Arkane Studios’ latest first-person murder-puzzle immersive sim Deathloop, released earlier this month, has garnered praise from both long-time fans of the Dishonored studio and reviewers alike (including our own). Set in on an isolated, stuck-in-a-time-loop island known as Blackreef, players assume the role of either Colt Vahn, an amnesiac assassin who must hunt down the conspirators responsible for creating the loop, or Juliana Blake, a rival assassin tasked with protecting the loop at all costs.
To create the retro-’60s sci-fi world of Blackreef, art director Sébastien Mitton and the team at Arkane Studios looked to a broad range of books, comics, and movies for inspiration. “The thing is at Arkane, in terms of the entire visual universe, we all have our own movie references. There are about a hundred movies in total that I could cite as influences on Deathloop,” Mitton told Polygon. Aside from obvious inspirations like Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, and the Back to the Future series, Mitton also cites the 2017 French comedy La colle and the 2012 science-fiction anthology The Fourth Dimension as points of reference early on in the game’s pre-production. Then there were movies the team wanted to completely avoid, like the Mad Max franchise. “We had to bring everyone together and say this is what we want, and this is what we don’t want. Otherwise people would go in their own directions. Deathloop is not post-apocalyptic, so over time we refined things and we talked.”
In an interview with Polygon, Mitton cited several movies that were influential in establishing the tone, aesthetic, and backstory of Deathloop’s world and characters. From the works of John Carpenter, the James Bond series, the ’60s inspired character driven stories of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie’s The Man from UNCLE, and beyond, here are some of the many films that inspired Deathloop.
Escape from New York
Starring Kurt Russell, John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action-thriller Escape from New York follows the story of “Snake” Plissken, a rogue-soldier-turned-mercenary-convict who is tasked with infiltrating a maximum security prison on the island of Manhattan in order to save the President of the United States. For Mitton, Carpenter’s film epitomized the idea of an “antihero with huge guns fighting to escape an immense prison” that would prove foundational to Deathloop’s core concept.
Escape from New York is available to stream on HBO Max.
The Man From UNCLE
“For us, we wanted to find inspiration in the ’60s,” said Mitton. “But it’s the ’60s as imagined and created in 2020 or 2021.” For this reason, Deathloop’s art team looked at contemporary works that offered their own take on the distinctive visuals of 1960s culture, which included Guy Ritchie’s 2015 spy film The Man from UNCLE. “We didn’t want to simulate the ’60s exactly; we wanted to use that ’60s aesthetic and those ideas as though they were from a world that had never existed. We wanted to take these interesting elements and create something of our own with them.”
The many incarnations of the James Bond series were an obvious point of inspiration in the design of Deathloop’s gadgets and eccentric antagonists, but 2012’s Skyfall in particular was principal inspiration on the game’s grandiose décor and the moody setting. “Since the beginning of pre-production on Deathloop, what we wanted to do was create an intimate setting for the player with a focus on exploring rather than creating a very generic huge world,” Mitton said. “In all the movies or games with time loops, the setting is very intimate. We can’t really deal with everything because the loop happens at a certain time. That was our starting point. And that’s why we developed this small island isolated from the world.”
In searching for reference points to the island, Mitton and the team looked at the Faroe Islands between Scotland and Denmark with its distinctive cliffs, plains, and beaches. The picturesque highlands of Scotland, as seen in the final act of Skyfall, were key to visualizing those early concepts of Blackreef. “We used to say internally, to simplify for everyone at Arkane, that Deathloop is James Bond meets Tarantino.” said Mitton. “And afterwards, we added a whole lot more to that.”
The films of Quentin Tarantino
“Of course, Tarantino’s productions really inspired us because we wanted to create iconic characters that were memorable, had very colorful personalities interacting in set-pieces with a lot of action,” Mitton said. The Deathloop team looked at several Tarantino films for inspirations, including Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown, and 2007’s Grindhouse, co-directed by Robert Rodriguez. “When we originally talked about Tarantino [as an inspiration], we were really inspired by the punchy dialogue of Grindhouse. We took the smooth action and gadget of James Bond and added the punchy dialogue of Tarantino movies because we really had this will to bring narration as high as possible. I think that we managed between Colt and Julianna because their dialogue is so cool. We have that grain from Tarantino in there.”
John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action film They Live stars Roddy Piper as an unnamed drifter who discovers a pair of sunglasses that when worn reveal the subliminal messages and appearances of a ruling class of sinister aliens who secretly subjugate humanity. Mitton cites the billboard messages in the film and the gradual discovery of hidden issues and elements throughout the plot as an inspiration for the mysterious messages that appear across the island of Blackreef, guiding Colt on his mission to break the loop and escape the island.
They Live is available to stream on Peacock.
High Plains Drifter
“When I’d go to Arkane Austin, you’d see entire pubs that were painted, including the roof,” Mitton said. “It’s very interesting and it’s iconic. It reminded lead artist Jean-Luc Monnet and I of a film we both love, the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter. There’s a scene where he goes to help some villagers and they paint their entire village in these bright colors. We already had the setting of the island, and over time we thought, ‘This is too depressing. This is going to look too much like the Dishonored games.’ We wanted the tone to be of an eternal party celebration, So we needed solutions.” That scene from High Plains Drifter would inform the exterior design of the many buildings and structures scattered across Blackreef.
In addition to High Plains Drifter, John Boorman’s 1967 crime film Point Blank was also a prominent inspiration behind Deathloop’s environmental design. “John Boorman had the sets painted to harmonize with color palettes. So here for example, the Spyglass is the same color is the woman’s dress. And so sometimes you might have an entire wall that’s painted the same color as the character, which is a crazy idea. But I thought it was a very interesting approach. That gave us an idea to have other references of painted decorations [throughout Deathloop].”
Point Blank is available to stream on Criterion Channel.
The Running Man
Paul Michael Glaser’s dystopian action film The Running Man inspired Mitton and the concept art team early on. Based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name, the film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as Ben Richards, a police helicopter pilot falsely accused of perpetrating a massacre and forced to compete in a deadly reality television show in order to win his freedom. “It’s a game where you survive against all these aggressors in a kind of strange setting,” a broad premise with remarkable similarity to Deathloop’s own.
Walter Hill’s 1979 cult-classic action-thriller The Warriors was also an inspiration for Deathloop early on in the game’s pre-production. “The Warriors is a good exploration on survival and gangs in the ’60s,” said Mitton. “Our game, in terms of action, is close to the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s.”
The Warriors is available to stream on HBO Max.
The Wicker Man
Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk-horror classic The Wicker Man was a key inspiration not only in the creation of Deathloop’s setting, but in plotting out the overarching mystery at the heart of the game’s narrative. The film follows Neil Howie, a police sergeant sent to a remote island inhabited by pagans to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. “We love playing with the players emotion’s, without being too clear about what might happen at the beginning,” said Mitton. “There’s mystery and an investigation. Our games aren’t just linear FPS games, we like to describe Deathloop as a murder puzzle. So that movie was a great reference.”
The Wicker Man is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
Under The Volcano
One of the most surprising cinematic inspirations Mitton cited as an influence on Deathloop was Under The Volcano, John Huston’s 1984 drama starring Albert Finney as an alcoholic British diplomat wandering through a small Mexican town during the Day of the Dead. “That’s a movie we often talked about with lead artist Jean-Luc Monnet,” said Mitton. “The first impressions that it gave us, it made us think of The Purge, except that instead of going to kill everyone, they’re just living. There’s no notion of tomorrow, they don’t care about death, they take drugs. It’s very violent, almost. The main character is very depressed, and his experience reminded me of Colt because there’s several different sides to him. When Colt wakes up on the beach, he’s hungover and afraid. But then during the game, there are some times when he’s really mad, sometimes he’s sad. That’s why there are different skins in the game as well, they correspond to those different sides of him. There’s a contrast between what’s going on in the main character’s head and what’s going on in the world. I thought that Under the Volcano really transmitted that idea of disorientation. Deathloop isn’t a copy of Under The Volcano, but if you look at it from that direction of developing an interesting character and making him evolve in an enormous party, there’s parallels.”
The Book of Eli
While Mitton and the concept artist behind Deathloop strayed away from post-apocalyptic movies as inspirations for the game, one specific image from the 2010 film The Book of Eli starring Denzel Washington was a notable point of reference in the creation of Colt’s appearance. “I remembered the silhouette of Washington’s character Eli during pre-production, and how much it reminded me of Colt,” said Mitton. “We didn’t know exactly the right shape we wanted for Colt’s jacket, but as soon as I took this photo and showed it to the artists everyone thought, ‘Yes! Wow, this is incredible. It looks just like Colt’s.’ Even though it’s not the same story at all, we wanted to isolate this character who goes on his own journey, this road trip of his. We told the different teams of artists to imagine a world where you have this character Eli stuck on an island and isolated from the world, kind of like in The Thing, but with people who are having an eternal party, like in The Wicker Man, but with a bit of The Purge. We started adding all of these blocks together to make this mood board of what we were looking for, and out of that came Deathloop.”
Mitton cites Alex Proyas’ 1998 neo-noir sci-fi movie Dark City as an inspiration “for the mystery and the quest for a meaningful identity in this city, and a bit for the pale men who are in the heroes’ way a bit like the Visionaries in Deathloop. The main character wakes up in his bath, doesn’t know who he is or where he is. He must conduct his investigation in a hostile and changing world.”
Dark City is available to stream with a library card on Kanopy.