Loop Hero is an ostensibly bleak game from the start. “The world will be destroyed,” one of the opening lines reads. “Even the memory of it will be gone.”
The protagonist, known only as The Hero, is faced with a world that they can hardly remember. The game begins and you are met with the loop, inhabited with nothing but slimes littering the dirt roads. It’s through the memories of The Hero that the loop, and the world in turn, comes back into focus. There are resources to gather, and a camp to build upon once your first expedition is complete. Except upon your return, everything is slightly different, even if some of the land you recreate is familiar.
That familiarity resonated with me when I eventually built the farm, and understood what The Hero was experiencing: grief.
I wasn’t planning on getting Loop Hero initially. It definitely intrigued me as a fan of rogue-likes/lites, but I didn’t pay too much attention as to when it was coming out. And then it was the fifth of March, the day after launch. An innocuous day for most, a difficult day for me; it’s my mum’s birthday. It’s difficult because she died a little over 12 years ago, so ya know, her birthday has kinda become a day of “ah yeah, this fuckin’ sucks doesn’t it?” I never have a specific plan of what to do on the day, and this was the first one I’d spent under lockdown. I needed something to distract myself with, and lo and behold, Loop Hero was out! With a launch discount and everything. This was to be my distraction for the day.
The core premise is that you are The Hero, and you traverse the land which presents itself in the form of a loop. There are enemies to face, and cards, weapons and armour, and resources to gather. You use cards to place things like forests, where ratwolves can appear, or vampire houses where uh, it does what it says on the tin. You rebuild the world by placing these cards, but none of it is permanent. When you decide to leave the loop and return to your camp with the resources you’ve garnered, you can add to it with a kitchen, a herbalist hut, a farm, and more. It’s the aforementioned farm that changed my perspective on the game.
Yota, the main NPC you interact with at the camp, says to you: “Have you noticed how strangely this oblivion affects our senses? Hunger, for example. You can stop eating for days and you still won’t be hungry.” Experiencing this on the day of my deceased mother’s birthday felt just a bit too familiar.
When I lost my mum, eating was one of the hardest things to do. I felt too sick to be hungry, but on top of that I didn’t care enough to do so, even though I needed to. Seeing that line made all the other aspects of the game click, in relation to my own experiences of grief. I came to see each expedition as something akin to a year. Each step a day, each loop a month, and when I would go back to camp the year would be complete. It’s grief, and it’s cyclical. It’s signposted by significant dates, or places. The date of that loved one’s passing. Their birthday. Your birthday. You visit your childhood home, you see their possessions. Maybe a shared relative passes, and this too is added to the loop. The cards you place in the world are all of these things, these signposts. The Hero makes note of the new places and creatures placed upon the loop. They become important. They become memories.
Memories are fickle things. We often have to rely on them to make sense of the world, but it can be impossible to do that when you gain more and more of them as time goes on. And so they change, ever so slightly: the mountains move, the meadows bloom, villages fall into disrepair. Eventually, the year loops round to the anniversary of your loved one passing.
I always find that date for myself kind of resetting the year for me, in part because it’s always the hardest day of the year, and also because in my specific situation, I lost my mum right at the end of December. Like the start of a new loop, the start of a new year wipes the slate clean. I have an inkling that I’ll face something similar to the previous year, but I know it will be different somehow. I know I’ll face grief again, as I do every year, but there are new anniversaries to experience too. Some will be tough ones, but some will have made me tougher. Some days that were the hardest of all become manageable, much the same as some enemies become easier to face in the loop.
Often these days, I feel like I can’t play games with heavy themes as easily. I need to take breaks with more relaxing titles. But somehow, on a day that still is one of the hardest I experience from one year to the next, a game about the end of the universe was the most cathartic one I could play. To be frank with you, reader, I played it basically non-stop when I got it. It absolutely carried me through the day, and even if it kind of forced me to reckon with my decade long bond with grief, I wouldn’t change it for anything. Grief is cyclical, but that doesn’t mean it has to be repetitive.