Playing a round: loops, lockdown and Atomicrops

Like Groundhog Day or Palm Springs, dystopian farming game Atomicrops challenges you not to repeat the same mistakes each day. The loop is addictive, finds Henry Barnes.

Atomicrops (2019)

It’s the kids’ story time again. I swear we had a breakfast five minutes ago. It’s bathtime. It’s bedtime. It’s time to start work. I’ve been in this meeting before. It’s the kids’ story time again. Didn’t I write that already? 

Lockdown is a loop. Every day is similar, but then for most of us, every day always was. So maybe lockdown is a loop within a loop? You try not to spiral. 

The challenge is to make each day feel different – using what you’ve learned in previous days to do things better the next time. You iterate on the repetition and hopefully, usually, find a way to make today feel new. 

Repetition, routine, adjustment, improvement – that sounds like a game to me. And in lockdown one type of game in particular has fascinated me: roguelites. In these games you’re asked to do the same thing every time you play. If or when you fail (usually when) the loop restarts and you’re right back at the beginning, albeit with a minor upgrade that might make the next run easier.  

I’ll use my current favourite game as an example. Atomicrops is a roguelite farming simulator. During the day you tend your plot – weed, till, sow seeds, water crops, feed them, then harvest. At night the plot is beset by all manner of pests – giant green slugs, ravenous swarms of locusts, rabbits toting sub-machine guns. 

The bunnies are packing because Atomicrops is set in a nuclear dystopia and you are the last farmer planting. The mutated flora wants you dead, and every day is basically the same: you plant, you water, you feed, you harvest. You fight. You might die. And if you do you’re sent back to the beginning, to start the apocalypse over. 

I started playing Atomicrops in May 2020, in the middle of the first UK lockdown. This smallish game about making the best of disaster was appealing. I stuck with it through that weird false-hope summer, the second lockdown, the third. During that time lots of other people were playing The Last of Us Part II – itself a (sumptuous, grim) take on what would happen if the world fell apart. For me, that game – a huge budget zombie drama set across ruined Seattle – was just too big, too exciting for the time I was having. The Last of Us Part II was stuffed with story. But I didn’t want that. I needed something small and repetitive. I needed a parallel boredom. 

I’ve put at least 30 minutes into Atomicrops every night for a year. It has become part of my loop. It occupies a strange space by this point – something like an addiction. Sometimes I’m not sure I want to play anymore, but as my day’s loop ends, I pick it up, I play, I lose and I think “just one more go”. Back to the title screen.

Groundhog Day (1993)

The thing is, once you start seeing loops, it’s hard to stop. Film’s full of them (Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Palm Springs), TV’s teeming (Dark, Russian Doll). Music, obviously. My son, inspired by a picture of a frog I drew when I was his age, draws his version – two scribbles of the same thing, set 30 years apart. Then I’m sat at work and a meeting invitation tells me “You’re Viewing a Single Occurrence of a Series.” My head starts to spin. I want off. 

But it’s hard to break a habit. Perhaps that’s why – in films, in telly, in life – escaping the loop is so often the climax. Bill Murray finally gets the combination of good deeds and kind words right. Parallel universes unfold so that the kids of Winden can finally get some peace. Lockdown… ends? 

Atomicrops, like most roguelites, doesn’t have much of a narrative. Or rather, the narrative is what you make it, what you build having spent so much time in the world, doing it over and over. Escaping its loop would mean beating the game, surviving the decade that makes up the game’s chronology. But, a) I’m nowhere near good enough and b) I almost don’t want to escape. I kind of like being stuck.  

And if I wanted to escape? Well, there are better seeds and better tools in the dangerous places far from your plot. So you head into the wilderness to fight bigger and badder enemies. Win and you’re rewarded with new ways to plant bigger, plant better, fight harder. So getting better at the game involves breaking a loop, while breaking a loop is simply a way of starting another one. Ah. 

I’ve nearly finished writing this. Then I read a review of Returnal, another game built on a circle. The game’s about an astronaut trapped on an alien planet, but essentially it’s the same: play/fight, die, repeat. The review talks about our daily loops, lockdown and how game-like it all is. It links to another piece about the looping effect of life in lockdown. I’m mildly panicked. Then – why not? – I link in turn, adding my loop to the chain. 

It’s bathtime. It’s bedtime. It’s time to start work. I’ve been in this meeting before. It’s the kids’ story time again. Didn’t I write that already?

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