water levels, so some places unlock when tides go out. It’s really important to make sure players don’t get burned out. When people play Dishonored, even today they’ll still find different passageways.”

For the strange costumes worn by the game’s non-player characters, Mitton looked at late-60s fashion. It was an era in which people were moving away from tailored clothes, toward expressive fashion with lots of new fabrics and printing technologies. “With swinging London,” he says. “People really took hold of their look, they joined fashion gangs. We looked at Twiggy, she really brought forward that whole ready-to-wear, off-the-rack look. People would choose clothing and assemble their own style. We’re still Arkane, though, so we always look at the lines, we make sure everything reflects the light beautifully, we looked at new shaders for the different fabrics …”

Mademoiselle 1966English models, Sara Crichton-Stuart and Twiggy, walk down a city sidewalk; Sara wears a navy blue coat with striped red/blue/yellow collar; Twiggy wears a matching dress in navy blue with red/blue/yellow stripes around the skirt, cuffs and collar; both by Daniel Hechter for Bagatel. (Photo by Ray Traeger/Condé Nast via Getty Images)
Swinging 60s fashion ... models Sara Crichton-Stuart and Twiggy in London, wearing outfits designed by Daniel Hechter for Bagatel. Photograph: Ray Traeger/Condé Nast/Getty Images

The decision to have all the characters wear masks was partly technological (it’s still difficult to portray authentic emotions on the face of a game character), but it was also about the idea of using fashion, design and art to express emotion. Aeon is living like an endless party, so it made sense to express this in the decoration of the streets and buildings – such as the coloured powders used in Hindu festivals, or the paint-throwing in the Cascamorras festivals of Andalucia, or of course, the vast street murals of the hippy era. “I mean sometimes they’d paint entire building facades,” says Mitton. “There are pubs in London that were entirely painted, even the roof tiles, and these were exterior projections of their emotions: this is our party, our place. For the people of Aeon, why not just live an exalted crazy life?!”

I think that’s why the world of Deathloop is so arresting and explorable – it isn’t just a pastiche of historical architecture and design. Everything has a place in the fiction of the world, and everything expresses an underlying theme or idea. As Mitton puts it, “we looked at the Beatles and Rolling Stones, but we tried to understand what was cool about those haircuts, and what was just too goofy.” He pauses for a second before adding. “That took us a really long time.”


Keith Stuart

The GuardianTramp

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