Having just finished up the recently released add-on, Returnal: Ascension, I figured now would be a great time to discussion Returnal, one of my favorite games from last year! And more importantly, the fact that it shows how the genre of a game can impact more than just it’s core game play.
So what genre does Returnal fall under? Well, Returnal is a fast paced third-person roguelite shooter with horror elements so it could fall into a few different genres, really. However, the marketing leading up to it’s release seemed to be positioning it more as a roguelite. This ended up being a bit of a double edged sword in a way, as Returnal honestly isn’t the best roguelite game. This mainly stems from the fact that the game doesn’t have the same variety between each run that you see in other games of the genre like Hades and Enter the Gungeon, which is a very important aspect. Luckily, Returnal‘s moment to moment game play is amazing! The fast paced arcade like game play that makes each encounter thrilling and heart pounding manages to keep each run fresh despite the lack of variety in the weapons and upgrades you can get. Despite that, this has led to a lot of people saying that Returnal would actually be a better game if it dropped the roguelite aspects all together. Something I very much disagree with. While the fact that the game is a roguelite doesn’t benefit the game play as much as it does other games in the genre, it does benefit another part of the game greatly. The story.
Very rarely do roguelite games really have much of a story. Generally the stories exist solely to set up the plot and that’s about it. Which is not a problem in the slightest! Most roguelite games are all about the game play after all and too much story can get in the way of that sometimes. There’s also the fact that roguelite games are about dying and starting all over again. It’s a staple of the genre. And it can be pretty hard to have that make sense in most narratives. However, Returnal not only manages to give the game an amazing story, it also manages to use this genre staple to help add to it!
The basic set up to Returnal‘s story is that you play as Selene, an astronaut scout investigating a signal you picked up only to crash on the planet the signal was coming from. Selene’s main goal from there obviously becomes getting off the planet. But as you might expect, that will be far from easy. Not only does everything on the planet seem to want her dead, the planet itself appears to be shifting and changing around her. And on top of all that, she soon finds out that death is no escape either…
Like most roguelites, a game over sends you all the way back to the start and Returnal is no different. Where it does differ from other roguelites though is with the fact that the game acknowledges this in the story. Right off the bat the game throws at you the idea that this isn’t the first time Selene has been to this planet. Even before your first death Selene finds her own dead body on the ground as well as audio logs from herself. This sets up a super unique mystery for the player to try and unravel! And it’s all thanks to the roguelite genre that this story ends up working so well.
Having a story be based around the player dying and repeating events isn’t something that is locked down to just roguelite games, of course. Yet Returnal shows how it uses the genre to really enhance the story and how the story really enhances the genre. There are a lot of different ways to tell a story in games. But I find that one of the best ways is to have the game play, well, play a part in it. Having game play organically feed into the story is easily the most effective way to get a player invested in a story. I feel it goes a much longer way than just having the player make a few dialog choices here and there or something like that. And this isn’t just limited to roguelite games either. This sort of thing has been done in the past in other genres to great success!
For two good examples lets look at Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid V. Fair warning, I will be spoiling a major moment in Bioshock and a more minor moment in MGSV here. Towards the end of Bioshock it’s revealed to the player that they had been being controlled through out the whole game. Whenever someone would utter the phrase “Would you kindly” the player would have to do it. Normally that would be super easy to pick up on and wouldn’t really work as a twist. How could something so obvious be a secret twist all along after all? But because a new objective would pop up after each time the phrase was said telling you do go along with it, no one batted an eye! This is mainly because in a first-person shooter like Bioshock that’s just what you do. You get an objective and you do that objective and you continue the game. This is just something that players accept in games. Especially more linear first-person shooters like Bioshock which were all the rage at the time of it’s release. But with this big twist, it flips the idea of objectives on it’s head. It frames them completely differently and really puts the player in the shoes of the main character as neither of them questioned any of this. It was like all other first-person shooters before Bioshock had hardwired our minds into just accepting anything that popped up as an objective. And by recognizing this well established element of the genre, Bioshock uses it to enhance the story through the game play!
Metal Gear Solid V also uses it’s game mechanics to strength the story as well, but in less of a ‘sudden twist’ sort of way and more of a way that helps the player feel pretty smart for understanding how to use the game’s mechanics. It also perfectly sets up elements that will have a big pay off down the line for the story as a whole. For context, one of the big parts of MGSV is team management. You recruit and manage soldiers that you find throughout your missions. However, at one point in the story, a sickness starts spreading through your base. It starts small but will quickly grow and infect most of your soldiers if nothing is done. And it’s up to the player to figure out what’s going on and to quarantine the right people so it doesn’t get out of hand! To do this, you need to go through your roster of soldiers and try and piece together what all of the infected people have in common. And the answer ends up being language. When looking at a soldier’s information, it’ll list the languages they speak among other small facts about them. It’s honestly something that could be brushed off as flavor text to give each recruit more of their own identity. But this ends up becoming a very big deal. It forces the player to really look over each soldier, reading into more than just their stats. It ends up making each soldier much more of a character in the process as well! Now it feels like they are playing a bigger role in the story for more than bumping up your base stats and what not. And having each of the soldiers feel like real characters will end up playing an even bigger role down the line… But I think I’ve spoiled enough of the game already.
Much like these two games, Returnal uses it’s genre and game play to really boost the story. Which in turn helps the game play as well. Now each death and restart has more meaning. You are now one of the Selene bodies you so often find throughout the game that litter the planet. Beyond just that, each death really seems to affect Selene. The story makes a point of commenting on the fact that while she does come back to life each time, Selene still dying. She is still experiencing her death over and over again. The story shows what that does to her and her mindset. The scariest part of all though is when Selene starts to become more numb to the deaths. Something that could be seen as a parallel with the player as well as they might be more upset about each early death in the game but the more common it becomes the more they just want to get out there and try again. The player’s mental state changes along with Selene’s. Now the audio logs the player found earlier in the game where Selene seems to have gone crazy don’t feel so out of place. The player might even agree and see things from Selene’s more crazy perspective now. And that right there is when a game succeeds at immersing the player! When a player starts identifying with a character and their struggles without needing to be told to do that by the game, that is when they become the most immersed. Now it’s not just Selene’s struggle to get off the planet, it’s the player’s too. They both share this struggle and want to see it through to the end…
I suppose to put it simply, the player plays the game not the story. So when the game play and story are mixed together, that is when a player becomes most invested. It’s not something that is easy to do. But when a developer realizes that they can use the genre of a game to influence more than the way the game plays but also the way the story is told, they become one step closer to getting the story and game play to work together! And that’s why Returnal, while not being the best roguelite game, needs to be a roguelite. Because it impacts far more than just the game play!
But those are just my thoughts! What are some of yours? Interested in giving Returnal a try now? Can you think of any other games the mix the story and game play together seamlessly? I’d love to hear your thoughts so don’t be shy!
And thank you for taking the time to read the post! If you enjoyed it feel free to leave a Like or share the blog with a friend. You can also follow the blog on Twitter if you’d like. Any interaction is appreciated so thanks again!